1864-65: William Cookman Shaw to his family

These letters were written by William (“Will”) Cookman Shaw (1844-1922) who was mustered into service as a 17-year-old sergeant in Co. B, 38th Indiana Infantry on September 18, 1861. He earned a promotion to Second Lieutenant on September 1, 1864—the very date Gen. Henry W. Slocum evacuated Atlanta, making way for the occupation of Union troops a day later and setting the stage for Sherman’s March to the Sea. Shaw was also commissioned First Lieutenant on September 4, 1864, as Captain on November 4, 1864, and finally as Major on June 8, 1865. At the close of the war, the 21-year-old Shaw was detailed by Colonel D. H. Patton to write a history of the Thirty-eighth Indiana, which was later published by General A. D. Streight in 1866.

A biographical sketch states that, “William was born in New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana. He later moved to Russellville, Kentucky, where he worked as a telegraph operator. When the Civil War began in 1861, Shaw returned to New Albany in September and enlisted in Company B of the 38th Indiana Regiment as a sergeant. In September 1864, he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant. This was followed by a rapid promotion to 1st lieutenant, and captain one month later. He was promoted to major in June 1865 and mustered out one month later. After the war, Shaw returned to New Albany, where he worked in retail in hats and caps. He later moved to Tippecanoe County where he married Emma E. Clemmens in January 1868. They had one daughter. In 1877, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his occupation was listed as a handwriting expert. Throughout his later life, he was active in the GAR. Shaw remained in Chicago until his death in 1922.”

The Indiana Historical Society houses a collection [Collection # SC 3561] of eleven letters written by Shaw to his parents and family while serving in the 38th Indiana Infantry. The collection includes letters from Camp Nevin, Kentucky; Camp Andy Johnson, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Jonesboro, and Savanah, Georgia. Among the topics are initially being assigned as a telegraph operator before being sent to the regular regiment; a description of the horror of his first battle (presumably Perryville) from Edgefield Junction, Tennessee, in November 1862; a description of engagement at Hoover’s Gap (June 1863); marching from Atlanta to Savanah, in December 1864; and engaging heavy Confederate resistance on the march to Goldsboro, North Carolina, in March 1865.

Will was the son of William Cookman Shaw (1817-1909) and Martha Elinor Reisinger Shaw (1821-1904) of New Albany, Floyd county, Indiana.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Jim Doncaster and is published by express consent.]


Atlanta, Ga.
September 14, 1864

My dear sister,

I received your loving letter upon the 22nd of August and really have had very little time since then to write. Since we have went into camp, I have been busy fixing up my tent, bed & desk &c. that I have wrote but little. But now that the work is done, I will have my pleasure & that is answering the letters I have received while upon the move.

The last letter I wrote home was written September 3rd just two days after the battle while we were at Jonesboro, 21 miles from here. ¹ Our Corps had some hard fighting for they were ordered to take the rebel works by charging them. Two regiments of our brigade tried to take the works in front of us but cold not. Presently an order came for the 38th to take them. The works were in the woods about 75 yards & we started forward in silence until we got to where they had the bushes cut down & then with  yell we went right into their works & half of the regiment thing them on their left side. We took a great  many prisoners but some dropped their guns, hats, &c. and ran away. We lost 36 killed & wounded (8 killed). Our company only lost two wounded. It is the only instance of the kind during the campaign where works have been taken by charging & than held so we feel very proud of it. But when the thought arises about our killed & wounded, it is then but a bitter pride.

Our camp at present is situated upon a hill with some nice shade trees, pines, &c. dispersed through it. We expect to be paid off some time this week or next week for there is eight months pay now owing to us. I want to get my pay before I am mustered as Lieutenant for it is much easier to got than afterwards. I guess that our commissions will come by the next mail & the mail may come today. The mail has been so irregular that we do not know when to look for one. Tell Father that I will send him an order for uniforms & I may send mine also & I want him to make it out of good cloth. Our Chaplain is going to start for New Albany upon Monday and if he will take it, I will send and ink stand by him. It is one that I got at Chattanooga when we first got there. I got it at the same time I got that little box. When it comes, you all can use it—it is heavy and cannot be broken.

I wrote a letter to Tommy last night. I guess it will go in the same mail as yours.

Dick tells me that you are making preparation to move in the rooms above the store. Do you all like the change? It would see, to me that it would be too close & confining & then there is no yard to the rear & it is too close to the hotel—too public is just what I mean. But then I hope that you girls will conduct yourselves I a proper manner & that it may not be a too handy place for our young gentleman friends. I am going to try and answer Annie’s and Susie’s letter. I have six more to answer. A few days ago I got a letter from Nellie Wilson, Iowa, & one from Jennie Morgan & one from Coz. Levi Shaw. He is well & sends his love to you all. I wonder why Father don’t write to me. My last letter to him was the one that [Adj.] George Devol was to take. I would like to know what he thinks about the prospect.

Cal[vin] Beck and Addison [G.] Turner will be mustered out upon the 17th of September and they expect to be able to start home upon Monday.

I went to the city yesterday. I saw some pretty faces but most of them were sad for General Sherman is sending all away either birth of our lines, or requiring them to go into rebeldom. Some of the houses had been struck by our shells & were completely riddled. I went to our hospitals where our wounded are and stayed with them for about an hour and a half talking to them & putting them I a good humor for that is the way I like to do when I go to the hospital. Some go there & the first thing they say is, “O! how pale you look! You will not live long! You look worse that I ever saw you look! and such like expressions. Now it is enough to kill a sick man for to tell them that. I like to give them encouragement & hope and make them forget that thought for something more pleasant.

Maggie, tell Jennie I want her to hurry and answer my letter. Give my love to Mira [Elmira] Sullivan & Mollie Q., Carrie U. & all of my lady friends. Don’t forget “Little Mischief.” Tell the boys I will answer their letters. Now write to me often. Send me by mail some good paper just this size—good, thick, white paper.

My love to Mattie, Myra and all the folks. Tell Coz. James [A. Wilson] ² I have not seen those photos yet. I got a letter from Alice South the same day that I got Dick’s. Write and tell me all the news & then you will hear again from your dear soldier brother, — Will C. Shaw

Give this photograph to Carrie Minemacher & tell her I am very thankful for her last favor, — Will

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¹ Shaw’s 3 September 1864 letter was sold at auction in December 2018 and included the following description of the Battle of Jonesboro: “I cannot control my feelings as I write it was only through the protection of my heavenly Father that I escaped…the order came for the 38th to go we got outside of the front line of works & sent 3 companies out as skirmishers and started for the rebel works, 75 yards in the dense woods. The rebels has cut all of the brush down and plaited it together but we climbed over it and drove & took the rebels right out of their works—we then chased them and crossed the Rail Road & fought for a half hour but having no support upon either flank we had to give them up we lost in the eight killed & twenty eight wounded…The Army of the Tennessee are following the rebel army now part of our Corps started back to Atlanta tonight with some 1,500 prisoners a part of the 9th Ky was taken some of the Duckwall boys from Louisville are among the prisoners.” The charge of the 38th Indiana broke the Confederate defense of Atlanta and led to Sherman’s capture of the city the next day.

² In December 2018, a number of Shaw’s letters were sold at auction. From the advertisement of this collection we learn that Shaw corresponded frequently with his cousin James A. Wilson. One of his letters to “Coz. James” gave an account of the assault of his regiment at the Battle of Stones River which was penned on 21 February 1863. It read, in part: “We laid here until darkness brought a cessation of hostilities but we were required to lay on the wet ground without any fires and no blankets…and we could hear the wounded moaning & crying and entreating for somebody to come and take them away for they were freezing to death…[the Rebels] did not appear to care about us seeing them for they built fires in the woods & we could see them standing around but when they would hear a gun discharge they would scatter…at daybreak the cannons commenced their terrible barking again and we were taken to the front again—double quick where we were placed in a sassafras thicket.”


Goldsboro, North Carolina
March 26th 1865

My Dear Father & Loved Ones,

Since last writing to you from Fayetteville we have had a terrible battle [at Bentonville, N. C.]. It was upon the 19th, 20th, and 21st of this month. The regiment lost twenty killed & wounded.

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Capt. James H. Low, Co. D, 38th Indiana Infantry

Lieut. Charles S. Deweese ¹ was killed upon the 19th by a rifle ball through the neck right side just above the collar bone. At the time he was shot, we were making a charge & he was just in the act of urging the men forward when he was hit. He died instantly. Capt. James H. Low [of Co. D] commanding the regiment was killed (or mortally wounded—died next day) earlier in the day while making a charge. I was commanding the Brigade skirmish line at the time and I was struck upon the right shoulder by a glancing ball and disabled for about an hour. Phillip H. Lenan was wounded at the same time that the Lieutenant was killed, the ball entering near the backbone and passing up and shattering his left collar bone. It is considered a dangerous wound. That is the extent of the wounded in Co. B.

Sergeant Goldsmith & Henry Miller deserted the Co. & Regt. upon the 11th of this month just before going into Fayetteville. ²

Got a mail today and I got as follows. Yours, January 22, January 28, Maggie 30th, Yours & Maggie’s 5th & 14th, Maggies 30th, and then the 2 letters from you & Maggie that Ludlow took—the 16th of November ’64. Also one from Nell Wilson, Al Eckelson, Dick Pennyton, Alex [   ], all in 11 envelopes. Also got 6 bundles of papers—some from Mc & some from Bro. Tom. Have not seen anything of my clothes. Got nothing to wear. Can’t tell whether I ever will get any. I expected to get a nice pair of gloves by mail but I can’t see them although I expressed a wish that they be sent that way but still you will send by hand.

I guess I will be Major of this regiment in the course of a few months of my wires work well, but still I am going to use my greatest endeavors to get out of the service. Should we get paid off soon, you will get some money but I am going to make different dispositions of it than I have done in the past and in a way that will not materially effect you or the business.

Now in your next letter I wish you would just tell me all about the affair of the firm. What is in it in a monetary way, what your private property amounts to, and in fact, what you are worth for it will have a tendency (one way or the other) with my intentions of staying in the service. I cannot see how I can possibly answer all the letters that I have received and do my work too but I guess I will get through if we stay here long enough. You must send my boots. I am going to send Lt. Deweese’s things to you and in one side of the valise I will send some of my things.

I guess Lafollette had better attend to getting his claims. Anything that he may want for to validate the claim I will forward to him upon application. His commission and his final statements & discharge as First Sergeant I will send in the valise or by hand should opportunity occur.

I will perhaps write again when the rest of the mail comes, which will be tomorrow. Hoping that this may find you all well, I am still yours and loving brother, — Will

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 5.10.22 PM¹ Charles S. Deweese (1821-1865) was 43 years old when he was killed at the Battle of Bentonville. Charles grew up in Kentucky but moved to the Ohio river port town of Mauckport, Harrison county, Indiana, sometime prior to 1840. He was listed in the 1850 US Census as a cooper. Charles’ son, Corp. John Walter Deweese served with his father in Co. B, 38th Indiana Infantry and claimed that his father was killed in an ambush and that he had to bury his father on the battlefield.

² An unsourced newspaper clipping attached to the Find-A-Grave profile of Lt. Charles S. Deweese claims that Goldsmith and Miller did not desert but were taken captive by ten rebels while foraging on the 12th of March. They were sent to Richmond where they were paroled and sent back to Union lines. 

As a curiosity, I observed that the aforementioned newspaper clipping describing Lt. Deweese’s death was a direct, word-for-word quote from Shaw’s letter to his Father that had been published in the paper, though it was attributed to “Capt. W. E. Shaw.”

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This half plate tintype was offered for sale on Cowan’s Auction site in 2018. featuring officers and enlisted men of the 38th Indiana Infantry, taken around Murfreesboro, TN in April of 1863, while the 38th was encamped there following the Battle of Stones River. This spectacular outdoor image shows the men gathered around an open tent, with a captain’s desk figuring prominently in the scene. Image housed in a full pressed paper case, fully separated at spine. Capt. James H. Low of Co. D sits just to the right of the pole in center. It is likely that Low had recently returned to the regiment after recovering from a serious head would received at Stones River. Low eventually took command of the 38th, but was killed at the Battle of Bentonville, NC, before the official commission and subsequent promotion was received.

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