1862-63: Emily Ryner to Alfred McClay

These letters were written by Emily (McClay) Ryner (1815-1901), the wife of gas fitter John Ryner (1815-1901) of Philadelphia’s 14th Ward. She wrote the letter to her nephew, Alfred McClay (1846-1863)—a private in Co. E, 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’ Zouaves). Alfred’s parents, Aaron K. McClay (18xx-1848) and Margaret McClay (18xx-Bef1850), died when Alfred and his only sister, Mary McClay (1847-1865), were very young. As a consequence, Alfred was taken in by the Ryner family and Mary was taken in by her Uncle Joseph Davis Wood (1811-1899).

Alfred received a gunshot wound to the right thorax during the Battle of Fredericksburg. The wound was initially characterized as “slight” and it was presumed by all that he would recover. He was sent to Harewood Hospital in Washington D. C. where he seemed to improve but periodic episodes of bleeding prompted the attending physician to attempt the removal of one of Alfred’s ribs. He died not long afterwards on 24 January 1863.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
Tuesday, November 11th 1862

Dear Alfred,

I take this opportunity of letting you know that we are all well at present and hope you are the same. I received your letter of the first inst. on last Friday and was very glad to hear that you were right well and hope that you may keep so. We have had a very hard snow storm here. It commenced snowing on Friday morning about seven o’clock and snowed all day and all the evening until about 10 o’clock when it stopped but did not clear off. On Saturday evening it began to snow again and snowed all night and Sunday until after dinner when it cleared off. It has been warm since and the snow has nearly all gone.

Everybody is complaining that everything is so high. Butter is twenty-eight cents a pound wholesale and eggs is twenty-three cents wholesale. Coffee is forty cents a pound. Dry goods are very high. Flannel that we bought for forty-seven cents a yard by the piece when Mr. Price went to buy some more like it last week.

I none of my letters I wrote to you about your aunt being here. You say that you do not know who I mean. I was your aunt Becky. It was your Aunt Rebecca Snodgrass.

I told you in my last letter that Theodore had got work and was to commence on Wednesday morning. He was discharged the very first day that he worked for the man he said that Theodore could not make knapsacks fast enough as he had just learned to make them.

I want you to write and let me know whether Mr. Hewitt ever answered your letter. If he did not, I will try to find out whether he has gone home. When you get paid, I would like you to get your likeness taken. If you could get one standing up and the color of your clothes, have it taken with our your cap and overcoat if it does not cost too much. I would like to have it for Emily for everybody that she sees with a suit on like yours she thinks is you. We will send Emily’s likeness to you before a great while.

Theodore was at the laboratory yesterday to see about work but he did not get it. Mr. Powey told him that he would like to have him but could not take him as he had to discharge some of his hands on Saturday night.

We are in hopes now that you will not go to Texas as there has been a change in the army. I see in The Ledger that there has been trouble at Harrisburg with the drafted men. They were not willing to fill up the old regiments as they thought they would have to stay longer than nine months if they did. I do not know how you done when it snowed so if you had not your tents put up yet.

Emily kisses her hand to you every night when she goes to bed and when I get a letter from you she must always kiss it. I will have to bring my letter to a close. Do your duty as a soldier and a Christian and do not forget to read your bible and pray for yourself. We will always pray for you and ask God to spare your life. I have no more to say at present as it is is getting late so goodbye.

From your ever loving mother, — Emily Ryner

P. S.  You must excuse me for not writing sooner as I cannot write when Emily is about for she keeps pulling and trying to get the letter and at night I do not always feel like it. We all send our love to you. I will tell Ben to answer your letter as soon as he can.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
Sunday evening, November 30, 1862

Dear Alfred,

I write these few lines to let you know that we are all about as well as usual and hope that they may find you the same. It was with pleasure that I received your letter of the 20th and was very glad to hear that you were well as I had not heard from you so long. I was beginning to think that something had happened to you. Your Pap and Ben and Mary  [Creagmile] were up to [North Baptist] church this morning and there was a very good sermon preached and they had a very good choir. We have prayer meeting now before church. It commences at half past six and continues until quarter past seven. You will find the text of this morning recorded in the First Chapter of the Forty-first and Forty-second verses. This evening Mr. [William S.] Hall preaches on the Life and Death of General Frank Patterson. You may find his text for tonight in the Tenth Chapter of Mark and the Twenty-first verses. Next Sunday morning his subject is the importance of bringing souls to Christ, in the evening on the resurrection of Christ.

Monday morning. Rachel was to see Eddy McDonald yesterday. He was a little better. She says that she would not have known him as he is so very thin. Henry Hallman went away with the three years men but he is now in the hospital at Fifth and Buttonwood with hemorrhage of the lungs.

I am very sorry that you did not get your gloves. I will send you another pair and direct them to the Captain. I will put a note inside so that he will know who they are for. The pair that I sent—and you did not get—had not any cuffs. If you should ever get them, and the next pair that I send, you can sell the first pair. But do not sell them too low as they cost me just two dollars. If you are out of money, you had better borrow some of your Captain or somebody until you get paid. If you can’t borrow, I will risk it to send you some but I do not like to until I know whether you have been getting your stamps as your Aunt Margaret’s letter had no stamps on. I thought that you had not been getting them. In every letter that I sent you, there has been stamps in except one.

John Tucker’s aunt was to me again on Saturday and she wants you to coax him to write so that they can send some word his mother. There was a woman told me that two companies of the Scott Legion had been taken prisoners and one of your Lieutenants shot, but I have not seen anything of it in the papers and have not heard it from anybody else.

Emily tries to say almost everything that we tell her to say if it is not too hard. I asked her if she wanted you to come home and she said yes. If we tell her to call you to your dinner or supper, she calls you. Take good care of yourself and may God watch over and protect you from all danger. And if you should be in the battle that is to take place in a few days, may He spare your life shall be our most earnest prayer. Write as soon as you can after you get this letter. I have no more to say at present, so goodbye.

From your affectionate mother, — Emily Ryner

P. S. I will send you a fifty cent note in this letter and if you get that, I will send some more as I cannot bear the idea of you being without anything hardly to eat and no money to buy anything. Write and leave me know whether you get your note.

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Addressed to Alfred McClay, Harewood Hospital, Ward A, Washington D. C.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
Saturday, December 20, 1862

Dear Alfred,

I received your letter and was very sorry to hear that you were wounded. Uncle Joseph Eddleman told me that he was going to Washington and he would try to have you sent on here. They can tell you there whether you will have to have a transfer from that hospital to one here or whether you can come home, If you are not able to come alone, your Pap or me will come for you. If you can get a transfer, try to get one to Sixth and Master [Hospital].

Write to me right away and tell me all about it. Take care of yourself. We all send our love to you. I have no more to say at present so goodbye.

From your affectionate mother, — Emily Ryner

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Addressed to Alfred McClay, Ward A, Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
December 30th 1862

Dear Alfred,

I write these few lines to let you know that we are all about as well as usual with the exception of bad colds. Your Pap got home last evening and we were very glad to hear that you were getting better and hope that you will soon be able to be sent on here. Tomorrow, if the weather is fit, I am going to see whether Mr. [William S.] Hall will go with me to the hospital [at Sixth & Master Streets] to see about getting you in. Do not say anything there about getting your discharge. We want to have you sent on here if we possibly can and then we will see to getting your discharge. Perhaps if you say anything there about it, they will not send you on here.

We all wish you a Happy New Year. Take good care of yourself and do not eat too much. We all send you our love. Write as soon as you can and leave us know how you are. I have no more to say at present so goodbye.

[Your mother, — Emily Ryner]

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Addressed to Alfred McClay, Ward A, Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
Sunday evening, January 11, 1863

Dear Alfred,

I write these few lines to let you know that I am a great deal better. The rest of us are as well as usual except Emily. She is not very well. I hope that they may find you much better—so much so that you can be out of bed. [Your cousin,] John Wood has not been well. He says he don’t know when he will get down to see you. I hope that you will soon be well enough to be brought on here. Write soon and leave us know whether there is any prospect of your being transferred to a hospital here. Mr. [William S.] Hall said if he knowed when you were coming, he would go down to the depot to meet you.

Tonight is the Sunday school anniversary. Your Pap and Ben has gone to it. I am afraid that there will not be a great many there as it looks so much like rain. Robert Earley’s [Easley’s?] folks have not had any word from him since the Battle of Fredericksburg. They heard that him and another one were seen together after the battle and that it all that they can hear.

You wanted to know what you should give that old lady, I do not hardly know what to tell you to give her. You might give her a couple of dollars. I guess that will be enough. I think that you had better write to the Captain of your company to know whether he knows about the last pair of gloves that was sent to you. They were mailed on the eleventh day of December. You will have to be very careful when you get paid that somebody does not steal your money and when you come on here, you will have to be careful that it is not taken from you. I think that you had better carry it in your writing case if there is place for it. If we know when you are coming, there will be someone to meet you at the depot. If you want anything, write and let me know. If I can get any strawberries to you, I will send them.

Take care of yourself and I hope that God will soon restore of yourself so that you can come home. We all send you our love. I have no more to say at present so goodbye.

From your affectionate mother, — Emily Ryner


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