George F. Polley seemed to be living a charmed life as a Civil War soldier as the Petersburg Campaign began. A twenty-one year old young man when he enlisted for three years in June 1861 in Springfield, he landed in Company C of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. The 1860 census indicates that Polley had worked as an "operative" of some sort before the war in Williamsburg, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. He was listed as owning no real estate or personal property wealth in the census. A regimental history states that Polley was a "silver plater" before the war.
During the war, Polley and the 10th Massachusetts certainly saw their fair share of hard fighting in the Army of the Potomac. The 10th fought in the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days' Battles, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor. He apparently proved to be an effective soldier as he received promotions to corporal (October 1862), sergeant (November 1862), and sergeant major (February 1863). Polley's service records indicate that he did not have to endure time in hospitals suffering from disease and illness as many of this comrades had, nor did he experience time in a prisoner of war camp. When Polley's three year enlistment neared, but the war was not yet over, he promptly reenlisted early as a Veteran Volunteer. In doing so he received a thirty-five day furlough.
However, as Union forces targeted and then assaulted the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, apparently Polley had some premonition of his fate. After those first days of hard fighting east of the Cockade City (June 15-18), things started to settle into stalemate on that part of line.
The Union army took advantage of the brief quietness on that front to hang a 23rd USCT soldier named William Johnson (see image below), who had been arrested and convicted for desertion and an "attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at New-Kent Courthouse [Virginia]." The sight selected for the execution was near the Jordan House, which would put it very close to where the Petersburg National Battlefield visitor center stands today.
On the morning of June 20, the gallows stood awaiting its victim when the Confederates opened an artillery barrage. Apparently they thought the Federals were hanging a Southern spy within eyesight of their lines, so they lobed a few projectiles in that direction. One of the shells struck Sgt. Major Polley in the stomach, who was attending the hanging as a witness. Polley died almost instantly.
Just before the tragic incident, the 10th had been notified that it was relived of duties and were awaiting orders to head to City Point. The 10th's 1909 regimental history mentions that Polley took the down time before the execution to amuse himself by self-inscribing a headboard, which included the incomplete death date of "June__, 1864," while chatting for a last time with his comrades whom had not reenlisted and were getting ready to head home to Massachusetts. As mentioned above, Polley had signed up as a veteran volunteer, and unknown to him, a lieutenant's commission was on its way. Polley was soon thereafter struck by the shell that killed him. A comrade searched for the carved headboard to use at Polley's hastily dug grave, but soon learned that Polley had split it up minutes before he was hit to use as fuel to boil his morning coffee. The history says that William Winter from Company F carved Polley a new headboard, which was placed on his grave at the City Point cemetery.
Polley's undelivered commission was for an officer's promotion to become a first lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, which along with the famous 54th Massachusetts, and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, were the Bay State's African American regiments.
Those soldiers that had reenlisted from the 10th Massachusetts were transferred to the ranks of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry in Edwards's Brigade, Wheaton's Division of the VI Corps. They would fight in the Shenandoah Valley, breakthrough the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, 1865, battle at Sailor's Creek on April 6, and be present at Appomattox Courthouse for Lee's surrender to Grant on April 9.
George F. Polley image courtesy of American Civil War Research Database.
William Johnson execution image courtesy of the Library of Congress.