Bayles, Edward

139th New York Volunteers
Company A
Middle Island

Edward and Albert Bayles
139th NYS Infantry Company A
Middle Island

Edward and Albert Bayles were born in Coram just over two years apart. Albert was born on June 14, 1839, and Edward was born on December 16, 1841. They were the sons of Richard and Harmony (Swezey) Bayles. The boys were seven and five when their father died in 1846. His death drew the family closer. A third son, Richard, was born eleven days after their father's death.

Bayles, Edward

Edward Bayles, photo from the collection of Mr. Donald Bayles.

For the next fourteen years, the boys lived on the family farm with their mother and grandparents. When their mother died in 1860, the boys went to live with their uncle, Edward Swezey, in Middle Island. The Swezey home was located on the north side of Middle Country Road, across from what is now Bartlett Pond Park.

Swezey House on Middle Country Road in Middle Island

The Civil War began in 1860 and forever changed their quiet Long Island lives. The brothers, along with their friend from Coram, Oscar Oakley, enlisted in the Union Army in 1862. They joined Company A of the 139th New York Volunteers. This regiment was organized at Fort Greene in Brooklyn; here, the boys were drilled and trained. They also had the opportunity to interact for the first time with men from all over the state. Albert, who was a teacher, was often amazed at what he saw and heard. The brothers were raised with strong morals and religious convictions. In a letter home, Albert wrote, "It seems to me, I have never heard so much profanity in all my life."

In September of 1862, the regiment moved by steamboat from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C. In a letter to his grandmother, Edward wrote that they toured the city of Washington and the house where "Uncle Abe" lived. He pointed out to her that the public buildings looked "so far ahead" of anything around Middle Island.

In October, the 139th was moved to Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Much of the time was spent marching, drilling and picket duty. The brothers thought army life was boring, but this down time did allow the troops to make observations and write home about what they had seen. In a letter home, Albert's comments about some Southerners who passed through camp each day reflected the thoughts of many Northerners: "I wish you could see some of the ways the poorer class have of getting about. Everyday many carts with mules attached pass through. The people are peddling potatoes, milk and turnips. They are white, yet they speak almost like Negroes. They are very ignorant to all appearances. They act quite different from our people at the North."

Uncle Edward asked the boys about the impact of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Albert replied that he could not really answer that question satisfactorily. He commented that some soldiers heralded it as a means of peace; for others, it meant renewed war. Some soldiers felt that they were fighting for the Negro, but Albert pointed out that all agreed that "the negro must not go north."

The brothers and their regiment spent Christmas and the rest of the winter at Fortress Monroe. The boys tried to make good use of their free time, and, true to their upbringing, this meant they attended many religious services.

Fortress Monroe, Virginia, photo from the National Archives.

In late March of 1863, the 139th moved to Camp West at Williamsburg, Virginia. On April 12, the 139th saw its first action. A massive force of Confederate cavalry was pursuing a unit of Union cavalry. The Bayles brothers were among the troops manning two twelve-pound cannons in a bunker facing the wood line where the action was taking place. After the fleeing Union forces went by, the two cannons opened fire and drove the rebels back. The artillery was then ordered to open fire on the nearby town where the rebel infantry was hiding. The jubilation of the Union forces was short-lived. As Albert wrote, "the picture had two sides[,] for our firing soon brought out the other fellows in the shape of 3 or 4 cannons as large as ours which they placed on a rise of high ground under cover of a large white house. Before we were aware of it we found ourselves under a well directed fire of their artillery." The monotony of drills and training was replaced with the whistling of cannon balls and flying sand. Edward and Albert knew they were in danger of being hit. Two shells ended up landing in their little pen. One did not explode; they dug it up and fired it back at the Confederates. Despite the close calls on this bloody day, the brothers survived.

Albert later described the charging Confederates and their famous "rebel yell." He wrote, "The yells and screams of the rebels on the first morning sounded to me almost as bad as the whistling shells. I can't think of anything with which to compare it. Bartlett's dogs give you some idea."


From May to December 1863, the 139th camped at Williamsburg. Like many other soldiers, the Bayles boys became homesick, especially when there was a lull in the action. Edward lamented in a letter home, "I suppose Grandfather and Uncle Edward are getting ready to plant corn. How I would like to take a look around there for a day or two. I think home would look pleasant to me right now… I expect Middle Island will be so changed when we come home that we shall hardly know the place. Richard (their younger brother) tells us that there will be various manufacturing establishments there soon."

In February 1864, the 139th left for Fort Ringold. In March, the unit moved to Northwest Landing, where it was reinforced. In May, they were sent to Yorktown where they began operations against Petersburg and Richmond. At Proctor's Creek, Albert wrote home that the unit lost 60-70 men. "The attack on our line began at 11 P.M. and lasted thirty-five minutes. It was the most terrible thing we have seen for so short a time. The sight and sound resembled heavy thunder. They say our men buried 263 of their dead."

The Regiment was then attached to the Army of the Potomac under General Grant. The unit was sent to Cold Harbor, Virginia, to join in fighting against rebel forces led by General Robert E. Lee. The 139th, now under the command of General William Smith, immediately moved into position to attack. This was June 2, 1864.

Albert had recently received news from home: back in Brookhaven Town, a tax was instituted to raise money to pay for substitutes so that there would be no more local men sent to war. In his reply, Albert wrote,

It seems impossible that Brookhaven Town should be so very careful to keep back all the rest of the young men from a struggle vital to all what is suffering. If this awful war can be stopped. Why they are asleep, dumb it seems to me, taxing to the last cent for fear that one more shall go to the fight and suffer for the cause. I don't blame anyone for not wanting to come, no indeed. I know too much of this life already. But, it is no use for them, than for us, to give up everything, the prospect of life itself, and take the life handed, than any other for the sake of ending so cruel a war. Why, I can't see what chance we or you will have even after the war if the country is to be drained so just to keep a few from danger. But perhaps I don't feel as I ought to.

On the eve of battle, these thoughts filled Albert's mind. He didn't want to consider that anyone was trying to buy his way out of "the cause."

As the soldiers waited, the weather closed in and a heavy rain delayed the attack. The Confederates were in a strong defensive position. Lee had his forces entrenched, waiting for the coming open field assault. Soldiers were observed writing notes and sewing names and addresses to the backs of their coats. They seemed to acknowledge the folly of this attack, and wanted loved ones to be aware of what had happened to them.

At 4:30 A.M. on June 3, the Army of the Potomac began its march toward the Confederate lines. The Confederates opened fire and Union soldiers fell like bowling pins. During this charge, Albert was shot down. Edward tried to reach his brother, but was killed by a sharpshooter in the process.
Within half an hour, 7000 Union soldiers were either dead or wounded. Soldiers listened to the haunting cries of the wounded as they lay on the field of battle. No one could help them because, for some unknown reason, Grant refused to ask for a truce to gather his wounded. Some speculate that if he had asked for even a temporary truce, it would be interpreted as an admission of defeat. Whatever the reason, the wounded were left on the battlefield for four days. On June 7, four days after the battle began, the Union forces were finally able to get their wounded. It was too little, too late. Nearly all who had fallen succumbed either to their wounds or exposure to the elements.

Two friends who witnessed the death of Edward and Albert wrote to the Bayles family. Sgt. Oscar Oakley, their friend from Coram with whom they enlisted, wrote the following:

I will try to give you all the particulars concerning Edward and Albert's death… We were massed together and the order was forward and on those gallant troops charged through a piece of woods up to the enemy's works scattering them in all directions. It was in this charge that Albert was shot, the ball passing through his left arm and into his side. All that he said was "take me away." I think that Eddie could have been with us at the present time if he had not taken it as hard for the loss of his brother. He could not be kept back from him and he was killed by a sharpshooter.

David Beale, a friend from Patchogue, wrote, "I was laying within six feet of them when they were killed but could not take anything from them so what was in their pockets was not taken at least by us. All their books and clothing was packed and stored at Norfolk."

Grant would later recall the attack at Cold Harbor as a horrible decision which he always regretted making. This was little consolation to the Bayles family, who lost two members that day.

Edward and Albert were buried near the battlefield. The Union dead were later exhumed and moved to a National Cemetery one mile away. Edward and Albert's bodies were never identified. They are two of the 889 unknown soldiers of the Army of the Potomac who lost their lives at Cold Harbor. Two monuments with the boys' names on them were placed in the Union Cemetery at Middle Island. Edward and Albert lived-and died-as brothers and as best friends.

The Edward and Albert letters were transcribed by Mr. Donald Bayles in 1985. They can be found in the Thomas Bayles Local History Room at the Longwood Public Library.

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