This letter was written by an unidentified soldier to his father. The soldier signed his name “Henry” at the end of the letter and as “Wm. H.” at the end of a post script. From the content of the letter, we learn that the soldier was recently mustered into the service but that he had prior service earlier in the war. We learn from the letter also that he and his comrades are among the large number of troops being amassed at Brandy Station in advance of Grant’s Overland Campaign which began with the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. We know from the letter that his regiment was not part of the 1st or 3rd Corps, both of which were being broken up.
My best guess is that this soldier served in the recently organized 183rd Pennsylvania which contained a large proportion of very young men, who, in the early stages of the war, would not have passed a surgeon’s examination. This regiment was led by inexperienced officers and sent immediately to the front where it was assigned to the First Brigade, First Division, of the Second Corps.
One of the members of this regiment was Corp. William Henry Frederick of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. William had served earlier in the war as a private in Co. E, 104th Pennsylvania Infantry. He enlisted on 22 February 1862 to serve three years but he was discharged for disability in September 1863 after suffering an ankle injury “while disembarking on James Island, South Carolina,” on 9 July 1863. A excerpt from the history of the 104th Pennsylvania helps us understand how William might have hurt himself: “It was dark when we reached the landing [on James Island], and the tide was pretty well down. Immediate arrangements were made to go ashore. This was a slow process, as there were only three boats that could be used for the purpose. It was a disagreeable business. We were obliged to jump out of the boats into mud a foot deep and wade through it to the firm ground. Being dark, we floundered into more mud holes than would have been necessary in the day time…”
Following his discharge, William presumably returned home to his wife, the former Elizabeth Jane Jenkins, and to the family farm, but when the state offered sizable bounties for volunteers and relaxed their physical standards, William reenlisted on 21 January 1864 in Co. G, 183rd Pennsylvania. In the letter, William mentions two other soldiers — “Aaron” and “Watson.” I did find a soldier from Bucks County who seems to have served in both these same two regiments as William did. Aaron Farrell served in Co. E, 104th Pennsylvania as well as Co. G, 183rd Pennsylvania (as Sgt. John A. Farrell in the latter). Curiously, there was a Watson F. Ely from Bucks County who served in Co. E, 104th Pennsylvania, who may have also joined the 183rd.
In any event, William’s length of service in the 183rd Pennsylvania was even shorter than his first stint as a volunteer. William was cut down in the “desperate and destructive” fighting at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia. His wife’s pension papers ¹ simply state that he was “killed in charge of June 3d 1864.”
I want to reemphasize here that without an envelope or additional clues from the letter, I have no way of confirming the identity of the author as William Henry Frederick of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but he remains my best candidate.
Camp near Brandy Station, Va.
Tuesday afternoon, April 5th 1764
I am inclined to think now that this afternoon I shall have the most of it as my leisure time and so thought I would occupy a part of it in writing to you which I had intended to do long before this and should have certainly done so had it not been as it is; that you heard from us about every week since we left home through some of our folks — those that perhaps find less difficulty in sitting down to answer letters received — but I don’t believe any can do it quicker than Father when after commencing. My reason for thinking that we will be at leisure this afternoon is that it has been raining in steady pretty much all the time for the last 24 hours or else snowing. Yesterday afternoon it snowed part of the time but last night I believe it rained steady all night and as a matter of course, we have got plenty of mud about these times for it rains or snows about ½ of the time nowadays and the weather is very unsettled.
Aaron & I done our first picketing since we came back last week and a pretty good lesson for the first one it was. We had to go out about 7 or 8 miles, then I had to stay out a day longer than we were ordered to have rations for when we started owing to the blundering of some of the officers which I am told were drunk and I don’t much discredit [the report].
The day that the picket detail that I was in, which was an extra one and was made for the purpose of doing the picketing of the 3rd Corps, which you have seen I presume in the papers of its being broke up; as also the 1st Corps. We started from camp about 7 o’clock in the morning and didn’t get on our post till after 2 P.M. and I can tell you by the time we got there, we felt as though we had done a pretty good days march and as though we had marched twice as far as we really had about, which was owing to our being kept standing and waiting for the officers to find out where we were wanted.
Watson — our tent mate — went on picket this morning and I don’t begrudge him his job, especially while it is so stormy and while we have so far to go to do our picketing as we have now. I suppose we won’t have to go out short of about 10 days or so again. Our picket duty is not very severe here — not much as I have known it to be by experience in times that are past when we were on duty every other day. But it isn’t probable that these easy times will last very much longer this spring. Yet I presume there will not be much done until the weather gets settled a little. How long that will be, I don’t know. We may not march much before the 1st of May.
I have hopes that the Potomac Army will accomplish something this summer if General Grant has the whole control of it. And it seems to me we will take Richmond but I think there will be a good deal of hard fighting done this year. The Rebs, I suppose, calculate to do their best and we are getting a large army to match and — I hope — to overcome them.
There has been a lot of these Heavy Artillery men sent down here to the front to be used as infantry and light artillery men. It’s a big thing for them and it fats the old boys — no mistake. I heard that the 9th Regiment Heavy Artillery laid down their arms.
Father, I don’t understand this of our not receiving the remainder of our state bounty $50. I supposed we were to get it before leaving the state. We are not likely to get any pay until after mustered in as the boys were mustered for pay just before we came a few days, yet we may get paid as soon as they do if they are not paid until 4 months pay is due. Their 2 months has been due several weeks.
Close with love to all the dear ones at home. — Henry
P. S. Enclosed you will find what I call a pretty good thing for an advertisement, — Wm Henry
¹ Pertinent Pension papers for William Henry Frederick include: