Ambrose David Bell was born June 6, 1837, probably in St. Lawrence County, New York, the son of David (1806-1855) and Lucy A (Blodgett, 1812-1898).
According to one source, Vermont-born David moved to Rutland, New York with his family in about 1807. In 1830 there was a David Bell living in Lyme, Jefferson County, New York. In 1840 there was a David Bell living in Massena, St. Lawrence County, New York, and one in Henderson, Jefferson County, New York. David married Massachusetts native Lucy A. (her father had settled in Jefferson County, New York when she was still a girl), and they resided in the vicinity of St. Lawrence County for some years.
In 1851 David and Lucy moved their family westward, settling first in Hillsdale County and in about 1854 in Casnovia, Muskegon County. David purchased 160 acres of land on sections 20 and 29 in Casnovia, and began to clear the property but died in February of 1855, wither in Muskegon County or in Jefferson County, New York.
By 1860 Ambrose was working as a teacher and farmer and living in Alpine, Kent County with one Francis Haynes, a machinist. By the time the war broke out he may also have been living with one Nels Cummings, possibly in Muskegon but probably in Grand Rapids, Kent County, and was probably working primarily as a teacher. It was probably while living in Alpine that he met Michigan native Laura Brewer, who would eventually become his wife.
Ambrose stood 5’11” with blue eyes, brown hair and a light complexion and was 23 years old and probably still living in Kent County when he enlisted in Company F on May 13, 1861, along with his younger brother Emer.
Ambrose was quick to write to his family how disenchanted he had become with human nature, but was buoyed by his faith in God. Sometime in the summer of 1861 he wrote one of his older brothers, Goodloe, who was also a teacher back in Michigan.
I received your letter of the 14th also Catherine’s and Nettie’s. I was so overjoyed that I could scarcely wait to read them separately. Dear Brother I see you have a disposition to rally me a little. You talk of Mounted Batteries as familiarly as though you had been to Bull Run. I was not taken by surprise knowing your disposition and being familiar with such attacks. I am pretty well prepared to meet them. I must admit however in the way of a compliment that I do decidedly admire your military style But seriously I hope the avenues leading to my heart are not so completely closed and barricaded by its love for another as not to admit the affectionate approach of a dear Brother especially when he carries a flag of truce. The subject of religion which pertains to our future happiness is a subject of vital importance to every one and never can be exhausted, never be it.
Dear Brother since I left home and have had an opportunity of witnessing the weakness and wickedness of man, the Wisdom , greatness and goodness of God has become more apparent to my mind and I am going to make a great struggle to lead a different life but it seems to be a very hard place to begin and any encouraging words from you will be appreciated. I can not write but little at a time on account of my hand trembling. I have been sick but am getting most well. It has been a lonesome time I assure you to me, and to make it still more gloomy it has rained most of the time. I found that little Bible you gave me a good companion. When I was able to read I also obtained a few good books. Then I would read your letters over. My condition while sick was made as comfortable as could be expected under the circumstances. When you spoke about good advice my conscience smote me that I never had tried to follow it better. You said you have been to Nels Cumming’s. I hope you will get my things together and take care of them. I have written a letter to Edwin and Nels both but have received no answer. They probably never received them. You write that your work drives you. I wish Emer and myself could be there to give you a boost with it. I do not understand about my school money. I thought there must certainly be $10 or $12 due after the debt for the watch was satisfied. I supposed also that I had fully settled with the McLains, John and Oliver both. I allowed John his school bill, gave Oliver an order and was to pay Elder Norton the balance due and I supposed there would be money enough coming to do it. I wish you would tell John and Oliver to make out their bills and give them to you and send me a copy. John is such an awful bungler. I am fully confident that I do not owe either of them one cent. I am real glad you got my Dulcimer though I should thought it would have tired you to death to have fetched on your shoulders You can get new strings for a dollar and then it will pay you. Job has just brought me a letter from Helen and one from Thomas Symons (sp?). You say you think you shall go to Mr. Brewer’s. There is a likeness there of myself and Emer both in one dose. I have sent Laura one from Washington and I want mother to have that one. You need not say anything about it unless she does. I will write to her about it. I suppose you have got the flute. When we go to Washington again we will try and send home some of our likenesses. Please write whether Mister Jackson paid that note or not and also how my business stands with Nelson whether my cutter has been taken care of or not, not as I can do much about these things except as they go to pay whom I owe. I think I shall be able to send home some money. I see you are as deeply interested in Education as ever. Your method of unifying those letters to make words I like first rate. I can imagine just how Eva looks when she is talking to Clare. I could not help but laugh at her skits(?). I would not take a dollar apiece for those letters.
You said you did not receive an answer to the other letter you wrote. I wrote an answer but I guess it did not go through. I prized that letter very much. I have read it over many times. It was so full of feeling and good advice that it brings the tears to my eyes every time I read it. I will try and be good. You wanted I should describe a rebel flag. I can’t very definitely. The day we had the battle they did not come out of the woods but once and then there was so much smoke and confusion we could not see anything. When the firing ceased we could see them from our lines but could not see to distinguish the Color. I looked through a glass. I could see two black stripes on a white groundwork with something black in the corner. There was another incident occurred after the battle which made me think of your dream. I will write about it in the next. I am writing this against the Doctor’s wishes and I can not write as much as I would or I would like to. I would like to be there to go with you visiting schools. I like the plan of noting the progress of each class. I am glad to hear Nettie has good luck in teaching. When I come home I’ll examine those maps you have been getting up. All I have to do now is to lie on my back and think of past present and future. [I] speculate a great deal. I know but little what’s going on outside. The boys come to see me often. Emer is here now. He is well and hearty. Tell Min if she wants to help the south she better come right off for they will need her pretty soon. There is a large cherry tree just before the hospital tent. I lay and watch that as the wind shakes the leaves and think of home and friends. Every thing sounds melancholy. The sound of the band, the wind as it sighs through the trees and even the singing of the birds has a mournful sound. This is very disconnected. I don’t know as you can make out head nor tail to [it]. I have had the fever and the headache so much that I don’t know as much as usual.. Do write often. We prize your letters above all others. That little paper you sent we read very carefully and consider it of great importance to us.
I shall always remain your affectionate Brother Ambrose
That same summer Ambrose was also taken sick, although by no means seriously, and he remained with the Regiment. On September 5, 1861, Ambrose wrote Goodhoe from Camp Arlington, Virginia, that he and his brother Emer both took the temperance pledge that summer as well.
Your letter has reached us and we have enjoyed the pleasure of reading it, though I was considerably mortified about some things in relation to my things at Nell’s and what Mrs. Scribner said in relation to my dulcimer. But to begin with what I want to thank you a thousand times in relation to the instruction and good advice given in your letter concerning a medicine and its effects on the system. I read it carefuly and am convinced of its reasonableness. I have read considerable of this theory, But always being blessed with good health thought little of it. I have recovered pretty much from the effects of the disease But as you have truly said I believe the medicine has been the greatest thing to my system and reading your letters
It has struck me in a new light and it seems just as plain as daylight. And I almost shudder to think of the thousands that are killing themselves daily by not understanding these principles. I am surprised at my own carelessness in relation to these things. But I think I have received an important lesson and I shall profit by it. There is a great many things we have to submit to that is very injurious to my health that can not well be avoided such as not getting enough sleep, irregularity of meals and other habits of life. At times we have very rigorous exercise for the body and at other times but very little to do. Emer and my self have bound ourselves not to drink anything but cold water. And we are going to be as careful of ourselves as we can. That little trunk belongs to Marcus if he wants it. I supposed he gave it to me. About the 1.75 going to Eliza Page More - I had supposed we paid. At least I gave Captain Smith credit for it. Mrs. Scribner’s bell was broken last winter and I owe her or promised to pay her $1.00 for. But I came away in such a hurry that I forgot. My cutter I consider worth $30.00 in cash. My clothes if you can get them without too much trouble do it. If you can’t, let them go. They’re not of much account. I think had 2 pair of overalls, 2 pair of pantaloons 2 vests 3 coats 1 pair of wool mittens 3 shirts. I think Laura has some of my School Books. We will send you some liknesses And you can send them to Catherine if you wish.
I sold some things to that district over there when school was over. 1 clock some curtains, wash basins, in all amounting to $5.00 and they said I should have my pay this fall if the director will know about it. I allowed John McLain his school bill. I don’t remember the amount. I think 3 or 4 dollars. I suppose this covered the whole amount. If it does not he must have charged me $3.00 for the use of his horse once. The amount going to Elder Norton is all right for Oliver and he shall have it. You need to pay John everything now, as you have the charge of my business. I wish if it is not too much trouble you would when convenient take the cutter to your house and sell it if you can. If not keep it under shelter until I come home. When I came away from the Rapids I did not take my watch for fear of losing it. I let Laura take it home. If you teach school and would like the use of it you can have it. I think I can send you some money by the way of Mr. Kendell of Grand Rapids . What I have more than I need to use, I’ll send too, for I may lose it. You can use it in canceling the debt to Velt Cummings. If you know the exact amount going to Velt I wish you would send a statement in a letter. You may think [it] strange but there has so much transpired since I have been here that I have partly forgotten about the amount that is due Velt. The amount Miss Scribner claims for is wrong. The amt. was allowed her out of what the Cop owed me for work. She asked me one day if I was going to leave my Dulcimer
I don’t remember just how I did answer her. I might have told her she could. I have received a letter from Elder Norton. It was a good kind letter. Dear Brother you wanted I should write in confidence. I feel that I could confide in you to any extent. There are two things which occupy my mind and some times I am sorely troubled about it and I wish I could see you and have a long talk with you. One thing I have resolved to try and do and that is to live as a good Christian. It seems a hard place to begin But I am disgusted with this world and its wickedness. I read my Bible and see such beauties in the Saviour’s life that I am going to try to be his follower. Sometimes it seems that I am so wicked that I never could be forgiven. But I am bound to struggle against every opposing obstacle and conquer if I can. I wish I was where you could help me. Another thing I would speak about is my love for the only one that ever had the power to awaken the flame within my breast. I have loved almost madly which was wrong. And I have thought she loved me too. It was breathed in every word of her letters at first. But lately though she continues to write as regularly as usual there is a difference in the tone or else I have changed. I will write more next time. The drum has given the call to go out on picket and I shall have to close. This is abrupt but I must go. We are in a good deal of danger now posts being the advance. Write as soon as you get time. I will write more next time.
Yours in Brotherly love
Two weeks later Ambrose wrote Goodloe,
I feel so much in debt to you for letters that I began to despair of ever discharging it. You have two ahead and one of yours is worth 2 of mine but I will write as fast as I can. That poetry was so good I can scarce express my admiration. When I read it the tears came in to Emer's eyes. I am glad we have in you a friend who can appreciate this. My last letter I had to close rather hurriedly as you perceived. I think I mentioned toward the close of my last that I thought Laura’s letters were becoming cold. I think it was nothing more than my jealous imagination. I have received one from her since. It was filled of that sentiment of kind regard and affection which can come only from the hearts that love us. She sent me some beautiful poetry which displayed a refined taste. One piece was about placing one's trust in the Savior. I think that she is a girl who is naturally possessed of fine feeling and warm sympathies and very impulsive. She has a detestation for any opera song. But being of a cheerful disposition is very fond of amusement. She is not very decided but chooses rather to lean on someone who she can trust. She is very quick to detect deception, passionately fond of poetry and music. Hers is a strange blending of qualities. But I think enough of good ones if she was rightly influenced to make all that is noble in woman. One thing is certain with all of her faults I love her passionately or may almost worship. This Dear Brother is the result of my acquaintance with Miss B. You have expressed a desire to make her acquaintance and I should be highly pleased to have you. The fates seem to be against you. I will endeavor to do all in my power to effect it. You say she seems to avoid connection? She undoubtedly feels considerable embarrassment. She has quite an exalted view of your qualities and placing a very humble estimation on her own she seems to think you will misjudge. This is all the reason that I know of. She is possessed of so much good feeling that it almost leads to rudeness. Sometimes she says she is so wild that you will think she is a perfect Barbarian. But enough of this. I suppose you worry. I should write all of the news. Sometimes I think I will sit down and write just what transpires in a day and since we have been on picket I have no doubt it would be interesting. I think then I will give a description of some of the wild and romantic places which we meet with here in Virginia. The are lots of little incidents transpiring every day of interest. Of course that must be in such a large Army as we have. I wish you could be here just a week But I suppose you are so busy keeping Bachelor Hall you could not leave. I should think you would be lonesome. You will know how to appreciate a wife when she comes back. I can imagine just how you look seated by that little pin table eating some Graham Bread of your own making. Oh how I wish I could drop in at the back door and take you by surprise, how your eyes would stick out, eh. I suppose your imagination is lively enough to picture us dressed in soldiers clothes, beards grown to a terrible length, we lay crouched behind trees watching the enemy line and in nights peering out into the darkness to catch a glimpse of any object moving or straining our ears for the slightest sound. I tell you these are long nights. The other night our post came near the mill where the Mich first had a skirmish and took 160 lbs of flour as the commerce [spoils] of the war. Eli Hamblin and Job Brewer served on the post with me. Emer had to go farther up on the line. In the morning we saw a large clear stream darting over the rocks a little ways off. Leaving our dirty friend Eli on the post, we thought we would go down and bathe. It was a wild lovely place. The huge rocks piled up on one side and the dark forest on the other while the enemy was directly in front. After bathing we rested ourselves on a rock and talked over old times. Finally we started for our post. As I stepped on to the beach I took up a hand full of sand and said I would send some of the sacred soil of Virginia home for a curiosity. Just then a ball whistled over our heads warning us of danger. We quickly repaired to our guns and looked behind the bushes for a sesesh but could not find any. Em had a brush that night on his post. He shot one sesesh but don’t know whether he killed him or not. There was six on the post. They all run except Em and two other boys. Two of them that run were sergeants and they were so scared that therefore Em had to post pickets next morning. Our officers put on considerable strength at Camp Anderson But get them out here and some of them are not worth a straw. Job makes a good soldier. A great many of the rich planters have moved into the City of Washington. Everybody expects this portion of the country where the two great Armies lay is to be the battleground. Some of them have left their furniture. The soldiers sometimes go into the houses and plunder whatever they want. It is Sunday today. I can hear in the distance the band at Fort Albay playing Old Hundred. It sounds lonesome. Tell Laura when you see her she had better get a rifle and come out here. Our boys get shots at sesesh 25 rods and don’t touch them. I suppose they are nervous. I hope you will stick to your resolve of writing as often as you can. I would like to get a letter from you every week if possible. We have just received our pay from the U.S. It amounts to 22 dollars. We can take our choice, have gold or treasury notes. I took a 10 dollar note and am going to send it to you in a letter. Write all of the news. Write all about what is going on. I had to write this lying on the ground and I don’t know as you can read it. I will try to do better next time. Write as often as you can.
And on September 28 he wrote his older brother from camp near Arlington heights,
I have received your welcome letter of the 21st and hasten to answer it. I am very glad you write and wrote as you did in relation to the matters which in brotherly love I confided in you. It has relieved my mind of a great many undefined apprehensions and given me new ideas which explain a great many things which I did not understand before. And I truly feel that I have a disintereted [impartial] friend in whom I can confide unhesitatingly. You spoke in your letter about a certain feeling of sensation in relation to matters of such a delicate nature that we feel indignant if a person approached us in a rough careless manner. But when we know we have a friend that is worthy of one’s confidence and is capable of understanding our feelings even to the finest shade and is truly a sympathizer it is a relief to unburden ourselves to such a one. And we do not feel it trespass for them to enter upon the sacred soil of our daydreams, aspirations, anticipations, and disappointments. My Dear Brother you do not know how happy I am that you understand me and can appreciate my feelings I have opened my heart to you knowing that you would not betray the confidence. And I know also if I did (open my heart) you would know better how to advise me. Therefore, I shall reserve nothing from you, my true friend. The importance of being a Christian I consider paramount to all others though I succeed poorly indeed. There is so much to vex, and try the patience, so much to annoy that I have formed such a passionate fondness for things of a worldly nature that it is almost impossible to wean myself. But I am going to study my Bible daily and keep trying. If I was living in the middle of good people their influence would weigh heavily But it is just the opposite. I believe that Laura loves me with her whole nature. But how far outside influences may yet control her I am not prepared to say. I know there is great power in the cunning Deceit of woman to injure anyone if they once undertake it and I have no doubt that I have some enemies back there who would take advantage of my absence to injure me all they could. Jealousy is one of the meanest of all passions. We all have our share though I must say that I believe some are doubly supplied. It seemed from the tone of Laura’s letters, some of them, that there was something she wished to speak about and yet durst not for fear of offending. If I could see her and have a talk I could find out all. But if I don’t lookout I shall not write any news. The day before yesterday Emer got to talking to the Bugler of our Regiment. His name is Paine. He is Chandler Bells’s wife’s brother. He was acquainted with all of our folks in NY, and while speaking of Uncle Allen’s boys he said Spencer Woodward was in the NY 25 which was stationed within about 50 rods from us. We went right over, then had no trouble finding him but he was not the Spencer of our boyhood days. He had grown to be a man and had whiskers, He looks like little Allen some. I should not know him to meet him anywhere. He said he had been in our regiment several times and had seen me but did not know who I was. We had passed each other on picket every day for weeks. We sat down in his tent and had a good long long talk. We made him commence and tell us all which had transpired since we left them which has been 11 years. In the next I will write. I shall not have time to in this. We have taken Munson’s Hill and drove the whole rebel Army towards Richmond. The Stars and Stripes float over their batteries and we hold possession of their advanced lines. Hurrah! McClellan out-generaled them. They retreated without fighting. There was not a man in our regiment hurt. I don’t believe there was 30 killed on our side. You will get it in the papers. You must write as soon as you get this, if you can read it. I don’t believe you can. I had to write in such haste. I had 23 minutes to write it in. Goodbye for this time.
On October 14, he wrote:
I imagine this is another opportunity of writing to you but you never [will guess my experience of yesterday. We have moved to a] camp down the river and had an opportunity of seeing the place where [Gen Washington lived.] I believe this hill where we are encamped is called Rosehill. It overlooks Alexandria and Washington and down in the distance the Potomac looks like a broad sheet of silver as it winds its course among the trees. I often think of our studying about it in Geography. Our Brigade in now in General Fitzgibbons’ Command. He is called a good officer. We are on night duty again. We went out for the first time day before yesterday. It was a beautiful cool day. We started about 7 o’clock then about 1 mile have camp set.
Came suddenly upon the brow of a hill which over looked on an extensive flat. And I thought how beautiful. The roads were fringed with beautiful trees and now and anon buried amid green foliage would be a noble mansion. You can form no conception without seeing it. To the left and just visible was the Potomac and Mount Vernon. The land as far as the eye could see was once Washington’s farm and part of it still belongs to the estate. All the people through here were from the north of NY and Pennsylvania and strong union. There were no marks of the devastating influences of War and the people live quietly at work putting in crops. This is decidedly the most interesting part of Virginia that I have seen. We reached our post about 11 o’clock. It was on the corners of the Algonguin and Mount Vernon roads. Here were two large oaks whose long branches crossed over nearly a quarter of an acre.
General Washington has leaned against them many times in the afternoon. We visited Mount Vernon. As we approached the place a feeling of awe seemed to be universally prevailing in our whole party. We went along the old carriage road and when we reached the river Court or garden we let down our arms and went to the grave. Everything seemed so sacred that we almost spoke in whispers. As we were going down, our guide pointed out a tree which the general had set out with his own hands. It was a magnolia tree set about 40 rods from the house. It is surrounded by monuments with inscriptions of names of the family. Washington’s coffin of white marble is just within the vault separated from the outside only. I could almost touch it with my hand. His wife’s coffin is within about 8 feet of his. I stood and gazed on the resting place of this hero a long while. While I stood the past came up before my mind and I turned and threaded my way along some of the favorite walks where Washington used to take his morning exercise. I almost expected to meet him at some corner. Everything as much as possible remains as the General left it. I went into the hall. The gentleman who stays at the house showed us into the dining room. There was the General’s pistol holsters. Washington’s harpsichord -- I touched the keys. There was only one which would sound, his surveying implements were also there. I have only commenced, and I shall close this sheet. I don’t believe you can read this. I had to write it on duty and you can judge of the confusion.
On February 8 he wrote one of his sisters,
I received your letter of the 11th and will hasten to answer it for if the reception of my letters gives you half the pleasure that it does me to receive yours I know it will be a welcome messenger. It is the custom of most letter writers to commence on the weather and end on summing up the general news giving a list of the names of all married and those who expect to be. Since the war broke out however a new topic has been furnished -- plenty of material though that is being somewhat exhausted. I shall not confine myself to either. I believe I can always find enough to write to those we love. It does me more good to get one letter from a person who I know takes an interest in my welfare and what they say comes from the heart, than it does to get 50 formal ones. The news which we get is of the most welcomed kind. Our troops are welcomed at every point and as soon as the roads get passable so that we can go to Richmond the war will close and we will come home. It is dark and gloomy today. The rain is falling making music on the shakes. It reminds me of the song “Rain on the Roof.” The distant booming of the cannon from Rebel Batteries on the Potomac makes very good artificial thunder as it is at their expense. I have spent all the forenoon in writing a piece for the Eagle or rather against a piece for the Eagle entitled the “man plan.” I expect I am taking up an arguement against the Editor. But we will not tamely submit to such abuse without resenting it. He may not publish [it]. I read the manuscript to some of the officers this forenoon. And they said if he did not publish it They would tar and feather him when they got back. Emer and myself are both well and would like to come to one of Goodloe’s geography classes. I would give my commission to see him But I will patiently wait a few weeks longer. Give my respects to all -- I will not urge you to write for I know you will as often as you can.
Remember me as your affectionate
Brother Ambrose Bell
On March 4, 1862, Ambrose was with the regiment at Camp Michigan when he wrote to his brother Goodloe.
I had begun to despair of receiving any more letters from you but I was happily transported. You can’t imagine how happy I was to get a glimpse of that familiar handwriting on an envelope once more. O how I wish I could see you my best of Brothers. I fear I never learned to appreciate you when at home. If I ever live to return I know I shall be a different Boy. There is so much I wish to say that I do not know what to say first. The whole Army of the Potomac are under marching orders and we have our things packed and only waiting for the orders forward. I hope you will hear a good report of the gallant deeds when we get into action. But I did not calculate to make this a news letter. I want to have a talk with you. I have some plans for the future and I want to confide all to you. Laura wrote me that you talked some of teaching a select school and she said she wished to attend but her father was opposed to it. She said she placed implicit confidence in me and would follow my advice in everything for she believed I loved her and advise nothing except for her interest. I believe Laura has become convinced there is something of more importance in the world than folly and if she only has a kind and guiding hand to help her more the whole future course of her life might be changed. I know of no other person in the world in whose care I would trust so delicate a duty except in yours. You must know my anxiety about her when I tell you that I love her with all the ardor of my nature. You know what kind of companions she has been surrounded with from her childhood up. . . . She is not so much to blame. She is willing to do any thing I want her to. I am convinced that all fine, high, and noble enjoyment is of an intellectual kind and if she wants to go to school I want to have her. I wrote to her that you was my confidant and advisor and I hoped you might become hers.
If you can get her confidence you will succeed and there can be no better opportunity than in the capacity of pupil and teacher. She says she is afraid of you because you are so much better and know so much more than she does and thinks of course you must dislike everybody that goes to dances but if she only would get acquainted it will be all right. I wish you should get a place for her to board. (Use your own judgment about that) furnish her with all the books she needs allow her school bill and I will pay the lot to you. Watch over her health, be particular about her physical education. When you see her, tell her she has a place to board and her school bill is paid and she will be furnished with books. I will write to her so she will understand about it. Now Goodloe I know I am asking a great thing of you, more than I shall ever be able to pay. I know I have never done anything to deserve such a favor.
For reasons that remain unclear, although possibly as a consequence of being taken ill once again, and by the middle of April of 1862, Ambrose had been detailed as a provost guard. In fact he may have been detached from the regiment even sooner.
He was at Camp Huntington, possibly on the Virginia “peninsula” when he wrote his brother on April 2.
I have written 2 or three letters which I have received no answer to but I am going to improve every opportunity to write which I have. I have just received a letter from Laura. She said Eva was quite sick. I have been concerned about her ever since. I hope she is not dangerous. Dear little Eva -- how much I would give to see her. I am very anxious to hear from you and I look every day for a letter. Write to me all about your school and other business and how your health is. I should think you would have a very pleasant school, Laura speaks very highly of it. She thinks it is the best school she ever attended. You must not work too hard. Oh how I do wish your health was good. I don’t know but I shall per chance to go to the last day. How I would like to drop in on you unawares. It would be such a pleasant surprise. But I must not be too confident of returning, You know it was natural for me to look on the bright side. Now Good, if you think of anything that I don’t (do) right about you must talk to me about it without fear of hurting my feelings. I know that you are a true friend and will not advise against my interest. There is some talk about our getting our pay in a few days. I shall send my money by express this time.
I am going to be very serious hereafter. I am always making resolutions but I am going to live up to this one. I wish you could be here just one day to see our army before it moves. You can form but a poor idea without seeing it of the amount of Artillery. You will pass battery after battery. There seems to be no end to it. Yesterday I went through the ruins of Hampton. It makes me think of pictures I have seen. Here in the ruins is the oldest church in America. The bricks were brought from England. It was built after the old style and very solid since the walls were quite perfect yet. I cut a splinter off the cornice which I will send to you. There is a black marble slab over a grave of an English woman who was buried in 1701. I found a little piece broken off which I will send. I like to wander amid the ruins. They call up so many thoughts but I must give give my respects to all of the scholars. Write as soon as you get this. Don’t forget now for I am anxious to hear from you.
Remember me as your affectionate Brother
Two weeks later, on April 16, he wrote Goodloe from Yorktown.
I have received your kind letter of the 3rd. It seemed almost like a visit of a friend. It is the only letter I have received from you in a long while. Oh how I wish I could see you if it were only for an hour. Dear Brother, I think I fully appreciate your feelings and if I were near to sympathize and pour out in confidence my own feelings to one I know could understand me. It would be a sweet privilege. I often think shall we ever be permitted to meet again? There is so much I would like to say. When I think how often I have slighted your good advice and disregarded your Brotherly Councils (sic) my heart is too full for utterance. I feel that I could fall on my knees and ask your forgiveness. But let the past be the past. The future is yet before me and though not very bright at present I think the dark clouds have already commenced breaking away. We are now at York Town where the last battle of the revolution was fought and who knows but it may be the last battle field of the rebellion
If it is we shall soon be home. I have been detailed by the General from our regiment as
Provost Guard and am staying at present at Mr. Moreland’s. He has quite a pleasant family. Since I have been here I have seen McClellan often. He spoke to me once which you know is considered quite an honor with us soldiers. I think he is a man which will prove equal to the occasion. God grant he may. I think we shall have a long siege here. The place is strongly fortified and the enemy have concentrated their forces at this point.
Excuse Me if I do not write much for I am so hurried that I can’t even write intelligible. I have been unwell for several days but am much better. My hand is not very steady. The artillery in booming away on the right making the house tremble to its foundation. Emer is well. Write soon. I must close. Goodbye.
Your affectionate Brother
Excuse this apology for a letter. It is the best I can do.
By May of 1862 Ambrose was a nurse in the hospital at Newport News, Virginia, and on detached service in August. Apparently he had in fact been struck down with the fever, and by mid-summer was still recovering his strength. He wrote to his brother Goodloe from Newport News, Virginia, on July 12.
Emer sent from the Regiment 2 letters from you which were written to me. They are the first I have received in a long time. I am sorry that I have not received all you have written. I prize them so very highly. When I open the desk and my eye rests on that familiar handwriting I can almost imagine you are going to speak to me. I cherish your letters so fondly that when I do not receive any I read over the old ones. Emer writes that he lost about a dozen letters in the last engagement which were written to me by you and Laura. I am very sorry that I could not have read them. But I thank kind providence that his life was spared. I feared almost to look in the papers for fear I should see his name among the killed or wounded. But he writes that he has escaped without the slightest injury. To relieve your anxiety in relation to myself I am happy to say that I am quite smart and have a good appetite. I fear however that this last run of the fever in connection with the Doctor’s medicine has ruined my constitution. I can not make any exertion without being completely exhausted. I would give $500 if I was as robust as when I left home. I don’t think I shall get tough while I remain here. This Southern climate does not seem to agree with me, though they say this is the healthiest place in Virginia. I am much more contented than when I wrote you last. I applied once to go to my Regiment But the Doctor would not listen to it. I now have charge of the Commissary department 2nd Division and am acting as commissary sergeant. I get $21 per month. I have two Negroes to do all of the heavy work. All I have to do is to take charge. I have an office by myself and live first rate.. I have a set of china dishes and a linen table cloth. They were given to me by one of the boys who was going home. They are secesh so of course I shall consider them borrowed until after the war. [The doctor said the Reason he gave me the situation was because I did not drink whiskey. So much for temperance.] I have besides a library belonging to some Southern gentleman who has gone to the war. General Burnsides’ troops have arrived here and encamped back of the village. The General is a fine-looking man. His fleet lies in the River opposite this place. General Reno and staff have taken quarters next door to us. I got a job of General Dix last Monday, went up to Yorktown, had a pleasant trip up the bay. I visited our old campground and fortifications. Everything was deserted and lonely. I wish you could have been with me.
There was two men here yesterday from Michigan to look after the sick and the wounded. They made a great many inquiries about our sickness and treatment. They seem to be the right kind of men for the business. About my coming home I should like to come very much but I suppose they will keep me here. One thing is certain I shall never be able to do any heavy duty any more. It seems just as though I should get well if I should go home. I try to live according to the rules of health but it doesn’t seem to do any good. I go to bed at 9, get up precisely at 5, take a salt water bath in the James R., Breakfast at 6, dinner at 1, supper 6. I take a walk night and morning to a farm house after milk. I spend the most of the day in my office Reading after I make my reports. Now, Good, I wish you was here to stay with me. I have not got anyone to tell my thoughts to. No one congenial to sit down and have a good talk with. I get lonesome. I am not going to give up trying to get a furlough yet. There’s lots gone home to recruit who are much better than I am. Things are so unequal here perhaps I may accomplish some thing through the influence of the men from Michigan. If I can’t get home you must come out here and see me. It won’t cost over $25 to come here and I can let you have plenty of money to return as soon as I get my pay and more, too. Emer has sent me $5, as from the Regiment I have over 5 months pay coming to me and I shan’t want to use much of it. I suppose I shall have to close. I have not wrote half what I wanted to and what I have is so disconnected that I don’t believe you can read it. I have been interrupted so many times. A Negro will come along - - “”Massa haven’t you got some old pair to give a poor mortal.” Another by the time he is gone will want to know if you don’t want your boots blackened. Newport News is alive with them that have fled here for safety. Poor things. I suppose they want to show their gratitude some way. It is ‘most time for church and I shall have to get ready. I read a chapter in the little Bible you gave me night and morning. Oh, I do wish I could have a chance to talk with you. Writing is so slow. I suppose it will 30 days, long days, before I get an answer from you I have not received but one letter from Laura since I have been sick. I think the most direct way -- you must direct to Brigade Hospital, Newport News, VA. Don’t put on the Company or Regiment. If you do it will go wrong. The next time I write I will give you a description of Newport News. Give my love to Catherine. Ask her to write. Tell Laura I am going to write her soon. I remain your affectionate Brother
By the end of the year he even offered to try and get Goodloe a job as a “government clerk aboard the steamer City of Hudson.” On December 7, 1862, he wrote from Craney Island, Virginia,
Dear Brother Goodloe
I have just received an answer to mine of the 9th. I will start still another. It seems from your letter that even the elements are working against me. I am feeling much better today than usual. I have just returned from Fort Monroe via of Norfolk and feel somewhat fatigued but I have made a firm resolve never to delay again unless sickness prevents. I believe it is generally the case that when we have so much we wish to write we never write much of anything. I was much interested in what you said about your school and could not help noticing Mr. Wells name mixed up in your affairs again. You remember you did not say what the plot was which Julie revealed. I would like to know what it was. Now about coming down here you must come. I want to see you very much and this will be the only chance I shall have until after the war if I ever live to see that time. I will try to get you a place as government clerk aboard the steamer City of Hudson. The pay is $70.00 per month. I shall do all I can with influence of those I am acquainted with to obtain this. General Dix has shown me some favor that is through the influence of others and I think he will accept any one on the recommendation of Doctor Brown. If you do come down don’t forget and fetch Emer’s likeness with you. I will let you know about a place next letter. I will also send the money as soon as you determine on coming. I have just sent $200 to Baltimore for goods but I have still enough left. I wish Laura could come down with you. I suppose that would be impossible. Please let me know in your next. I have got money enough for both of you. I am afraid if I don’t see her down here I shall never see her. You could at least make me a good visit and then return. Money would be nothing in comparison with seeing you. I would give all I’m worth and what I could earn for the next 10 years, Goodloe. It would seem like the realization of a fond dream could I see you and Laura both. It seems I should be willing to die contented could this boon be granted to me.
Craney Island is now a Countraband Depot. The President has just sent two men down here to see about colonizing them and then will be tried the great experiment of what the Colored People are to be and what position they are to occupy in society hereafter. There are a large number here already and more coming every day, I have got to go up to the Dismal Swamp Springs for juniper water and the boat is waiting for me. I will write again as soon as I know what I can do for you. Until then I bid you good-bye hoping we shall soon meet.
Your affectionate Brother
PS Give my love to Catherine, Claire and Eva Annette Laura and all the rest. Tell Kate I will write to her tomorrow.
Ambrose allegedly deserted at Upton’s Hill, Virginia, probably in late September of 1862, but was restored to the rolls on March 23, 1863, at Camp Sickles, Virginia. In fact, it appears likely that he was still on detached service serving with the Commissary at the time. (There was great confusion during this period in the record-keeping of the Third Michigan Infantry and several dozen men were mistakenly reported as deserters on September 22, 1861 at Upton Hill, Virginia.)
By April he was reported on detached service guarding “contrabands” (runaway slaves) at Newport News, although he had in fact been serving at Craney Island Contraband Depot since late in 1862. Indeed, even as early as mid-summer of 1862 he had written home how he pitied the poor runaway slaves, the “contraband,” who flooded into the Union camps. He told Goodloe on July 12 that “A Negro will come along - - ‘Massa haven’t you got some old pair to give a poor mortal.’ Another by the time he is gone will want to know if you don’t want your boots blackened. Newport News is alive with them that have fled here for safety. Poor things. I suppose they want to show their gratitude some way.”
In fact, on December 7, 1862, Ambrose wrote Goodloe that “Craney Island is now a Countraband Depot. The President has just sent two men down here to see about colonizing them and then will be tried the great experiment of what the Colored People are to be and what position they are to occupy in society hereafter. There are a large number here already and more coming every day, . . .”
In mid-February of 1863, Ambrose wrote home that “ just as comfortable as heart could wish. I do not have any laborious work to do. When I come home at night I find the evening paper laying on the stand ready for my perusal. The first thing however which attracts my attention is a nice warm supper which Castor (my colored cook) never forgets to have ready. I have two flutes, a violin, and a clarinet and lots of sheet music. I go to bed at 9, get up when I get enough. I bathe 2 times per week and have my meals regular. I am very careful not to eat too much and avoid grease of all kinds. I try to keep a cheerful heart and clear head. (With the help of a fine comb) And above all things a clear conscience.” He added that he lacked “but two things to make me happy. That is a wife and religion. I do not use the word religion in this connection to make light of it. Far from it. I speak candidly.”
Ambrose was, he wrote home in early September of 1861, troubled by only two things.
One concerned his religious faith. He stated flatly that he was “resolved to try and do and that is to live as a good Christian. It seems a hard place to begin But I am disgusted with this world and its wickedness. I read my Bible and see such beauties in the Saviour’s life that I am going to try to be his follower. Sometimes it seems that I am so wicked that I never could be forgiven. But I am bound to struggle against every opposing obstacle and conquer if I can.” He added to his brother Goodloe, “I wish I was where you could help me.” And in late September her wrote Goodloe, “ The importance of being a Christian I consider paramount to all others though I succeed poorly indeed. There is so much to vex, and try the patience, so much to annoy that I have formed such a passionate fondness for things of a worldly nature that it is almost impossible to wean myself. But I am going to study my Bible daily and keep trying. If I was living in the middle of good people their influence would weigh heavily But it is just the opposite.”
The other thing which sorely bothered him was his “love for the only one that ever had the power to awaken the flame within my breast. I have loved almost madly which was wrong. And I have thought she loved me too. It was breathed in every word of her letters at first. But lately though she continues to write as regularly as usual there is a difference in the tone or else I have changed.”
He was deeply in love with Michigan native Laura Eliza Brewer (b. 1843 in Alpine, Kent County), sister of Job Brewer who was also serving in Company F and who was a friend of the Bells.
Ambrose expressed his deepest feeling for Laura in his letters to his brother, whom he held in high esteem and whose opinion he obviously valued. On September 19, Ambrose wrote of Laura, that he thought her recent letters “were becoming cold”.
I think it was nothing more than my jealous imagination. I have received one from her since. It was filled of that sentiment of kind regard and affection which can come only from the hearts that love us. She sent me some beautiful poetry which displayed a refined taste. One piece was about placing one's trust in the Savior. I think that she is a girl who is naturally possessed of fine feeling and warm sympathies and very impulsive. She has a detestation for any opera song. But being of a cheerful disposition is very fond of amusement. She is not very decided but chooses rather to lean on someone who she can trust. She is very quick to detect deception, passionately fond of poetry and music. Hers is a strange blending of qualities. But I think enough of good ones if she was rightly influenced to make all that is noble in woman. One thing is certain with all of her faults I love her passionately or may almost worship. This Dear Brother is the result of my acquaintance with Miss B. You have expressed a desire to make her acquaintance and I should be highly pleased to have you. The fates seem to be against you. I will endeavor to do all in my power to effect it. You say she seems to avoid connection? She undoubtedly feels considerable embarrassment. She has quite an exalted view of your qualities and placing a very humble estimation on her own she seems to think you will misjudge. This is all the reason that I know of. She is possessed of so much good feeling that it almost leads to rudeness.
And by the end of September, 1861, Ambrose was convinced that Laura loved him “with her whole nature. But how far outside influences may yet control her I am not prepared to say. I know there is great power in the cunning Deceit of woman to injure anyone if they once undertake it and I have no doubt that I have some enemies back there who would take advantage of my absence to injure me all they could. Jealousy is one of the meanest of all passions. We all have our share though I must say that I believe some are doubly supplied. It seemed from the tone of Laura’s letters, some of them, that there was something she wished to speak about and yet durst not for fear of offending. If I could see her and have a talk I could find out all.”
Ambrose could not get Laura out of his mind. In March of 1862 he wrote home to Goodloe that he had “plans for the future” and wanted to confide in his brother.
Laura wrote me that you talked some of teaching a select school and she said she wished to attend but her father was opposed to it. She said she placed implicit confidence in me and would follow my advice in everything for she believed I loved her and advise nothing except for her interest. I believe Laura has become convinced there is something of more importance in the world than folly and if she only has a kind and guiding hand to help her more the whole future course of her life might be changed. I know of no other person in the world in whose care I would trust so delicate a duty except in yours. You must know my anxiety about her when I tell you that I love her with all the ardor of my nature. You know what kind of companions she has been surrounded with from her childhood up . . . . She is not so much to blame. She is willing to do any thing I want her to. I am convinced that all fine, high, and noble enjoyment is of an intellectual kind and if she wants to go to school I want to have her. I wrote to her that you was my confidant and advisor and I hoped you might become hers.
If you can get her confidence you will succeed and there can be no better opportunity than in the capacity of pupil and teacher. She says she is afraid of you because you are so much better and know so much more than she does and thinks of course you must dislike everybody that goes to dances but if she only would get acquainted it will be all right. I wish you should get a place for her to board. (Use your own judgment about that) furnish her with all the books she needs allow her school bill and I will pay the lot to you. Watch over her health, be particular about her physical education. When you see her, tell her she has a place to board and her school bill is paid and she will be furnished with books.
Sometime in early March of 1863, Laura came to Norfolk, Virginia where Ambrose was stationed on detached service, and they were married on March 6, 1863, at the Hotel Norfolk in Norfolk, the Rev. Knapp, chaplain of the Seventeenth Iowa infantry performing the ceremony. (Another member of the Old Third and a good friend, Charles Miller, was a witness.) They had at least six children: twins Emer (1866-1946, and probably named after Ambrose’s brother who died in the war) and Emma (b. 1866), Byron L. (b. 1868), Anna (between 1870 and 1872), Jennie (b. 1871) and David Arthur (b. 1873).
In the spring of 1863 Ambrose reported home that there were about 40,000 contrabands already at Newport News. “We are going to take up three thousand acres of land on the banks of the Elizabeth and James Rivers for the contrabands. It is land which formerly belonged to rebels who are in the army. It is beautiful land and pleasantly situated. Most every plantation has an elegant Mansion on it. Yesterday I brought up 30 horses and carts on the City of Hudson for the farms. There are about 200 ploughs coming and more horses. We have taken up 5 farms already and have been to see two others.”
Ambrose had been to Baltimore on a recent visit and “Had a very pleasant time. Went up the bay by moonlight. I wish you could have been along. We had such nice music.”
On April 29, 1863, Bell’s immediate superior Captain James Curry wrote to Chaplain James Ferre (or Ferree) in charge of the contraband department in Washington, praising Bell’s past work at Fort Monroe, Virginia. According to Curry, Bell had been assigned to the contraband department sometime in August or September of 1862 and in the spring of 1863 was apparently going to be transferred. Bell “has been assiduous in the performance of the peculiar and often thankless duties assigned to him” and that he “is well adapted for taking charge of contrabands -- faithful and zealous -- and has their welfare at heart. If it is practicable for you to have him assigned to a contraband depot wherein his services can be seen -- you will confer a favor on the writer, and the recipient of your kindness -- will I am certain -- be ever grateful.”
However, Bell was again reported by the Regiment as having allegedly deserted (again) on May 1 at Washington, DC. According to Chaplain James Ferre, Bell had in fact been working for the contraband department. Ferre, writing to the United States Quartermaster General on May 26, 1863, said that Bell “went into the US general hospital at Newport News Va during last August  and remained there until the November following when he was . . . detailed by order of Gen Dix to assist Dr. Brown in the care of contrabands at Portsmouth, Va. where he acted as Commissary Sergeant until some time in the present month [May].” On May 11, Ferre added, Bell “was ordered to rejoin his Regiment,” but upon “his arrival there he called upon me and presented me with accompanying letter from Captain Curry,” who was Commissary of Subsistence.
Ferre then proceeded to describe that he had applied to Major General Hitchcock to keep Bell as an assistant, but he had just received word that day from the commanding officer of the Third Michigan that Bell was a deserter “and ordering me to arrest him.” He then arrested Bell who was “now confined to the limits of the camp where he will await the decision of the authorities in his case. From the date of my application for his detail until today he has been assiduously and with remarkable efficiency assisting me in the various and numerous duties of this camp and if he can be ordered from arrest placed on duty again would be of very good use in . . . this capacity far more than as a private in the field.”
He added that “I assure you he is not a deserter in intention. That his delay here was upon the suggestion of Captains Curry & Wilder and myself, which suggestions were based upon the conviction that he was unfit for field duty and that he was peculiarly well qualified to assist in the management of the contrabands. His great desire seems to be to be where he can be of the most use to his Govt. . . . Thus far his deportment has been that of a perfect gentleman, a faithful agent and an uncommonly efficient businessman. I have seen nothing about him that indicated any desire whatsoever to shirk any duty or any responsibility, but in all things he seems exactly the opposite.”
Bell was restored to the company rolls on August 5 at Sulphur Springs, Virginia, but Ferre wrote on August 18 that Bell was sick and unable to join his Regiment and that there had been no word from the Third Regiment regarding Bell’s future. Bell was reported as having deserted a third time, on September 9 at Culpeper, Virginia, and in fact had been confined to the military prison in Washington on September 28, 1863 charged with black marketeering.
On Monday, October 26, 1863, Ambrose was court martialed at Washington, DC, for black marketeering. Specifically, he was charged with “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline,” in that “the said Ambrose D. Bell, Private in Co. C, Third Mich. Vols, did, at some time, date unknown, during the month of July 1863, abstract from the Commissary Store rooms of the Contraband Camp, Washington, DC, the following property of the United States. To wit, One (1) barrel of rice, one (1) box of candles, and parts of two (2) bags of coffee, and did transfer and sell, the aforementioned articles, to one B. S. Jackson of the firm of Jackson Bros & Co., No. 333 Penn. Avenue, receiving therefrom, a certain unknown sum of money, which he appropriated to his own use.”
Bell pled not guilty to both charge and specification. When the trial commenced the first to be called to testify was Joseph B. Holt, a witness for the prosecution.
Question: What is your name, and what position do you hold?
Answer: Joseph B. Holt. Assistant Superintendent of the Contraband Camp, Wash., DC.
Question: Do you know anything in relation to Private Ambrose D. Bell?
Answer: I know the man; he was assisting as Assistant Superintendent in the Contraband Camp in June, when I first went there.
Question: Do you know anything in relation to a theft, said to have been committed by the said Ambrose D. Bell?
Answer: I know not personally as to his taking the things. I would state, that there was a great complaint made by the contrabands of receiving short rations and such. Private Bell had charge of the Commissary Department at that time. Captain Fure [sic], Commander of the camp, and myself could not decide what caused the deficiency of the articles. In the latter part of July or the first of August the driver informed us --
OBJECTION - Court cleared except for the members of the Court and the Judge Advocate. The objection was not sustained; evidence received as incidentally connected with subsequent testimony. Prisoner, Counsel and witness were recalled.
Answer: The driver informed us that he had taken three loads of stuff from the camp, by order of Private Bell, assisted by two other contrabands. We questioned the others, and found that they had assisted the driver of the cart. The driver told us to whom he had delivered them. I took him with me one day to show me the place. He took me directly to Mr. Jackson’s store 333 Pennsylvania avenue. Mr. Jackson admitted that he had received stores of that kind after dark. When Private Bell came to me to get a recommendation to go before the board to be examined, he admitted the charges and gave as an excuse “that a young man at Finley hospital had told him they did so there”. As soon as the charges had been preferred against him, the Commissary was placed in my charge [and] I found a deficiency in certain articles.
Question by Court: what charges do you refer to when you say that the prisoner “admitted the charges”?
Answer: In regard to taking these commissary stores.
Question by the Court: About what time was it, that this admission of the accused was made to you?
Answer: It was the 25th of August.
Question by the Court: About what time was this discover made that commissary stores had been sold to Mr. Jackson?
Answer: The 24th of August.
Question by the Court: What induced the accused to admit to you that he had taken these goods and sold them?
Answer: When Private Bell came to me to get a recommendation to go before the board to be examined, I told him, that since we had found out that he had taken the goods, I could not give any such recommendation.
Question by the Court: Was there anything said on your part to lead or tendency to lead the accused to believe that an admission on his part would be to his advantage?
Answer: There was not.
Question by the Court: Was there anything said, by which it would appear, that the accused understood that he might commit himself by such admission?
Answer: No sir, nothing said in relation to the matter.
Question: Was accused arrested at your instance, if so when?
Answer: He was not. I cannot state the time when he was arrested.
Question: Were you in charge of the Commissary Stores at the time the alleged embezzlement was committed?
Answer: I was not.
Question: Upon receiving information of the probably guilt of accused, why did not you arrest him?
Answer: It was not my business to do so.
Question: In the confession of the accused to which you allude, did he enumerate the articles alleged to have made away with, if so, name the article he confessed to have taken.
Answer: I do not think the articles were mentioned. He first mentioned those he had taken from the commissary, and sold to Mr. Jackson.
Question: Have you ever said to accused, or his friends, that if accused would go back to his Regiment the charges would not be preferred, or withdrawn or anything of that kind?
Answer: I told him, I think, at that time, if he would settle up, pay for that was taken from the Commissary, and go back to his Regiment, that if we could, consistently, refrain from preferring the charges, we would do so.
Question: Was this consideration had at the time of the confession of which you speak?
Answer: I think it was.
Question: Have you tried to induce the accused to resign his appointment he holds from the President of the United States, by offering to interfere in his behalf on this present trial?
Answer: I told some of his friends, that if the charges could be withdrawn the ends of justice satisfied, to resign all claim to a command in the Regiment, settle everything at the camp and return to his Regiment, I would be willing to have him do so.
Question: To what Regiment do you refer when you say if the prisoner would resign in the Regiment?
Answer: the Second Regiment Colored Troops.
Question: Why did you wish him to resign his appointment?
Answer: Because I told him in my first conversation with him, that he would be under ten times the temptation then, than that he was in the position that he accepted at the time, and also that it would be unjust to those placed under his command.
Jerry Gorden, Colored, a witness for the prosecution, was duly sworn, and testified as follows:
Question by Judge Advocate: What is your name, and what do you do?
Answer: Jerry Gordon, do nothing now, have been sick for some time.
Question: Where do you live?
Answer: At the Contraband camp.
Question: Did you ever drive a cart for the Commissary Department of the contraband camp?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question: Were you driving there in the month of July?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question: Did you know Private Ambrose D. Bell of the Third Mich Vols, who was assisting as Commissary there?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question: Did you ever haul away goods from the camp, by order of Private Bell?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question: Where did you haul them to?
Answer: I hauled three loads into Penn. ave.
Question: Where at, and who to?
Answer: Don't know the man's name, it was in Penn. avenue, third down below 7th Street.
Question: Do you know what you took them there for?
Answer: I don't know, I asked a young fellow and he told me, and he said for the harvest.
Question: What do you mean by “harvest”?
Answer: I thought it was for cutting wheat or mowing meadow, that's what we call “harvest”.
Question: What kind of goods did you haul there?
Answer: I recollect one barrel of rice the last load, some rice and some coffee on the second load, I don't know what the other load was, nor what was in the box neither, I think it was corn or oats in the first load, I'm most certain.
Question: Did you go with Mr. Holt, to show him where you had taken these goods?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question: Did Private Bell ever tell you what you took these goods there for?
Answer: No sir, he told me to keep it dark, that it was not any of my business.
Question by the Court: Was the place you took these goods a store?
Answer: Yes sir.
Question by the Court: Who told you to take the Commissary Stores to the store on Penn. avenue?
Answer: Mr. Bell told me what place to go to.
Question by the Court: Did any person go with you, from the contraband camp, to the store where you left the commissary stores, when you took anyone of the three loads; if so, who?
Answer: On the first load Mr. Bell and another young man, went with me, the very first load; the second load a young fellow by the name of George Ransom, a colored man, he went with the second and third time.
Question by the Judge Advocate: Did Private Ambrose D. Bell pay you anything for taking these three loads; and if so how much?
Answer: Yes sir, he gave me a dollar for the first three loads, and promised me a pair of shoes.
Question: What time, and about what date, did you take these stores, to the store in Penn. avenue?
Answer: It was in July, I do not know what time, it was done in three weeks’ time, right straight after one another.
Following testimony, Bell wrote in his own defense a lengthy letter to the Court explaining his side of the case.
Believing that in judging of an action [he wrote] the motive that produced it should first be taken into consideration -- I proceed to make the following statement. I have been in the service of the United States government for nearly two years and a half, and during that time, I have endeavored to discharge faithfully the duties of a soldier. The period of one year I spent in the field, in the Third army Corps, under the command of Major General Kearney [sic]. And I have no doubt that if you would make inquiries, you would find that during the time I was with that army corps (which was then on the Peninsula) the record of my conduct was unexceptionable. Having been taken sick, I was sent to Newport News. When I became convalescent, I was detailed by Gen. Dix to serve under Dr. Brown, who had charge of the Contraband Department. I soon became aware that it was the general custom to sell any surplus rations that might be on hand. -- and having done so at a fair market price, I understood that the proceeds were to be appropriated to the use of the contrabands -- and that the manner of doing so was left to the discretion of the party in charge. When I commenced duty in the contraband camp at Wash., DC it was under the command of Capt. [Chaplain] Furee [Ferree]. I had been under the immediate supervision of Mr. Nichols -- whom I succeeded. I immediately commenced my duties and worked diligently, improving both the camp and the contrabands. The officer in command expressed himself satisfied with the manner in which I exerted myself. -- I found in the commissary a small quantity of surplus provisions namely 1 bbl rice, a small quantity of coffee, 1 box of very inferior candles, and a few split peas. There was also about fifty (50) cans of extract of coffee -- which I distributed instead of other coffee -- I had inquired of my predecessor the manner of feeding the contrabands, and was informed they were fed by families. I did not change the method, but I increased the quantity; thereby diminishing the surplus. Under such treatment I soon had the satisfaction of hearing from the colored people, that they were fed better than they had been before. -- I asked my assistant what disposition had formerly been made of the surplus rations and from him I first learned that they were usually sold. I then spoke to Capt. [Chaplain] Furee [Ferree] about the matter. He said that he was ‘trying to get a communication -- but -- if I do not succeed I think it would right to sell them’.
Gentlemen, you can now see the whole substance of Mr. Holt's charges -- I do not know whether it would be proper in this statement to revert to that gentleman's motives. For my part, I can conceive none, unless, it be that Mr. Holt chaffed that I should perform for privates pay thirteen ($13 dollars) per month, duties for which he received seventy five ($75.00). 00 I will now close by reciting the substance of a conversation I had with Mr. Holt at the contraband camp, about one month before I was placed under arrest; and when it was first understood that I was to receive a lieutenancy. Mr. Holt wished to know if I were going to return to my Regiment. I told him ‘no’, that I had intended to try for a commission. He then told me that he did not think that Capt. [Chaplain] Furee [Ferree] would not recommend me, and that if I persevered he would prefer charges against me. I then told him, that I had acted in good faith and would risk the result.
He then changed his plea from not guilty to specification and charge to a guilty plea to both.
On October 28 Bell’s counsel, T. H. Ford, wrote to the Court and stated that he regretted “to say that of the guilt of my client there is not reasonable doubt” but he thought the facts “and curious times” would mitigate the offense. Further, he felt compelled to turn his “client over to your mercy, knowing full well that everything will be done that can be consistent with your important duties, to soften the rigor of the law to a repentant man.”
He was nevertheless found guilty on both charge and specification and sentenced “To forfeit all pay and emoluments now due him; and, that may become due to November 1st, 1863, and to forfeit ten (10) dollars of his monthly pay, hereafter, for six months, and to be returned to his Regiment for duty.”
Ambrose was released from military prison on November 12 and restored to the company rolls by order of the War Department on November 22. Curiously, Ferre recommended Bell for an appointment to the United States Colored Troops, and on November 12, the same day he was ordered released from prison he was recognized as having recently been so appointed. That appointment, however, was revoked the very next day, on November 13, 1863, under Special Orders No. 504, War Department, which further ordered Bell to rejoin his Regiment at once or be considered a deserter.
He did rejoin the Third Michigan and in fact he reenlisted on December 23, 1863, at Brandy Station, Virginia, crediting Lowell, Kent County. Ambrose was presumably absent on veteran’s furlough for 30 days in January of 1864, and if so probably returned to the Regiment on or about the first of February. (Interestingly, there was one “A. Bell” who was serving as a guard at Camp Lee in Grand Rapids in mid-February of 1864.)
According to his service record he was apparently detached to the Division hospital on May 25, 1864, and in fact would probably remained on detached service until he was mustered out of service. Bell was subsequently transferred to Company F, Fifth Michigan infantry upon consolidation of the Third and Fifth Michigan Regiments on June 10, 1864, and the same month he was reported absent sick and on detached service in Division hospital. (He may have briefly been a prisoner-of-war in July.) He may in fact have returned to Michigan to recover his health.
C. W. Foster, the assistant Adjutant General of volunteers, informed Michigan Governor Austin Blair on July 2, 1864 that the Secretary of War wished to inform the governor “that the disability in the case of Private Ambrose D. Bell . . . has been removed, and that no objection now exists to his being commissioned by you in any Michigan [colored] Regiment.” For whatever reasons, however, Bell was never commissioned, and he was reported as a nurse in Division hospital where he remained through March of 1865.
Ambrose was possibly living in Grand Rapids in mid-March and reported as having returned to the Fifth Michigan on April 15, 1865, but was also reported in May as still serving as a nurse in a hospital. Either way, he was mustered out on July 5, 1865 at Jeffersonville, Indiana.
It is likely that Ambrose returned to Michigan where he lived for many years after the war. (His mother or stepmother remarried in 1869 to one John Brown.) He and his wife were probably living in Casnovia, Muskegon County, in the summer of 1868 (when Byron was born and in 1870 they were living in Casnovia next door to John and Lucy Brown. By 1873 Ambrose had moved to Big Rapids, Mecosta County (where David A. was born). By 1880 Ambrose was working as a farmer and living with his wife and children in West Branch Township, Missaukee County.
In late April or early May of 1883 he was living in Star City, Missaukee County when he was arrested for trespassing on government lands in Missaukee County, but was acquitted on May 4. “The jurors”, reported the Grand Rapids Eagle of May 5, “came to the conclusion that the complaint was made by persons who were inclined to malice against Bell.”
He was still living in Star City in 1885 and in 1890 he was living next door to Charles Miller, also formerly of Company F. However, that same year he was also reported as living at 212 N. Division in Grand Rapids. He also lived for a short time in Spring Lake, Ottawa County and probably in Muskegon and Mecosta counties. Ambrose and Laura were divorced in 1890, due, according to Charles Miller and his wife Annette, to “the unsettled, irrational state of [Ambrose’s] mind.”
Shortly afterwards Ambrose may have moved to the southern part of the United States, and was possibly living in Alabama or Mississippi when he married Jessie V. Middleton (b. 1839), on January 6, 1892, at Mobile, Alabama; they had at least one child, a son Harleston Middleton (b. 1893). They too, were subsequently divorced. Sometime in the early 1890s Ambrose, along with two another brother Chauncey were reportedly living in Mississippi.
He was a member of the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association, and in 1890 he applied for and received pension no. 733521, drawing $6.00 per month by 1902.
Ambrose eventually returned to northern Michigan, probably to Missaukee County (his sister Annette was living there in the early 1890s) and for reasons unknown was committed to the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City, Grand Traverse County, where he died on July 30, 1902. His remains were returned to his family home in Missaukee County and he was buried in Star City cemetery (as is his son Emer).
His widow was living in Star City when she applied for a pension in 1904; she was still living there in 1916.
Emer A. Bell was born 1841 in New York, son of David (1806-1855) and Lucy A. (Blodgett, 1812-1898).
According to one source, Vermont-born David moved to Rutland, New York with his family in about 1807. In 1830 there was a David Bell living in Lyme, Jefferson County, New York. In 1840 there was a David Bell living in Massena, St. Lawrence County, New York, and one in Henderson, Jefferson County, New York. David married Massachusetts native Lucy A. (he father had settled in Jefferson County, New York when she was still a girl), and they resided in the vicinity of St. Lawrence County for some years.
In 1851 David and Lucy moved their family westward, settling first in Hillsdale County and in about 1854 in Casnovia, Muskegon County. David purchased 160 acres of land on sections 20 and 29 in Casnovia, and began to clear the property but died in February of 1855, either in Muskegon County or in Jefferson County, New York.
By 1860 Emer was a farm laborer living with and/or working for the Edwin Cummings family in Sparta, Kent County.
Emer was 20 years old and living in Alpine, Kent County when enlisted in Company F on May 13, 1861, along with his older brother Ambrose. Emer was killed in action on August 29, 1862, at Second Bull Run, and probably buried among the unknown soldiers whose remains were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery, although there is a memorial to him in Bell cemetery, Casnovia Township, Muskegon County.
In 1891 his mother (or stepmother) remarried one John Brown in 1869, and was residing in Mill Creek, Kent County, when she applied for a dependent mother’s pension no. 320,503.