Joel H. Barnes was born on July 15, 1835 in Norwich, Ontario, Canada. His parents were William Francis Barnes and Martha Green Barnes who had eight children in their family. One of Joel’s siblings was Luke Barnes, who also served in the Fourth Michigan Infantry as a member of Company C. Luke’s letters, some of which refer to Joel, are also posted on this site for those who may wish to review them.
When he reached adulthood Joel took up the occupation as a cabinet-maker until answering his country’s call to arms when he enlisted in Company G of the Fourth Michigan Infantry on June 16, 1861. As company G was full at the time, Joel served as attached to Company G until he could be mustered into Federal service on August 31, 1864, at Fort Woodbury, Virginia. He served faithfully with the Fourth Michigan Infantry, and was injured (hernia) while unloading a barge on May 1, 1862, at West Point, Virginia. Yet Joel reenlisted on December 25, 1863, and continued serving with the regiment. Like many other veterans of the regiment who reenlisted, Joel had to continue his term of service attached to the First Michigan Infantry after the Fourth Michigan Infantry returned home in June of 1864. Those men were allowed to still be designated as men of the Fourth Michigan and were given the option of joining the Reorganized Fourth Michigan Infantry once it was formed. Joel received gunshot wound in the left shoulder during the action at Peeble’s Farm, Virginia, on September 30, 1864 and was sent to Carver Hospital in Washington D.C. He was transferred from there to Harper Hospital in Detroit, Michigan in December of 1864, where he was discharged for disability on June 5, 1865.
In the following letter, Joel writes to his friend Samuel Gorton, of Colon, Michigan.
Camp 1st. Mich. Infty.
Near New Market, Virginia
July 13th, 1864
Dear Sir, your letter of the 6th I received last night just after we had got through [our] work. It was thankfully received, [on that] you may depend. There has been quite a change in affairs since I last wrote to you and we have had a little hard fighting. But I think our boys here have been rather too much for the Johnnies. There is one thing [for] sure, we have got them into their fortifications and now comes the job of getting them out. But I think that we can do that if the people of the North will only keep up good spirits. The enemy is strongly fortified at this point, but time will bring them out. We are now under a very good protection. Our works are getting stronger every night. That is the only time that we can work on them. In the day time, if we work, they annoy us with their artillery and mortar batteries. But they cannot see us at night unless the moon shines bright, and then they cannot hit us one time out of fifty, for we can see the flash of their gun in time to lay down. Our men are busy all the time planting mortars and siege guns.
Civil War artist Alfred R. Waud’s illustration “Before Petersburg at Sunrise, July 10, 1864” drawn just 3 days before Private Joel Barnes wrote this letter. Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
Today our mortars have opened a pretty brisk fire but the enemy does not make much of a reply to them. I don’t think that they will find it quite so much fun to annoy us now as it was ten days ago. We had no works then that amounted to anything. But now they are very good. When I last wrote to you I was a member of the old Fourth Mich. [Infantry], but there is no Fourth any more. We have been consolidated with the First [Michigan Infantry] and they carry the colors, as ours went home. It was hard to see the old flag go home without us after fighting under it [all] these years [and] without us poor fellows that came out with it. But I hope those that did come home will not be scorned, because they are poor poor old soldiers. They have, many of them, been the best men we had. I could not say all, for there is many of them that has never fired a gun yet. There is always a lot of men that dog, rob, and fat sheer here in the army. And if they get back home, they tell the damnedest yarns about their narrow escapes and brave actions in battle. There is none from Colon, or any adjoining townships in our regt.. Yes, one, that is Kilmer1, of Burr Oak. He is the only one that I know of. I have not heard from the boys yet since they got to Adrian, but I shall look for a letter tonight from some one of them. Well, Sam, I suppose the folks at home are getting scared at home now, since the Rebs has gone into Maryland again. But they have not all gone yet. There is plenty here. But them fellows up there will get in a trap yet if they don’t look pretty sharp. They will find something besides home guards to fight before they get out. Our old 6th AC [Army Corps] has gone up there and the 19th [Army Corps]. Besides, Hunter2 will give them a nip yet. For my part I wish that they would all go north. Then the people would respond to the call for a few more troops and we can flog them better on free soil than we can here in Dixie. But I have no doubt but we will do it here yet. I have been out to work carrying logs for bomb proofs, until it got so hot that we could not work any longer and then they opened [up] on us.
A bomb-proof shelter built behind Federal lines at Petersburg, Virginia
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
And the shell are flying at the present moment like the devil. If they don’t stop, I shall be obliged to get behind the breastworks, or either [move] a little closer to them. There was one [that] just burst over my tent and another [that] went just on the other side of the street and knocked down 3 or four tents. But [it] did not hurt anyone, for the boys hug the [earth]works when they are shelling [us]. We don’t mind the shell [that] they throw from their cannon, for we can get out of the way of them. But mortar shells, they drop down onto a fellow as if they had come from the heavens. But I think they get the worst of it on the mortar trade, for we have got more of them than they have, and they cannot tell any day where they will be [coming from] the next. Our field mortars are very light. 4 men will carry one anywhere, and they throw a 24 pound shell. I wish you could be here some day and take a stroll along our line of works and see how we pile the dirt up and dig holes in the ground. I will tell you how the officers are. Most of them have built their quarters. They have dug holes about 10 ft. square [and] 6 ft. deep and then covered them over with the logs, and after that, [they] put the dirt over [those logs] [with] [dirt that] that came out of the hole. There is no shell or shot [that] can get to them, and for my part, I wish that we was all as well off. Well, I am sorry indeed that I made a mistake about mentioning Mrs. Gorton as a single [woman?], but I think you made a mistake yourself before. But as there is no harm done yet, I will beg pardon for I did not think. Perhaps if I had have looked a little more fine, as our boys say, I should have done better and I will not make another mistake very soon. I don’t know but [whether] I will go into the Sharpshooters. They are around today trying to get up men for a new battalion of them. Well, you will please excuse my poor handwriting today, for you would not do any better I feel, if you was in the same place [as I am]. Give my love to Aunt Dida, and Mrs. Gorton, and Ball, and in fact, all inquiring friends, and believe me too.
As ever yours respectfully
Joel H. Barnes
P. S. Hereafter direct your letters to
Joel H. Barnes 1st Mich. Infty. Vet. Vols. Co K
Washington D. C.
1 This reference is probably for Private Alonzo Kilmer of Company C, Fourth Michigan Infantry. He served as a wagoner and was discharged at the end of his service on June 29, 1864.
2 Union General David Hunter, commander of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Hunter to employ “scorched earth” tactics at this point in time.