1862-63: William H. Leslie to his family

These two letters were written by 32 year-old William H. Leslie (1830-1885), the son of David Leslie and Mary J. Clements of Boston, Massachusetts. William was married twice. His first wife was Lydia Ann Towne (1832-@1870). His second wife was Mary Melissa Weaver (1852-1944). Just prior to the Civil War, William was working as a “shoe cutter” in North Andover, Essex county, Massachusetts.

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Early in the war, the boys of Co. B, (“the Paul Revere Guard”), 11th Massachusetts Infantry, wore tricorne hats as seen here by Pvt. Thomas Green

In June 1861, William left behind his first wife and three young boys to enlist in Co. B (the “Paul Revere Guard”), 11th Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment was one of only three Massachusetts units to take part in the First Battle of Bull Run. And later, when they were withdrawn from the Peninsula, they fought again at Second Bull Run, only to suffer 40% casualties in the span of twenty minutes in a bayonet charge against an unfinished railroad bed held by the Confederates. The regiment did not fight at Fredericksburg but watched the debacle from its position near the river as they guarded the pontoon crossings.

In the first of these two letters, Corp. Leslie informs his wife that he is writing from the battlefield at Fair Oaks where two days of hard fighting had resulted in over 10,000 casualties—nearly 2,000 killed—with no material gain on either side. “The smell is terrible,” he told her. A week after the battle, they were not all buried yet. “How many homes are left desolate?” he posited to his wife.

In the second letter, written after a year and a half of hard service, Corp. Leslie informs his uncle, “I have had enough fighting myself.” After reviewing the changes of leadership in the Army of the Potomac, he summarizes his thoughts by writing, “Little Mac’s name is in the soldiers’ mouth all the time. They will fight for him and feel satisfied. No one—only them that has been with him—knows how the soldiers adore him. He is to the American Army what Napoleon was to the French.”

Corporal Leslie survived the war. He mustered out of the service on 24 June 1864.

[Note: These letters are from the personal collection of Jim Doncaster and are published by express consent. The header image is a painting of the Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks]


White Oak Swamp [Virginia]
June 7, 1862

Dear Wife,

I write you a few lines [on] this my birthday. Yesterday was Willie’s. I thought of it and how I wished I could be with you.

I am now on the battlefield [at Fair Oaks]. The battle was fought last Saturday and Sunday. It was a terrible fight. Our men was drove the first day and a great many of them killed. But Sunday we drove them and gained the ground we lost—and such a slaughtering we gave the Rebels. There is thousands of them dead. It is now a week today since the battle and the dead are not all buried yet. It is one of the worst sights I ever saw. Their bodies are rotten and the smell is terrible. It will make us all sick. And the wounded we can count by thousands. My dear wife, it is awful. I have seen enough. I shall be glad of the time when I can see you again but I have got to fight again and we expect [to] now every moment.

Our picket duty is very dangerous. We have got to go on this afternoon. We were not in the fight. We were in the other fight first and it was not our turn to go first this time. We acted as reserve, expecting our turn every moment. I am glad we were not in it. Our fight that is coming off will be the worst of any we have been in yet. The Rebels were full of whiskey and they fought like crazy men. The Rebels lost ten thousand men in killed, wounded and missing. Only think of it—enough to populate a city—all young men—the flower of the country. Wicked & cruel war! How many homes are left desolate?

I have not time to write much. I wish you would write as soon as you can and as often. If I don’t write often, you must not think I forget you. I have to be up nights so often that I have to sleep day times. Tell the little boys to be good and remember Father. You will hear of the next battle before you hear from me and you will know whether I am in it or not by keeping track of [Joseph] Hooker’s Division and [Cuvier] Grover’s Brigade. Direct your letters in care of Capt. Smith. We have a new captain.

Give my love to all the folks. tell Lizzie to write and let me know how John fares now. I will bid you goodbye. Yours until death, from your husband, — Wm. H. Leslie


Camp near Fredericksburg [Virginia]
February 5, 1863

Dear Uncle,

I will try to write you once more although you do not write to me. I think you ought. It is the most part of the time. For the three last months been a busy time for me. I have been on the provost guard and we have plenty to do. I hardly ever see the regiment, only to get my letters. Uncle, I wish you would write oftener. I cannot write every time I should like to. In all probability I shall have to get up several times before I get. this letter wrote.

I am well, all but a cough which I have had ever since we left Manassas. We had so many streams to ford that I got cold and have not got rid of it yet since we some times had to go up to our waist in water and it was froze at that. Suffer? Do you know that the soldiers suffer? Why, it is beyond description here in the winter with only a little piece of shelter tent over us. Our canteens of water will freeze solid in our tents. Our food [is] poor, our officers drunk and abusive. One half of them want to resign and they will not accept of their resignations. The comfort of the soldier [is] forgotten—no matter about him if he suffers. He is nothing but a private. He has no sympathy. A soldier is not used so well as the Negro. I suppose you know that our Division is not much better than an armed mob. But Old Joe Hooker has got the command of the army and the first thing he does is to order his old division somewhere in some scrape just as though the division had not done enough. It [our division] has made him a Major General and [the] commander of this great Army [of the Potomac]! It has made General Sickles a Major General. It has made General Naglee a Major General. It has made Gen. Grover a Major General. And it has made generals enough to stop fighting!

I have had enough fighting myself. In fact, the army is discouraged. Unless there is some great thing happens, this army will never fight. You recollect the letter you wrote to me about McClellan? It was but a few days after that he was superseded [by Burnside]. I would like to ask you, Uncle, if our army has prospered since that. What have we done? Why lost fifteen thousand men in one battle. I was not particularly engaged in that battle [at Fredericksburg] but I could see the whole scene. It was an awful sight. I could not help thinking of thousands that would be fatherless. But Uncle, do you think McClellan would have fought such a battle? I do not blame Burnside for I think there is someone else to blame for that slaughter. “Mac” would never tried to have gone across the river until he had shelled them out. But that is done. What comes next? The division has gone somewhere. What is to be done? There is to be fighting done. Old Joe Hooker says that we must meet the enemy and fight them.

Now Uncle, what do you think of Joe Hooker? [On] New Year’s night, Dan Sickles gave a party. I was on guard. Every officer in the division was invited. They had a drunken time. Hooker was so drunk that I had to post a sentry on his tent to keep anyone from going into his tent.

You must not blame me for my poor writing for I have got to leave for somewhere and do not know then I am [able to] write again. This is double quick.

Yours truly, — Wm. H. Leslie

January 7th—I left my letter part wrote the fifth and have just got time to see what I was writing. I do not know as you can make it out for I can hardly do so myself. Our division, I wrote you, was ordered to march—light marching orders—that is nothing but a blanket and rations. It began to rain just as they got started and rain here means mud so that it makes it very hard going. Some of the poor fellows are just coming back all wore out. Our brigade is keeping on. They are burning bridges. The army is going to make another move but this time in a different direction. They are going south, I hope. It will not be our luck to go any further south.

Little Mac’s name is in the soldiers’ mouth all the time. They will fight for him and feel satisfied. No one—only them that has been with him—knows how the soldiers adore him. He is to the American Army what Napoleon was to the French. I am still on the Provost Guard. We did not have to go on this march but we expected it. I have been here over three months. The guard has been changed twice since I have been here but they have kept me here and I am not sorry although my work is harder than it would be in the regiment. Write and let me know how you all so. Give my love to Aunt and my little cousins. And now I will bid you goodbye for this time.

Yours truly, from your nephew, — Wm. H. Leslie



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