This letter was written by Cpl. William M. Moon (1835-18xx) of Co. E, 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. The majority of the members of this regiment came from the Philadelphia area where they were recruited in April 1861 under the direction of U. S. Senator Edward D. Baker — Abraham Lincoln’s good friend. Readers will recall that one of the earliest engagements in the Civil War was the Battle of Ball’s Bluff — an ill-conceived and executed venture into Virginia from the upper Potomac in October 1861. Eight companies of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry led by Col. Baker participated in the battle that ensued along with portions of the 15th and 20th Massachusetts and the 42nd New York. The disastrous assault and ignominious retreat back across the Potomac resulted in nearly 40 percent casualties among the 24 officers and 307 enlisted men of the 71st Pennsylvania. Fortuitously for William, his company was one of the few that did not cross the river that day.
Following this debacle, the remnants of the 71st Pennsylvania went into winter’s quarters on the upper Potomac where they were placed on duty guarding the crossings between the Point of Rocks and the Monacacy Aqueduct. They remained there until early in the spring of 1862 when it eventually joined McClellan’s army at Yorktown and participated in all of the Army of the Potomac’s battles as part of the famed Philadelphia Brigade. William transferred to Co. A, 69th Pennsylvania in June 1864 where he served until 22 March 1865.
William wrote this letter in late January 1862 while on picket duty on the upper Potomac in the vicinity of the mouth of the Monocacy river. He mentions an “old ferry” near their picket post which may have been Noland’s Ferry. This ferry was in a portion of the Potomac river with several islands — also mentioned. Perhaps it was Noland’s Island that William and two others visited against the orders of their captain.
Monocacy Creek, [Maryland]
January 29, 1862
My dear mother,
Your very welcome letter came to hand last evening. Since last Monday a week we have been down here along the Potomac picketing. Two companies out of the regiment are down constantly and stay two weeks when they are relieved by two more companies. E & H are down here now and are stretched along the river for about four miles. Our company join Col. Geary’s regiment [28th Pennsylvania Infantry] on the right and Co. H on the left. There are ten of us in our ranch, which is made of rails and mud. During the day we have nothing to do but at night we have to divide ourselves into 5 reliefs — ten on each relief. One is stationed about a hundred yards below the hut at an old ferry while the other watches by the cabin. We watch to keep rebels from crossing and also to keep them from obtaining news from their shore. Each man stands two hours, sergeants, corporals, and all.
So you see that it is not so very arduous. When we are in camp, ten men are detailed out of each company every day for guard duty which makes each man’s turn come once in a week or oftener. (I did not intend to tell you but as you have asked me how often I stand guard, I will have to. I am holding the position of third corporal and my tour of guard comes but once in a month or maybe a little less. But do not for anything let it be known.) We will receive Ben on his return as though we had heard nothing. I did not send those letters. Do not know whether I will or not.
I did not receive Dud’s picture in the box — only Hen McKeehan’s. You must have forgotten to put it in. I have got well again though I have had a cough but do not think it will last long. We are all well. I should not object to a handkerchief and I would like to have a good strong pocket knife with a long, sharp blade but I presume Ben has started [already]. Al broke my Bowie [knife] today while cutting some salt pork. I have more clothes than I want or at least as many. I gave away one red overshirt and one undershirt and a pair of stockings.
I shall write Grandmother a letter soon. I wish you would send me a few postage stamps every time you write for I have no money and they are hard to be obtained here. We expect to cross the river in a few days and I think we would have crossed before this had the weather been favorable. I wish you could look in upon us in our old ranch. When it rains, the water runs in all over. It is now nearly twelve o’clock at night. I stay up most all night. We sit before the fire chatting and telling stories. We boil coffee, fry salt pork, or boil rice or make bean soup. And we feel highly favored in having butter. We each get a loaf of bread every other day though when right hungry, I can mine in one meal. One loaf, however, does me a day.
I wrote to Cal last week. I found out John [ ] but lost it. Was very much pleased with Charley’s and Fannie’s letter. I wish they would all write to me oftener because I cannot write to them. Perhaps next time you hear from me, we will be in Virginia. I hope so. I had quite a conversation with two rebel cavalrymen on the other side of the river last Saturday. I could have picked one off with my rifle, I believe.
The other day before the river rose, three of us went over in an old boat to the island which is nearer to the other shore than to this. We just wanted to see what was on it. We had hardly got over when a gun was fired in the gully on the other side and we hurried back, as the captain did not want us to go and we had no guns along. In less than half an hour, about fifty rebel cavalry appeared in the gully. It is against orders for anyone to cross but we wanted something to do.
The river here is about as wide as the Susquehanna above New Columbia and is full of islands on which both parties are afraid to venture. This morning I fired at a deserted house on the hill across the river where the rebel pickets, we think, are stationed and we heard the ball strike the roof. It must be about six hundred yards. We have splendid Belgian rifles which shoot the minié ball and the secesh know it too for one of the cavalrymen asked me what rifles we were [issued]. ¹
I think that if the weather remains cold for the next three weeks, blows will have been struck that will knock secession in the head. Give my love to all. Write soon and believe me ever your affectionate son, — Will M. Moon
¹ Curiously William refers to his Belgian rifle as a “splendid” weapon suggesting that he was not particularly knowledgeable of firearms. The Belgian rifle-musket was considered a third-class weapon with an accuracy range of only about 400 yards.