Born in Pennsylvania sometime around 1845, David K. Bills was one of the countless 19th-century Americans who lived relatively obscure lives, save for their involvement in America’s tragic Civil War.
Civil War Military Service
He enlisted for Civil War military service at the age of 18 on 4 September 1864 at Wilmington, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, mustering in there on the same day as a Private with Company D of the 159th Pennsylvania Volunteers/14th Pennsylvania Cavalry (also known as the “Stanton Cavalry”). According to historian J. T. Stewart, “After the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., the 14th was in the chase of the Confederates into West Virginia, and at Moorefield had a sharp fight, losing thirty-five men, in this fight having the satisfaction of completely routing the enemy.”
Its next movements were in connection with the army under Sheridan in the valley, participating in all movements, being highly complimented for gallantry, especially at Winchester, Cedar Creek, Harrisonburg, Wier’s Cave and Front Royal.
The winter of 1864-65 was a disastrous one, the regiment losing heavily at both Millwood and Ashby’s Gap…. [The regiment] was in almost continuous fighting for two years over so great an area, we do not see that we can do justice to it, but we do know that while the children of the survivors live the heroic deeds of the 14th Cavalry will be fireside stories to be remembered by the generation to come.
Historian Samuel P. Bates provided this more comprehensive accounting of the regiment’s activities during Private Bills’ time of enrollment:
On the 19th of September opened that series of brilliant engagements under Sheridan, in the Shenandoah Valley, which will ever render his name illustrious. In the battle which was delivered on that day, the enemy was driven at all points. The Fourteenth, under command of Captain Duncan, was posted on the extreme right of the cavalry division, and charged, with great heroism and daring, an earthwork, which it captured. The loss was very severe, Captain Duncan being among the killed.
Three days afterward, the division came up with the retreating enemy at Fisher’s Hill, where it demonstrated upon the front, while other troops moved upon his flanks, and again he was driven in rout and confusion. The regiment suffered but small loss in this engagement. Early was pursued as far as Harrisonburg, where his force had become so thoroughly disorganized and broken, that little was left to follow. From Harrisonburg, the cavalry moved to Wier’s Cave, where, on the 27th, the enemy under Fitz Hugh Lee attacked, and a spirited engagement ensued, in which the Fourteenth, by its gallantry, won an order which directed Wier’s Cave to be inscribed upon its flag.
Until the battle of Cedar Creek, on the 19th of October, the regiment was engaged in performing picket duty on the left flank of the army. In that desperate engagement, a detachment under Captains Miles and Duff participated, doing excellent service. After the battle, the regiment was sent into the Luray Valley on a reconnoissance [sic], where, on the 24th, it had a sharp encounter, taking some prisoners. It then returned to the neighborhood of Winchester, where it went into camp.
The pickets of the command being much annoyed by small parties of rebel cavalry, the division, under General Powell, on the 12th of November, moved southward, and met the rebel General McCausland at Front Royal, and after a severe engagement drove him, capturing all his guns and supply trains. The loss in the Fourteenth was fifteen in killed and wounded.
Upon its return to camp, the command went into winter-quarters, and was engaged in severe picket and guard duty. Two expeditions undertaken during the winter, by detachments from the regiment, one under Captain William W. Miles, on the 11th of December, to Millwood, and a second, under Major Gibson, on the 19th of February, 1865, to Ashby’s Gap, resulted disastrously, the commands losing heavily in killed, wounded, and prisoners, Captain Miles being among the killed.
Also among the regiments fighting in Sheridan’s tide-turning Shenandoah Valley Campaign that Fall of 1864 was the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry—a regiment which would come to play a critical role in the life of Private David K. Bills in just a few short months.
On 13 March 1865, by order of senior U.S. Army leaders, the 18-year-old David Bills was transferred to the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, according to muster rolls of the 159th Pennsylvania. Arriving at the 47th’s encampment, he was joining a battle-hardened, history-making regiment, and was about to become an eyewitness to one of the nation’s most traumatic and important moments.
Having been assigned in February 1865 to the Provisional Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were subsequently ordered to move, via Winchester and Kernstown, back to Washington, D.C. There, on 19 April, they were responsible for helping to defend the nation’s capital following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Letters home and newspaper interviews with survivors of the 47th Pennsylvania in later years confirm that at least one 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer was given the high honor of guarding President Lincoln’s funeral train while others may have guarded the Lincoln assassination conspirators during the early days of their imprisonment.
As part of Dwight’s Division of the 2nd Brigade, Department of Washington’s 22nd Corps, Private David Bills and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers then participated in the Union’s Grand Review of the Armies on 23-24 May.
Plagued by an asthma condition, which had begun during his time with either the 159th or 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Private David Bills was deemed too ill to continue serving with his regiment, and was honorably discharged on 1 June 1865 at Washington, D.C. (although his entry in the Civil War Veterans’ Card File at the Pennsylvania State Archives notes that he was honorably discharged on 13 May 1865 by General Order No. 53, which was issued by the Washington, D.C.-based headquarters of the U.S. Middle Military Division on 30 May 1865).
Return to Civilian Life
The post-war movements of David K. Bills were not well documented following his departure from the military. What is known for certain is that he returned home to the Keystone State, and obtained work as a laborer. By 1870, he was residing at the home of William and Kate Smith in Deerfield Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania.
Twenty years later, he was documented as residing at 27 Brown Street in Allegheny City’s 5th Ward, 1st Precinct. The special U.S. Veterans’ Census conducted that year confirmed that he continued to suffer from bouts of asthma, attributable to his time in the military.
* Note: Situated across from the City of Pittsburgh on the right bank of the Allegheny River at that river’s junction with the Ohio River, Allegheny City was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907 (now part of that metropolis’ North Side).
Like many of his former 47th Pennsylvania comrades, David Bills suffered from lifelong health issues which had their beginnings in the dire military conditions of America’s Civil War. On 19 November 1890, with the assistance of attorney J. H. Stevens, he filed for and obtained a U.S. Civil War Pension. One of several men residing at the boarding house operated by W. L. Cunningham in Pittsburgh’s 23rd Ward, 269th Precinct in June of 1900, his asthma condition continued to worsen, and he was forced to seek medical care through the system of U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.
On 21 April 1906, he was admitted to the Southern Branch of the Soldiers’ Homes system at Hampton, Virginia, and was then transferred to that system’s Central Branch at Dayton, Ohio on 2 November 1906. Records at the time of his initial admission described him as being a 61-year-old native of Pennsylvania and widower who was 5’5” tall with dark hair, black or brown eyes and a dark complexion. Employed as a laborer, he was also described as a member of the Protestant faith who was able to read and write. Per those same records, his residence, subject to discharge, was reportedly “Wallace, W. Va.”; however, no census records have been located to confirm this notation. (This West Virginia residence may have been a clerical error on the part of the hospital; David Bills’ choice of nearest living relative was his brother D. W. Bills, a resident of 1615 Craft Street in Pittsburgh, the area of the city which was formerly the independent community of Allegheny City where David Bills had resided in 1890. This record also noted that the Honorable Franklin Murphy, a former Governor of New Jersey, was involved somehow in helping David Bills secure admission to this hospital.)
The rate of David Bills’ U.S. Civil War Pension was $10 per month at the time of his initial admission to the Soldiers’ Home in Hampton, Virginia—a rate that was then increased to $12 per month on 4 April 1907. Later hospital admissions ledger entries provided further details regarding his quality of life, including that his general medical condition was only “fair,” and that he suffered from defective vision and hearing, as well as convergent strabismus and cataract in his right eye, cardiac hypertrophy, and “occasional attacks of Asthma.”
Also suffering from acute carcinoma of the cheek and acute enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine) later in life, David W. Bills died at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton, Ohio on 22 September 1908. He was then laid to rest with military honors at the National Cemetery at Dayton, Ohio.
Records noted that a telegram was sent by hospital administrators at 9 a.m. on 23 September 1908 to his niece, “Mrs. W. M. Brisbow,” of 6105 Adder Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, notifying her of her uncle’s passing. His personal effects were valued at $37.50.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, vol. 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1868-1871.
2. Bills, David K, in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866 (14th Pennsylvania Cavalry and 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers). Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State Archives.
3. Bills, David K., in Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, in Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers (Record Group RG-19, 159th Regiment, Company D), 1861-1865. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Bureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania State Archives, 1864-1865.
4. Bills, David K., in U.S. Civil War Pension Index (application no.: 967,695; certificate no.: 957,583). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1890-1906.
5. Bills, David K., in U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Records (admissions). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1906-1908.
6. Bills, David K., in U.S. Veterans Administration Records (pension payment cards). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1907-1908.
7. Bills, David R., in U.S. National Cemetery Records (burial). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1908.
8. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.
9. Stewart, J. T. Indiana County, Pennsylvania her people, past and present, vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: J. H. Beers & Co., 1913.
10. U.S. Census (1870, 1880, 1900) and U.S. Census of Civil War Soldiers and Widows (1890). Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Ohio: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.