1861: James Ryall to Friend

This letter was written by 19 year-old Irish immigrant James Ryall (1841-1881) who enlisted on 20 April 1861 at Albany, New York, to serve two years in Co. C, 3rd New York Volunteers. He was promoted to First Sergeant prior to being wounded at Drury’s Bluff, Virginia, in May 1864, and accepted a commission as 1st Lieutenant in August 1864. Before he was mustered out of the service, he was promoted to Captain of his company.

In his letter, Ryall describes the Battle of Big Bethel which was fought on June 10, 1861 on the Peninsula between Fortress Monroe and Yorktown. It was a disaster for the Union forces involves who were poorly led. The 3rd New York Infantry, still wearing grey uniforms, entered the fight about noon, trying to attack the Confederate forward position but could only advance to within 500 feet before being forced to lay down due to the heavy Confederate fire. They eventually withdrew but not without casualties that far exceeded what the Confederates experienced.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 5.51.49 PM
Big Bethel by artist James Thomas Neumann


Fort McHenry
Baltimore, Maryland
September 8th 1861

Dear Friend,

I just thought I would improve a few moments in writing to you hoping these few lines will find you in the enjoyment of good health as we are all here at present, thank God. Since we left home, we have run some pretty hard times but after all my health has been very good all the while for you may judge I have gained about fifteen pounds since I left home and if my health had not been good, I of course would not have gained so much.

We have been in but one battle and that was quite a severe one. We were drawed up in line of battle right in front of the enemy’s battery and we charged on them but they having such a strong battery we could not do with them as we could wish for we had not artillery enough to take effect on their battery. We for about three hours were exposed to great danger for just think we were in a line right before their great cannon and were it not that they fired too high, they would have cut us all to pieces. But thank God, He through His kind providence has protected us thus far. I think if we had the same chance at them there would not be many left. It was a great piece of nonsense in us to go to meet them without more field pieces but as it was, we came off about as well as they did.

But friend, here a body has to keep on guard and watch that he enter not into temptation, and thus far I have tried to do my Master’s will and I mean to as long as I live though here temptation surrounds me on every hand. Yet, I rely on this promise—that the Grace of God is sufficient for me if I only trust in Him and this I have endeavored to do thus far for I know not how soon I may be called away—perhaps before three days rolls around I may be laid low by the evening so that it stands one in hands to be ready when my time shall come.

We had quite an alarm in the camp last night on account of one of the prisoners getting away. We had a prisoner here in the fort who was a captain in the Rebel army. He made his escape last night [when] he by some means obtained one of our suits and went to one of the fellows on guard and asked him to let him out. He first offered him two dollars; then he offered him his watch and two dollars. Well the fellow bribed him in this way so he got out. The police were in search of him immediately but he has not been found yet. I hope they will catch him for he will be apt to make quite a disturbance if he gets away in account of this. He knows just how things are situated here. I tell you, he is a keener. He said not long ago that he expected to take command of this fort himself before long, but if he does, I think he will have to fight some for it. When we took him prisoner, he was locked up in a bureau drawer. By this you may see what kind of a man he is. But as I shall have to go to church now pretty soon, I will have to close. I send Hat and family my best respects. Pray for me and by the grace of God assisting me, I will endeavor to meet you in heaven. Write soon.

Direct to me, Co. C, 3rd Regiment N. Y. V.

Your friend, — James Ryall

Fort McHenry, Maryland



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s