These three letters were written by James Dempster (1832-1905) of Co. H, 146th New York Infantry. James enlisted at the age of 30 to serve three years in late August 1862 at Utica. The regiment fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. It faced its severest fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness where 225 of its men were captured. James was promoted from private to corporal before he was captured. He was paroled sometime before he mustered out in June 1865 at Washington D. C.
According to his enlistment record, James stood just a half inch shy of six feet and had dark hair and blue eyes. It also gave his occupation as farmer and states that his birthplace was Frankfort, Herkimer county, New York. We know from the 1850 and 1860 US Census records, however, that James was not born in the United States but in Ireland. In the 1850 US Census, the names of the large Dempster family are revealed: “Mrs.” Dempster (no first name given) was the 40 year-old head of the household and he children included John (b. 1830), James (b. 1832), Elizabeth (b. 1834), Henry (b. 1836), Agnes (b. 1838), Andrew (b. 1844), Mary P. (b. 1844), Hugh C. (b. 1847). All of these children were born in Ireland so the family must have emigrated in the late 1840’s. Living with the family were Grace Harlot and Jane Harlot in their mid 40s who may have been Mrs. Dempster’s sisters.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Camp near Fredericksburg
March 27th 1863
I received your kind and welcome letter last night. I was sorry to hear that Mother was worse but I found that she was getting better and I hope and trust that she will continue to get well for I don’t see how you will get along if it should please the Lord to call here away.
There is no news here that can be relied on. There is plenty of rumors but there has always been plenty of that. But I put no trust in them. But spring is coming — I might say is here — and the campaign will soon be opened with the booming of the cannon and the sharp click of the deadly rifle perhaps will be before you receive this scrawl.
We have been out on a review by Gen. Mead of this Division and that is generally a forerunner of a movement. We turned out 340 men, rank and file. That is pretty near the amount of men we could turn out in a battlefield but then there is generally about a hundred men that is sick and dead beats (what we mean by this) is men that pretends to be sick and goes to the doctor and gets excused from all duties that day. I don’t blame them if they can get off. Some has managed to get their discharge where some has been sicker and could not get it. A man may be sick and they will keep him till he dies. Another may be lame in his legs or arms, he will stand the best chance.
We have been expecting to be attacked here this some time as the Rebel cavalry has been feeling our outposts. Our cavalry and theirs had a small skirmish the afternoon we came in from picket duty somewhere near where we was to cross over at the Mud March. Ours drove them and beat them. They have doubled the pickets since that.
The long roll beat last Wednesday morning and two regiments of regulars went out to support the pickets but all passed off quiet.
I have just had a shake hands from G. G. Roberts of Utica, You can send that letter of M. Wylies if you think it best. If not, you can answer it yourself. I don’t know what you can say about James. Like as not he is no more.
I saw Mother the day I passed through. I might have jumped off and stayed to the next train but I thought that we was to stay fifteen minutes. I had to guard one of the cars and was on the platform and so I got off. Mr. Thomas is gone home on a furlough. I sent a line for Maria. It will be all right with him. I would like a small tin coffee pot to hold a pint or a quart. Fill it with butter. I think he will bring it too. She could ask him.
I must finish as the candle is going out and I have no more but we draw tomorrow night. Write soon and I will answer it. Give my love to all. I remain your brother to death, — James Dempster
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Camp at Warrenton Junction
January 20th 1864
I received your welcome letter on the 10th inst. I was glad to hear that you were all well as this leave me the same. I received the box at the same time I got your letter. The boots was a very good fit — could not be better if I had been there myself. A good many says they are worth twenty-five dollars here. I would not want them for that anyway.
The weather is a little milder than it has been. It has thawed and it is dreadful muddy. It has been very cold down here. We did not suffer so with the cold last winter. I see by the papers that you have it colder than common.
We have no news here but what we got from the papers. The advance of the army is at Culpepper some twenty miles from here. I think there is three corps there — the first, second, and third. The sixth is gone over into the Shenandoah Valley while we are guarding the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. We have it pretty hard this winter but when we are off duty, we are pretty comfortable — more so than we ever were before. We have not got over four hundred men fit for duty which makes us come on twice, sometimes three times a week, besides other details keeps us all the time on duty. We have to keep a pretty good look out here for guerillas but we have seen none yet. They have tried other places on the line but they have not thought fit to make a visit to us. There has been a good many women — both black and white — come into the Colonel’s Headquarters lately for to get something to eat. Some took the oath of allegiance and some would not. Them that did not would get nothing. It was some fun for the boys to see them coming into the lines with a pair of oxen — only one generally happened to be a bull — and a rickety old ox cart sometimes with a white and black boy riding each ox and sometimes only one. When a young damsel would come, she would have two or three nigger wenches as ugly as sin with her. Sometimes they come where the young lady would be riding the ox herself. Very few came on horseback but when they did, they throwed off their long dress and when they went away, they would put it on and fetch up their horse to a stump. Some of the boys says they throwed their legs over like a man but I won’t say. But that is the way they ride the oxen for I see them. Some of them is very good looking but rather pale. I hear that a good many of our cavalry men over in the valley is getting married — over twenty in one camp — and calculates to settle down there when this cruel war is over.
It’s allowed here by a good many that there will be no more fighting in Virginia — that they will have to evacuate it. You know I wrote last summer that the heaviest fighting would be in the Southwest and when Grant would get in a little farther they would have to evacuate Virginia. You will here tell of some of the tallest fighting down there when the Spring Campaign opens that you ever read of. It may take all next summer to close this Rebellion but I don’t think but what it will be settled some time in the summer. If Uncle Abe knows what is good for himself, he will try and get it done before he goes out, as he won’t have another four years. I think Gen. Grant is our next President.
Lieut. Dutton is gone home to recruit for the regiment. I don’t know whether it will be in Rome or in Utica. I suppose you will be calling to see him and enquiring about me. Do so, but you need not say anything about what I wrote to you as he could do nothing. There was some talk of some going home to help him. I would like to get the job. You might speak to him to that effect and see if he could not help me — that is, if you like. Do you think Robert has as much stock as when he went there? I don’t think he has. I would think horses would pay to raise better than any other stock. Write soon. Give my love to all.
Your brother, — J. Dempster
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
April 29th 1864
My Dear Brother,
I received your welcome letter last night. I was glad to hear that you were all well as this leaves me the same at present. I have been sick eleven days but for all I was not down sick. I was able to be around but done no duty. I catched cold some way and it settled in my breast and back with a very severe cough. They had to put a blister on at last which took the pain away and give me some cough medicine which cured it all right again. So I may say I am as well as usual again once more. I did not calculate to write to you before Sunday but we have got to leave and if I did not write tonight, I could not tell when I might have the chance again as the talk is that the mail will be stopped for sixty days but all letters is to come so you can write as usual.
I suppose you hardly know anything about the movements of the Army. We have been expecting Burnside along this last day or two with his Army of fifty thousand men. He arrived here with his staff at about one o’clock. His advance guard came in a few minutes after and they have been passing all afternoon till dark and they are encamped between here and Bealton Station. He has ten thousand negroes with him and three companies of Indians also.
The Fifth Corps has been relieved within two stations of us with negro troops. I could not find out whether it was what Burnside brought with him or not. There is a rumor that we are going to be relieved by the same kind of troops. A nigger is better than a white man now-a-days. For my own part, I would rather be at the front than lay here all summer. There would not be any more danger.
I hear that Gen. Siegel is moving up the Shenandoah Valley with fifty thousand more to join on our right and that Gilmore is going by the way of the Peninsula with another Army, in all two hundred and fifty thousand men to hurl against Lee with one hundred and fifty thousand all told. Grant ought to be able to take Richmond with this Army when McClellan prayed to only give him ten thousand fresh troops with the eighty-three thousand that he had and he would take it. But they would not and see the results. We are just in the same place — or the Army is — in the place that it held when we joined them first eighteen months ago. Our Third Division was relieved and passed up this afternoon. The trains passed up loaded down more than has passed up in some weeks. The cavalry has left Warrenton and gone to the front. Everything is pushed forward at an awful rate. Look out when the ball opens. If Lee makes a stand, it will be one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of this war or any other. I can’t see as I can tell you what is best for you to do. If you could pack your butter to the fall, it would pay but I suppose it would be impossible. I know it must be lonesome. I found that out when I was there. I heard that the 2nd New York Artillery passed through the other night. I did not see them. Tell me in your next. Write soon and I will answer every chance I have.
Your brother, — J. Dempster
Put the 1st Division on the direction.