This letter was written by Sgt. Henry Prescott Witherly (1824-1864) of Co. D, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry. His surname was spelled a variety of ways making it somewhat difficult to locate a biographical record for him but the best source was “Newburyport in the Civil War” by George W. Creasey, published in 1903. In this book, “Henry P. Wetherby” is identified as a native of Oakham, Massachusetts — the son of Lewis Wetherby (1795-18xx) and Deborah Fay (1794-1826). He enlisted at Newburyport on 2 January 1864 and was mustered in on the 9th. His enlistment was for three years. As he notes in the following letter, he rose rapidly to the rank of sergeant.
According to Creasey’s book, Henry was “wounded in the arm and side in a skirmish in Florida in July 1864” — apparently so minor, however, that it did not prevent him from participating in skirmishes at Palatka on 2 August and at Magnolia on 13 August. Subsequent to these engagements, he was “taken prisoner of war at Gainesville, Florida, on August 17th, 1864” and he is reported to have died on December 13th 1864 at the Florence Stockade near Florence, South Carolina.
The Battle of Gainesville in which Henry was taken prisoner is described as follows:
The Battle of Gainesville took place on 17 August 1864, in the town square; many townspeople viewed the fighting from the windows of the nearby Beville house. A Union column of 342 men under the command of Col. Andrew L. Harris had occupied Gainesville that morning. It was composed of the 75th Ohio Mounted infantry, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry (2 companies), Battery A, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (3 cannons), and a small unit of Floridians loyal to the Union. They were attacked from the rear by soldiers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry under the command of Captain John Jackson Dickison (Companies H and F), supported by local militia, elements of 5th Florida Cavalry Battalion, and a small artillery battery of two cannons. Dickison’s men numbered about 290, although only 175 entered Gainesville and engaged in the fighting.
The Union troops were tired from a two-day march from Baldwin in the August heat. They were taken by surprise and had not fully deployed when the Confederate attack began. After about two hours Col. Harris gave the order to retreat from Gainesville; the Confederates continued to close in on the disorganized Union columns. Union losses numbered 28 dead, 5 wounded, 86 missing or unaccounted for, 188 captured, 260 horses and a 12-pound howitzer; the Confederates lost three killed and five wounded, of whom two died the next day. About 40 Union troops, including Colonel Harris, escaped. He reported his column was destroyed by a large Confederate force of 600—800 men and three cannon.
After hearing his account, the remaining Union forces in the north central Florida area withdrew to the garrisons at Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Gainesville remained in Confederate control for the duration of the war.
July 8, 1864
As it has been some time since I bade you a parting goodbye with the promise that I would write to you and I have been waiting for something to turn up worth writing about but as yet we have had no serious battles to tell you of so I will give you sort of a narrative of our regiment as it has occurred since we left Boston.
The 1st Battalion was in the field some months before we of the 2nd came. Ours of the 2nd was composed of companies A, B, C, and D. The company I belong to is D. Well our battalion left Boston the Sunday the 27th of March on board the steamer Western Metropolis — one of the meanest old hulks in the world — with 450 horses and about 380 men and after one of the most stormy passages on record we arrived and anchored in Port Royal [South Carolina] the 8th of April. We were then ordered to Beaufort April 9th, stopped to Beaufort 6 days when we were ordered to Hilton Head. We stayed at Hilton Head from the 16th of April to the 6th of June. While we were there, the other 3 battalions came, The first one that came to join us was the 3rd from Boston but it came and went and did not even have a chance to land, and the 4th [battalion] the same. One was sent to Grant and the other to Butler. The 1st [Battalion] — I don’t know where it is but I believe in the Potomac, and we were left alone [with] 4 companies and we were at the Head and in the time that we were there, there was an expedition formed under General Birney up the Ashepoo river in which we lost one steamer, 85 horses, and all equipments, [on 26 May 1864] and then returned to the Head.
And then, as though they had not broke up enough, they set to work to break up our battalion. They sent one company to Beaufort, 25 men and horses to Folly Island, detailed about 12 for orderlies for the officers, and kept about 75 at the Head for patrol and police, and sent our company with what there was left up to this God forsaken hole (Jacksonville). Almost as soon as we arrived, there was a raid or a reconnoiter to see and to feel of Johnny Reb and of course we were ordered in. We had not got settled down when the bugle sounded us to Boots & Saddles and then to arms. We were all saddled, armed, to the teeth in just 4 minutes or mounted and in a line ready for action. We rode out to the stockade and took the front of the line — your humble servant sent out with a squad of men as skirmishers. Well you can imagine how it was to be sent out with men through swamps and woods and God knows what but we did and done well, so the General said that was in the rear with his staff (but you may say why was I sent out? I will tell you. I hold the billet of sergeant. I was a private 2 months and then corporal and then sergeant).
Well after a ride of some 5 hours, we came on to the reb pickets but they left as soon as we came and we went into their lines a mile or so when we were ordered to come back by our bugle from the rear. We got about 75 head of cattle and came back to camp and the rest of the time we are doing picket duty at the front. That is done in this way. A sergeant goes out in command with 6 corporals and 30 men and stays 24 hours, then another squad go the next day, and so on. I spent the 4th of July out there and of all the thunder and lightning I never saw before. A part of the men are posted in the line of our front under the corporals. The rest remain back about 200 yards with the sergeant and the other 3 corporals and they are changed every 3 hours to give the men a chance to have a rest that is dismounted for while they are out, they are not allowed to get off their horses at all. The men are posted about 150 yards apart. There are rebs coming in now and then a few and some niggers, but enough of this.
It is quite sickly here. Out of 72 men and 14 noncommissioned [officers] we brought here, we have but 27 men and 9 noncommissioned officers for for duty. We have buried one of of our company at every place we have been — one at Beaufort, two at the Head, three here, and God knows how many we have sick. I don’t [know that] three is a new lot goes to the hospital every day and this morning there was a steamer left for St. Augustine with a load out of the hospital to make room for more.
Well I can’t tell you anything more of this kind of news this time (but more anon). My mind oft turns to you all out there and then I suppose you’re all about the same as when I left. I often think of you at your anvil and the other Mr. Harlow. Give my best respects to him and tell him I have that tobacco box yet and I intend to bring it home with me and then there is John Perkins, Isaac, and Asa and Hayden — but I can’t name half of them. But I wish you in a particular manner to remember me to Lucious Lovell and finally to all enquiring friends. And tell them I should be happy to hear from all of them at any time it may please them to write me.
As to our living, it is not home but then we have to make it do with what we can. As for nigger, damn him. I wish he had been in hell before this war broke out. I tell you, out of our battalion, there is but a few nigger men too. The tune changes as soon as you get out here to the front. You tell John Perkins that I am N-O-T a nigger man from this [day] out and if I had a 100 votes, I would throw them all against such men as today rule our state and the United States. Not that I am sick of my enlisting — not at all. I am well, tough, and hardy, and live much better than I expected to and have got along, I think you will say so, pretty well, and I want to see it out.
Well, I must close hoping to hear from you soon and many others of my friends from Bridgewater.
From your friend. Direct to — Henry P. Witherly, Co. D, 4th Mass. Cavalry, Jacksonville, Florida