Without an accompanying envelope, signed only by the name “Edwin,” and addressed to “wife (Laura) and boy,” this letter presented a formidable challenge to identify the correspondents. The content of the letter tells us it was written concurrent with the Battle of North Anna during Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864 by a member of Hancock’s 2nd Army Corps. At the time, the Second Corps included the divisions of Maj. Gen. David B. Birney, and Brig. Generals Francis C. Barlow, John Gibbon, and Robert O. Tyler, as well as an Artillery Brigade commanded by Col. John C. Tidball.
After assiduously studying the movements of the various elements of the Second Corps following the Battle of Spotsylvania, it was discovered that the movements of one particular unit matched those described in the letter. In his book, Heavy Guns and Light: A History of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, Hyland Kirk helps us narrow down the author’s identity to a member of the Third Battalion of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. On page 242, Kirk wrote, “The Third Battalion [of the 4th N. Y. Heavy Artillery] left their camp at Spotsylvania at 11 P.M. of the 20th. They marched all night and all the next day, passing through Bowling Green at 11 A.M. and reached Milford Station at 3 P.M…They crossed the Mattapony at 3:15 and took position with Brown’s Battery on the left of the line. They worked — digging rifle pits — all night and the next day till noon. On the 23rd began marching at 7 A.M., crossed Polecat Creek at 9 and halted at 3 P.M. near the North Anna River, where they rested that night. they crossed the North Anna on the 25th.”
By looking at every Edwin on the roster of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, I finally came to Pvt. Edwin Merchant Whitney (1828-1875), a 35 year-old married machinist from Hume, Allegany county, New York who enlisted in Co. D on 13 August 1862. He was married to Laura Pride (1825-1880) prior to 1850 and was the only Edwin in that regiment married to a woman named Laura. In the 1850 US Census, Edwin and Laura were enumerated in the household of his father, William Graves Whitney (1800-1859) — a canal jobber — in Hume. Edwin’s occupation was given as “Canal Business” at that time. Their son, Morris P. Whitney, was born in 1852. In the 1860 US Census, Edwin and Laura are enumerated with their eight year-old son in Wiscoy (a hamlet in the town of Hume), Allegany county, New York, where Edwin’s occupation was given as “Moulder.”
Laura (Pride) Whitney was the youngest of at least eleven children born to Eliphas Hibbard Pride (1776-1825) and Ruth Bowe (1782-1849) of Otsego county, New York.
Edwin received a bounty of $50 from the Town of Hume for his enlistment.
Near the North Anna River, Va.
[Tuesday] May 24th 1864
Dear Wife and Boy,
I still have the opportunity of writing to the dear beloved ones hoping this will find them well &c.
We left Spotsylvania [20 May 1864] in the evening after I had finished my other letter to you. Hoping you receive some of my letters for I know you are very anxious about me. But I am sorry you are so much so, for worrying will do no good and I trust you will not do anymore for if anything happens to me, I certainly will let you know about it. Now, hoping you will trust all in Him who is able to direct all things right. Now Laura, do not for my sake at least let my situation trouble you until I hear of your being sick or something worse. Now don’t worry yourself to death for it only makes a bad matter worse.
As I said in the commencement of this, we left the last great battlefield at Spotsylvania about eleven o’clock at night (the 2nd Corps, I mean) and continued to march until the next night [21 May 1864] — making nearly twenty-four hours stopping but twice for anything to eat — for the purpose of flanking Lee which we partly accomplished. We remained there from Saturday night until Monday morning [23 May 1864]. Then we struck tents and are now on the Ann River some twenty-five miles from Richmond. We arrived here last night about four o’clock, capturing a train of railroad cars and a lot of prisoners. There was hard fighting between the 2nd Corps [and the Rebels] but the Rebs have to [fall] back. There has been more or less cannon firing all day but we think our army are on their flank or so near it that Johnny will have to skedaddle again. The prisoners told our boys they was going to lick us at this place but our boys can’t see it.
It has become a fact that our mess are regardless of death and when the Rebs make a stand, they go at them as though they was not going to leave anything human in the shape of Rebels. We have been very successful so far and I think [Gen.] Grant knows what he is about yet. The boys so far as I have heard in our company are alright. There was some thirty wounded in the fight of last week but I can’t hear of any from our place being injured. ¹ As for myself, I am alright except a little dysentery but I am not troubled much. I think it caused by the water — it not being very good.
The country we have traveled through has been very nice with very nice residences looking like our northern farms more than I have seen since I left home. We traveled [past] plenty of wheat and corn fields which looked very nice. We passed through Bowling Green which is quite a pretty place. The next place was Milford Station.
It is quite warm here and dusty marching but we get along first rate for we make our mule carry the most of our baggage. We get plenty of rations and we have fared first rate for soldiers in the march.
I get along with my washings quite well and you must not worry about me on account [of] such things for it takes but little time to wash a shirt, you know. In your last letter you seemed to be discouraged and cast down but still the Lord has been good to me and I have escaped all danger for during the fighting we are in the rear of the army and not as much exposed as some.
But I must write Morris and Mother and this sheet is full now. My dear wife, don’t despair but trust in God that He will unite us again on Earth in peace in our little home.
¹ The roster of Co. D shows 1 killed and some 25 wounded in the fighting at Spotsylvania on 19 May 1864.