Emerson’s daughter among the soldiers

 

This is Ellen Emerson’s long letter to her brother Edward (these were two of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children) which I copied from the book The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, scanned, and more or less cleaned up mainly by extensive paragraphing. Ellen Emerson was 23 in mid-1862, writing to her brother on his 18th birthday. This is long, but it interested me and seems to me it should interest you. Here is a first-hand account, from a 23-year-old genteely-raised New England girl, of an epoch in her life: Conversations with sick and wounded men — boys, many of them, really — veterans of army life, sickness, battle and (often) injury. It seems to me an invaluable window into another time.

Newport. July 10th 1862

This being your birthday my dear I must at any rate write you a letter. First I will tell you of to-day’s events, too good to lose, and if I afterward have time I will go back to other scenes and pastures old. This morning at 7 o’clock we started for the Portsmouth Grove….

After some embarrassed waiting, and after some much constrained and terrified visiting of tents to bestow oranges, we returned to Miss Clarke who was making tea on the piazza and distributing it to nurses (soldiers of course) who carried it to their men. Presently came a major who drove away the men who clustered round, and told us to go to the immense shed at back of headquarters with our apparatus and he would send there the men just landed from the transport and who had had no breakfast.

Into this mighty building we went and found a long bench round three sides on which sat innumerable soldiers, others lay on their blankets on the floor, many walked about with Canes. Miss C. set her apparatus on the bench, I put a large bunch of butter given to my care beside it and sat down between. Then Mrs Ames went for some bread and, having stolen two loaves from the commissary, she cut them up and we buttered them and carried them round.

Beside me sat a soldier whom I presently questioned. New Hampshire, enlisted last September, wound in the leg, rheumatism sot in. He was very gloomy and unwilling to talk. I couldn’t get any information from him, except a contemptuous grunt when I mentioned the doctor, his opinion that the war might have been settled up long ago but “the head officers are in for making money.” I soon gave up talking with him.

The bread was all gone, I had nothing to do, Mrs Ames brought me some pilot-bread-shaped ship biscuit, and proposed we should butter them. I did, seeing how bad they were said “They aren’t very good, are they?”

N. Hamp­shire said “They’re better than what we have, square biscuit.” I found that a crowd of men were looking on with interest, and asked Mrs Ames to offer them the biscuits which were eagerly accepted. Then she went away. Presently a man timidly approached with biscuits in his hand, I took them and while I was buttering them said to N.H. “I suppose you don’t have butter at the South—” A poor man, teeth and skin turned grey with sickness, burst in while N.H. was slowly replying “Except what we buy” with “No, butter’s a rarity like—I don’t know what to compare it with. It’s a rarity—a rarity?” He really seemed incapable of finishing his sentence, so deep was his feeling on the subject, and I saw that he had a cracker in his hand, and buttered that too, and from that time and for half an hour I was kept busy, partly by silent, partly by polite men.

Once came a boy, perhaps sixteen. As he went away I said to N.H. “Is that boy a soldier?” a man on N.H.’s left leaned forward to say “Oh! thay is boys not sixteen years old in the ranks.” A man with nice white teeth—and N.H., with the usual gloomy voice, bore the same testimony. In a few minutes a child not more than 12, in dirty infantry uniform, and with a sword, brought two half crackers. When he went away, N.H., for the first time lifted his eyes with a half smile, and when I said “Is that a soldier too?” said “Well I don’t know, I believe he is a drummer.” A man sitting at his feet with red eyes said “There is drummers not more than so high” “Why did he have a sword?” “Drummers most always do” said N.H.

A boy lay on the floor whom I looked at very often his cheeks were so hollow and he looked so very weak. By and by he got up and came back with 1/4 cracker in his hand. While I was spreading it I said “You look very sick, have you had a fever?”

“Typhoid fever and was discharged too soon, and lay out in the wet, and then I got cold and was sent to the Regimental Hospital and was put in the tent with men that was very bad with typhoid and I got it again, and now that I’ve begun to get well I don’t seem to get better at all, I’ve stayed just about so these last three weeks.”

This he didn’t say all at once, but with my questions between, and he answered in the dragging breathless voice that you had once you know. Presently N.H. went away, and this poor boy of the 101st Penn. sat down beside me in his place. He looked about 25 and he was rather bent. But as he talked I presently saw he couldn’t be over 17, and, having once noticed that, I observed that it was generally so. These men looked generally between 30 and 50, but when I considered them particularly, I usually saw that subtracting the sickness they seemed 20 or 30, often younger, and one or two who had impressed me as being really old could not be so. It was very painful.

My 101st was ready to talk, so I continued to talk with him for some time. He said their regi­ment had gone into service 760 strong. Now there were just 164 men in it. I soon discovered that he didn’t expect to go back.

“Why not?”

Gov. Curtin had promised his colonel that when the regiment should dwindle to 300 he would disband it, and “he guessed he would stick to his word because Gov. Curtin’s wife was own sister to his Colonel” so he expected to go home if he ever left this place.

“Oh, you will get well here, Newport air will be good for you.”

“I don’t know, the doctor says when a man’s been as sick as long as I have, he must be very careful. ‘Twon’t take much to send me to my long home.” He said too that he “was sick of the war, he guessed there wa’n’t a soldier on any side but what was sick and tired of it.” He showed me his blanket and sleeping arrangements, and said “When it would rain in the night the water would run in under the tent and the first one that would wake would rouse up all the others. But we’d be wet all down the side we were lying on.” At last he seemed tired of talking.

Miss Clarke had disappeared. No lady was with me in the whole building. I felt however so well satisfied with my position that I wouldn’t move and sat silent. Pres­ently I turned to my right, a rather wretched looking man who sat by me leaning on his cane said “I suppose you never saw so many sick men together before?”

Here was an opening. The men I had talked with made me afraid lest our army was losing its interest, so after a little questioning and answering I began on this one, though not a good specimen, with the question whether the soldiers knew what they were fighting for, and cared. He thought they did, oh yes, and was beginning to talk a little when a very good and intelligent looking man on the right whom I shall therefore name “R.”, leaned forward and said “I would like to put you a question. What inducement do you think 13 dollars a month would be to men to leave all their business, and their families, and knowing too that four fifths of them must die, not by wounds or in battle, but of diseases of all the worst kinds? Do you think that $13 a month—What is $13 a month?—would be the least com­pensation for that? No, this rebellion must be put down. This government must be upheld. This, now, is what I thought when I enlisted, that if we should let the South go, there must be a standing army, as they call it kept on both sides, which would be a great expense, and we would have no security that in say twenty more years there wouldn’t be another civil war, and then France and England and Russia would pitch in, and we should all go to pieces and what then would become of the Government we are so proud of?”

Meanwhile the man between had gone away. Now came up a man with a fresh face and a red moustache whom I shall call the “Sergeant” for he turned out to be, and said to my R. “Just landed?”

“Yes, how do you do?”

“I feel better” said Sergeant cheerfully, “than I have these three weeks. I got a dish of milk-porridge last night that was worth 37 cents to a man in my condition.”

“Thirty seven cents!” said R. thoughtfully, “yes I should think it was, or to a man in any condition.”

“And this morning” continued the Sergeant, “I have had a cup of coffee and a piece of bread and a cup of tea and a cracker.”

“I can’t eat crackers” said R.

“What! not these round ones we drew this morning?!” cried S.

“No”.

“But I’ve been in the water,” continued S. “And washed off, and that was better than all.” And he did look very clean except as to his clothes.

Now came a little man and sat down between me and the Sergeant. Something was said about home. “It is just a year to-day since I left my family and I’ve never seen ‘em since” he said “I left a wife and two children, now I’ve got a wife and one.”

R. said it was best to have something to read to keep from thinking about home. Another time he said “If I could have a discharge to-day and have the health I had two months ago I wouldn’t take it, I’d go right back to the army.” “Nor I” said the Sergeant “I told my family that when the war was finished they’d see me if I was alive, and not before.”

“Does any one” I asked him “keep well in the army? Are there any men who never get into the hospital?”

“Yes indeed” said he surprised at the question, “almost all of them.”

“And how do they feel” said I, “are they bright and hopeful or do they feel despairing like these men on the left?”

“NO NEVER!”

I cannot of course remember the order of the conversation. Once when we were talking about volunteers, one said “A good many of ‘em get fine stories told how Uncle Sam’ll take good care of his boys, more especially when they’re sick, but when they get there they find it ain’t so, the doctors just walk round” (this was said in the disgusted tone that most of them took when speaking of doctors)

“What’s the matter with doctors? Have they so much to do, or is it want of conscience?”

“Well I guess it’s the last” said the sergeant “here and there you’ll see a man working. When I was in the hospital in Yorktown there was one doctor would come round twice a day, and always asked how we felt.”

This Sergeant was very cunning occasionally, and I must tell you about that. He said he’d never been tougher in his life than since he’d been in the army. It was only overwork that took him down. “You see” said he “there was a man with typhoid that I was up with eight nights, a man I thought a good deal of. He was crazy most of the time, and he’d keep a-calling for me and you know when you’ve an affection or anything of that sort you’re quite willing to do a good deal” (Isn’t that pretty?) “so I stayed up, and after that I was taken sick, and wasn’t so careful as I ought to be and had to go to the hospital and four days and nights I couldn’t do anything for myself and I thought more of home—you see if I was at home Mother’d always be thinking if one thing wouldn’t do another would, and after all home’s the place. After I was better I began to toddle round a little, but I was so hungry I ate everything I could find and put myself back or I’d have been well long ago”

Then something brought up the battle fields. R. leaned forward and said “Oh if you’d been at Yorktown, you’d see things you never dreamt of” and then relapsed into a profound silence.

The little man between the Sergeant and me said to the Sergeant “They didn’t treat us well at Williamsburg, they kept us 7 hours and 20 minutes under fire, and a battery right up on us before we were relieved.”

“What is your regi­ment?” I asked.

“Penn. 105th”

“Are you of Penn. also?” I asked the Sergeant.

“No, New York.”

Then I wanted to know how many battles he’d been in. Williamsburg, Bethel, Lee’s Mills, and skirmishes.

He presently spoke of riding across the field after Williamsburg. “Did you see that Alabama Company?” said little 105th.

“No,” “I never saw anything like it,” went on 105th “it seemed as if they’d all stood up in company order and been laid with one ball. There they laid, the whole company just as even all in a row, dead.”

I asked the Sergeant if he thought it did people harm to see such sights. “Well, I’m afraid it does have a tendency to demoralize the heart” said he, in the simplest, most earnest manner, “I think I feel it myself, I’ve fought against it all I could, but I’m afraid it has an effect. That morning riding over the field I saw men lying dead everywhere, in every sort of shape: some on their backs, and others curled up, and some stooping as though they’d died trying to turn over, but I looked at it just as though they’d been so many slaughtered (creatures) (he did not say this word). Now and then though, I’d come across men that were dying and groaning, and that made me feel different.”

I was shocked, and he went on “I could make you shudder just telling you things. I would go where the surgeons were amputating. Did you ever live on a farm?” He looked me over, “You don’t, do you?”

“Yes,” said I.

Here the little 105th looked at me, and said “Live on a farm!”

“Yes”

“Oh,” said he with greatest affection, “do you make cheese?” and he dwelt on the word. His countenance fell on hearing that I didn’t, and he sighed out “Oh, I’d give anything for a piece of cheese.”

I wished to divert my Sergeant from the horrors, and asked him if he was in the Cavalry, for he had no colour but blue on, and an army hat without trimmings. No, he belonged to a Battery but was a sergeant and so had a horse of his own.

“Volunteer?”

“Yes, originally 1st Battery Independent N.Y.V. but now called 3rd Seward Artillery because they came from Auburn and there lived Gov Seward.”

“Why have you no red about you?” “I have, all my trimmings are red.”

“I don’t see any.”

“Oh, this is only a little coat meant to take care of horses in.”

“That’s what we call a fatigue dress” said R, and both fell to praising the Government clothes. “As good as ever was made.” “Our dress coats are ‘most too grand for soldiers, nice as any one would want.’ ‘ Sergeant was sorry that he couldn’t see an artillery dress coat to show me, be-cause they were a little different from infantry. He took off his hat, and having narrowly examined it, found and showed me the place where it was originally looped up with an eagle, where the cannons were crossed, and how a red cord went twice round it, and that he had kept them on until they were loose and then packed them away in his knap­sack.

Then I led on the subject of officers. First McClellan. Both the 105th and Sergeant fired up gloriously and said they had entire faith in him. “And he is as a father to us” cried little 105th, “though he’s so young, he looks but a boy.”

“You ought to see him ride before the lines,” said the Sergeant, “You would have to know his face well” went on 105th “to know him when he comes. I have seen him riding as near me as that man is, with only a private’s uniform, only a plain blue coat.”

“He looks as young!” went on the Sergeant “all the boys love him, you can’t hear anything where he is.”

“Do they cheer him so?”

“Yes,” began 105th but Sergeant broke in “That depends on where he is.”

“Why, do some regiments like him better than others?”

“I don’t know how that may be, I mean circumstances, For instance, in time of battle.”

“Oh, of course, but in camp.”

“They cheer him” said 105th.

“And Company officers, are they good generally?”

“That depends on the Company it is,” interrupted Sergeant. “Some companies will have all their officers dead drunk at one time. In our company, now, it is not so. There’s never been but one man in the guard-house since I was in the service, and there’s no drunkards. But, the army is a bad place for that, though liquor isn’t allowed. They serve out what they call rations, but it’s enough to fix an appetite on many a one. They learn to swear too.”

“Yes, they swear” chimed in R. shaking his head, “and learn to talk what they ought not to, and it’s a dreadful place to teach a boy to steal.”

I had just been thinking of that and asked about it for as every man in the shed had all his property with him and left it lying in rows, I wondered whether they were secure about its not being stolen, and came finally to the conclusion that they had too much fellow-feeling to wish to steal. But no, the Sergeant said that in many companies a man couldn’t leave a thing out of his sight for fear of its being stolen, “But in our company” said he, “it was different, we were all at school together.”

105th went away presently, and the Sergeant and R. were the only ones with whom I talked for a long time. I asked about the battles. Yes, he said he’d been in three, and never had a scratch, and bullets whistling round him all the time. “I never felt any fear but once,” he said.

“The first time?”

“No, the first time he wasn’t affected at all. We were gun No 1. There are 6 guns belonging to the Battery, but we had only four then for there was not room for them all to spread out. You know how in artillery each man does one thing, (and then he told me all about that) and how the man at the match is always no 1. Well they all load and the gunner sights the gun, that’s the hardest part, I ‘most always did the sighting myself, because the gunner wasn’t quick enough to suit me, and then when the officer thinks they’re ready he says ‘Ready! Fire!’ and off goes the gun. And No 1 was just (I’ve forgotten what) when a ball came along and cut his throat. His head fell back and he dropped. We were there three hours and not another one of us was touched. There was one ball that came,—You know how a gun looks when it is hitched up, Six horses, 2 and 2, well it passed right between the first two horses and along the side of the next two and over the back of the driver of the third. (He’d thrown himself flat on the ground) and just that minute one of the men peeped up behind the gun and it struck his cap and buried itself in the ground just at the horses feet. And he dug it up and carries it round with him. A 10 lb so big round and so long. He was the whitest man I ever saw. He looked as white as if it had struck him.”

“Did he see it coming?” I asked.

“No, he didn’t but I did. You can’t see one when it is coming at you, but when you’re a little to one side— Here R. broke in—” You couldn’t see ‘em” (that was addressed to me) “no one that wasn’t used to it could. But when you’re pretty well acquainted with ‘em you can tell where they are. A bluish streak—”

“No,” pursued my Sergeant “you can’t see the ball itself but you can know where they are. I think I could dodge a ball. “

“I’ve seen these sharp-shooters dodge a rifle ball” said R.

Judge of my astonishment! It really seemed incredible, especially when I considered that Sergeant had just said you couldn’t see anything coming at you, but R. went on, “You know that sharp-shooters are posted within musket range of the rebel breast-works to pick off the men. Well, they just peek over to shoot, and when they see a little curl of smoke, quick! they put their heads right down, and pat! comes the ball right where a man’s head was. They get down the minute they see the smoke, that’s long before the report.”

This of course was credible, and most vivaciously told, though R. was generally very quiet. I asked Sergeant if he could ever see the effect of his shots. “The men who fire can’t, but the officer can ride a little one side and see.” I supposed it might be as well not to see all the dreadful things they accomplished. “I used always to ride out to see,” he said, “you get out a little way and you can see round the smoke.” (This was accompanied, as much of his description was, by an action that made you feel as if you were on the spot, he really seemed to lean a little to one side of his saddle and take a quick look “round the smoke”) “I saw the effect of one of my balls once that didn’t please me much.” I wondered what he meant, and was quite delighted when he went on “there were 11 rebels all together, and one of my balls mowed ‘em right down in a heap.” I thought it was very good in him to be sorry for them.

We now approached the time when he was frightened. “You’ve heard of Mott’s Battery?”

“No”

“Not heard of Mott’s Battery! Well there was a ball swept off 7 men from one gun, killed three and wounded four and the horses were killed and orders were sent to us to go to fetch that gun of Mott’s. And I was sent in command. We un­hitched our team from our gun, (we were held in reserve) and started for the field where this gun was, and when we came to the edge there were balls coming all over it all the time as thick as could be, and not a breast-work or anything between us and the enemy, and there was that gun ‘way on the other side” (this must have been the moment when he felt fear, he indicated it by a look and breath and then greater energy of speaking) “and we had got to take our six horses across, and hitch ‘em on and bring it away with us. And we made haste and hitched on the team and brought off the gun on the run. I let ‘em run as hard as they could and not one of us got touched.”

“It was strange” I said.

“Yes, it was wonderful! And then how many hair breadth escapes you hear of, how a pocket-book or a piece of money saves a man’s life. Why, there was a man I know had his knife in his trousers’ pocket, here, you see, and a rifle ball hit right on it, and glanced off. Then another had his Testament” (here he produced his own well-worn testament and ar­ranged it in another pocket as the man he was telling of carried it) “here, a ball struck that and didn’t touch him; that has happened often.”

R. leaned forward, and using his stick for a gun showed me how a man was loading and a musket ball passed through the hand that held the gun, but, glancing on the side of the barrel turned aside from his heart only to bruise his skin as it passed through his clothes. The Sergeant listened with even greater interest than I, apparently, and, after it was over said, “Yes, a man near me was lifting his ramrod to load when a ball grazed all across the back of his hand, and passed through the head of the man beside him. He was his chum, the one, I mean who tented with him, and had been beside him always.” “That was all-fired hard,” said R. “Yes,” said the Sergeant, “probably he’d a good deal rather ‘twould have been himself.” 105th had returned and said “I have a comrade I’ve been with always. He even helped carry me to the hospital,” and he smiled very prettily.

I think these are the best among the innumerable things they told me. One man I mentioned at the very beginning with very white teeth on N.H’s left, said what seemed to me quite a touching thing. He said “Oh, as a general thing we soldiers have enough to eat, the trouble is the cooking. We have this vegetable broth made by people who don’t know anything about cooking. And our coffee is made in a kettle that perhaps something greasy was cooked in before, or that had been lying out in the rain and rusty, and that makes the coffee unpalatable.” This he said in such a gentle humble little way, and when “unpalatable” came where I expected “not fit to drink” I was very much pleased with him. Presently, remembering Mr Watts in our company, I asked why they did not select the best cook in the Company and employ him regularly. “That is possible at first,” he said, “But when the regiment gets cut up, they have to call on every able-bodied man and then we take a man that’s a little sick, and can’t choose.”

All my paper and my whole day are used up now, so I can only bid you good-bye, and wish you health, happiness and success in your 19th year.

Newport July 12th 1862

Dear Mother,

I sent yesterday my letter to Edward to be read at home and then forwarded to him. It took me all day to write it, and my arm ached. This morning I have remembered a good deal more of the soldiers’ conver­sation, and wish I could tell it….

One thought on “Emerson’s daughter among the soldiers

  1. Dear Frank,

    In reading the spirit of another time, I often feel nostalgia creep up, and again when I write in that voice, in a novel presented as “historical fiction.” I’ve been very inspired by Kelly Joyce Neff’s “Dear Companion.” And reading what you’ve shared in your journey from the Civil War era further sparks the fuel for the passion of telling the journey. This will probably be an ungoing 3 year project or so, as I’ve done mass amounts of research within the last few months, and barely scrapped the surface. Thank you for posting what I shared:)

    Naomi

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