1863: Lyman Jones Smith, Jr. to Julia (Bissell) Smith

Lyman J. Smith, Jr. (1842-1864)

This letter was written by Lyman Jones Smith, Jr. (1842-1864) of Co. A, 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. He was the son of Lyman Jones Smith (1798-1870) and Julia Bissell (1801-1876) of Litchfield, Connecticut. He was the brother of 1st Lieutenant Edward Beecher Smith, also of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery.

The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery was used in the defenses at Washington D. C. until the spring of 1864 when Grant elected to use them as infantrymen in his Overland Campaign. For many of them, the Battle of Cold Harbor would be the first — and last battle.

Lyman was among 114 men in his regiment killed (or dying of wounds received) on the battlefield at Cold Harbor on 1 June 1864. A comrade, Lewis Bissell, wrote to his father from the battlefield on 2 June 1864 in which he described “the storm of leaden rain that poured into us … the roar of musketry  — terrible but not so terrible as the cries of the wounded,” he added. “Captain Wadhams was shot through his belt – is in the hospital. His recovery is doubtful … poor Lyman Smith lies dead on the enemies works … Break the news to Lyman’s mother and father. I have not seen the body but some of the boys have and attached his name.  Robert Watt lies near him. Tell his mother that I have his Bible. I shall send it home if possible. If not, will keep it until I can. ” [Source: Cool Justice: Dead on the field & mortally wounded, Cold Harbor, 1864 in the New Haven Register, 3/9/14] See also: John Banks’ Civil War Blog, Post of Monday, May 18, 2015.

Lyman’s letter includes a first-hand observation of the enormous black powder explosion that rocked Fort Lyon on 9 June 1863 — the day he penned this letter to his mother. The explosion resulted in the deaths of 25 soldiers and the destruction of eight tons of powder and several thousand rounds of ammunition. Another soldier in Lyman’s company observing the explosion also wrote home to his parents:

…about two o’clock today…we were startled by a most violent thundering explosion, followed by another, in quick succession, the earth shook and trembled… I was so frightened…a shell burst very near, for a little stream of blue smoke came in one door and passed out the other… I looked up at Fort Lyon, which at that moment went up with a tremendous shock…It…looked…like the pictures of Vesuvus [sic] during an eruption… Everything flew up from the center and seemed to stand still for a moment…then…pieces of steel, stones, and dirt, came rattling, and thundering down…[Pvt. Lewis Bissell, Letter, 17 June 1863]


Addressed to Mrs. L. J. Smith, Litchfield, Connecticut

Redoubt A, Fort Lyon, Va.

Redoubt (A) near Ft. Lyon
June 9th 1863

Dear Mother,

It has been some time since I have received a letter from you. The last one was from Nealie about a week ago. I see by the Enquirer that Father has been appointed enrolling officer. Does it not interfere with his farm work or is the pay good enough to balance it? How does he get along without help?

It has been so dry here that the prospect for crops is poor. We have had scarcely any rain for six weeks. How has it been with you? How much corn has Pa planted and where is it? Does he intend to cut Miss Deming’s grass this year? I am afraid he will undertake more than he can do. I wish I could be there to help him but it is impossible. I think we shall have to stay our full term of enlistment which is only two years and three months — consoling isn’t it?

I went up to see Ed a few days ago. He is well. Has he sent you any photographs? He has some.

There has been a detail for several days at work in Alexandria building stockades. They have been fencing in the Commissary Department to guard against a “raid.” They have been expecting one for some time but I think they are more scared than hurt, though there may be some danger.

There has been a terrible accident at Fort Lyon this afternoon. While the men were out putting new powder into some shell by some means, one of them exploded, setting off the others — about a hundred. One of them went through the door of the magazine which blew up making a noise ten times worse than cannon or thunder. I never saw the like before. The air was completely filled with shells bursting, timbers, stones, earth, men, and everything else. The men — some of them — were literally blown to atoms. The air was filled with everything that it was impossible to see for a time. There were twenty-three men killed and I don’t know how many wounded. The Lieutenant in charge was killed. ¹ His wife and child are down here. She was hurt some. The shells — some of them — were thrown to Alexandria, about two miles. One of them was thrown about a quarter of a mile and took a man’s leg off.

To close up on, I will inform you that I am under arrest. I suppose you will think that is an awful thing but it is not so don’t worry. There are four of us and put under arrest by a corporal and the meanest, lowest man in the company who has not a friend in the company (Corporal [Henry T.] Cable). I don’t suppose you know him. He had a grudge against us so took his revenge in this way. Our detail went this morning down to work on Fort Hooker, about a mile from here. There was no officer to report to so we concluded we would not work until one came. Corporal Cable was in command of the squad. Four of us went down and sat by a spring till the officer came, then went to work. That is all there is to it. When we came back, he reported us and the charges are refusing to do duty. “Big thing” isn’t it? The man is a pretty specimen to be over white men.

Write soon. Affectionately your son, — Lyman

¹ The officer was 2nd Lieutenant Leo Kuehne of the 15th New York Heavy Artillery.


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