Monday, November 28, 2011

The Civil War Diaries of George Rolfe, 134th New York

Flag of the 134th New York Volunteers, the regiment in which George Rolfe served.
Photograph from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

On June 1, 1864, Private George Rolfe of the 134th New York Infantry was sent along with other injured men to Chattanooga, while others in the 134th moved onward through Georgia. "Huddled thick together all day on box and platform cars, draw no rations and arrive in Chattanooga 11:00 p.m.," Rolfe writes in his diary. "Left on cars all night nothing to eat, no one to care for wounded. Two trains loaded in same condition. Some died on the cars." Rolfe had been wounded during a battle near Dallas, Georgia. He was shot in the thigh, "hit by spent ball on right thigh bruised and stiff but not cut."

George Rolfe was born in Kent, England, to Alfred and Ann Rolfe. The family moved to the United States in the 1840s, and George eventually settled in Schenectady, where he married Mary Penny in 1855 and became a naturalized citizen in 1859. In the 1860-1861 Schenectady city directory, he is listed as living at 24 Lafayette Street and working as a machinist. On August 7, 1862, he joined the New York Volunteers, becoming a part of Company B of the 134th Regiment. Rolfe was wounded at Gettysburg; after healing, he was sent back into action. His diaries begin on January 1, 1864, as he returns to service, and continues through June 1865, when Rolfe is mustered out of service and returns home. After the war, by 1870, Rolfe and his family had moved to Minden, Montgomery County. He would live in Montgomery County for the remainder of his life. Rolfe died in 1882 in Fort Plain. He is buried in Vale Cemetery in a plot with his wife's family.

Rolfe's diaries were transcribed by Jerry Whitehouse and given to the New York State Library in 1985. The Grems-Doolittle Library holds a copy of the transcribed diary, which also includes supplemental photocopied material, including Rolfe's military pension paperwork, a document related to his naturalization, and information about the 134th New York. The diaries trace Rolfe's experiences, chronicling the company's travels, battles, camp life, and Rolfe's monetary accounts. From June 1, 1864 until April 9, 1965, Rolfe and other injured men were in Chattanooga, while the remainder of the 134th continued on with the Atlanta campaign and Sherman's March to the Sea. While in Chattanooga, Rolfe details camp life, his hospital stays, and his assigned duties (i.e. as nurse), and reacts to news of the fall of Atlanta. On April 9, 1865, Rolfe returned to the 134th's encampment at near Goldsboro, North Carolina. There, he reunited with his brother, Sam, and found "the other boys well and in good spirits." Rolfe describes the final movements of the regiment and shares his thoughts on the end of the war, Lincoln's assassination, and other news. As the regiment moves homeward, they parade in towns along the way.

Rolfe's diaries also show him to be a man of great religious faith and a teetotaler. Many entries include details about Rolfe's spiritual life, including prayers, religious meetings, and Bible readings: "At 10:00 a.m. instead of Sabbath religious services we have a kind of brigade review, but a complete hoax, or next to failure. O when will our commanding officers learn to have respect for the Sabbath" (March 5, 1865). The diaries include a copy of Rolfe's signed pledge to the U.S.A. Temperance Union, and the diary contains several mentions of the deleterious "effects of whiskey" and "effects of beer" on his fellows. On June 5, 1865, as the company continues to head toward home, Rolfe writes "Lieutenant Dillon commander of Co. B under the influence of bad whiskey abuses the Co. on and after dress parade. Several of the Co. also are intoxicated. Makes us appear rediculas [sic] before the Brigade." 

As Rolfe's regiment is mustered out on June 10, 1865, Rolfe shares, "the long looked for and much to be desired day has arrived. And now may God grant us a speedy and safe journey home, and prepare us for a peaceful and happy future." By mid-month, Rolfe has reunited with his wife's family. He ends his diary with a brief summation of his service: "Return from Charlton and go to Albany and get my discharge from the military service with pay in full. 17 months 22 days. And clothing money $22.00, also the bounty $75.00. total $372.65. Have been in military service of the United States 2 years 10 months."

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