Imagine the surprise of the descendants of William Dwyer, 8th Alabama Infantry, when they found the following letters in a metal box tucked away in the attic of a deceased relative’s home. Before discovering the letters, they knew very little of William beyond the fact that he had been among the Irish emigrants who banded together to form the “Emerald Guard” (Co. I) of the 8th Alabama during the American Civil War. According to his enlistment papers, William was born in Galway, Ireland, stood 5′ 6″ tall, had a dark complexion, blue eyes, and black hair. From his letters we learn that he wore a size 8 boot and preferred a size 7 — or size 8 — hat with brim broad enough to cover his ears.
Municipal records tell us William had married a woman named Rebecca Lantry (b. 1838) in Mobile in 1859 and that together they had two small children when he left to join his comrades in faraway Virginia. [In November 1862, Rebecca claimed the ages of the the oldest child — William — to be three years & fours months; the second child was two years old.]
In the 1861 Mobile City Directory, William Dwyer was identified as a “laborer” with a residence on East Hamilton between New York and Vermont Streets. Rebecca’s younger brother William Lantry (b. 1841) — a brick-layer by profession — lived nearby in the residence of Richard Walker, another member of the “Emerald Guard” who is mentioned frequently in these letters.
All but one of the letters were written by William to his sister, Bridget Dwyer (1833-1908), with whom he apparently corresponded since his wife was illiterate [she had to leave her mark on the application for a Widow’s Pension on 17 November 1862]. Bridget was married in Mobile on 11 November 1865 to James Welsh. She may have worked in the dress-making shop of Mrs. Burton in Mobile in the early 1860s.
The letters tell us that William was among the first Confederate troops to occupy and fortify Yorktown. These works were eventually abandoned, as readers know, in early May 1862. William’s military record indicates that he participated with his company in the Battle at Williamsburg on 5 May 1862 and that some seven weeks later, “while gallantly charging the enemy’s works and battery late in the evening of 27 June 1862 at the Battle of Gaines’ Mills, he was killed instantly. [Note: Dwyer’s military record appears under the name “Dwyre.”]
The last letter was written by Lt. James Killian of Co. I, 8th Alabama. He wrote the letter to Alonzo Lafayette Willoughby who served as the Treasurer of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. The letter informs Mr. Willoughby of William’s death at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on 27 June 1862. I can only assume that Mr. Willoughby was William’s employer in Mobile.
Note: These letters appear here through the courtesy of Chip Logan who is in possession of them. He is the great-great-great-grandson of William Dwyer.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER 1
August 21, 1861
I now sit to let you know that I have received your letter on the 19 of [July] and I was glad to hear that you [were] well and in good health. Dear sister, you must not think that I forgot you. There is not a letter I wrote that I did not enquire for you. I haven’t got an answer from any of them but 2 of the letters I wrote but I have not heard from there in one month.
Dear sister, I am still remaining in Yorktown and in good health, thanks be to God for His goodness to me. Dear sister, you will please go to Mrs. [Richard] Walker and let her know that her husband is well and is glad to hear from her.
Dear sister, I have not much to say to you. Tell Mrs. Walker that she must postpone this till I come home for I want to have a hand in the fun. Dear sister, you will please tell Mrs. Lee that see Pat every day [and] that he is well and in good health.
Dear sister, you will make me two pair of drawers, two under shirts, one over shirt like Dick [Richard] Walker’s. Dear sister, you must try and get the heavy flannel. Dear sister, you needn’t send them to me till you receive my next letter. Dear sister, please answer this letter quick as possible. Dear sister, I have not heard from my wife this month. When you are writing your next letter, please let me know how she is.
P. S. Dear sister, you please send word to my wife and tell her that I am well and want to know the reason that she does not write to me. No more at present.
From your affectionate brother, — William Dwyer — till death
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER 2
September 21, 1861
I received your letter in the 16 of this month and I was glad to hear that you were well. Dear sister, it was my duty to answer yours of the 16th. I did not embrace an opportunity until ______. Dear sister, there is not much to be seen or heard of, therefore my letter must be short. Dear sister, you said in your letter concerning some clothing. You will please send them if you have not sent them before now. Dear sister, you said in your letter that you wished to have my likeness. It is not in my power to send it to you for there is none of that business done here. If [I] happen to meet the opportunity of having it [taken] later, I will send it to you.
To conclude and finish with bidding you goodbye. Dear sister, I send my best respects to Mr. and Mrs. Ryan. You will please answer this letter quick for it is seldom I hear from home.
Dear sister, you will please go and see the children and send me word how they all are. I don’t get half the letters that is sent from Mobile to me. No more at present.
From your affectionate brother until death, — William Dwyer
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER 3
Addressed to Miss Bridget Dwyer, Care of Mrs. Burton, 142 Dauphin St., Mobile, Alabama
December 2, 1861
I received your kind letter the 20th of November and I was glad to hear that you were in good health. Dear sister, you must excuse me for not writing to you before now, we being marching so much that we could not [even] make time for to wash our clothes.
Dear sister, you wanted to [know] if it is the chills and fever. Yes, I have suffered severely from them. I have got clear from them at present but I don’t know how long. Dear sister, you heard that I sent ten dollars home to my wife. Yes, I have sent home ten dollars and I have not heard from it since. I have wrote several letters since but got no answer to them.
Dear sister, all the clothes that I sent for one overcoat, one heavy pantaloons. Dear sister, you will please let me know if you still live with Mrs. [S.] Burton ¹ yet. If you are, you will please let me know if she has a letter box in the post office so as I can send my wife letters in her care. I think that there must be some of my letters been taken out in Mobile.
Dear sister, you will please go and see them [and] you will please let me know in your next letter how they are.
Dear sister, you wish to know where we are encamped. We are encamped at Great Bethel. That is where the Yankees were just defeated. That is 15 miles from Yorktown. We keep closing on the Yankees. There is more or less skirmishing going on here every day. We are marching down towards them every day — within a few miles of them.
Dear sister, I was obliged for to sell the shoes for they were too small for me on account of I being so much on my feet that they used to hurt my feet. They were rather short. Dear sister, you will please send me another pair — either boots or shoes — No. 8. Let them be good and strong whatever the price may be and I will send it [the money] to you in my next letter as I expect to get paid in a few weeks. Dear sister, I would send it to you now but this 20 dollars is all I have got now and I want to enclose this in this letter for my wife for I know that she will want it for Christmas.
Dear sister, you will please send me a cap — one that will come over my ears — size 7 or 8.
Dear sister, you will please tell Mrs. Walker that her husband [Richard] is well and that he is very uneasy on account of not hearing from her. You will please write quick. Make no delay and forward these things quick for it is very cold here now. No more at present.
From your affectionate brother, — William Dwyer
Dear sister, you will please direct your letters to Mr. William Dwyer in care of Capt. [Patrick C.] Loughry, Emerald Guards, 7th Alabama Regiment, Yorktown, Virginia
¹ The 1861 Mobile City Directory shows Mrs. S. Burton to be the owner of a millinery shop at 142 Dauphin Street in Mobile. Also at that address was John Burton, bonnet and hat bleacher, and J. T. Burton, a clerk.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER 4
January 8, 1862
My dear and beloved sister,
I take the opportunity of writing these few lines to [you] hoping [they will] find you in good health as this leaves me in at present — thank God for it. Dear sister, I received the box that you sent me on the fifth but it has been broken open. There was nothing but a cap, shawl, one pair of socks, one bar of soap, one pair of gloves, and some writing paper. If there was anything else in it, I wish you would write to me soon and let me know so I can look after it. If there is anything missing, I want you to let me know what the cost [was] so I can recover the price of them. I received the coat and pantaloons that my wife sent to me. Let her know that I am well. Please let me know how they are all as soon as this comes to hand. Write to me and let me know all about it. No more at present.
From your affectionate brother, — William Dwyer
Direct your letter as usual.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER 5
Addressed to Mr. A. L. Willoughby, M. & O. Railroad, Mobile, Alabama
Camp near Richmond [Virginia]
August 10, 1862
Mr. A. L. Willoughby
I received your letter some time since but a soldier’s time not being his own, I had to defer writing until the present. Mr. Dwyer was killed instantly at the Battle of the 27th of June [Gaines’ Mill] and I had to perform the painful task of seeing five out of our company buried on [the] same day. We are now under marching orders and I expect we are bound for the [Shenandoah] Valley to cooperate with Jackson’s Army.
Your obedient servant, — [Lt.] J[ames] Killion
Killed on the field of battle, near Richmond, Private William Dwyer, Co. I, Emerald Guards, 8th Alabama Rgt., aged 24 years.
It is a mournful duty to pay the last tribute to one who has been cut down in the blush of manhood. Private Dwyer was among the first to volunteer in defense of our sacred cause. In one of the memorable engagements before Richmond, he received a fatal shot from one of the vandals. He fell with his face to the foe. His comrades will avenge him. He leaves a wife, two children and numerous friends in this city to mourn his loss.