1863: William Joseph Cheney to Mr. & Mrs. Benjamin Kenfield

This letter was written by William Joseph Cheney (1838-1906), the oldest son of William Riley and Olive (Savage) Cheney of Stowe, Vermont. He was married to Fannie Chapman Sherwin (b. 1843) in 1862, the daughter of Reuben and Amanda (Sanborn) Sherwin.

William enlisted at age 24 in August 1862 to serve 3 years in Co. D., 11th Vermont Infantry — also known as the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery. William was a nurse most of the three years that he served.

Just two months before he wrote this letter,  Cheney submitted the following to the editor of the Lamoille Newsdealer for publication on 5 March 1863:

MR. EDITOR: — Many times I have thought that I would write a letter for your paper, but have never set myself about it until now. We are pleasantly situated about four miles from the capital, in a northerly direction, occupying three forts, viz: Massachusetts, Slocum, and Totten, which are about one mile apart. There are four batteries (or companies) at Fort Mass, viz: B. C. D. and I., under command of Lieut. Col. Benton; also, the hospital is that post. Going east a mile, you come to Fort Slocum, which is the headquarters of the regiment. You will find stationed there four batteries,viz: E. F. G. and H., under the command of Col. J. M. Warner. From thence you go another mile east and come to Fort Totten, where there are two companies,viz : A. and K., under the command of Maj. George E. Chamberlin. Our regiment is favored with very good officers — especially colonel and surgeon. They are fine men, at least so considered by the regiment.

Our regiment is rather sickly now. Diseases most prevalent are fever, measles, and diptheria. Our hospital numbers now sick, thirty-five. We have four large hospital tents, with floors, stoves, bed-steads, and nurses in plenty so that I think the sick are well cared for. Perhaps I should not be called a good judge, being one of the nurses myself, though I think most of them think as I do. It is not expected that they can be cared for as they would be at home, where but one or so sick at a time, and in one place. I think that by reports from other hospitals, that ours is kept in rather the best shape of any on the outskirts of Washington, the general hospital not excluded. In the first place we have the very best surgeon that Vermont is capable of furnishing. He understands his business so well that he needs no one to interfere with what he calls his business, and that is to see that the sick are well taken care of. He makes two visits daily — morning and evening — and more if necessary, to prescribe for his patients. He has two assistants which he calls competent to look after the companies sick, so that he does not leave unless it is on city business or for the regiment. We attendants think him very attentive to his duty, although he has had many things to oppose him. He has been advised by as good officers as we have got in the regiment to resign his commission and go home but I admire his grit, for he plainly told them he would not; so they called for an examination. At last he was called before the board of medical examiners, in company with twenty-six others, twenty of which were thrown out, and of the seven he came out best, leaving him the best of twenty-seven. The officers then thought they had better let him alone and dry up. We feel pretty well now. He said he thought he would let them know that he should do as he liked about resigning. They do not find any fault with him now; but what Surgeon Kidder says is about right.

We have lost out of the hospital since we left Vermont, eighteen, in little less than six months; there has been eight wounded and one killed, so we think we have done well for the 1st Vt. Artillery.

— Wm. J. C.

Cheney mustered into the 11th Vermont Infantry but the name of the regiment was changed to heavy artillery on 10 December 1862 while on duty in Washington D. C. The regiment was assigned to garrison duty within the defenses of Washington, occupying Forts Slocum, Totten, and Stevens. It remained at Washington until May 12, 1864, when it moved, 1,500 strong, to join the Army of the Potomac. Although nominally a heavy artillery regiment, it served as infantry, the only difference being in its larger organization; it had 12 companies of 150 men each, with a captain and four lieutenants for each company, forming three battalions with a major for each. The regiment arrived at the front on May 15th, when it was assigned to the Vermont Brigade, and two days later it went into action near Spotsylvania. On June 1st, Major Fleming’s Battalion was engaged in the storming of Cold Harbor, with a loss of 13 killed and 107 wounded. In the affair at the Weldon Railroad, June 23d, the regiment lost 9 killed, 36 wounded, and 257 captured or missing, the captured men belonging to Fleming’s Battalion. It was next engaged in Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, where Lieutenant Colonel Chamberlin fell mortally wounded in the fight at Charlestown. At the Opequon, the regiment lost 8 killed, 85 wounded, and 6 missing; and at Cedar Creek, 13 killed, 74 wounded, and 20 missing. Returning to Petersburg, it was engaged in the final and victorious assault, with a loss of 5 killed and 45 wounded.

Cheney wrote this letter to Benjamin Kenfield of Co. K, 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery, who was convalescing in Washington D. C. and being nursed by his wife.

Members of the 11th Vermont Infantry


Hospital at Fort Slocum
Washington D. C.
June 28, 1863

Absent Friends in Christ,

I am seated with yours of the 21st before me to try & answer it in my feeble way. I was glad to hear from you & to hear that you was well but that Mr. B. K. was no better but rather worse. But I am glad that he is not here with his lameness for we are having bad news today from the war. The Rebs are within 6 miles of us, have captured 125 of our wagons, & burnt them & took their mules — all that within 6 miles of us. We are expecting them in here very quick but I should like to have them stay away but I suppose they will do as they like & not as I like. But if they come, that is all that I can say. How large their force is, I can’t tell. I have got so that I don’t care but little. Still I do not feel like fighting much. Enough of this!

One thing more. Last night the Major ordered out 150 out of this fort to work all night but the Col. said not to & today he wanted they should work but the Col. [J. M. Warner] would not let them. He is a very nervous man. I am afraid that he will not sleep much tonight. It pleases the Boys to see how nervous he is.

My health is some better than it has been. At least I think it has improved some. They have relieved me from nursing & I am cooking. I think it is a very good change for my health but the Boys say that they miss me in writing their letters for them. I go in & write some now when I get time. I have to work a good deal harder now than I did nursing but it is different work so no great loss without some small gain somewhere.

You know we have 33 in hospital now. The diarrhea rages some considerable but it is not dangerous. We have two cases of Diphtheria now. When they came in, we thought they would both die but they are better now. Clark, Noe, [Julius M.] Buck, Gonya, Eastman, Aldrich, Gillett, Crandall, D. Martin, are here yet. I believe that all those were here when you left. Most of them are gaining slowly but Noe. He does not seem to get along any as I see yet. Eastman is going to get his discharge soon. The Colonel was here the other day and ordered his papers made out so I think he will get it. These Boys send their best respects to you.

Both the nurses — also Mr. Holden — got a letter from you in due season but has delayed to answer for some reason. He has plenty of time to write, I should think, but he don’t improve it & the Surgeon’s health is not very good. I think that it does not agree with him to have his wife out here though I don’t know her health & Boys is very poor. The dysentery has had hold of them some but they are better now. They, as he, received a letter or note from you about Mr. K’s health & you said in my letter that you wanted that I should hand the note to him but there was none in it so I went to him & he got the note the day before I got mine so I thought that you thought that ___ would send it direct to him or forgot to put it in & it is all right.

I suppose you asked why the Conn. Boys did not send K. home. I am sure I can’t tell but one thing is certain, the Captain did not do his duty that he did not telegraph to her as he ought & I think if I had not took it upon me to write, you would not known that he was sick at all. But I felt it my duty to do so. She seemed to be very thankful to me when she was here. The boys might have sent him home if they had of had a chance but they did not till she came here. I guess when she went away, I did not get much of a chance to talk with her. Give her my respects. Tell her that I sympathize with her [and] hope she will write to me. Though a stranger to her, yet I hope & trust that we are acquainted with the same God & that makes us friends in Christ.

I will close for this time. Please write soon, if worthy, & accept this from your sincere friend in Christ. — W. J. Cheney

I have been to church at the Soldier’s Home today. Had good meeting. More next time.



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