Ritch, Sidney

127th New York Volunteers
Company B
Middle Island

Ritch, Sidney

Sidney H. Ritch
Private, 127th New York Infantry, Company B
Middle Island

Sidney H. Ritch was born May 27, 1840, in the village of Port Jefferson. After his mother died when he was four years old, Sidney was sent to live with his uncle and grandmother in Middle Island. As he got older, he worked briefly as a seaman. In 1859, though, he returned to Middle Island and apprenticed as a carpenter.

On August 15, 1862, Ritch joined the 127th New York Volunteers, also known as the Monitors. This unit was formed under the leadership of Colonel William Gurney, who, on July 10, 1862, was given the authority to raise a regiment for a period of three years. He recruited mainly from New York City, Brooklyn and Long Island. These men were mustered in on September 8, 1862, on Staten Island.

After a few days, the 127th was sent to Baltimore. Ritch wrote that this is where he received his "last good meal," but was still stirred on by patriotism, moving on to the defense of Washington with visions of great battles and glory. It seemed that Sidney Ritch was a bit of a dreamer, and a man who had high expectations. While in Washington, Ritch wrote that he expected to be invited into Lincoln's parlor, where they would get a private interview with "the old man." They would smoke some of his cigars, listen to his jokes and then be ushered into elegant sleeping quarters. Despite never meeting Lincoln, Ritch still looked for the best in every situation. He and the regiment slept in a field with the "canopy of heaven" over their heads, "the verdant earth" for their beds, and a blanket for cover.

After a short time, however, reality set in. Morale dropped and his patriotism depreciated as he marched forward and observed the arrival of ambulances with wounded Union soldiers. Then came the long winter, with the 127th camping just outside of Washington at Arlington Heights.

In the spring of 1863, Ritch and the 127th began the long march south. He began to hear tales of the horror of war from members of the 7th regiment. The he saw it for himself, when he witnessed a deserter shot as he sat on his own coffin; his body was then placed in the coffin for immediate burial. Ritch described the moment:

We were called out to witness the shooting of a deserter, a member of another regiment. The regiments formed a hollow square, and an ambulance approached with the victim, who calmly sat upon his coffin, while twelve men with loaded muskets were drawn up before him. Clear and startling rang out the command to fire, and the next instant the poor wretch was writhing in the agonies of death. A few moments more, and the cold clay closed over the scene.

The message was not lost to Ritch, who realized that this was to be an example for the men of his regiment.

Execution by firing squad.

The unit marched south to Boonsboro, Hagerstown and Greenfield, and was involved in the Peninsula Campaign. Ritch remembered seeing arms and legs scattered and the "other guy" getting his head blown off. He was sad that it happened, yet relieved it wasn't him. The 127th did suffer its share of casualties, especially heavy during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

The unit spent the winter of 1863-64 at Coles Island, where Ritch was appointed as company bugler on December 14, 1863. While there, the regiment received the good news that that Savannah had fallen and that General Sherman was advancing south to the sea, with Confederate General Beauregard in retreat.

The 127th moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in August of 1864. Somehow, Ritch lost his Springfield rifle; the army charged him a six-dollar fine.

In November, the unit was assigned to support General Sherman as part of an expeditionary force that was supposed to cut off the Charleston and Savannah Railroad at Grahamville, South Carolina. This would prevent the movement of Confederate troops and supplies. Ritch and his comrades moved to Hilton Head, where they were held in reserve.

On November 28, they pushed off with 5,000 men and 500 sailors and marines on Federal gunboats bound for Boyd's Landing up the Broad River. There were several miscalculations and navigational errors and the troops became lost. They finally arrived the next day and began their seven-mile march westward. The commander made a wrong turn; they ended up losing a day that would be extremely costly during the Battles of Honey Hill. It allowed the Confederates time to bring up troop reinforcements to heavily fortify the high ground.

When they reached the battleground, the men of the 127th hit the dirt in front of the 3rd N.Y. Battery and remained there all day. The men regarded their position as most trying because they were not allowed to fire a shot, yet had to take all the fire the enemy could bring in. Honey Hill was a terrible loss. The 32nd and the 355th U.S. Colored and the 54th and 55th Colored Massachusetts units took many of the heaviest casualties.

While continuing to support Sherman with the railroad campaign at Deveaux' Neck, Ritch contracted kidney disease as a result of exposure during the fall and winter campaigns of 1864-65. This forced Ritch into light duty at Colonel William Gurney's headquarters on Morris Island. Rather than just feeling sorry for himself, Ritch formed a glee club to entertain the men.

I organized a class in singing, which I drilled in the quartermaster's tent once a week. One dozen books were presented to us from a friend in New York City, and four men were selected to form a quartette, viz.: George Reeves, Van Buskirk, Youngs and myself. We received our appointments from Lieutenant Col. Wolford.

Another soldier, Private Henry Prince, mentioned the glee club in his diary: "A large hospital tent served as a chapel, and services were made interesting by the glee club with its leader Sidney H. Ritch, of Co. B." He referred to Ritch again while in Beaufort, South Carolina:

Part of the regiment was assigned provost duty and lived in a house in town. Pickets and patrols were sent in all directions. The men were kept busy in various ways but had their evenings for leisure. The glee club that had been formed on Morris Island sang in the soldiers' chapel, aided by the ladies who taught the freedmen. One night the drum corps serenaded the town, to everyone's delight. Lincoln was reelected. The men had sent in their ballots while on Morris Island.

Gurney detached Ritch on May 4, 1865, to the camp post office at Charleston, South Carolina. Ritch seemed to really enjoy his time in Charleston, especially being able to interact with civilians on a regular basis. He wrote:

I formed some pleasant acquaintances-of course, the most agreeable of them were with ladies, with excellent vocal talents. Many enjoyable moonlight excursions have I whiled on the pleasant bay… We took possession of one of the finest and largest churches in the city, and soon established a fine choir of mixed voices.

Street in Charleston during Union occupation. Saint Michael's church, is at the end of the street.

Ritch was discharged in Charleston on June 30, 1865. He returned to Middle Island and resumed work as a carpenter. His passion for music continued, and he was in charge of the chorus at the Tabernacle Church in Greenpoint. While there, he met Mary Collyer, who was from Ossining, New York. They were married at the church on March 23, 1867.

Sidney and Mary lived in Yaphank for a while. They later moved to Riverhead, where Ritch pursued a writing career. In 1885, he became a member of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead. Around the turn of the century, the Ritch family moved to New Jersey.

Sidney Ritch died of pneumonia on March 10, 1906, in Passaic, New Jersey.

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