1862: Abiel Walker Colby to Folks at Home

This poignant letter was written by Abiel Walker Colby (1832-1862), the son of Sterling Philip Colby (1805-1890) and Susan Walker (1809-1853) of Bow, Merrimack Center, New Hampshire. In 1860, Abiel was enumerated in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was employed as a merchant.

Abiel enlisted at the age of 28 on 16 May 1861 in Co. B, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry. He was appointed 2nd Lieutenant on 4 June, promoted to 1st Lieutenant a month later when the original 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Walker was killed in a train accident enroute to Washington D. C., and made Captain of Co. B on 1 November 1861. Within days of this letter—penned from Camp Winfield Scott before Yorktown, Virginia—Abiel fell ill and he was not with his company when the Rebels evacuated their fortifications at Yorktown and retreated to Williamsburg. He died of disease at Camp Winfield Scott on 13 May 1862.

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The Goddess of Liberty on the back of the Goodwin Rifles Banner

As a matter of curiosity, it should be noted that Co. B (the “Goodwin Rifles”) was the only company in the regiment armed with Sharps breech-loading rifles. The other nine companies had .69 calibre smoothbore muskets. Jens C. Falster, commenting on the Bull Runnings blog site in 2016 noted that most accounts of the regiment refer to it “as a poor unit at first, the men showing little respect for their inexperienced officers and consequently did poorly in the fighting.” [See letter by Capt. Simon Goodell Griffin, Co. B, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry, on the First Battle of Bull Run¬†contributed by John J. Hennessy] The header image is a close-up view of the emblem on the banner presented to the Goodwin Rifles by the ladies of Concord, New Hampshire. On one side of the banner, the State’s coat of arms appears. On the other side was a representation of the Goddess of Liberty. It was inscribed “Goodwin Rifles” in large gold letters.

TRANSCRIPTION

Camp Winfield Scott
Before Yorktown, Virginia
April 28th 1862

Dear Folks at Home,

Sunday again and with it comes to me a few moments of leisure which I must improve in answering some of your kind letters which have been received the past week. “Leisure moments” is a phrase which is almost out of use in a soldier’s lexicon, but ’tis impossible for a man to work all the time, night and day, because he is a soldier.

Since I wrote you last, we have seen by far the hardest work of our soldier’s life, and if we were not sustained and strengthened by the thought that soon we should see an end to this wicked rebellion, and that we are engaged in the most glorious cause of any warfare since the deluge, not excepting the [American] Revolution—-yes, if we were not inspired by such thoughts by the noble deeds of those who established the government we are now protecting—we could not for a moment think of enduring the privations and hardships we have the past week and shall till after this battle be called upon to pass through.

It has been a week long to be remembered by us—or most of us. Many have “fought their last fight” and gone to their reward. We have had two or three sharp skirmishes with “Johnny Rebel” resulting in about the same loss on both sides. Last night when on picket duty, three companies of 1st Regt. Mass. and 3 companies of the 11th Regt. Mass. Vols. made a charge on the rebel batteries and succeeded in driving them off and “raising the works to the ground” under a very hot fire of the enemy. We lost five killed and 15 badly wounded. Such work is almost of night occurrence, either by the enemy or ourselves, thus you see the danger of our everyday life to say nothing of the great battle which is daily expected.

Never in the history of wars since the creation of the world (except when they fought with the jaw bones of asses) was there two so large armies with such engines of destruction and death so near each other. Many of our heavy guns are mounted within 800 yards of their batteries (less than our rifles range). Guns which will carry an enormous shell from three to four miles and do awful execution. Whoever heard the like before. I tell you, when the ball opens, twill almost bring up those who so nobly fell defending their country in 1781. Many relics of that siege have been dug up while we have been throwing up the earthworks and building roads here, such as flints well picked and small cannon balls such as Old Uncle Tom Colby used to have up in his old home chamber which was the largest thing and in their days. I wish it might have been his or “Abraham’s” lot to have gone through this campaign safely. With what yarns would they have edified the boys of the next generation.

I sometimes feel that every letter is my last. Still, while there is life, we hope and I may be spared to return safely to those who are so near and dear. Thousands of fathers, brothers & sisters will mourn the loss of sons & brothers as brave and dear as I—and should we never meet again on earth, by trusting in Him who “lets not a sparrow fall without his notice,” we shall meet in that land where wars and battles are unknown.

Goodbye from your affectionate son & brother, — A. W. C.

I was sorry to hear that father is afflicted with a sore hand. He must not work so hard. Try and persuade him to take it easier. He will enjoy life longer.

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Poem dedicated to Capt. Abiel W. Colby appearing in the New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, 18 June 1862

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