John J. Milton of 2d PA H.A. Provisionals Killed in the Wilderness

Recently historian Allan Arnold found an interesting letter at the National Archives in Washington D. C. while researching the pension files of soldiers serving in the 2d Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. The letter was written by Capt. B. F. Smiley — a Captain in Company K of the “Provisionals” — and submitted on behalf of a soldier in that unit named John J. Milton who died on the battlefield in the Wilderness.

Allan found indications that false reports had circulated about Pvt. Milton suggesting that he had deserted his comrades on the battlefield but Capt. Smiley set the record straight when he submitted this affidavit on behalf of Pvt. Milton’s sister who claimed a pension following the war. It seems that Pvt. Milton’s father died in 1851 and his mother in 1856; thus leaving Milton’s sister with a legitimate claim to the pension as closest surviving next-of-kin.

The letter reads as follows:

State of Pennsylvania
County of Luzerne

On the 25th day of August A. D. 1866, personally appeared before me, E. B. Collings, Clerk of the Orphans Court, a court of record in and for said county and state, B. F. Smiley, a resident of the Borough of Pittston County and state aforesaid, well known to be a person of respectability and worthy of credit, and after being duly sworn according to law, declares that he was formerly Captain of Co. “K” Provisional 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, and that he was personally acquainted with John Milton, late a Private of this said company, who was killed in Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, on May 7th 1864. That said John Milton, while in said service and in the line of his duty as a soldier, having straggled a short distance from his company, was picked up and put into the straggler’s regiment and taken to the front and killed in said battle of the Wilderness on the 7th of May 1864. That said John Milton was instantly killed by a Gunshot wound. That he has a personal knowledge of the facts set forth in the foregoing declaration and affidavit. That he resides as above stated and has no interest in this claim.

— B. F. Smiley

That young Milton “straggled” as he entered the fray of battle on 7 May 1864 is not surprising. Company records show that he enlisted on 21 March 1864. For Pvt. Milton, this was not only his first battle; it was his last. He had been a soldier for less than seven weeks.

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3 thoughts on “John J. Milton of 2d PA H.A. Provisionals Killed in the Wilderness

  1. Thank you for posting this interesting but sad story. I would like to clarify one possible misconception in the letter. It is stated here that John Milton, “while in said service and in the line of his duty as a soldier, having straggled a short distance from his company, was picked up and put into the straggler’s regiment and taken to the front and killed.” This statement would seem to imply that the 2nd. Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery was a regiment of stragglers. That is not the case.

    The “Provisional” regiment was created by Special Orders No. 153, War Department, Adjutant General’s Office on April 20, 1864. It was composed of surplus recruits of the 2nd. Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. By that time the regiment had ballooned to 1800 men, making it the largest regiment in the Union Army. Shortly thereafter the newly created Provisional regiment was attached to Burnside’s IX Army Corps. On May 5, 1864 the Provisionals crossed the Rapidan River and made contact with the Confederate army at the Wilderness. This would be the first combat experience for John Milton and virtually all soldiers of the regiment. In fact, virtually all of the heavy artillery regiments that fought in the Overland Campaign were composed of “green” soldiers, having spent their time previously manning the defenses of Washington.

    In short, the 2nd. Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery was a regular regiment in the Union army. Like all regiments it had heroes and cowards, but mostly the men were common soldiers doing the best they could under trying circumstances.

    • Greg: This statement by Capt. Smiley may have been intended to address the misconception that Milton deserted. In truth, stragglers appeared in every unit in every battle and it was even customary for an officer to be assigned the responsibility to round them up going into every engagement. It was an unusual soldier indeed who could face the din and horrors of combat for the first time without shirking.

      • John J. Milton was born in Providence, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in 1843. He was the only son of five children born to Anthony and Ann Milton. Both of John’s parents were born in Ireland and all five children were born in Luzerne County. On October 5, 1851 Anthony Milton passed away at the young age of 35, leaving behind his young widow and five young children; Mary (aged 11), Julia (aged 9), John J. (aged 7), Bridget (aged 4) and Catherine (aged 1). Less than five years later, on February 11, 1856, the mother of these five children also died at the age of 39. John J. Milton initially enlisted as a Private in Company M, 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery but was quickly transferred to Company K, 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery.

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