French, George Oscar
Age: 18, credited to Castleton, VTVITALS
Birth: 04/24/1844, Castleton, VTADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Alias?: None notedDESCENDANTS
Hillside Cemetery, Castleton, VT
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and other veterans who may be buried there.
George O. French
Biographical Sketch Of Lieut. French, By His Sister, Ella A. French.
George Oscar French was born in Castleton, April 25th, 1844. He was the second in a family of six, and the first one taken from that family by death. His boyhood passed, like that of many another country lad, almost unnoticed save by his parents, and little history can now be given of his earlier years.
He was of fair complexion, having blue eyes, and light curling hair. He developed a strong, active figure, and at eighteen was six feet, one and one-fourth inches in height. It is remembered of him that he was always singularly brave. As a child, he cowered before no bugbear and was afraid of no stranger. He took the world in a simple, straightforward way, as free from boastfulness as it was from fear. He was fond of out door sports and innocent frolics, and few people have a keener sense of the ludicrous than he had. Whatever the discouragements or drawbacks he seemed to be able to see the comical side of a case, and a hearty laugh, directed, as often as not, toward himself, restored his own courage and that of others. A frank, truthful, merry hearted boy, such was our brother always.
He was a bright scholar, and after leaving the country schools, attended the seminary at Castleton. He was not a graduate, but he studied the higher English branches and Mathematics, in which he was proficient. Outside of school, he learned to play the violin.
There is so little to tell in all this that I am inclined to ask pardon for putting it before you, "A born soldier," some one said of him after he wore epaulets, and if unselfishness and steadfastness are the badge of heroes, he may have been, but in his youth no one, least of all himself, thought of any career before him but that of honorable manhood.
That part of his life which has any interest for other than his own people began with his enlistment in the Union army, Aug. 6th, 1862. He was not quite eighteen when Fort Sumter was captured, and through all that year he read eagerly of the war and chafed at his own youth and uselessness. When he had passed his eighteenth birthday, he was anxious to join the army, and all saw that it would be impossible long to keep him with us. He was enrolled at Fair Haven, in Company C, of the 11th Regiment, Vermont Volunteers. A few days afterward he went to Brattleboro where the regiment was mustered in, and where it remained till September 7th. Before leaving Brattleboro he had been appointed sergeant, and he entered on his soldier's duties with the same enthusiasm and thoroughness which he had given to everything else.
His letters through this time are very pleasant reading. The weariness from long marches and lack of food, the shadow of danger and death, had not yet fallen upon him, and he tells us of the journey to Washington where the brigade was to be drilled ready for the defence of that city or for the field; he names the line of forts, among which were Massachusetts, Stevens and Bunker Hill; he describes the barracks, the rifle-pits, the artillery-drill, and sends us a drawing of the great Parrot gun which his division used, and of which he became as proud as a sailor of his ship or a rider of his pony. He bought books on Artillery Tactics and made himself master of the movements. He was complimented for the precision and judgment, with which, as sergeant, he directed the firing, and tells of the compliment and the deed in an off-hand way as if they belonged to some one else. There were some hard lines. The change of water and food, the heat, and severe military duty brought on a fever which confined him to the hospital for several weeks that fall. In the winter, too, he had an attack of pneumonia, and was obliged to give up work for a short time.
For more than a year the regiment was before Washington, daily expecting marching orders and receiving only rumors of them. In January, 1864, our brother obtained a short furlough, and on returning to the army was promoted to the position of 1st, or Orderly Sergeant. In May, 1804, when Grant had been made commander-in-chief and there was a definite plan of operations, the impatience of the troops around Washington was gratified, and the marching orders really came. On the thirteenth of May the camp was broken up and the troops taken by steamers to the lower Potomac where they landed and marched to join Grant's army near the Rappahannock. Their first real fighting was on the sixteenth of May in one of the series of battles near Spottsylvania. After the engagement, brother wrote home with pride that the regiment was complimented for gallant conduct. Not a man flinched. During the flank movements by which the Confederate army was outgeneraled, a fierce attack was made upon the Union line where these men stood, and those whom they took prisoners said they knew Vermont soldiers fought, but the Second Brigade fought as they never saw men fight before. Brother exulted, also, that Gen. Sedgwick had asked for their division in the campaign, remarking that Vermont troops were at a premium. On the first of June, the troops marched fifteen miles in the morning, went on the field and fought all day, and dug intrenchments at night until the men could not stand for faintness. They were in the battle of Cold Harbor where the regiment lost heavily. May 13th, the surgeon reported seventeen hundred thirty-three men fit for duty, June 16th, there were but thirteen hundred twenty-five. June 18th, they are in camp near Petersburgh and the outer defences of that city are theirs. In all this time, they had been serving as infantry, but Washington being threatened, they are hurried off to aid the hundred days' men in its defence, and in four days they are at Poolesville, Md., having marched sixty miles, ridden three hundred and eighty by steam and been twenty-four hours on the skirmish line. The people at Washington were glad to see them, and shouted, " Hurrah for the 6th Corps and the 11th Vermont."
On the 28th of June, brother was commissioned 2d Lieutenant.
In the early part of July, the 6th Corps was back at Petersburgh, but was almost immediately recalled to drive the Confederates from the Shenandoah valley. By forced marches, fording rivers, and fighting, the men were so worn out that some fell by the way and were made prisoners, while others sickened and died from sheer exhaustion. Brother was sick also, and through the month of August was kept in the hospital at Annapolis. He rejoined his regiment September 1st, and shared in the battles of the Shenandoah that autumn, when Sheridan drove Early south and almost laid waste the valley. Sheridan, he believed in thoroughly and the dash and firmness of that officer were a great delight to him after the slow hesitating character of the early part of the war. Brother was wounded in the battle of Cedar Creek, Oct. 19th, by a piece of shell. -It was a wound on the left side of the head, cutting to the bone but not dangerous. The captain ordered two men to take him to the rear, but he sent them back to their places and went on alone. He did not leave the regiment while the wound was healing.
While in the Shenandoah he was made acting adjutant of the Battalion and performed the duties of that office for several months. In December, the corps was ordered to Petersburgh again, and went into quarters three miles west of the Weldon railroad. Here they remained throughout the winter, helping in the long siege which tired out Lee's army and made its surrender in the spring of 1865 a necessity. Here they sometimes met the rebel pickets, and brother writes of an encounter with one of their lieutenants. He came up for a parley, asking if some of the Union men might not come and exchange coffee for tobacco which his men had. Brother replied that he dared not let them do so for the rebels were so treacherous. Some of our men had been taken by them while bartering a day or two before. Some of them were treacherous, he owned, but not his men. They were Early's. "Aha!" said brother, "Early's men; we saw those fellows in the valley last summer." "Ye-es" drawled the confederate and retired.
Throughout this time the letters never failed. Filled with accounts of battle and march, enlivened by comical incidents and scraps from the books he had read-bits from Byron, Shakespeare, Dickens-full of courage and hopefulness and affectionate remembrance of everything and everybody at home, but not one unmanly word. We were "to take care of mother;" "father was not to work if unable to do so;" he would help. Above all, we were not to worry about him. He was well, he was "browner and stronger than an Indian." Indeed, from the tone of the letters, one would think we were in the place of hardship and danger and he was safe at home.
The last letter is dated April 1st, 1865. On the morning of April 2d, the grand forward movement of the armies around Richmond began, and on the 3d, Grant's army entered the rebel capital. But this our brother did not live to see.
Last summer, two of his sisters met a farm-laborer more than twenty miles away, and hearing our name, the man came and inquired if we were relatives of Lieut. French. When he found we were, he told us this story of the last day of our brother's life. He was in command of this stranger's company for a few days, and on the morning of April 2d, when at four o'clock, the men were ordered out, some of them broke ranks and turned to run away. They had done so once before he was put in command of them, and he now called a halt and talked to them of the shame of cowardice. Every appeal which, in the hurry of the moment he could think to make to them, he did, reminding them that they would want their own people and the people of Vermont to be proud of them and not disgraced by them, and he ended with " I will ask you to go nowhere that I do not go first, and if I die, go on over my dead body, but go on." Every one returned to the ranks and there was no more faltering. When the company came back at night they said it was the first time they had ever been officered by a man.
They came back-but our brother was not with them. His words had been prophetic, for half an hour after they were spoken, he fell, killed instantly by a ball which struck him in the forehead.
A sad death, you say, for one so young? Yes, and no. For he who told us this, a plain working man like our brother, had carried through these twenty years the memory of those fearless words sealed by that early death, and so felt kinship in that work and courage that he spoke of them with kindling eye and choking voice. Are we wrong in hoping that they may have lived, too, in other hearts, making somewhat braver soldiers on battle-fields where other weapons than artillery are needed? And doing so, surely our brother's death has borne tenfold more fruit than would a long life, ignobly or indifferently lived.
His body was embalmed, but in the delays of that troublous time it was more than a month before it reached us, and had been buried and disinterred at City Point meantime.
Some of his belongings came back, but his sword and pistol had been taken before his body was found upon the field. His clothing, his writing-desk, and a few other articles, we received. Best of all, there came a small, worn volume, the story of that life under whose captaincy His soldiers could say, "I have fought a good fight."
I beg your indulgence if I have given too much praise to this one member of the army. He himself would be the last one to forgive me for having done so, for his modesty quite equalled his courage. Through all his career as a soldier he never boasted. We were not to mention his promotion unless it were necessary. When he sent home his commission, we were not to show it; it might be useful sometime in proving identity or in other ways, but he didn't wish it talked about.
I thank you for your kind attention to his story, and I assure you it is the family feeling that a patent of nobility or a million of money would make us less proud and less rich than we are in the memory of our soldier.
Source: John M. Currier, Memorial Exercises held in Castleton, Vermont, in the year 1885, (Joel Munsell's Sons, Albany, 1885), pp. 17-22