This letter was written by Corporal Alexander McNeil (1821-1864) of Co. C, 14th Connecticut Infantry. McNeil — a native of Scotland — enlisted on 2 August 1862. He was promoted to sergeant in November 1863 but was reported missing in action on 6 February 1864 at Morton’s Ford, Virginia. Regimental records report that he was presumed killed in that engagement but he was, in fact, taken prisoner and died in Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. McNeil was married to Sarah Maria Northrop in 1845.
In this letter, McNeil wrote his friend Hobart Victory Welton that the 14th Connecticut was “unfit for duty” having had its ranks decimated on the field before Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Two companies, he added, were completely without commissioned officers to lead them.
In an earlier letter to Welton, written shortly after the Battle of Antietam, McNeil wrote:
“…thank God, for all the blessings he has conferred upon me. He has spared my life while others who stood around me were cut down like grass. About two o’clock Sept. 17th, Wednesday morning we were called out and each man received ‘40’ rounds of cartridges, which made us ‘80’ rounds, as each man had ‘40’ rounds as previous to that time. We lay on our arms till day break. We then took up our line of march for the battlefield, about two miles distant, where death was being dealt out to thousands on both sides. We first came in sight of the enemy strongly posted in a large corn field with a very large open field in front of them. We were also in a corn field close to the edge of the open field. As soon as the Rebels saw our flag advancing, they poured in a terrific fire. Oh, what a scene. Our boys, with a few exceptions, stood up to the work manfully for about 2 hours. Some of the time we lay flat on the ground, loaded our muskets and got up on one knee & fired and then fell flat. Along the latter part of the time we were in the corn field, some of us stood erect and fired as fast as we could right in the face of the enemy. A North Carolina regiment in the front of us displayed a white flag three different times & would have surrendered, but others of the Rebels behind them kept pouring volley after volley into our troops. Now, I have not wish to blow my own trumpet, but it made me so infernal angry to see that flag of truce thrown out and still kept mowing down our troops. I jumped to my feet & told the boys to load & give it to the ‘devils.’ Ther were three of the North Carolina regiments I mentioned taken prisoner, & they tell the story themselves. They say they were the only three left of the whole regiment, & I believe it. There was a whole division behind them, so they could not retreat & they were exposed to a cross fire. I walked over a part of the battle field the second day after the fight, and, Oh, what a sight. In one place I visited an old road, quite narrow, worn down below the surface fo the ground some three feet deep, it was actually filled with dead Rebels. There they lay, piled up 3 & 4 deep, some torn with cannon balls, others torn to pieces with grape & canister, and thousands shot with rifle and musket balls. The Rebels we have taken prisoners are the dirtiest, filthiest looking set I have ever beheld in my life, more on account of the color of their clothes I suppose more than anything else, a dirty ‘Butternut’ color begrimed with dirt. Our ‘line of battle’, our officers tell me, extended for nine miles. The Rebels, they say has never had such a dressing down as they got this time since the war commenced, but you will read about it in the papers….”
At Gettysburg, the 14th Connecticut only had about 100 men fit for duty on the day they were called upon to help repulse Pickett’s Charge, but Alexander McNeil was among them. He wrote of gathering prisoners from the 52nd North Carolina and talking to Capt. James M. Kincaid who was severely injured in the left thigh and left on the field. “He told me the South had been rough and harsh with North Carolina troops … since the war commenced … because the state … did not secede quite soon enough to suit some of the other Slave States,” he wrote.
Addressed to Hobart V. Welton, Esqr., Waterbury, Connecticut
January 6th 1863
You will probably think I am rather negligent in answering your letters. I have been laid up with rheumatism for some time. I am a little better now but not able to do duty yet. I am afraid it will be some time before I get entirely over it but hope for the best.
There has been no movement in the Army of the Potomac since the repulse at Fredericksburg. Our regiment, they say, has been reported unfit for duty. There are two companies that has not got a commissioned officer left. Some are dead, others wounded, & some have resigned & gone home. There seems to be a difference of opinion amongst the soldiers with regard to the capability of the two generals — Burnside & McClellan. Because Burnside did not succeed in driving or beating the Rebels at Fredericksburg, that is no reason in my mind why Burnside should be thrown overboard. The Rebels were strongly fortified & in the centre where our boys were engaged, our troops had no chance whatever of getting artillery to bear on the Rebel batteries. The fire of the Rebels of grape, canister & shrapnel on our boys who went up to storm the batteries were truly terrific. But better luck next time. God works in mysterious ways & will eventually bring out everything according to the purposes of His will. It may look dark at present for us, but God can bring light out of darkness & give us the victory.
There is an article in the [Waterbury] American of 26th December blaming the Medical Department of the 14th. Now as far as I know, with regard to Dr. [Philo G.] Rockwell, it is false. I believe he has done his duty to the sick & wounded as well as any man could under the circumstances. I think it ungenerous & unjust that any man should be found fault with when he does his duty. Dr. Rockwell started for home yesterday morning on a furlough it is said of 30 days. Some says he is not coming back but I hope he will, Some of the Committee send out by our state legislature must have been very much prejudiced against Burnside & in favor of McClellan or they would not have come out so strong as they did in the newspapers.
I expect to hear stirring news from Vicksburg before many days. I hope that last stronghold of the Rebels will fall into our hands. Then the Valley of the Mississippi will be ours. Banks may then pay his respects to Texas. I hope the time will soon come when peace shall once more smile upon our country at large & right shall prevail when men who are corrupt, ambitious, & unprincipled — who would not scruple to do anything in order to acquire power — shall be put down.
I have not answered Hattie’s letter yet but will try soon to do so. Remember me to all of my old neighbors — Union folks I mean, for I am awfully down on Secesh. I must close now so as to have my letter go today. Please write when convenient & let me know what is going on in Waterbury & the news in general.
I remain yours respectfully, — A. McNeil
for right & the Union