Drenan, John Silas
Age: 22, credited to Woodbury, VTVITALS
Birth: 03/22/1840, Barre, VTADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Alias?: None notedDESCENDANTS
Main Street Cemetery, Hardwick, VT
Check the cemetery for location/directions
and other veterans who may be buried there.
2nd Lieut. John and Alma Drenan
possibly in/near Washington, D.C.
late 1863, or early 1864.
This is the story of John S. Drenan, as nearly as I have been able to piece it together. John was the son of James Drenan and Clarissa Bill, of Woodbury Vermont. John and his brothers Frank and Ryland grew up in this rural community before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Early Years
John S. Drenan was born in 1841 at Woodbury, Vermont. His parents were James Drenan and Clarissa Bill. We don't know much about John during his early years. It is believed that he was born and raised with his two brothers in the same area in Vermont. It is believed that John is the oldest of thee boys - James Frank was the middle son while Ryland Fletcher was the youngest. Ryland was 6 years younger than John.
John grew to be a tall and strong young man. It was fairly unusual at the time for a fellow to stand over six feet tall. He was tall (6'-1") and lean (165lbs), and considered good looking. He had dark brown hair and green eyes.
John wed early as was fairly common in those days. He married Alma G. Bailey when they were both only 19 years old. Alma was from a local family - her father was a doctor in Berlin, Vermont. They were wed on September 1, 1860 in Woodbury.
The Civil War
As John was coming of age, the country was being torn apart by the issues of slavery. Firmly rooted in the anti-slavery North, John was quick to enlist in the Vermont Brigade at the onset of the Civil War. John and James enlisted in a new regiment that was being formed in Brattleboro. John enlisted on August 11th, 1862 and mustered in as 1st Corporal of Company I of the 11th Infantry on September 1, 1862. It is not clear what local status or honor he had achieved that allowed him to be a corporal. John was 21 at the time.
James also enlisted, although he mustered in as a private. He initially enlisted May 14, 1863, and mustered in July 11, 1863 as a private in Company L. The brothers were in the same company and regiment as there was no mandate that brothers be separated in battle to keep too much devastation from hitting one house or a single community. In fact, the Vermont Brigade gained significant fame and glory for their fighting prowess - much of which was attributed to native sons helping one another. The youngest brother, Ryland did not enlist either because he was too young at the time (15) or (more likely) they didn't allow or encourage all sons of one family to be in the war.
The first enlistment for both John and James ended without much fanfare or action. Their unit was being held in reserve for most of the entire year of 1862-1863. The Vermont Brigade (led by Col James Warner) by the Secretary of War because the War Office needed an artillery unit more than they needed another infantry unit. He transformed the 11th Vermont Infantry into the First Artillery, Eleventh Vermont Volunteers, which became the largest Vermont regiment.
Defense of the Capitol
The First Artillery had an aggregate membership of 1,500 officers and men. It was assigned the duty of the northern defense of Washington. The service of the First Artillery around Washington lasted for almost 20 months. It was considered some of the easiest and best duty in the country. They constructed and garrisoned three well-known fortifications named Fort Slocum, Fort Stevens (originally Fort Massachusetts) and Fort Tottten. Four other forts were occupied by the regiment during the latter part of its service, giving it a front of about seven miles. These works mounted over two hundred heavy guns and mortars, and were connected by a continuous line of rifle pits. No more pleasant or cheerful experiences were ever the lot of soldiers in actual was than those enjoyed by this regiment during the whole of the year 1863 and the first three months of 1864.
John took ill in the summer of 1863. He was stricken with severe diarrhea and rheumatism. Perhaps because he was a non-commissioned officer, he was sent to stay in a nearby neighbor's boarding house (Mrs. Walker) to recuperate. John was then sent to Vermont on recruiting service for July and August of 1863 and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant of the new company, L, which along with Co. M, were being added to the regiment to make its full artillery strength of 1800.
There must have been some opportunity for some time at home with Alma because they celebrated the birth of their only son early in 1864, about nine months later. The records on this are a little unclear but it seems that their son Warner Slocum was born in Washington, DC. One of the brigade's shining leaders was Col. James Warner, who was wounded in battle and later returned to earn the rank of Brigadier General. Their son was named Warner Slocum as a tribute to these two events. It appears that Alma may have been visiting John at the time of the birth of their son.
After the battle of the Wilderness, General Grant summoned all available troops to the re-enforcement of the Army of the Potomac, and this regiment with others was ordered to the front as infantry, though still bearing its yellow flag and wearing red trimmings upon ins uniforms. It reported for duty near Spotsylvania Court House with 1,500 men in line, and at once became a member of the Old Vermont Brigade, whose five regiments had been reduced to scarce 1,200 muskets.
Being placed by the side of the veteran regiments of The Vermont Brigade, the Eleventh was on its mettle from the outset, and soon added to its discipline the experience of actual campaigning necessary to make it the equal of any command in the army. The list of its engagements appended shows that it was in every battle fought by the Sixth Corps from May, 1864, to April, 1865. The occasions most vividly remembers are, the heavy artillery fire to which it was subjected at Spotsylvania, May 18; the battle of Cold Harbor, where it suffered heavily; and the bitter episode on the Weldon road, where almost an entire battalion was captured by General Mahone.
The Battle of Cold Harbor
On May 31, Sheridan's cavalry seized the vital crossroads of Old Cold Harbor. Early on June 1, relying heavily on their new repeating carbines and shallow entrenchments, Sheridan's troopers threw back an attack by Confederate infantry. Confederate reinforcements arrived from Richmond and from the Totopotomoy Creek lines. Late on June 1, the Union Sixth and Eighteenth Corps reached Cold Harbor and assaulted the Confederate works with some success. By June 2, both armies were on the field, forming on a seven-mile front that extended from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy River. At dawn June 3, the Second and Eighteenth Corps, followed later by the Ninth Corps, assaulted along the Bethesda Church-Cold Harbor line and were slaughtered at all points. Grant commented in his memoirs that this was the only attack he wished he had never ordered.
The armies confronted each other on these lines until the night of June 12, when Grant again advanced by his left flank, marching to James River. On June 14, the Second Corps was ferried across the river at Wilcox's Landing by transports. On June 15, the rest of the army began crossing on a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Weyanoke. Abandoning the well-defended approaches to Richmond, Grant sought to shift his army quickly south of the river to threaten Petersburg.
This was the first of the two significant battles that John experienced. It may have been his first experience with the bloody battles of the war. He wrote a letter to his mother while recuperating from this battle. He was wounded on June 1, 1864. He wrote from an encampment near Petersburg, VA on June 18, 1864, just days after the battle ended:
"…We have the high ground, captured 22 pieces of artillery and a big number of prisoners. We have the advantage of them now by all odds and the City (Petersburg) must fall and it will be a big vein cut to the city of Richmond."
The letter goes on to talk of family, their plans for later in the summer and other pleasantries. The mood of the letter is upbeat and optimistic.
The Battle of Weldon Railroad
On 4 successive days, June 15-18, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac launched assaults against Confederate defenses at Petersburg, Va. These bungled attacks failed, squandering an excellent opportunity to capture the railroad center and shorten the war. When Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia arrived to man the works, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, directing the Union army, concluded that the city could not be taken by assault. Petersburg would have to be invested by siege and its vital railroads severed. Grant's decision established the pattern of the 10-month-long Petersburg Campaign.
Grant decided almost immediately to advance on the railroads linking Petersburg to the Southern coast and heartland. The Weldon Railroad, connecting Petersburg to North Carolina, lay closest to the Union army's line, and Grant ordered an operation against it 4 days after the final Union assault recoiled before the city's defenders. The Northern commander committed a cavalry division and 2 infantry corps toward the success of the movement.
General Wright's orders were to move on the next day some two miles, to the Weldon railroad, running south from Petersburg, seize it and entrench his position, while the Second corps, under General Birney also moved to the left, was to support the movement.
This day, June 23d, was a very dark day in the calendar of the brigade, being marked by the heaviest capture of its members that ever occurred in its entire history. The men were roused before daylight in expectation of an attack or an advance; but no movement took place except to perfect the dispositions of the troops which had been posted in the darkness of the previous night. During the forenoon, Captain Beattie, of the Third Vermont, was sent out with a company of 90 picked men to reconnoiter in front. He reached the Weldon railroad, unopposed, and sent back word that he had found the road unguarded and cut the telegraph line, and with his report he sent a piece of the telegraph wire to prove his word.
(History 10th Vt. Inf.) A working party of pioneers was there-upon sent out with tools to tear up and destroy the track. To protect them and give warning of any approach of the enemy, General Grant was ordered to send out a picket detail of 200 men. These were taken from Major Fleming's battalion of the Eleventh regiment, the detail being under command of Captain E. J. Morrill, and they reported to Lieut. Colonel S. E. Pingree, field officer of the day, by whom they were posted, according to instructions, in a line extending from the right of the skirmish line of the division, and at a right angle with that line, out to the railroad. Captain Beattie with his company picketed a line along the railroad; and 200 cavalry men were deployed at a right angle with these on the left, thus enclosing with the pickets a hollow square, extending half a mile along the railroad, and back from it to the division skirmish line. The area thus enclosed was mainly open ground, with two or three farm buildings nearly in the center of it. On each side was timber, that on the north, toward Petersburg, being a dense forest, extending from the railroad back a mile or more, to the front of Rickett's division, and that on the south a narrow strip of woods The right of the main line of the Vermont brigade joined the left of Ricketts's division, turning at an obtuse angle; and the line was extended to the left of the brigade by other troops of the second division.
General L. A. Grant was now called on by General Wheaton, commanding the division, to furnish another detail to support the skirmish line, and Major Fleming was sent out with the remainder of his battalion, to which company A, of the Eleventh was added. The detachment was stationed by an officer of General Wheaton's staff, about half a mile or more in front of the brigade, at the left of the open ground.
In front of the line of the Vermont brigade was a swell of ground, the low crest of which commanded the entire open area. A line of infantry along it could have swept half of the open ground in front with musketry. A battery posted on it, could have shelled the whole area, as well as the strip of timber on the left, which was so narrow that persons on the crest could see over and through it. The advantage of occupying this crews was so to General L. A. Grant, that after waiting sometime for an advance of the lines to it, which he supposed would be ordered, he took the responsibility, when the operations commenced in front, of moving forward the line of his brigade to it; requesting the commanders of the brigades on his right and left, to swing out and connect with him. The one on the right did not do so, however, and General Grant was soon ordered to bring back his brigade to its former line.
General Grant then went in person to General Wheaton and asked him to advance the division line, so that the crest might be occupied. Receiving no satisfactory response, Grant next went to the corps commander, and at the former's earnest request General Wright rode with him to the top of the crest to inspect the situation.
Some lively skirmishing was then in progress in front and to the left, and a force of the enemy was plainly visible, coming from the direction of the railroad, around outside the strip of woods, and apparently aiming for the left and rear of the Vermont detachments on the skirmish line. General Wright decided that it was now too late to advance the main line to the crest, and to Grant's expressions of concern for the safety of his men in front General Wright replied that if attacked they could fall back into the woods on their right, behind Ricketts's picket line, which General Wright supposed to be advanced nearly to the railroad. This, however, was a mistake on the part of General Wright.
Ricketts's pickets afforded no adequate protection against an attack from that quarter, though the Eighty-seventh Pennsylvania, of his division, which had been sent out as an additional guard to the pioneers, made a fight at the right, and lost 83 men killed, wounded and captured. Beyond advancing the skirmishers of the Fourth Vermont to cover Fleming's left, which was ordered when it was plain that the latter was in danger, little was done by the division and corps commanders for the protection of the detachments in front; and this advance of the Fourth, as it proved, was simply sending it to be captured with the rest.
The working party, before this, had torn up half a mile of track, extending south from where they struck it, when, about the middle of the afternoon, they became aware of the approach of a considerable force of the enemy, which had been sent out west of the railroad from the right of his lines around Petersburg. The pioneers, with Captain Beattie's sharpshooters who had moved to the left with them, and the cavalry pickets, accordingly fell back to the left and rear, and rejoined the corps without serious loss. The skirmishers under Captain Morrill, on the right of the open ground, maintained their position, expecting the enemy to attack, if at all, from that direction. The Confederate troops approaching from that quarter divided, a portion of them making a demonstration in front, while the larger part pushed into the woods on Fleming's right. He prepared to receive the attack from his front by hastily piling a low breastwork of rails. On his left the Fourth Vermont, as has been stated, was deployed as skirmishers, its line extending through a piece of woods to the narrow belt of timber, heretofore described.
Bursting suddenly through this, the enemy came in on the left of the Fourth, swinging round into the latter's rear as they advanced into the open filed, and enveloping the line. Captain Tracy of the Fourth, one of the most gallant young officers in the brigade, commanded the left company, and rallied his men for a brief fight; but he soon fell dead, and after about a dozen men of the Fourth had been shot down, most of the rest, seeing resistance and flight were alike hopeless, threw down their arms. About fifty men, however, of the Fourth, including the color-guard, escaped through the woods, before the enemy's lines met behind them; and made good their retreat to the main line, taking the colors with them. See his danger, Major Fleming now endeavored to withdraw the skirmishers and picket reserved of his battalion to his right and rear; but found the woods there full of rebels, who at once pushed out a strong line behind the Vermonters, till it met the other Confederate line. The men of the Eleventh were thus in turn completely cut off. They made a brief fight against vastly superior numbers and then surrendered. Two field officers, Majors Pratt and Fleming, and 24 commissioned officers - eight of the Fourth and sixteen of the Eleventh-gave up their swords, and 373 men of the two regiments were captured.
John Drenan was one of the officers that gave up his sword on that day. John's brother, James wrote a letter to their mother on June 28, 1864, five days after John was captured. The tone of this letter is quite different from the one John had sent ten days earlier.
Mother you must take this as cool as possible for if the Rebs fights like this they will get the whole Union army. I have got all of John's things. All of his letters and everything but Mother, he is a prisoner. They took all of our company but 19 men. But they did not get me. Mother, John has had rather hard luck. He has been wounded twice. He had just come back to his company. He has the officer's good will. He had the offer of going to the general hospital but he did not want to and now he is worse than dead, I think."
Prisoner of War
John was still healing from his wounds when captured. He was not in good health and things were not to get much better.
The nearest Southern prison was the Libby Prison near Richmond, June 25, 1864. This was only a way station as the rebels did not want to any Union movement to free their prisoners, so close to the front lines. Most of the prisoners were soon relocated.
From there John was posted to several different prisons en route to a South Carolina prison. He was moved by train from Richmond to Lynchburg and then to Danville, VA. From there he was transferred further and further away from the front lines to Charlotte, NC and then to Macon (June 29, 1864) and Savannah before arriving in Charleston, SC. By October of 1864 John was at the Asylum Prison in Columbia SC.
A sad sequel must be added to the disastrous episode of the Battle of Weldon Railroad. Of the 401 Vermont men thus captured, over one half died within six months after their capture, a few in Confederate hospitals, but most of them in the prison pens of Andersonville and Columbia, S.C. The names of two hundred and thirty-two Vermonters, most of them strong and vigorous men when taken that day, who thus died by a lingering death in the hands of the enemy. A number who lived to be exchanged, came home mere wrecks of men and died soon after, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that 70 per cent of the men so captured died in prison or from the results of their captivity. The officers as a rule fared better. Several escaped. One, Captain Morrill, of the Eleventh, was fired on while attempting to escape from his captors, and died of his wounds so received. Another, Lieutenant Parker of the same regiment, escaped from prison, to die by the teeth of southern blood-hounds, set upon him by his pursuers. Of the rest, some came home in sadly shattered health.
On about April 1, 1865 John was released from Rebel imprisonment and sent back to the Union by way of Charlotte and Goldsboro, NC, before being sent to Parole Camp, Annapolis, MD. The date was about July 1, 1865 when he finally achieved his freedom in Union territory - John was about 24 years old at the time.
The Post-War Years
John was furloughed for a 30-day period after his release. He went home to see Alma and his 11/2-year-old son, Warner. His health was bad and he was immediately put under a doctor's care. His release papers from Camp Furlough said that he suffered from "kidney disease, scurvy, diarrhea and malarial poisoning." After the 30-day furlough John's condition was no better and he was mustered out of the service on May 15, 1865.
Alma did her best along with the Doctors to nurse John back to health. After a time he showed some improvements. John was able to work for a while and he started a position with the Connecticut Casualty Insurance Company. Life was getting better as John and Alma started their life together as man and wife for the first time.
But events being what they are, tragedy struck again. Alma died on February 28, 1869 at the age of 27 years old. She was diagnosed with 'consumption'. John was left with the care of their only son Warner, who was five years old at the time.
After three years, John remarried. The bride was Cornelia M. Gaylord from Stanstead, Quebec, where she was born and raised. The wedding was held in her hometown on September 3, 1872. By this time, Warner was eight years old.
They moved back to Woodbury to start anew. John and Cornelia had a son Hary F. Drenan, born sometime in 1876. By the time the 1880 census was taken, the family of four was documented as living in Hardwick, VT (Caledonia County). John was 38, Cornelia was 35, Warner was 15 and Hary was 4.
Not much is known about John from here on to his death other than his health continued to waiver. His applications for his war pension and disability income described worsening conditions. By the time of his death in 1894, he had been bedridden for most of the previous year. His left arm was numb and often useless and he was described as lame and being unable to perform any sort of manual labor.
His physician in his last years was E.P Fairman, who described John's final condition this way,
"For a long time previous to his death, Drenan suffered from extreme nervous prostration and debility with tremors and abnormal sensations in his limbs. There was a very great irregularity in the heart's action, with occasional chills followed by fever, the result no doubt of malarial poisoning. In my opinion the remote cause of his death, was a systematic course of starvation in Libby and Andersonville prisons while a prisoner of war. Drenan never recovered his original strength, vigor and vitality that he possessed before his enlistment and especially before his incarceration in Rebel prisons."
John S. Drenan died on June 17, 1894.
Note: This work is a compilation of research performed by Peter Drenan. This work was done with the best of intents but limited resources. The sources are varied and their accuracy cannot always be verified. Therefore, enjoy it for what it is - a work of family genealogy that attempts to put some perspective in the life and times of our forefathers. Some of it may be conjecture and some issues of history may be askew in order to fit the available information.
If you have information that refutes or supports this work, I would be most grateful to see it and add it to the growing body of work. Please send it to me at Peter Drenan, 706 Acorn Lane, Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail to Drenan@adelphia.net. Fax to our home fax at (434) 979-8546.
Photograph from the 10th Infantry history, scanned by Deanna French.