1861: Reuben Smith, Jr. to Melvina Louise Stetson

These letters were written by Reuben Smith, Jr. (1833-1913) of Co. A, 3rd Massachusetts Infantry. Reuben was the son of Reuben Smith, Sr. (1797-1865) and Mary Whitney (1797-1888) of Hanson, Plymouth county, Massachusetts, formerly of Maine. Reuben’s younger brother, Jason Smith (b. 1843), also served with him in the same company and is mentioned in these letters; one of the letters was actually composed by Jason but was copied by Reuben. All of the letters were addressed to their niece, Melvina (“Mellie”) Louise Stetson (1845-18xx), the daughter of Reuben’s sister, Abbie Fenix “Happy” Smith, and her husband Jeremiah Stetson, Jr.  Mellie married John D. Stebbins in 1865.

The 3rd Massachusetts assembled in Boston on 16 April 1861. Two days later they sailed on the steamer S. R. Spaulding for Fortress Monroe, Virginia. They arrived there on the 20th and immediately boarded another vessel for Norfolk where they proceeded to destroy anything thought usable by the rebels. They then returned to the fort on the 21st where they remained on garrison duty until July 16th when they sailed for home. They arrived in Boston on the 23rd of July and were mustered out of the service. While at Fortress Monroe, the regiment engaged in limited scouting and outpost duty beyond Hampton, Virginia.

Duryee’s 5th New York Zouaves near the bridge leading from Fortress Monroe to the town of Hampton, Virginia. Not long after this image was taken, the stately homes in Hampton (see in background) were destroyed by Confederate troops. 


Fort Monroe
Old Point Comfort, Va.
April 30, 1861

Dear Niece,

As I came off without seeing you, I thought I would write a line to you which I hope will find you well and enjoying yourself first rate. It is a pleasant place here. Roses are in full bloom and the birds warble their songs in every tree. We are obliged to work pretty hard part of the time and fare [is] rather coarse. We have bread and meat for breakfast with what is intended for coffee but I prefer water. For a change we have for dinner meat and bread without coffee. For supper, the same with coffee. But we have good appetites and can eat most anything. We take our bread in one hand and meat in the other and sit down on the grass and gnaw first one and then the other. Chairs are a luxury not known here.

At night we wrap our blankets around us and lay down on the floor and sleep from 9 till ½ past 4 unless we have to stand on guard when we don’t get more than two or three hours to sleep. I have been on guard once this week. Yesterday I went with 12 others to the wharf to help load a schooner and had a first rate time. We did not have to work very hard and there was candy and sugar which got broken open by accident — you know of course — and we got as much as we wanted to eat and some besides. When we got through, there was rum given to all who would drink it but only four drank any, so you see there are a few who can be temperance men here as well as at home, But I am sorry to say that I have seen Sons of Temperance the worse for liquor. I saw a young man — an officer in Manhanset Division — drinking cider today.

I would like to see you all very much but it will be some time yet before I can. I want you to write to me and let me know what there is going on there. Selden Pratt is here. So is Frank and Oliver Bryant. They are well. So are all the company. Morton [V. Bonney] and Theodore [L. Bonney] are both reading out of one paper. Last night I done my washing. I washed two shirts and a pair of stockings. I’ll bet you would have laughed to see me today. I have mended my pants. This [letter] is a mixed up mess but if you would look in upon me, you would not wonder. I have to write in a room with a hundred and fifty others. Some are swearing, some are playing cards, some writing letters, and some others dancing while a few are reading so you can guess what it is to undertake to write here.

I hope you will write to me often and not wait for me to answer every letter. I have hard work to get time to write at all and when I do, I am so tired that I feel more like going to bed. Perhaps you will think that I am sorry that I came here but I am not. I would not go back now if I could for nothing. My paper is most used up so I must stop. Remember me to all friends — especially to Sarah and Ellen. I guess you will be puzzled to find this out. Write soon, from Reuben

May 1 — I had to go out and drill last night so I did not get time to put this in the office. It is as fine a May morning ever you saw. There was rumors of an attack last night but no enemy made their appearance. We can hear them at work over in Hampton and expect they are erecting batteries. — Reuben


Fortress Monroe
Thursday, May 30, 1861

Well Melly, I will try and write a few lines in answer to your letter which come to hand yesterday and was read with much pleasure. Our company is on guard today. I have just been released. It is 5 o’clock now and I shall have to go on again at 9. I have got a rose to send you if I can get it into the letter that grew on secession ground. I plucked it in a secessionist’s garden yesterday about 3 miles from the fort. They have splendid gardens [even] if they are rebels. They are pretty shy and don’t show themselves very often. I have seen one, however. He was no beauty but looked more like a man than any secessionist I ever saw at home — and they are not half so much to be despised.

I have sent you one letter that you had not got when you wrote but you have most likely got it before this time if you get it at all. My nits have gone wool gathering and I will put this by till tomorrow.

May 31st — Well I will try and finish this so as to have it on the way to you tonight although I don’t feel much like writing after being out half the night. Our company are most all asleep. Morton [Bonney] lays by my side and although there is as much noise as a threshing machine would make, it fails to disturb him. In fact, I don’t believe any of us could sleep half as well as we do if there was no noise — we have got so used to it. Jason and Selden [Pratt] are at play.

Bill Alden ¹ has got the mumps. He told me the password of the Sons of Temperance the other day but I have forgotten it. There have been letters written home by some [that are] rather disparaging of his patriotism. Those who wrote the letters are trying to build up their own patriotism by putting down his.

You must excuse me for this time now and I will try and do better next time. Remember me to all yours in love. Write soon.

— Reuben

P. S. Please give the enclosed letter to your folks.

¹ William H. Alden served in Co. D, 4th Massachusetts Infantry. He was from Randolph, Massachusetts.


Fort Monroe, Virginia
June 12, 1860 [1861]

Well Melly — I received your letter this morning and was glad to hear from you. I want to write so much that I can’t think of anything.

There was a skirmish about eight miles from here last Monday [see Battle of Big Bethel]. I don’t know how many there was killed on either side. There is so many stories that I don’t believe any of them but I helped carry some of the wounded that was brought down up to the hospital. Some had their arms shot off and some were shot in the legs and some in the body. One of the Fourth [Massachusetts] Regiment died last night and one of the Zouaves the night before. ¹ They say that the Massachusetts boys fought bravely and so did they all but some of the Troy boys. ² They were trying to take a battery. The battery had rifled cannons — about thirty — and they fired shot, shells, and grape and canister shot and our troops only had three or four pieces. They wasn’t whipped but they retreated. They will have it now, I tell you. I should like to be with them next time and if I got a squint at one of them rebels, I would give him a dimmer that would stand by him.

I should like to come home for a little while but I should want to come back again unless all of the boys are there. Tell all my folks that I am well. I have not been sick an hour since I left home. Tell Ellen not to sit up too late nights, and give my love to all the girls. Tell Sarah Beals not to let you cut her out. Tell Julia and George to write to me. I got a line from Happy [Stetson] ³ in your letter but I can’t write to but one and as you wrote the most, I must write to you. Tell father and mother they must write to me.

I am on guard today. We have to stand guard one day in four or five and on fatigue two or three days in the time so you see I can’t get much time to write so you must write so much the more. There — my pipe has gone out so I must stop soon. Tell father and mother not to worry for we have chocolate twice a day and bread and apple sauce, meat and potatoes. There haint any lines and so I can’t write anymore. I guess you won’t go to school today if you study this out. — Jason

P. S. You must make all the excuses necessary for I can’t make any. — Reuben

Big Bethel

¹ Reuben was correct in referring to this engagement as a “skirmish” for it was extremely light by later standards. The Union forces suffered only 76 casualties, with 18 killed, including Maj. Winthrop and Lt. John T. Greble, the first regular army officer killed in the war. The Confederates suffered only eight casualties, with one killed.

² The 2nd New York Infantry was known as the Troy Regiment. They were organized at Troy and mustered in for two-year enlistment on 14 May 1861.

³ Happy Stetson (b. 1822) was the wife of Jeremiah Stetson, Jr. (b. 1810) — a carpenter in Hanson, Massachusetts. In the 1860 US Census, Reuben was enumerated in the household with the Stetson family. Happy was also Reuben’s older sister.

Fortress Monroe, Virginia
June 12 [1861]

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of your very kind letter which I received this morning with much pleasure. I don’t know as I can write anything worth reading. It is so warm here it makes one puff to think and come to writing. It makes the sweat run in streams.

There are lots of darkies here. I have heard regular plantation melodies and seen real gig dancing. We have lots of fun with the darkies getting them to sing and dance. This morning I saw a darkie girl get mad with a gentleman of color. He plagued her awful and then they kissed and made friends again. I thought I should like to kiss and make friends with somebody — not a darkie girl I don’t mean — but a girl in Massachusetts by the name of ——- but don’t you tell anybody.

Bill Alden says write something for me but I don’t know what he wants me to write unless he wants me to speak a good word for him. There, I see Jason coming and I will lay this aside. He has written to you. He had to write with a pencil because he was on guard and I am going to copy it off with a pen for him as he can’t get time.

June 13 — Well, Melly, I will try and finish this and get it in the office today. It is cooler this morning. I should like to step in and see you this morning but shall have to wait about five weeks longer, I suppose. Our company will all come home at the end of three months unless we are wanted more that we are now. We don’t like to be shut up in so safe a place as the fort but would rather go out and share the danger and show, whether we are afraid or not. Perhaps we shall have a chance but it don’t look like it now.

We have all kinds of folks amongst the soldiers from lawyers to paddies. There is a real Irishman singing an Irish song now on the other side of the room. There has been a lot of books sent from Boston for us to read. I am reading one — it is [Joel Tyler] Headley’s Italy, Alps, and Rhine — and is very interesting. His descriptions of Italian scenery are so vivid that one facies himself gazing on the scenes instead of reading a description. Tell Mary I have a faint recollection of the Fourth of July. I shall lose it this year though but I hope you will have a good time.

I should like to join your party to the split rock. Kiss Sarah for me when she gets home and tell Ellen to do nothing rashly. How is Mary Alice? Give my respects to her and her folks.

Oh, I have not had a letter from the source you mention but I think one would be very amusing. If I get one, I will let you know. How is little Tuny? Give her a kiss and [your brother] Marshal too. I suppose he has got to be quite a soldier boy by this time. Tell Alonzo Beal and Lot to write to me and I will try and answer them. Who did Algernon Peterson ¹ marry? Don’t let all the girls get married before I get back. I shall want one and you must save me a good one. Don’t let anyone see this for a dollar. Give all the girls a kiss for me and all the pretty ones two.

Write soon and believe me as ever, — Reuben

¹ Algernon Asaph Peterson married Helen Frances Bates at East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on 16 May 1861.


Camp Hamlin, Hampton Village, Va.
July 8, 1861

Dear Niece,

Having a few moments to spare, I will spend them in answering your very kind letter that I received yesterday. The flies are thicker than fiddlers in Taphet [Tibet?] so if I put in a bad word now and then, you must not be surprised. And then it is so darned hot that one wants two niggers to help him breath.

I am sorry the toad frightened you so. When we get back, we will have all their tails cut off as a punishment.

I have written Sarah one of the worst letters that I ever wrote in my life. I want you to get it and burn it up if she don’t do it herself which I rather think she will. Theodore just asked me how to spell belfry so I guess he is writing about the stone chapel here — and by the way, it is worthy of notice for it served for a fortification in the [American] Revolution and again in [the War of] 1812. It is built of brick. The walls [are] two feet thick. ¹

We expect to start for home before a great while. I think we shall start this week but don’t know certain. We expect they will keep us in Boston 3 or 4 days. You had better not write again unless you find out that we are not going to start until a letter would get here. We shan’t know when we are going to start more than 12 hours beforehand.

I can’t get Jason to write today. He had rather wait until he gets back and see you himself. I suppose you had a good time the 4th [of July]. I should like to know who carried you to the celebration. Guess it was Lot. There is a devil of a noise here so you mustn’t think strange if I write some queer things. Mr. [William D.] Goddard sits beside me eating hard bread. He wanted to know who I was writing to and then said, speak a good word for me. He has got a sheet of paper in his hand and is going to write to my Julia — I mean his sister, Julia.

July 10 — As I want to get this done to go in the mail tomorrow, I shall have to finish it tonight but I haven’t more than 15 minutes to do it in. I have been so busy that I could not get time before. I don’t believe we shall start for home until next week. I haven’t any news to write and you will excuse me this time, I know, for you have excused me so many times before. I wish you was going to meet me in Boston. Wouldn’t we have a spree! Hoping to see you soon, I will say goodbye for this time.

Yours &c., — Reuben

July 11 — I have heard that we are to start for home by Sunday. R. Smith

¹ This is most certainly a reference to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hampton, Virginia. The church was constructed on the outskirts of Hampton in 1728. A belfry was added to the west front in 1762. The building was damaged in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and again in the Civil War. At the time the 3rd Massachusetts Infantry were camped near Hampton, however, the church was undamaged and we learn from this letter that its belfry yet remained, which must have afforded the soldiers a good view of the area. Less than a month after this letter was written, Confederate raiders torched the town of Hampton. They  preferred seeing it in ashes than occupied by Union forces. In the sketch below drawn by Robert Sneden in 1862, the ruins of Hampton are depicted and the charred remains of St. John’s Episcopal Church can be seen in the upper left corner, near the water.




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