In 1863, at 20 years old, Nathan Appleton joined the Army of the Potomac as an officer in the Fifth Massachusetts Battery. He saw action with his unit in the Mine Run Campaign, at Spotsylvania, and at the Wilderness, until he received a gunshot wound in May 1864. Nathan returned to the army almost a year after being wounded as an Aide de Camp to the commander of the 5th Corps Artillery Brigade. He rejoined the army on April 1, 1865, and was with the army at General Lee’s surrender on April 9 and to receive news of President Lincoln’s assassination. He participated in the army’s Grand Review through the streets of Washington, D.C., before returning home.
Just before he was wounded, Nathan wrote to his mother, “Anyone who has gone through such a scene as this would not feel inclined to settle any matter by war.… It will take a big inducement to make me engage in another war.” Although he never again went to war, his experiences in the Civil War stayed with him the rest of his life. He became active in two fraternal organizations founded by veterans after the war to commemorate their shared experience. In the 1890s, Appleton published romanticized reminiscences in the Boston Journal, recalling “the greeting music of the guns” and “old comrades and friends” at the Battle of Five Forks.