1864: Luther Stephenson to Francis J. Parker

Luther Stephenson, Jr.

This illuminating letter was written by Lt. Col. Luther Stephenson (1830-1921) while commanding the 32nd Massachusetts Infantry. In the letter, Stephenson tells his former commander, Brevet Brig. Gen. Francis J. Parker, of the role played by the 32nd Massachusetts in the opening phases of Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. It is clear that Stephenson thought little of Grant’s leadership skills who “has proved no match for Lee as a general.”

Luther Stephenson, Jr. “was captain of Hingham’s pre-war militia company, the “Lincoln Light Infantry,” which became Company I of the 4th Massachusetts Infantry at the beginning of the war. In 1862, he became captain of Company A of the 32nd Massachusetts Infantry, and rose through the ranks to Lieutenant Colonel and the command of that regiment. He was wounded very seriously at Gettysburg, being shot through the face, and twice again during the Overland Campaign in May and June of 1864. He was forced to resign due to his wounds on June 28, 1864. After the war, he was awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general.” [See Historical Digression: Luther Stephenson]

Stephen wrote the letter to Francis Parker who retired from command of the 32nd Massachusetts in December 1862 and subsequently published the History of the 32nd Regiment Massachusetts Infantry (1880).

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard D. Weiner.]


Camp near Spotsylvania, Court House
May 20th 1864

I enclose herewith a copy I have had written from Shephard’s Diary to give you an idea of the doings of the 32nd [Massachusetts] since we left winter quarters.

I don’t think there is much doubt that is the hardest campaign of the war — the most desperate and the [with] the usual bad success. We are right here behind entrenchments and cannot advance because before us lay the enemy behind strong works, which it is almost impossible to force except by a regular siege. What Gen. Grant is going to do no one can imagine. He has got a bigger job on his hands than he expected and has proved no match for Lee as a general. The people are doomed to be disappointed in their new God. Our loss has been very heavy — more than 50,000 in killed, wounded, and missing. Some estimate the actual loss to the army as high as 60,000; up to the 18th, 30,000 wounded had passed through Fredericksburg according to records made by Miss [Dorothea] Dix.

George Lincoln Prescott — held in contempt by Stephenson but laid down his life in the fighting before Petersburg

Our loss is 8 officers wounded, 18 men killed & 118 wounded. Eight of the wounded have since died. Most of the killed and many of the wounded were left on the field. We sustained our greatest loss in a charge on the enemy’s works in connection with the 9th [Massachusetts] and 62nd [Pennsylvania]. ¹ We were sent in under the command of Col. [George Lincoln] Prescott which was, of course, equivalent to no commander at all, and were exposed to a terrible fire in front and on the flank, and finally compelled to retreat — every man for himself — with bullets and shells following us thick and fast. No man in the army ever went so near their works again and many a brave soldier of the 2d Brigade [were] left wounded on the bloody field [who] waited in vain for the help that should have reached him from his comrades. But our General proposed to advance when Lee requested a cessation of hostilities to bury the dead and care for the wounded. Unfortunately Lee [author meant Grant] didn’t see it in the same light and our dead are unburied [and] our wounded uncared for. ² Are the people yet ready for McClellan or must they meet with more reverses before they coms to their senses?

I propose to leave the service as soon as this campaign is over if I can get my discharge. If you see an opportunity for me to obtain an honest job as an agent clerk or something of the sort, please bear me in mind.

Write me and explain those flank movements which you spoke of in your last by which Grant would compel Lee to fall back on Richmond without much loss. I write on a box and hope you will be able to read it.

Yours, — Stephenson

¹ Stephenson is referring to the assault on Laurel Hill made by the 33rd Massachusetts on 12 May 1864. According to the regimental history, “five bearers fell before the colors reached the old position behind our works; of the 190 men who advanced in the regimental line, 103 were killed or wounded, and from the time that they left the works until the remnant returned, less than thirty minutes had elapsed.” 

² Curiously no mention is made in the regimental history of this cease fire request by Lee to allow for burial parties to enter the space between the opposing armies at Laurel Hill. Days later, in the aftermath of the fighting at Cold Harbor, a similar allegation was levied against Grant which proved to be true; Grant not wanting to ask for a formal truce because he didn’t want to acknowledge that he had lost the battle.


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