This letter was written by a soldier from a camp in the “field before Petersburg” in November 1864. There is no accompanying envelope to aid in the identification of the author who simply signed the letter to his mother, “your loving son, George.” Fortunately there are sufficient references to officers of his regiment to identify George as a member of Co. C, 7th New York Heavy Artillery.
The 7th New York Heavy Artillery was recruited in August 1862, drawing many of its volunteers from the vicinity of Albany. They were first organized as the 113th New York Infantry but were shortly thereafter converted into the 7th New York Heavy Artillery and used for the first couple of years in the defenses of the Nation’s Capitol where they drilled steadily but saw no action in the war. They were finally withdrawn from Washington D. C. in the spring of 1864 and used as infantrymen during Grant’s Overland Campaign, suffering considerable casualties in the fighting from the Wilderness to Petersburg.
The author of this letter seems to have seen little or no action in combat, however. This suggests that he was either a newcomer to the company, or that he had other skills that kept him well to the rear and away from danger. We sense from the composition of his letter that he was a well-educated and can see that he had excellent hand-writing. We learn that he has been utilized as a company clerk and that his tasks, as such, have generally spared him from the duties of his comrades. “My soldier life is not like that of most men,” he wrote his mother. We also learn that he was not close to other men in the company whom he coldly described as a “poor, childish set.” Finally, there is a reference in the letter to a generous offer extended him from a Dr. Agnew — perhaps an invitation to study medicine after the war.
In reviewing the company roster, there are only two soldiers named George who seem to fit the profile of the author. (All of the others had either been killed, wounded and discharged, taken prisoner and held in Confederate prisons, or deserted.) The first of these, George Suits, did not join the company as a substitute until August 1864 which would have enabled him to miss all of the action of the previous summer’s hard-fought campaign. Eighteen year-old George came from a relatively poor family, however, and found employment only as a common laborer before and after his short stint in the service.
The other soldier, George A. Payne [or Payn] (1843-1913) was from Bethlehem, Albany County, New York, where his father, Samuel G. Payn was a modestly successful miller/flour dealer. George’s 1862 muster records indicate his occupation as “Gentleman” and there is some indication that after the war, this George pursued a career as a Dentist for horses — settling eventually in New York City. After the war, he married a woman named Ella, 17 years his junior, and hired an Irish maid for his Manhattan residence.
I can’t be certain which of these two soldiers actually wrote the letter but in the absence of anything to rule one of them out, my hunch is that it was written by George A. Payne.
Field before Petersburg [Va.]
November 1, 1864
My dear mother,
My package came last night. How it makes me think of home.
Yesterday we moved our camp from where my last was dated (on the 27th) and are now two miles to the left and rear. Our camp is a pleasant one, in a large open field, with good water. At the right front and left are thick woods from which we procure plenty of fire material, which in our last camp — and especially on picket — was scarce. You probably judge from my last that our whole regiment was on picket duty — this is never the case. While part of our force is on picket, the balance is on the support line I spoke of, and when the former comes off, the latter relieves.
Surely something ails Uncle Sam’s mailbag — perhaps it has the rheumatism. It can’t be old age that troubles it, for I have heard that age strengthens such things. But whatever the cause, I have yet received no letter. I attribute this delay to U. S. M. because I don’t believe those at home with so long forget me.
I promised you to tell of a shelling scene on the night of the 10th ult. I will narrate an occurrence on the 27th ult. in which we were cannonading and shelling like that of the 10th.
I finish this on the 4th having been interrupted to work on muster rolls, on which I have been completely engaged since. I shall have to hurry this as Lieutenant Fisk is waiting for me; but I can’t let my home letter be deferred too long, even if I am obliged to curtail it, as now.
Well, to proceed with the affair of the 27th, part of our regiment was on the picket line, and part on the reserve. I was with the latter. Just before dark, a file of about 140 men of the 148th Pennsylvania, armed with seven shooters [Spencer repeating rifles], went down the covered road (a road with dirt thrown high up on each side) leading to the picket. Soon came the news that they had volunteered to charge the enemy’s line and a fort just in the rear thereof. We awaited developments with interest. It was not long before the musketry told that events were progressing. The firing being rather slack though, we took it to be that of the Johnny pickets, fearing an advance, and thus making a noise as an intimidation. Our doubt was soon cleared. A wounded man brought tidings that both the line and the fort were taken; the lightness of firing was owing to the fact that Messers. Johnnies were few and far between. The fort contained but one gun. Well, of course the goose hung high in the enthusiastic and patriotic line for awhile — but only for a while. ¹
The damper soon came. Musketry recommenced — grew very rapid — continued five minutes — ceased, and the damper was, that fort and line had been retaken and a dozen men taken prisoners. Here was a reverse, and no body knew how vigorously it might be followed up. To meet such an emergency, the remainder of our force with several other regiments was ordered front in light marching order — that is, with gun and accoutrements. Off we went at double quick and guns trailed. On the way out I experienced the feelings of a man going into battle. Arrived at the line, we were drawn up — ready. But nothing came, and after a while we went back. But didn’t the opposing pickets give it to us on the way out? Their line is on the top of a long hill and ours below it. Certain points of the covered road — especially those places where there was no covered road — were completely exposed. These places were pretty thoroughly raked by bullets. Of course our legs were in requisition when we crossed these open spots, and it would be entirely against nature to say that we did not “look alive” as the soldier say. A man fell a few feet in front of me. Several were wounded — I don’t know how many — about a dozen perhaps, but none killed.
We have moved our camp three miles to left and rear from where I received two letters from home this morning — or rather, two envelopes, one containing letters from you and father, and the other enclosing what in the circumstances is a very good thing, money — two dollars. I shall answer them soon. I have thus far escaped all pieces of lead and iron, and retained my health which, moreover is improved.
We have drawn no overcoats yet. The weather is cold and windy and we need them. The men are complaining about it. But if I am very cold, I can slip on my jacket under my blouse you know. In a former letter you said you supposed I had not lice (I don’t like to write the word) all over me. Indeed I have, and large and fat at that. One of my comrades calls them military inspectors. They make very close inspections. I am told that anguintum salve ² is the best thing to keep them off. Officers have them as well as privates.
If you have money to spare to give me a good pair of boots, I wish you would find them as soon as you can. Perhaps father, as he says, can have them made from my old pair. I want them considerably larger on the instep, and I good half-inch longer. My old ones were tight on the instep. Now “listen with attention most profound” while I give you my reason for being the more anxious that these things should be sent immediately. Captain [John F.] Mount of this regiment is a staff officer. He has in some ways charge of the ordinance department at Division Headquarters. Well, he wants a clerk. He spoke of the matter to Lieutenant [Charles] McClellan of Co. H and he immediately recommended me. The captain asked if I was steady and lieutenant said, “yes, steady as a clock.” Captain said he should take me. Every day I am expecting an order to report to headquarters. Probably in a week I shall be there. Now dear your mother, does that please you? I shall have a good house to stay in and be free from danger at any rate. My lieutenant — Fred[erick] A. Fisk — wants to keep me till the rolls are done. He says our rolls will be the neatest in the regiment. I am doing all the writing on them. Of course I am free from duty. Lieutenant has told me that in case I should not go to headquarters, he will have me for company clerk and take my gun from me. So you see my prospects at the worst are good.
I am very much please with my package. I think father made the portfolio. It is a nice one. I am looking for the Atlantic. I think a great deal about Dr. Agnew, and of his offer, but can I accept it? Can I study for three years, earning nothing? I don’t know how I can do it, unless something very good turns up. And yet I feel certain that if such a course is practicable, it is the best calling I can choose. But when I think of the three years, and then of the struggle which must follow in starting myself, and the expense necessarily incurred thereby, I confess the thing looks dark. Perhaps I can work while studying. Please send the anguintum salve by mail, and with it a fine comb.
I received a letter from George Yost yesterday. My soldier life is not like that of most men. I don’t associate with the company. Somehow the men don’t approach me. They don’t avoid me, nor do they seem to dislike me. Even with my tent-mate I am cool. They are all a poor, childish set. Lieutenant [Charles] McClellan has just told me that I am to go to headquarters in a week as soon as I get the rolls of the company done and those of company H. After I am there, I can come back to the regiment once in a while to help write. It seems I am in great demand. The officers take quite a fancy to me, and place me almost on a footing with themselves.
I will write again soon. Your loving son, — George
Love to all. Direct the same as heretofore until I tell you differently. I wish you would send me three dollars more if possible. I have used 50¢ of that $2 received this morning to buy a pair of drawers, better than those issued by government at $1. Look on first page for continuation. Send postage stamps.
I owe a Negro cook 50¢ or 75¢ for washing a pair of pants and a shirt which I could not do myself. I must have the same done again as soon as possible. When I go to division headquarters, I want money in my pocket. My descriptive list has not come but I shall manage so as to be paid. Write soon. — George
¹ George is describing the assault on Davidson’s Confederate Battery by 100 men from Co. K of the 148th Pennsylvania Infantry on 27 October 1864. Davidson’s Battery was mounted in Fort Crater at “Elliott’s Salient” but the battery was never fired during the union assault because the cannoneers mistakenly assumed the attacking party was enemy deserters. The fort was quickly overrun but the success went to waste because reinforcements from the 26th Michigan arrived too late to repulse a Confederate counterattack.
² Anguintum was a mercurial-based salve sold to soldiers to control lice during the Civil War. It was a deadly poison and may have caused some soldiers more harm than good if applied too liberally.