This letter was written by Elias W. Sanders (1829-1881) who enlisted at age 34 on 31 December 1863 at Seneca, New York, to serve three years in the 16th Heavy Artillery. He was transferred some time later to Co. F, First New York Mounted Rifles. In July 1865, he was transferred to Company A.
In the 1860 U.S. Census, Elias was enumerated in Seneca, Ontario county, New York, as a 31 year-old boatman. Residing in the household with him were his wife Ellen [Milliken] (age 25) and two children, Alfred (age 10) and Morgan (age 7). Esther Saunders, age 52 — presumably Elias’ mother — was also residing with the family. Ellen Mulliken was the daughter of Isaac and Mary Mulliken of Halfmoon, Saratoga county, New York. She must have died prior to 1863.
Elias wrote the letter to his aunt, Almira [Elmira] (Durham) Darby (b. 1816) — the wife of Morgan E. Darby (1819-1894). Morgan was 43 years old when he enlisted in the 16th New York Heavy Artillery at Seneca in December 1863.
In this letter, Elias describes the fighting on the St. Charles Turnpike and the Darbytown Road near Richmond the previous fall — October 1864.
Camp of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles in the Field near Richmond
February 26th 1865
I received your very kind and welcome letter on the 25th and was very glad to hear from you and to hear you and your family was well as me. I am very well and hope you will be as well as I am when this reaches you. You say you want a long letter. I can’t write much for the boys is raising the Old Harry and I think you won’t want to read my stuff. But as you want to hear some of it, I will try to write some of it to you.
The country in this part of the world — it was almost a wilderness — very thick woods for some miles. Then you will come to some plantation. The buildings is quite different here. They took all. I have been round the country some — I can tell you — scouting after bushwhackers, riding along four deep, and when we went up round Richmond, the length of our ranks of cavalry with 12 pieces of artillery would reach four deep about three miles. Well it is quite a sight to see so many all mounted, I can tell you.
We was received very warm with shell and shot all round. We encamped close to Richmond — about two miles out of town, right close under a 16-gun fort. It was dark when we got there. We was all dismounted for to charge the fort but did not. So we stood by our horses till daylight when we was shelled quite smart — when we got orders to mount — when we started back before we got to Richmond. Going up we [got our] first sight of Richmond. [On] the road, the Charles City Turnpike, there was a fort and storehouse. We charged there and took the fort — and such a charge too. But I was in the woods on picket to see [that] none of the Johnnies did not get in the rear of us. We could not hold it so we went. They commenced shelling us. I see one horse’s neck cut off close to his shoulders — so close that it cut the man’s foot and toes off in the stirrup. [We] stopped to the first house, go in [and] take the table out in the yard [and] cut his foot off. The women ran and hollered, then some of the boys would steal or take anything they wanted. It looks hard to see the women cry and holler, “Good mister soldier, don’t take that, It is all I have to eat.” But when they see you are going to take it, they will turn round and say, “You Yankee Son of a Bitch!” and call you everything they can.
When we got back to where the infantry was, it was about ten o’clock in the day — always corps picket out. We had just fed our horses when — Bang! Bang! — went about 20 or 40 shots. I can tell you we was in the saddle quick with our little rifles ready and we started on a gallop. We soon got orders to sling our rifles and draw saber and charge the best horse & the best man. Then you would see some _____ to see who would sit through first such times is when we know that we are the best. But when we think they they are as good as us, we will go on a charge in regular form in our places. So we went down the Darbytown Road. Soon the artillery was going on quite smart, when down come the Johnnies and our force and cavalry all mixed up. Some says, “Don’t shoot, for them is our men.” They came like the Devil, I can tell you. Some of our boys says, “Shoot! them is Johnnies!” So we banged away. We stood and shot about ten rounds. We stood till the lines was formed when we got orders to fall back when the 16th [New York Heavy Artillery] went at it and some other regiments. I went over the ground after and see some of the dead. You can’t begin to think how they look. Some shot in the eye — some one place and some another.
Well I could go on for months in this way but I will try to write something else for I think you won’t want to read such stuff. I have been riding long the road and have fifty or sixty shots fired right in our lines and strange to say, never hit a man. The last I see Uncle Morgan, he was as fat as a bear and feels well. He told me he was going to Fort Fisher. I think this will be a great lesson to him and me to live and I have had long talks together. I can hear the cars going into Richmond and hear the town bell strike from our picket post.
We will get paid this week. You say you want my likeness. When you write again, I will send it if I can get a glass strong enough to hold it and above all things you say you have got a girl for me. When I come home, you must not forget it for I shall come to claim her and to hold you to your word. You say you hope there is comfort for us. I hope and pray we may. Please accept this from your Nephew. Remember me to the children. Give my love to them. Yours truly, — Elias W. Sanders
Please write as soon as you get this. From E. S.