This letter was written by William Farrand Keys (1837-1917), the son of Joseph Keys (1798-1864) and Clarissa Anna Rutty (1800-1879) of Lycoming county, Pennsylvania. William enlisted in September 1862 to serve three years in Co. K, 143rd Pennsylvania Infantry. He entered the service as a private but mustered out as a sergeant, his excellent penmanship offering him opportunities for clerical assignments within the regiment not available to the average enlisted man. Though he grew up a farmer, apparently William also made a living as a teacher. His Civil War Journal, kept in 1863-64, is archived at the Rutgers University Library in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The 143rd Pennsylvania was part of the First Corps and so did most of its fighting on the McPherson farm west of Gettysburg on 1 July 1863. Proudly serving as part of Roy Stone’s Bucktail Brigade, the 143rd lost more than half the men (in killed, wounded, and missing) that they took into the fight. But their brigade’s stubbornness in giving ground bought the Union army valuable time for moving more troops to the area and occupying the high ground on Cemetery Ridge. The standard bearer of the 143rd, Benjamin Crippen, won immortal fame as the regiment slowly gave ground on Seminary ridge, turning to shake his fist as the advancing rebels on several occasions before he was cut down. [see banner image]. Readers are referred to James Dougherty’s book, Stone’s Brigade and the Fight for the McPherson Farm, 2000.
In this letter, William tells his brother that Lee’s army—whom he referred to as “Old Bobby”—had escaped from the grasp of the Army of the Potomac and reentered Virginia. He wrote the letter from Bealton Station where the regiment was left to perform guard duty on the railroad while they waited for conscripts to fill its depleted ranks.
During the Battle of the Wilderness the following year, William was taken captive in the first day’s fighting (May 5, 1864) and he spent the next ten months as a prisoner-of-war—much of the time in the Camp Sumter military prison at Andersonville. Miraculously he survived this ordeal, was released, mustered out with his company, and lived to a ripe old age.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Jim Doncaster and is published by express consent.]
August 13, 1863
Has your pen grown rusty and refused to write or has this terrific August weather evaporated your ink? I have not heard from you for six weeks or longer and I naturally conclude that something must be wrong. I hope it may not be that those vixenish females of the unmarried persuasion abounding in ye ancient village and vicinity are occupying your attention to the exclusion of ye federal soldier “way down” at Bealton. If such should be the case, —-well, no matter.
I think I last wrote to you immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg but forgot exactly when or what it was about. The battle aforesaid, however, is so long gone by, that I do not feel inclined to discuss it now, but if I ever see you again I will tell you something about it that will illustrate to you as they did to me certain portions of the history of this war that I could never before understand. Those were terrible days—those three—and I thought after they were over that I would rather do almost anything than undergo another such an ordeal. But now that time has erased the memory of our sufferings and benignantly softened or obscured the more hideous outlines of the picture, I feel as though I would not care to try it again. I fully expected ever since then to be a prominent actor in another tragedy of similar dimensions. One day (I think the 12th July) we crossed Antietam Creek and arranged ourselves in line of battle in a devil of a hurry, I tell you, our brigade in the front. Right before us was some rising ground covered by an extensive wheat field from various parts of which smoke would spurt out once in awhile and the moment the bullets of rebel sharpshooters would throw up the dirt at our feet.
As soon as our line was fixed, we went to throwing up breastworks, also sent out skirmishers who soon made the “Johnnies” skedaddle from the wheat field. The skirmishing continued till after dark and was renewed at daylight and kept up with great pertinacity till noon when the Rebs fired three guns throwing their shells over a detachment that were putting up a breastwork on rising ground before mentioned. This stopped the firing of muskets on either side for the day and by next morning at 9 o’clock Old Bobby was safe on the south side of the “Rubicon.”
We followed his trail to Williamsport and found his entrenchments in our front very strong. If we had made an attack, I think it would have proved the last of the 2nd Brigade. We also found six graves by his lines in out front showing that our sharpshooters took better aim than theirs. Our loss was only a few wounded from [John Reese] Kenly’s Brigade. While the skirmishing was going on, a citizen of Funkstown whom the Rebs had robbed of everything he possessed came out and took a position on our line with gun and equipments to try as he said to get a little satisfaction. He blazed away very industriously and with evident delight. Presently bang! whizz spans! came in one of the shells I spoke of right over his head and exploded in the rear. Ye citizen was startled. His sport began to assume a serious aspect, when bang! goes the rebel gun again and once more the iron message to “get out” went hissing over his head. Ye citizen was frightened and before the third report came his coat tails were toying with the breeze at right angles with his flying body. He did not go to the rear at double-quick but as the artillery men would say, he ricocheted—touching once in forty rods and bounding like a spherical 12 pounder shot.
It is an interesting as well as a curious fact—and one that I particularly remarked during the battle—that the battery men are perfectly indifferent to shells no matter how thick they come or what destruction they create. But of the little singing “minié” they evince a wholesome fear. With the infantry the case is exactly reverse. They do not care for bullets but have a dread of shells.
Well! I must come to a finis. The Pay master is here and I expect to get 4 months pay today or tomorrow. I have been sick some along back but feel pretty well now. I am doing duty as Adjutant Clerk which is some easier than in the ranks. The weather has been for about two weeks intensely hot and we suffer for water which is poor and scarce. I notice that it thunders and lightenings here with an energy seldom reached in our latitude.
Write soon. I have not received a letter for so long from anyone that it would be a new sensation. Yours sincerely, — W. F. K.