This letter was written by Theodore E. Smiley (1838-1916), the son of wagon maker Asel Smiley (1908-1873) and his wife Charlotte Johnston (1811-1865). Theodore enlisted as a private in 15 September 1861 at the age of 22 in Co. C, 9th New York Cavalry. From Theodore’s letter we learn of his dissatisfaction with his company after having been involuntarily detached (with Companies F, K. and M) and distributed among batteries of the Reserve Artillery with whom they served until 22 May 1862 while the other companies were detailed guarding railroads. A history of the 9th New York Cavalry tells us that Co. C was divided into three detachments of about twenty men each. One detachment with Lt. R. H. Baker was assigned to Capt. Carlyle’s Battery; one with Lt. J. W. Upham to Capt. Horatio Gates Gibson‘s Battery (C 3d U. S.) and the third detachment to Capt. Henry M. Benson‘s Battery (M, 2d U. S.), all being under the overall command of Col. Hunt. Most of the batteries were flying artillery having ten ponder rifled guns and the men all mounted. The exception was Carlyle’s Battery which had thirty pounder guns and the gunners rode on the limber and caissons or walked. Carlyle’s Battery took a fixed position with its heavy guns in an earthwork before Yorktown but did not advance so it seems certain that Smiley was with either of the other two Batteries of U.S. Regulars.
The vocal dissatisfaction expressed by Pvt. Smiley and other 9th New York Troopers assigned to these flying artillery units so rankled the senses of General McClellan that he charged the protestors with “displaying a spirit of cowardice” and he recommended that the entire regiment be returned to New York and discharged. Only the intervention of Secretary of War Stanton prevented this extreme measure. Even though the troopers were eventually reunited with their regiment, the feeling of being misused was apparently more than Pvt. Smiley could endure for he deserted on 30 June 1862 at Washington D. C. To avoid the provost marshal, Theodore may have made his way to Michigan where he was found later in life. He died on Port Huron, St. Clair county, Michigan.
Addressed to Asel Smiley, Fluvanna, Chautauqua county, New York
Camp Winfield Scott, [near Yorktown] Virginia
April 20th 1862
With a glad heart and a willing hand do I now find myself seated to let you know that I am well and I do hope this will find you all enjoying the same blessing.
Our camp is only a short distance from the rebels and for our amusement they send us over some shells once in awhile but they burst so high that they don’t do any harm. But for all that, our captain came to the conclusion that he would return the compliments so yesterday morning before daylight the orders came to fall in for to march. So the battery was hitched up and at four o’clock, we started for what place we knew not. But we were soon aware of our place for after we had went a short distance, the orders came for to make a little noise as possible. We went about two miles and there we came to a large breastwork that our men had built nights for it wasn’t only about a half of a mile in front of the rebels’ breastworks. We got there just at daybreak and when we were running our guns up to the port holes, we could see the rebels walking round but we kept on working away expecting all the time they would send us some iron hail. But we got our guns all placed and the captain told us to sit down and rest an hour or so for he wasn’t in no hurry if they didn’t open fire on us. So we sat round until nine o’clock and then we planted the stars and stripes on our breastworks and commenced to fire on them.
We fired forty shots before noon and the rebels did not fire one at us so we sat down to rest then and we laid and sat around until four o’clock when all at once the rebels opened fire on us from eight of their guns. Some of the boys saw the flash and hollered, “Look out, their come some shots,” and then you ought to of seen the boys drop down from off the breastworks where they had [been] watching the rebels, yes, and see us load our guns. You may bet we done it in a hurry and at the third time our battery fired on them, we dismounted two of their guns. We kept on until we fired twenty shots and then the captain gave the orders to cease firing and as for the rebels, they didn’t fire but one shot after we commenced firing on them. They wounded one man in our battery but not very bad and as for them, we must of killed a good many for our shots went all among them.
We stayed there until dark and then we were relieved by another battery and we came back here to our camp. The rebels are very strongly entrenched here and they have got a very large force here too and it will cost some hard fighting before our men can take the place for the rebels have got a good and a very strong position.
After we had silenced the rebel guns, General McClellan and two other generals came down where we were in our breastworks. Our boys all stood the fire of rebels very good. Not one of them flinched a bit. But Father, we little thought when we left home that we should be forced here in artillery. Yes, and among the regulars too. We all feel hard about it but is our officers that has done it. When we left Washington, our officers pledged their word and honor that they would take us out in thirty days and now we have been in nearly sixty days. So you see our officers mean to keep us in.
John F. Smith ¹ from Jamestown came here with the papers to take us out or at least he told us so, but when our officers found it out, they caused an order to be sent to all the camps for to not allow any citizens in camp and specified him in particular and the Major [Sackett] of our Battalion told him if he came round the camps, he would have him put in irons. So you see what villains our officers are and God knows our company will have revenge if we ever get home.
¹ This was probably the same John F. Smith who later served as colonel of the 112th New York that was organized at Jamestown, New York. He died in 1865 from wounds received at Fort Fisher.