1864: Unidentified “George” to his Mother

This letter was written by a soldier named “George” who served in Co. C, 7th New York Heavy Artillery from a camp near Petersburg, Virginia, where they were being used as infantrymen during Grant’s Overland Campaign. I thought certain I could identify the soldier but having culled through the roster twice and looking hard at every soldier named George in that company, I could not narrow down the pool to only one who fit the profile. My impression is that the soldier was well educated based upon his writing skills and that he was relatively young, perhaps having joined the regiment in 1864.

In his letter, George describes the Assault on “Fort Crater” on October 27, 1864 by one company of the 148th Pennsylvania carrying 7-shot Spencer Rifles. They managed to capture a battery (Davidson’s Battery), but later had to give it up and return to Union lines.

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The Assault on Fort Crater (Civil War Regiments, Volume 2, No. 2, page 148) by David Woodbury


Field before Petersburg [Virginia]
November 1st 1864

My dear mother,

My package came last night. How it makes me think of home. Yesterday we moved our camp from where my last was dated (on the 27th) and are now two miles to the left and rear. Our camp is a pleasant one, in a large open field with good water. At the right front and left are thick woods from which we procure plenty of fire materials which in our last camp—and especially on picket, was scarce. You probably judged from my last that our whole regiment was on picket duty. That is never the case. While part of our force is on picket, the balance is on the support line I spoke of and when the former comes off the latter relieves.

Surely something ails Uncle Sam’s mail bag; perhaps it has the rheumatism. It can’t be old age that troubles it for I have heard that age strengthens such things. But whatever the cause, I have yet received no letter. I attribute this delay to U. S. M. because I don’t believe those at home would so long forget me.

I promised you to tell of a shelling scene on the night of the 10th ult. Instead, I will narrate an occurrence of the 27th ult. in which more cannonading and shelling like that of the 10th….  I finish this on the 4th, having been interrupted to work on muster rolls, on which I have been completely engaged since. I shall have to hurry this as Lieutenant Fisk is waiting for me; but I can’t let my home letter be deferred too long, even if I am obliged to curtail it now.

Well, to proceed with the affair of the 27th. Part of our regiment was on the picket line and part on the reserve. I was with the latter. Just before dark, a file of about 140 men of the 148th Pennsylvania, armed with seven shooters, went down the covered road (a road with the dirt thrown high up on each side) leading to the picket. Soon came the news that they had volunteered to charge the enemy’s line and a fort just in the rear thereof. We awaited developments with interest. It was not long before the musketry told that events were progressing. The firing being rather slack though, we took it to be that of the Johnny pickets, fearing an advance, and thus making a noise as an intimidation. Our doubt was soon cleared. A wounded man brought tidings that both the line and fort were taken; the lightness of firing was owing to the fact that Miss. Johnnies were few and far between. The fort contained but one gun.

Well of course the goose hung high in the enthusiastic and patriotic line for awhile—but only for awhile. The damper soon came. Musketry commenced—grew very rapid—continued five minutes—ceased, and the damper was that fort and line had been retaken and a dozen men taken prisoners. Here was a reverse and nobody knew how vigorously it might be followed up. To meet such an emergency, the remainder of our force and several other regiments was ordered front in light marching order—that is, with gun and accouterments. In we went at double quick and guns trailed.

On the way out I experienced the feelings of a man going into battle. Arrived at the line we were drawn up ready, but nothing came and after awhile, we went back. But didn’t the opposing pickets give it to us on the way out? Their line is on top of a long hill and ours below it. Certain points of the covered road—especially those places where there was no covered road—were completely exposed. These places were pretty thoroughly raked by bullets. Of course our legs were in requisition when we crossed these open spots, and it would be entirely against nature to say that we did not “look alive” as the soldiers say. A man fell a few feet in front of me. Several were wounded. I don’t know how many—about a dozen perhaps, but none killed.

We have moved our camp three miles to left and rear from where I received two letters from home this morning—or rather, two envelopes, one containing letters from you and father, and the other enclosing what in the circumstances is a very good thing—money, two dollars. I shall answer them soon. I have thus far escaped all pieces of lead and iron, and retained my health, which moreover is improved. We have drawn no overcoats yet, The weather is cold and windy and we need them. The men are complaining about it. But if I am very cold, I can slip on my jacket under my blouse, you know.

In a former letter you said you supposed I had not lice (I don’t like to write the word) all over me. Indeed I have, and large and fat at that. One of my comrades calls them military inspectors. They make very close inspections. I am told that anquintum salve is the best thing to keep them off. Officers have them as well as privates. If you have money to spare to get me a good pair of boots, I wish you would send them as soon as you can; perhaps father, as he says, can have them made from my old pair. My old ones were tight on the instep.

Now “listen with attention most profound” while I give you my reason for being the most anxious that these things should be sent immediately. Capt. [John F.] Mount of this regiment is a staff officer. He has in some ways charge of the ordnance department at Division Headquarters. Well he wants a clerk. He spoke of the matter to Lt. [Charles] McLellan [or McClellan] of Co. H and he immediately recommended me. The Captain asked if I was steady, and Lt. said “yes, steady as a clock.” Captain said he should take me. Everyday I am expecting an order to report to Headquarters. Probably in a week I shall be there.

Now dear Mother, does that please you? I shall have a good house to stay in and be free from danger at any rate. My Lieutenant Fred. A. Fisk want to keep me till the rolls are done. He says our rolls will be the neatest in the regiment. I am doing all the writing on them. Of course I am free from duty. Lieutenant has told me that in case I should not go to headquarters, he will have me for company clerk and take my gun from me. So you see my prospects at the worst are good.

I am very much pleased with my package. I think Father made the portfolio. It is a nice one. I am looking for the Atlantic.

I think a great deal about Dr. Agnew ¹ and of his offer but can I accept it? Can I study for three years earning nothing? I don’t know how I can do it unless something very good turns up. And yet I feel certain that if such a course is practicable, it is the best calling I can choose. But when I think of the three years and then of the struggle which must follow, in starting myself and the expense necessarily incurred thereby, I confess the thing looks dark. Perhaps I can work while studying.

Please send the anguintum salve by mail and with it a fine comb. I received a letter from George Yost yesterday. My soldier life is not like that of most men. I don’t associate with the company. Somehow the men don’t approach me. They don’t avoid me, nor do they seem to dislike me. Even with my tent mate I am cool. They are all a poor, childish set, Lieutenant McLellan has just told me that I am to go to Headquarters in a week—as soon as I get the rolls of the company done, and those of Co. H. After I am there, I can come back to the regiment once in awhile to help write. It seems I am in great demand. The officers take quite a fancy to me and place me almost on a footing with themselves.

I will write again soon. Yours loving son, — George

I wish you would send me $3 more if possible. I have used 50 cents of the $2 received this morning to buy a pair of drawers, better than those issued by government at $1. Look on 1st page for continuation. Send postage stamps.

I owe a negro cook 50 or 75 cents for washing a pair of pants and a shirt, which I could not do myself. I must have the same done again as soon as possible. When I go to Division Headquarters, I want money in my pocket. My descriptive list has not come, but I shall manage so as to be paid, — George

¹ Possibly Dr. Cornelius Rea Agnew (1830-1888) of Albany, New York. 

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