George Washington Miller was born in September 2, 1843, in Wheatland, Monroe County, New York, the son of Jared (b. 1817) and Jennet or Janet McPherson (b. 1823).
New York natives Jared and Jennet were married on August 9, 1842, in Caledonia, Livingston County (or Middlebury, Wyoming County), New York. His family moved from Wheatland, Monroe County, New York to Michigan in 1846 and eventually settled in Bowne, Kent County. By 1850 George was living with his family in Bowne, where his father owned and operated a substantial farm, and in 1860 he was a farm laborer and attending school in Bowne.
Shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, many men in western Michigan answered president Lincoln’s first and second call for volunteers to aid the federal government in putting down the rebellion, and George was among the first to leave his home and walk to Grand Rapids where a regiment was slowly taking form. (According to family historian Mary Lane, George wrote his brother Arthur in August of 1861 that he had “run away” to join the army. Arthur, too, would “”run away” from home in 1863 and join the US Navy, serving on a gunboat on the Mississippi.)
George wrote regularly and frequently to his family in Michigan and his letters were later transcribed by his sister Delia. On April 28, 1861, George wrote his parents from Grand Rapids that “Today is the quiet and peaceful Sabbath, the usual din of the city is subsided while here and there the citizens are flocking to church.
We have orders from the Captain to met [sic] at the armory at 1:00 and proceed to St. Mark’s church in a body. We had a great mass meeting here yesterday. All the people took an oath of allegiance, [and] our company marched down Canal Street and joined the Rifle Company [Grand Rapids Rifles, soon to become Company C] from over the river and marched back to the square [probably Fulton park], stayed a little while and then marched back to quarters, and there dismissed.” He added that they expected to receive their “uniforms and guns this week. We are going to camp out after this, it is going to be down the flank [Kalamazoo plank] road [present Division Street] somewhere in a field. I believe some of the officers have just been in, they say we will not leave town under three weeks. We drill on the square every day when it is fair; we shall commence practicing with muskets tomorrow I expect.
He was 17 years old and probably still living at the family home in Bowne when he enlisted (presumably with his parents’ consent) in Company A on May 13, 1861.
The Regiment left Grand Rapids on June 13, 1861, and arrived in Washington on June 16, setting up camp near the Chain Bridge on the Potomac River above Georgetown Heights. The following day, George wrote home to describe the trip out east.
We arrived here without any accident of any account, we got into Detroit about 6:00 that day [June 13], we marched about the streets of Detroit an hour or so then went to the depot and took refreshments and then took steamboat for Cleveland. At every Station along the line through Michigan there was a little crowd, they would greet us with cheers and sometimes with cannon or an anville [?], at Pontiac they brought us refreshments of cake and cheese. We got into Cleveland a little after sunrise [June 14], we took cars from there to Pittsburg, the[n] through the northern part of Ohio is level and nice but towards the southern part it grows mountainous and rocky, it is a great coal region here. There is lots of places along the line where the hills are pierced for coal. This is the great oil region; I saw wells all along, we struck the Ohio River opposite Virginia at a little place called Wellsville, the railroad from there follows the Ohio all the way to Pittsburg, the Ohio here is a little stream about as wide as the Grand River at Lowell, we arrived in Pittsburg about dark on Friday, we changed cars there for Harrisburg, at almost every station along the line through Ohio there was crowds of men and women who cheered and waved their handkerchiefs or brought us refreshments, the girls showering flowers onto us. At Pittsburg we were warmly greeted with cheers, the citizens came and shook hands with us, in going from Pittsburg to Harrisburg we crossed the Allegany Mountains; although there are some pretty big hills they don’t come up to my idea of mountains, there is some big rocks though, the railroad mostly follow [the] course of small streams, we passed through four tunnels, the hills have been dug down through about forty feet through solid rock. We arrived at Harrisburg a little after noon on Saturday, took refreshment, then changed cars for Baltimore; we passed the Massachusetts Six[th] Regiment about daylight, before we got into Baltimore. When we arrived at Baltimore we formed into platoons and marched through the city without the least sign of fight, we saw some houses there marked with bullets. We took another train for Washington, on the way we passed the relay house where the secession troops were stationed [and] arrived at Washington about noon we formed in marching order and marched through Washington across the Potomac (a little stream about thirty or forty feet wide at this place) and up through Georgetown and about three miles beyond, we are encamped between the Michigan Second and the District of Columbia troops, it is a nice healthy spot and no warmer than in Michigan.
On July 14 he added the observation that “When we got through to Washington we were all of us nearly fagged out. The day that we arrived was exceedingly warm, and marching four or five miles after so long a journey being kept up night and day was pretty hard on us. Some of our men gave out -- before we got to cam we have heard since that no other Regiment had come in without stopping at least a day to rest in Washington. That day’s march was the cause of a great deal of sickness to some of our men. A little railroad ride is fun but four days and nights of it begins to be hard work.”
On June 28 George wrote to his parents in Michigan that they had not been in a fight yet but were continually on the alert for the rebels. “Down at the bridge there was what appeared to be a finely dressed lady with a horse and buggy, came up to the bridge to cross, she was stopped to be be examined according to orders, they found under some grass in the buggy about a bushel of percussion caps. This led to closer examination of the lady which ended in the discovery that the supposed lady was a man and a rank secessionist at that, they have got him prisoner.” He added that there was considerable sickness in camp due to weather and climate, and that he had had the measles and was “now enjoying the mumps, they are getting better now, they keep me in the tent pretty much all the time.”
George wrote on July 7 that he “spent my 4th [of July] by standing guard two hours out of six all day and all night. There was no celebration whatever except firing a few guns from the battery. The boys had spent all their money before so there was no getting drunk. Taking it all together it was a very quiet 4th.” He said that they had at last received their new uniforms, at least the pants, which were “blue, the old grays are worn out. We understand that most of the secessionists wear gray. The pants are not particularly noted for fit . . . but by considerable ingenuity, patience and tailoring I have managed to make a passable fit. Some of the boys wear the pants up under their arms. Reading is rather scarce here and I would be much obliged if you would send me a paper now and then; we are allowed one franked envelope a week to write to our friends.”
On July 14 he wrote home that he had not been to Washington “since I had the measles. I intend to go down some of these days though. The Colonel [McConnell] is very strict about giving passes now, some of the soldiers would go out and trespass on the people’s property who would come and make complaints to the Colonel, [and] ever since he has been very particular about giving passes. The Dutch Company [Company C] have moved across the river to guard that end of the [chain] bridge.”
George wrote home on July 20 of the action at Blackburn’s Ford on July 18, that although he had not “been in a fight, I have been pretty close proximity to one.” One thing he did learn from this first engagement in combat was that “I used to think it foolishness to dodge a cannon ball but I think the other way now. You can hear a cannon ball quite a while before it gets to you and sometimes you can see them. I saw several that were coming pretty straight for us in time to dodge them.” And on July 27 he wrote of the great fiasco at Bull Run on July 21. He was on skirmish duty and participated only from a distance.
On August 3 he wrote that the Regiment was presently encamped down the Potomac opposite the Navy Yard. “The river here is about half a mile wide, most of it is shallow and grown up with grass, [and] the tide rises here about two feet. I remember in writing you one of my first Letters to have described the Potomac as a narrow river but I was mistaken in the stream. The stream that divides Washington from Georgetown is only a creek. The river at Chain Bridge is not very wide but down by the Navy Yard the eastern branch [Anacostia?] connects itself and the river immediately grows wider.” He added that as regards the retreat to Washington from Bull Run,
I stood that retreat very well. I had all the crackers I wanted to eat while some of them had nothing to eat since the day before. On the retreating that I saw everything was done in good order till we got to Fairfax when some of them were so tired that they fell out and came along behind. Between Centreville and Fairfax we passed several baggage wagons, some overturned that looked as though they had been left in a panic. As for our boys they were mad because they had to run without a chance to fight the Rebels. After passing Fairfax it commenced a drenching rain which grew harder as the day advanced. The greatest need on a march is probably for water, [and] at every spring, creek or pool there would be a run to get a little water t wet the mouth. I have seen ordinary men drink water that I would not wash my hands in on ordinary occasions. By the time our Regiment had reached Arlington Heights we had lost all order and every man came in on his own.
On August 6, he wrote his parents that he had “just returned from chopping. There is several hundred acres of woods in the hills back from here that is to be all cut down to prevent the enemy cavalry from charging on the troops camped here I suppose. A great deal of timber is slashed down and spoiled, [and] we take turns at it and chop three hours after which whiskey is dealt out to those that choose to drink it. There is no Sunday in a soldier’s life. We have to chop Sundays as well as other days. We had some potatoes today for dinner, the first I have tasted since we left Michigan; they tasted better than new fruit. Some of the boys have had the symptoms of scurvy but the doctor has cured all such cases. It gives a fellow a good appetite for vegetables to live on salt beef and bread. We have pea soup and bean soup once in a while and fresh beef once a week. We are allowed [?] meat or bread a day which is not enough for a health man but the boys made a row about it and we have all we want to eat now.”
On August 11 George wrote that he had again “just returned from chopping where I have been keeping the Sabbath. . . . We have got a large piece of woods down and partly cleared up. We cut and trim trees and the niggers burn it. They intend to build a battery on top of the hill.” For the first time George seemed homesick. “I should like to be at home a while to help eat them harvest apples and watermelons. There is plenty of fruit here, such as it is. The apples are all little scrawny things not fit to eat. . . .” On August 18 he wrote home that “I have to chop about four days in a week, they detail about twenty men out of each company every day. We march up to a house on the top of the hill to get our axes and a gill of whiskey for them that want it -- I give mine to the other boys who drink; we work about three hours and then march back to the house, get another gill and leave our axes; the rest of the week I either do nothing or stand guard.”
“They are very strict here about liquor now,” George wrote on August 25, “ although the choppers still get it. They have a provost guard stationed all along the roads who arrest all persons who are found with liquor in their possession; there have been a good many barrels of whiskey and beer poured out in the road. I wish I had a taste of them harvest apples; the apples around here don’t amount to much but they have noble peaches, but they are guarded so that we soldiers don’t get many. There are a good many pears here but they are not ripe yet. The leisure hours of a soldier, [and] especially of us, hangs heavily sometimes. When not on duty we either read if we have any thing to read or write letters or wander around through the country when we can get out. Some of the boys pitch quails, or play cards and some will lay down and sleep all day, these generally are the sick ones and the ones who eat the most. Camp life is the laziest life I ever saw. It is like a continuation of Sundays; the men get so lazy that the smallest duty is an effort to some of them, but when we get to chopping we are all right again.” George added that “I intend to go to school if I live through this but I am afraid there is but a slim chance for me at West Point. I hate to lose this winter’s schooling the worst way but I don’t see as it can be helped. Probably I shall learn all the better if I go to school again.”
He wrote his parents on September 4 that as regards their cooking arrangements “when we are in the Regiment we have two cooks to cook for us and divide our rations, but when we are out on picket every man looks out for himself, and with [the] exception [of] chickens and corn and fruit that we confiscate, we manage to live very well.” He added that ”As I look over this fair country I think what a sad thing this war is, here is fine forests of timber leveled to the ground. Orchards are cut down, peaceable citizens are obliged to leave their property and his fences are demolished, their houses are disfigured and if anything movable is left it is destroyed. I hope Michigan will never be cursed with an invading foe. I hope this war will soon end but you must not flatter yourselves about seeing me home by Spring, for I am afraid you will be disappointed.”
On September 10 George again raised the possibility of study, but was less enthusiastic about being able to spend much time with books. “I expect I might study some times but a soldier has no control over his time and is often changing places so that his course of study would be rather irregular.” On October 13 he wrote of his elation in receiving a package from home. “That long looked-for box of provisions has at last come to hand. The cheese is delicious, and is exactly the old homemade cheese. There were several more cheeses in the box but mine is the best among them. There was 60 pounds of butter in the box, some maple sugar and lots of cookies and crackers. We concluded to use the things together in common as the best way of dividing it, so we can all have plenty of butter and cheese as long as it lasts.”
On October 24 George wrote home and described a recent trip he and Norman White took to Mount Vernon.
It is a splendid place, no engravings can give you an exact picture of the appearance of the place. It did not look at all as I expected to be sure. The mansion looks natural but there is a great deal more shrubbery around the house than is put in the picture. The tomb looks like the picture. It is built of red brick, [and] there is an iron grate in front of the vault. Inside of it is [sic] two marble coffins in which rest the mortal remains of George and Martha Washington. On the right of Washington’s coffin is engraved an American eagle with the United States coat of arms. I plucked an ivy leaf from over the tomb and I will enclose it to you for the curiosity of it and with it an orange leaf from a tree that Washington planted with his own hands; the smooth green one is the orange leaf. There is a splendid flower garden at the mansion and a great many tropical plants. They have two sage palms, planted in large tubes so they can house them in winter. They were short stumps four and a half foot high with long leaves branching out of the top that looks a good deal like the long swamp breaks only smoother leaves. Another most curious plant is . . . a native of Mexico. The plant consists of long thick leaves three or four feet long and having thorns on the ridges and two or three inches thick at the bottom and about the color of [the] cabbage plant. I saw a young Palmetto there. It is kind of an odd looking tree, but I don’t see where the virtue is in it that would make it the symbol of a nation. There is some curious trees here. There is a kind of oak here that has leaves full like a willow tree; it is a kind of water oak. I got my daguerreotype taken yesterday and I enclose it to you in this letter. The boys say it is a good picture so I leave it between them and you to decide whether it is or not. The artist took kind of a queer notion and pulled my knife out of its sheath and stuck it in my belt as you will see in the picture. The knife is not so blunt a the picture represents it to be, but has a long sharp point. I saw Safford W. a week or two ago. He never said anything about wanting to join our Regiment. I guess it must [be] a mistake about his wanting to be transferred. I will send you a few specimens of Virginia flowers as soon as I can get them.
He added “That cheese of mine is getting pretty well broken up as well as ate.”
George wrote to his mother on November 14, that “There has nothing of any consequence happened more than common to stir up our blood, except one report of the rebels advancing. I was on picket at the time, [and] a cavalry man came along the line of pickets on a gallop telling us to hurry into headquarters. When we got in we found that a large body of Rebel cavalry had been seen in Accotink. One of Company K’s men who happened to be down there at the time, came near being taken prisoner. He had to throw his overcoat and gun away. He went back afterwards, however, and found them. Three or four of us went down to the village toward night and learned that there were about 500 of this cavalry and they had gone towards Pohick church. Next morning two or three of us went down to the village and found our Regiment and the 37th New York had passed through there. We followed after and found the whole division at Pohick church but the Secesh had fled.”
On November 21 George wrote home that they were still working on building various fortifications around Washington, but that they “do not have to work very hard or steady. We are detailed so that each man has to go on about once in three days; the rest of the time we have nothing to do unless we are detailed to stand guard or picket. We drill most everyday.”
The day before they participated in “a grand review by General McClellan and Old Abe” at Bailey’s Crossroads. “There were over 50,000 men there; more men that I ever saw before, or ever expect to see again. When our division marched around in front of McClellan our band struck up Hail Columbia and our Regiment marched in beautiful order, Division front. General McClellan turned to Old Abe and remarked that the Regiment marched well, after we had marched around. We could see all over the field; there was about forty acres of ground all covered with soldiers marching in divisions, batteries of cannon and Regiments of cavalry. Long bridge was left free for citizens to cross to see the review. Munson’s Hill was covered with spectators and there was what would be called a large crowd on ordinary occasions on the ground where McClellan’s staff was stationed. I do not know what the object of the review is exactly, but I have heard it was partly for the purpose of selecting troops to send to South Carolina.”
“The weather is somewhat cold but very pleasant,” George wrote his mother on December 12. “We had one little snow but it did not last two hours after the sun came out. The folks around here say it never snows of any account until after Christmas. I hope war will end by spring but I doubt it ending until it dies out itself. There isn’t fighting enough going on to do it. As a general thing there is a good deal of swearing prevalent in camp but the boys in our tent are pretty moral sort of of fellows.”
On Christmas night he wrote home that “We have nothing to do but stand guard about once in five or six days. A good many of the boys are building log shanties; they make comfortable little places to live in as well as thinning out the tents, so that we shall have more room. We spent our Christmas hunting after Secesh” and “went out on a reconnaissance in the vicinity of Pohick church. We discovered nothing but some Rebel pickets. A squad of rebels was seen on a hill about a mile away. The artillerymen fired a cannon shell at them and that was the last we saw of them. We received orders then from headquarters to return to camp. We about-faced and returned to camp hungry and tired. This is the day we spent our Christmas.”
On December 28 George wrote home and complained heartily about the Regimental chaplain, Rev. Dr. Francis H. Cuming. “Old Doc Cuming disperses the gospel to us on the Sabbath unless it is too cold, but the principal parts of his discourse consists in telling us how awful wicked we soldiers are and agitating the subject of a big tent for the Sabbath exercises, which he wants the soldiers to buy, and take it all around. He is the biggest nuisance of the Regiment. If he was like the Chaplains in some of the other Regiments, the boys would take some interest in him, but as it is, it’s like smoking saw dust to hear him. There was all of 9 out of our company to church last Sabbath and part of them came back before the services were over.”
George wrote home on January 27, 1862, that “the times are awful dull here. . . . We have nothing to do but lay around in the tent and get our ration three times a day. Our turn standing guard comes around about once a week, and it is rough business now, though the weather is not very cold but most disagreeably damp. The boys have spent most of their money. . . .” He added in a letter to his mother that to reduce the boredom “We go target shooting occasionally and we have reading of some kind most of the time. We have got our new [Austrian] rifles. They shoot pretty well but they do not suit me as well as our [minie] rifles did.” On February 18 he wrote to his sister that “There are bets out to the amount of $50 between the boys that peace will be declared in three months from now. I should not wonder if this great army of the Potomac would be moving as soon as the roads get passable and then for another big Bull Run scramble. I guess if they keep on as they have for a while back you may expect to see me at home by next fall if I don’t get pegged out by some unlucky bullet.”
On March 20 he wrote home and described the recent departure of the Third Michigan from their winter quarters to the Virginia peninsula, to participate in the opening of the spring campaign of 1862.
One week ago today [he wrote] we packed our knapsacks and marched from Camp Michigan. Our destination was unknown but was the general impression that we were to go on a fleet. Our Brigade marched down to Fort Lyon, [w]here we stacked arms and pitched our little portable tents. They are in sections and button together. Three men hitch together, making two sides and one and making a very comfortable little tent. It commenced to rain soon after we pitched our tents and some of the boys were blowed [?] out. We lay there until Monday, when we picked up and marched through Alexandria and shipped out on board the steamer John Brooks. Our Regiment was the first one shipped. Troops were shipping all that day. General McClellan came down to see that those were going on all right, [and] by sundown our division had been shipped. We moved out into the stream and anchored. We started down the river about noon. Tuesday we passed Fort Washington, Mount Vernon and all the other familiar places soon after. We passed the rebel battery at cockpit Point about three o’clock; there is a large camp of union troop opposite this place. The gunboat Yankee had been shelling the battery at Aquia Creek in the forenoon; we passed this place soon after; . . . The land all the way down the Potomac looks very much the same as it does around Alexandria, mostly tempered with little scrub pines, looking dreary and desolate with only here and there an old mansion and half-over grown plantation. We entered into Chesapeake Bay early in the morning of Wednesday. Some of the boys soon began to feel the influence of the long swells of the bay. Some of them were a little sick but not so far as to heave up more than their breakfast. I never felt better in my life. We arrived at Fortress Monroe about four o’clock in the afternoon. . . . It is a fort they are building almost in the center of the harbor. The land line of the stone fortification of Fort Monroe appears on shore, the big Union gun is in front of the main fortification behind a little sand fortification of its own. The harbor is full of vessels, one French and one English man-of-war, among them is the little iron-clad Monitor, which probably lately saved us Fortress Monroe. Her fight with the Merrimac [C.S.S. Virginia] was seen from here. she look a good deal as the Rebels said she would, like a Yankee cheese box on a raft. We could see several dents in her side where the balls of the Merrimac struck her. Our band played “Bully for you” when we lay along side of her. We did not land till next morning when we marched off from Old Point Comfort and are now camped about two miles from the fort. Norfolk is about eighteen miles from here and the smoke of burning timber is visible on Cran Island. Big Bethel is not a great ways from here. The rebels picket line is about nine miles from us. A short way from here are the ruins of Hampton which the rebels burned last summer. The old brick wells and chimneys look desolate.
From Fortress Monroe George wrote to his mother on March 24 that “We have moved out about a mile beyond the ruins of Hampton. We are encamped in a large field covered with troops in every direction. I should think about 12,000 men in sight from this position, besides, large numbers camped around that are not in sight.” On April 2 he wrote from camp near the fortress that “The Merrimac showed herself once or twice but has gone back again. Occasionally our me at the Fortress [?] and the Rebs at Jewell’s Point exchange a few shots. Contrabands come in every few days. They are generally a hard looking set. Two of them came in one day, One of them died from fatigue and disease. They having lived in the woods three weeks getting nothing to eat excepting what they could steal.”
We left our camp at Hampton last Friday [April 4, he wrote on Thursday, April 10] and took up our line of march on the Yorktown and Richmond turnpike. We marched the first day on the best roads I ever saw. The country is level and well cultivated. We passed three fortifications at Great Bethel about sundown; their fortifications are mere rifle pits, but it lays behind a swamp and makes it a hard place to charge on. They had more fortifications at a place called Mill Hill. But our advance guard shelled them out. It rained a little Friday night and made the roads very muddy. The boys throwed away everything they could possibly get along without. I keeped [sic] all of mine taking lesson from my Bull Run experience. We arrived here [near Yorktown] Saturday night -- our battery and the secesh had a few rounds. It has rained almost every since we camped here, [and] a great many of the boys have been taken sick and gone to the Hospital, . . . We have moved from our camp in the field into the woods in a good dry place out of the wind. I suppose all we are waiting for now is for the siege guns to come up and shell them out. As the roads are very bad we get no mail sent out, [and] hardly sufficient rations. One hard cracker and a half and a cup of coffee was all he had for breakfast and we have not had anything since though it’s past noon. But the boys do not grumble about their rations; they have got[ten] used to it. This is the regular bone and muscle of soldiering; no play in this.
On May 1 George wrote home “We are doing nothing at present” but “guard our trenches and go on picket. Our Regiment guarded trenches night before last. We were posted along two on a post with order to keep awake all night and keep a watch over the rifle pit. It is pretty tough business to keep awake all night. A fellow has to walk much to keep awake sometimes. The rebels keep up a scattering fire all night on the picket lines. I can think of no other reason than to draw the fire from our lines to see where we lay. They fire an occasional cannon or two and now and then a shell but they do no damage.” He wrote his mother on May 6 from Williamsburg, Virginia, that the rebels made a stand at Williamsburg following their retreat from Yorktown “and we fought them all day. The Michigan boys had a chance to show our good breeding but I am sorry to say the Third did not have a hand in it. We were detailed to support a battery and we did not go down to the battlefield till just about dusk when the fighting ceased and we marched back to where we left our knapsacks and camped. The rebels retreated during the night and we are now camped beyond their fortifications. We are all well and in good spirits.”
In his May 7 letter to his mother Miller described the recent movements of the Regiment from May 4 to May 6.
Last Sunday [May 4] after we got up the cannons had all ceased firing and everything appeared to be quiet. Pretty soon the report came that the Rebels had evacuated their works at Yorktown and our troops were in possession. They first received their information from a deserter who said the last Regiment had left not fifteen minutes before. About noon we received orders to pack up and at three o’clock we took up our line of march toward Richmond. We soon after passed the rebel fortifications which were stronger than we supposed. They had a fort on the bank of the [York?] river that was larger than any we built around Washington last summer. They left a quantity of arms in their fort among which was some lances for their infantry that they could not arm otherwise. I had heard of the secesh being dirty but had no idea of their being so shiftless as they were here. We could smell rebel camps before we got to them. The decaying [offal] of their fresh beef was just thrown outside of camp which filled the air with a perfume more fragment than agreeable. We camped for the night some or three miles beyond Yorktown. Our company was detailed for picket. We have got a new species of artillery along with us. It fires a common musket bullet and fires at the rate of sixty times a minute. [Gatling gun?] I believe the bullets are shoveled into a hopper and the machine is worked by a level. It commenced a drizzling rain Monday morning [May 5] which continued all day making it extremely disagreeable. We took up our line of march about eight o’clock. The roads are very slippery and muddy which keep getting deeper as we advance. There was pretty brisk cannonading going on away in the advance. The roads were getting decidedly horrible and the rain coming down wetting us through. I wore my overcoat so I managed to keep pretty dry. After we had marched about eight miles our Brigade had orders to unsling their knapsacks and make a forced march for the battlefield, which was about two miles ahead. The [Michigan] 2nd, 5th and [New York] 37th went in and won the day for us all and glory for themselves.
General [Phil] Kearny came to General Berry before we got in and requested his best Regiment t support a battery of artillery that had been taken and retaken six times. General Berry told him to take the Michigan 3rd says he, they will do you. So we filed up across a field toward a house that our men were using as a hospital. The wounded was being brought in on stretchers and occasionally some prisoners. It was only about half a mile to the battlefield and we could distinctly hear the rattle of their rifles and the booming of the cannon. The battery soon came up with two Maine Regiments. We had orders then to charge a rebel battery on the left. So we marched away down through a succession of fields, formed in line of battle in front of a woods when the order was countermanded and we marched back to the hospital and then filed into the woods, where to where [?] our boys were fighting. We now supposed we were going to have our turn at them. The boys were laughing and cracking jokes at one another as indifferent as if going on Brigade drill. By the time we got to the battlefield, it was getting dark and the firing had ceased. We had the satisfaction to hear that our boys had behaved nobly, [and] gained the day for us and won the highest praise from the generals. The 5th made a terrific charge on their rifle pits, drove them out and then charged them through our slashing. I must describe the position so you can understand the advantage the secesh had over us.
Before we got to the battleground the road leads down into a low place heavily wooded. [and] just beyond this and behind a swampy place the rebels had their rifle pits extending along that whole line. Just behind their pit they had about forty acres of heavy timber slashing, through which men could retreat and fight an advancing force with a very great advantage. Our boys drove them out of all this and then our artillery began to play upon them. They retreated to their forts, of which they had a chain of them stretching across the whole peninsula. We marched back to our knapsacks in the dark and of all the horrible of horrible roads, this was the most horrible; mud knee-deep and of the consistency of paste. We had no other alternative than to paddle through it. After we got to our knapsacks we pitched our tents and had a splendid sleep.
The morning [Tuesday, May 6] broke clear and bright to the great delight of us all; after we cooked our breakfast which exhausted our provisions we had orders to pack up our duds. Shortly after the news came into camp that the rebels had retreated during the night. We immediately marched through the battlefield which was strewn with dead secesh, pale and ghostly, most of them were hit in the head and shoulder, which plainly showed the advantage they had, the rest of their bodies being behind shelter. There was [sic] no mangled corpses, so the fighting was done mostly by infantry.
It looks rough to see so many dead men but a soldier soon learns to look on such things as a matter of course. We marched on most to the village of Williamsburg and camped to wait for provision and for our men to bury the dead. There must be a large number of killed as they have not got them all buried yet. We found several dead secesh lying around this morning, most of them had a brutal and ignorant expression and countenance. A secesh general was killed in the battle and his body left on the field. Colonel Terry of the 5th was slightly wounded and the Lieutenant Colonel also. It is said that when our men first charged on them and began to fire, the rebs hallowed, “There comes the western blue devils” and they began to break. A wounded secesh told some of our boys that our men could not have whipped them if it had not been for our western troops that we had there. He told they were too much for them. Hamilton doesn’t command us any more, he has been ordered to Washington for some misconduct I hear. We are now commanded by [General Phil] Kearny of Mexican [War] fame and after whom one of our forts in the Indian Territory is named.
On May 14 George wrote to his parents “We are in the neighborhood of a place called New Kent Courthouse, [and] we are not a great many miles from West Point, where our provisions and stores are all brought by water. We are now the rear guard bringing up the provisions and ammunition trains. We do not have very hard marches to perform. Some days we do not march at all. Yesterday we packed up and marched a mile and a half, then camped again. Today we marched about seven miles, [and] we are not more than twenty-five miles from Williamsburg. Hear [sic] the rebels are at Chickahominy Swamp where they intend to make another stand. The country through here looks very well. The inhabitants seemed to have followed Jeff Davis’ advice and plowed up every field and planted sowed, [as] the corn is about three inches high. Oats are up and look quite green.”
He wrote his mother on May 18 that “We are now camped at a place called Cumberland, a landing for boats on the Pamunkey River. We are ten miles from New Kent Courthouse, and five miles to the White House [landing] which I believe is our advance position. We have been here two days now, [and] I suppose we will be marching again before long.” And on May 21 George wrote to his sister that “We have moved from our camp at Cumberland and are now on the Richmond road some five or six miles from New Kent Courthouse, which is the County seat. So you see I am at present in Kent County if it has not the Michigan attached to it. This is a splendid country around here and well cultivated. The timber is principally pine, as it is all over Virginia. I think that I would be satisfied to live on some of the farms that we pass. . . . Corn is large enough to hoe, and oat are thick and green; peaches and apples are formed and everything looks like summer. Wonder what will turn up next?”
In what would be his final letter, written to his mother on May 28, just twelve miles from Richmond, George announced that
Things are fast coming to a focus around here I guess. Our division is on the left wing of the army, [and] we crossed Bottom’s Bridge Sunday and are now camped about 12 miles from the rebel capitol. The Chickahominy River that has been so much said about is but an insignificant stream and would be called a creek in Michigan. . . . There is some pretty nice country through here especially on the other side of the Chickahominy. I would be willing to own some farms I saw there. Wheat and oats are headed out, [and] the crops look as tho[ugh] it would be rather thin. Strawberries are ripe though they are rather a scarce article. . . . McClellan has ordered two rations of whiskey and quinine a day, but owing to the bad state of the roads and the distance of the landing whiskey has played out. Our knapsacks and other heavy dunnage have been sent back across the Chickahominy so that in case we should be forced to fall back as far as the river, we should not lose anything or be encumbered. We have rifle pits and masked batteries in store for them should they drive us. . . . We are having easy times now laying around in the shade doing nothing while you at home are hard at work sweating in the hot sun, but we do not know what minute we will be ordered to pack up and march and maybe fight. That is the difference.
George was reported missing in action following the engagement at Fair Oaks, Virginia on May 31, 1862. Henry Pool, also of Company A and who would himself be dead of disease in less than three weeks, wrote to Mrs. Miller on June 5 that because he was
a particular friend of your son George I took the liberty to open this [a letter to George from his mother, dated May 28, 1862] and answer it, as George is undoubtedly taken prisoner. We had a terrible battle Saturday 20,000 of us against about 60,000 of the rebels. After a terrible conflict we drove them back although our losses were heavy. Our Captain [Samuel Judd] was killed, First Lieutenant [George Judd] badly wounded through the shoulder. First, Second, third and Fifth Sergeants wounded. We have made a thorough search for George but as his body could not be found, he is undoubtedly taken prisoner. He was a good boy, a faithful soldier, we all deeply regret his loss, yet pray that it may be but for a short time. Our company killed, wounded and missing [numbered] 30; among the killed was William Daniels, Norman G. White, Samuel Dodge, Jared Harrison, Henry Ward, Ansel [Anson] Lewis, C. D. Smith, The rest wounded, most of them slightly. William Morse wounded in the knee.
And Henry Morse, also of Company A, wrote to Miller’s parents on June 7, 1862, that he was
grieved to write such news to a father that has lost his son. Your son was a dear friend of mine, but since the last battle [Fair Oaks] we can’t find anything of him. The last was seen of him, he and a boy in our company was seen to go toward the rebels. That was the last seen of either of them until after the battle. The boy that was with him was found dead, but G.W. could not be found, he probably was taken prisoner, and I pray that he is for then he will be restored to you again.
I have got his likeness and if you have not got one I will send it to you although it was a present to me while we were at Camp Michigan.
From Chickahominy creek, Virginia, Henry Morse wrote Miller’s father on June 7, 1862, that he was “grieved to write such news to a father that has lost his son. Your son was a dear friend of mine, but since the last battle we can't find anything of him. The last was seen of him, he and a boy in our company was seen to go toward the Rebels. That was the last seen of either of them until after the battle. The boy that was with him was found dead, but G.W. could not be found, he probably was taken prisoner, and I pray that he is for then he will be restored to you again. I have got his likeness and if you have not got one I will send it to you although it was a present to me while we were at Camp Michigan."
On June 22, Corporal Peter Lawyer of Company A explained to Jared Miller that George had been
selected out of our Regiment as one of the sharpshooters together with about fifty more, and they were commanded by our worthy Captain, S. A. Judd, and they went into the battle about one hundred yards in advance of the balance of the Regiment, but as the battle raged we were soon all mixed up together and we had all we could do for every man to look out for himself. Many of our brave skirmishers fell for the last time. G. W. Miller, James V. Smith and Corporal Wm. H. Drake are among the missing. The battlefield was all looked over for the wounded, [and] dead [but] [and] we found all but the above-mentioned. It is my candid opinion that these three were taken prisoners. They all belong to Company A, the same company that I do myself and G. W. Miller was a favorite of the company and very highly esteemed by all who knew him. We are all flattering ourselves that he will yet be returned to us. The last that was seen of George he was as far in the advance as any that was seen in the company. We were engaging the enemy on our left and we drove them back although they greatly outnumbered us, [and] after some time had elapsed and we were all the time facing a perfect shower of bullets and grapeshot, the enemy overpowered our right wing which fell back. The enemy followed them up and so we were holding them on our left. They came near flanking us, [and] it was with the utmost exertion that any of us escaped and there is where we think our three men was [sic] taken prisoner, G. W. among the rest. Our Captain [Judd] was killed and our company badly cut to pieces. Four of our Sergeants were wounded, the highest officer we have left in our company is a Sergeant.
I hope it will be as we expect if so we shall all see George again. You must hope for the best. It is my sincere wish that your son will be speedily returned to you again.
On August 8, the Millers’ hopes were lifted briefly when Henry Morse wrote from Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. Morse apologized for neglecting to write sooner for he “had given up all hope of his being alive until this morning. I saw and talked with a prisoner that [sic] belonged to our Regiment. He was taken to the hospital after our evacuation of Fair Oaks. From there he was taken to Richmond, [after which] he has been released and returned yesterday, [and] he told me that George was in North Carolina and the same soldier that guarded him guarded George. As there is a general exchange of prisoners, he will return” home soon “or to his Regiment. If he returns home give him my best wishes.”
For months the family worried over George’s whereabouts. On December 8, 1862, another of Miller’s friends, Jessie Coon, replied to a letter he had apparently received from Miller’s mother soliciting information as to his whereabouts. “Madam,” wrote Coon from the convalescent camp,
you are excusable in addressing a stranger under the circumstances, for there is no soldier I trust in the army so dead to the feelings of humanity as to refuse to give all the information possible in such a case. Your son was certainly not taken to Salisbury [prison in North Carolina], for I knew all of the Regiment that was there but 8 of us. I also think that all of the prisoners taken in that battle [Fair Oaks] that were not too severely wounded to prevent it were taken to Salisbury. Your son was highly esteemed in his company and no doubt they made a careful search for him as the nature of the ground would admit of. The battle was fought for the most part in dense thicket of scrub oaks and pines and in some places the timber had been slashed down and a person falling in those slashes might easily escape the notice of those searching for him. It is the opinion of his friends that he fell in one of those thickets, and so escaped their search. Deeply sympathizing with a mother for the loss of a dear son, you will pleaser accept the sincere condolence of a soldier in your great affliction.
Sometime late in the year, William Drake of Company A and who had been taken prisoner at Fair Oaks, wrote to Mrs. Miller from the camp for paroled prisoners. Drake hoped that
You will not think me forward in adding a word to that already written by friend [Jesse] Coon. I belong to company A of the Third and have stood picket a great many times with George and I say it not for display, there was not one in the Company for whom I felt a higher regard. After the terrible battle of Fair Oaks 3 of Company A were found to be missing, J. V. Smith, George and myself. We had to fight Indian fashion such was the nature of the ground, thickets, fallen timber and swampy. I think with others that he might have been carried off by the enemy (wounded) and since died or that his body was not found after we moved from Salisbury, North Carolina to Belle Isle near Richmond, Virginia some of our Regiment held prisoners there inquired of us if we knew anything about George and we made all inquiries if he was yet in the hospitals at Richmond. We should have known it by this time, hence we are driven to conclude that he has met a soldier's death. Our wounded received the best treatment the enemy could give and to my knowledge were not abused as some represent. You will pardon me for expressing my opinion as to his fate, all who knew him mourn for him and with you -- he was truthful, honorable and upright and a true-hearted soldier for such a one's sorrow is not unmixed for the dark cloud has a bright border guided by a sanctifying hope.
He closed by quoting “a poem delivered on the Fourth of July last at Salisbury prison:
“And yet amid the battles storm
Might have been an angels form
That hovered near us in the fight,
Our sun by day, our shield by night.
She soothed the dying, blessed the dead,
Thy child shall live as one of those
Who dropping, driving back the foes,
Though dead on earth, he lives to fame
And hath a never dying name.”
It was becoming apparent that George was not going to be found alive. On December 11, 1862, Henry Morse wrote again to the Millers from Washington. He was replying to an inquiry from the family regarding anything whether George had anything on his person that might identify his body.
You wanted to know what he carried in his pocket. I do not know what had had in his pocket, but this I do know, that last winter he used to save his letters till he got tired. Then he would burn them up. I think he must had something about [his] person they could have identified him by. You asked me if he ever read his bible. He always read a great deal, but I don’t know whether he read his bible or not for I did not read my own. Then he always seemed to be unconcerned about death; he appeared fearless, in fact -- he was as good a soldier as we had in our Regiment.
There was a great many so black when they were buried that they could not be recognized. They lay three days before they were buried and it was very warm weather at the time. I suppose I have done wrong in picturing to you the horrors of a battlefield for you will imagine everything about him. But what does it matter what becomes of the body when the spirit has gone to its heavenly Father and left this world of sin and sorrow? All I ask in this world is that when this body of mine is cold, my soul will be prepared to meet the being who gave it [life]. This is my mother’s prayer.
George Miller was eventually listed as killed in action on May 31, 1862, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, but his body never was found. There is a memorial to him in Bowne Township cemetery.