Thursday, April 15, 2010

Letters of the Civil War

     In a brief e-mail exchange a couple weeks ago, Greg Taylor mentioned to me his appreciation of soldier’s letters home during the Civil War.  Greg runs a couple of websites that feature his ancestors war time letters.   and

     Like me, he felt this was a great source for real history, unfiltered by the passage of time, and presented as events occurred.  This got me thinking about a great site that once existed on the internet. 

     Between the years 1994 and 2006, there existed a website called “Letters of the Civil War.”  The site featured letter transcriptions and war news culled from the local area newspapers around Boston. The city of Boston itself had several papers at the time; the Boston Transcript, the Courier, the Herald, the Traveller and more. The papers would often publish soldier correspondents’ letters from the war front.  The Boston Public Library maintains microfilm copies of most, if not all of these newspapers. "Letters of the Civil War" was largely the effort of one person, Tom Hayes the creator, and he would transcribe and post these letters on the internet, indexed by year, month and date and subject.  With 4 companies raised in Boston there were naturally a lot of letters from the 13th Mass posted here.  Then sadly, one day the site disappeared.

     I had downloaded about 30 letters from the 13th Mass before the site vanished.  I often lamented the demise of such a great resource.  I know others familiar with the site have missed it too.  It inspired me to seek out and transcribe copies of the Westboro Transcript from the town library in Westboro, Mass. on  a rare visit to the east coast in 2005.  I’ve posted many of these transcriptions, with those I downloaded from Letters of the Civil War, at my website.  But I always wished I could go back in time and visit Tom’s site again.

The Web Archive
     In February, while seeking materials for my recent Roundtable presentation, I was repeatedly bounced over to a website called the web archive 'wayback machine.'   It proposed to be an archive of the early days of the internet.  I bookmarked the site and planned to return at a later date.  I wondered if I could dig up any trace of Letters of the Civil War there.  Two weeks ago I returned and did a search.  To my amazement, the search was successful !

How the site works
     Years ago, software from the web archive would periodically scan the internet and cache html pages it found.  A search for brought up several archives of the site saved between the years 2002 and 2006.  The archive cannot save java script run on servers which sometimes worked the navigation of a site, and this presents in-operable links on some of the archived web pages.    I was able to open the ‘home page’ and link to the ‘index’ page from a 2002 archive of Letters of the Civil War.  From the index page I could access several of the individual transcribed letters (html pages) that had been posted on the original website.  But in 2002,  there was a smaller selection of letters to view.   The links from a 2006 archive of the web site were broken, so I could not access the index page (which linked to all the individual letter transcriptions).   But I figured out a way to get there. 

 Here’s how.  (It’s a little tricky).   The web archive lists all the dates its software archived the site “Letters of the Civil War.”     I opened the 2002 index page and changed the date in the address window to a cache date from 2005; (the archive date is actually part of the page address that appears in your browser window).  Presto Chango! suddenly many more of the letter links were live and working!  There is a caveat however, and that is the pages are very slow to load.

     Suddenly I was back in time, navigating through this wonderful old database of Civil War letters.   I started going through each month of the war and downloading all the 13th Mass letters I could find!  I had thought the thirty or so that I downloaded years ago pretty much covered the material.  I was wrong.  I downloaded over 80 more letters, all relating to the 13th Mass. 

A Couple of Letter Excerpts
     Early in the war, the correspondents wrote frequently to their hometown papers.  Great interest in the soldiers’ fortunes was exhibited at the homefront.   The letters tapered off as the war dragged on and people tired of its dismal tidings.  But these early letters provide an almost daily chronicle of the regiments activities.  Arguments were even carried on within the pages of the newspapers.  The following excerpts illustrate the seething rivalry that developed between the 4 Boston Companies (the ‘4th Battalion’) and the rest of the regiment early on in the war.  The subject of the argument is a favorite topic from the annals of the 13th Mass.; “Who Took Martinsburg ?”

Letter from Winchester, Va.
March 12, 1862

“…I suppose you have seen a letter written to the Traveller, dated at Martinsburg, at the time of our occupying that place; since seeing and reading that letter the query has been who took Martinsburg?  Answer Co. A.  Is this so, or is it not?  Co. A. was thrown out as advance guard to reconnoiter, when the Regt. was within a few miles of M. to give the alarm to us, or to take care of what few of the enemy they might find.  They took different roads, and were to meet at the rear of the town; the balance of the Regt. passed into M. and being very tired, after halting, laid themselves down on the doorsteps and other places most convenient.  All at once firing was heard, causing all hands to spring to their feet.  The communication states that two Rebel Officers were seen approaching, who, on being challenged by a portion of the advance (Co. A.) turned and tried to escape.  They were fired upon, but got away.  These two Rebel Officers turned out to be Officers attached to one of our own Batteries, stationed in town; the other part of the advance coming up at that moment, discharged their pieces at the first named portion of their own Company; fortunately their aim was too high, the balls passing over their heads.  The two Union Officers who were fired at, immediately turned one of their guns so as to command the street, to repel the attack from the supposed enemy.  You will perceive at once the mistake on both sides.  The two Officers took our Boys for Rebels, and vice versa; ’twas all a mistake; instead of sending a letter full of triumph home, they should have been thankful no harm came from what was a very natural mistake.

The letter referred to, was a letter too much on the bombast order; did no harm, merely causing a feeling of disgust, originating the question of–“who took Martinsburg?”

From some unaccountable reason, the so called 4th Battalion has always seemed to feel themselves superior to the balance of the six Companies composing this Regt.  Their superiority has not, and never will be admitted.  In what respect are they our superiors?  Do they possess more general intelligence?  Are their moral characters cast in a purer mould?  Have they, at any time, excelled in point of military discipline or drill?  Have they even in a physical point, attained a higher standard?  If the assertion is made, I deny it.  Like some proud old Aristocrat, to whom even a slight contact with the so called Plebian, causes a feeling of horror, they cling to the proud, the high, the lofty position, attained by them, at a certain time in the past, while playing Sojer in the good old City of Boston.  Should any skirmish occur, and any Company of the 4th Battalion be very near, you will hear of brave deeds–daring exposure–samples of tall fighting, &c., &c.  If one of the other Companies are near, they are never seen; all the hard fighting is done by the invincible four Boston companies.  One would suppose, from the perfect shower of adulation, which greets them, that they were the descendants of a long line of warriors, the might of whose power had fallen upon this particular branch of the 13th Mass.  Several great battles have been faught by this noble and valiant portion of our Regt.  One of which (at Antetim)* must have caused the spirits of an Alexander or a Cesar a pang of jealousy.  Four rifles, aimed with deadly intent, were discharged into their midst, causing the spirit of these heroes no small amount of confusion.  No guns were discharged by them (as I understand) at the enemy, on account perhaps of serious scruples in regard to the taking of human life.  If we are wrong in our statement, impartial history will see the wrong righted.  Many other fearful engagements might be mentioned, but for fear of engendering a spirit of pride in the hearts of these noble Union soldiers, we forbear.
The Response   
      This is a pretty scathing indictment from a member of Company E raised in Roxbury, and it  caught the attention of the ‘4th Battalion.’  The following letter appeared in the paper a month later as a response:


Manassas, April 13, 1862
Editor of the GazetteDear Sir:
            Being a constant reader of your paper, I happened to notice a letter from the Mass. 13th dated March 12, and signed “Roxbury.”

            Now, I have not the slightest idea who this “Roxbury” is, but should suppose from the tenor of his letter that he belongs to Co. E.  I think he is rather hard on the 4th Battalion, and especially Co. A, of that corps.

            He speaks of the affair at Martinsburg, and seems to think that Co. A believed they had made heroes of themselves on that occasion.  His account is not very complimentary to Co. A, and as a member of the company, allow me to make an explanation.

            As he says, when we were within a few miles of Martinsburg, A was detailed to go round to the rear, and cut off any rebels who might attempt to make their escape.  Accordingly, we proceeded under the guidance of a loyal citizen of Virginia, across the fields to the rear of the town.  When we arrived there, our captain drew up the first platoon in two ranks, on the Tuscaroras road (a road leading up into the mountains), and sent the second platoon, under command of Lt. Judson, round to the Winchester turnpike.  The signal was then given that we were ready, and we soon heard the regiment advancing into the town.  I being in the second platoon, knew very well all that transpired.  We (the second platoon) marched down the street with our arms loaded and bayonets fixed.

            When we got half-way down the street, and had halted to ascertain how near the centre of the town we were, the clatter of the horse’s hoofs attracted our attention.  The noise came a cross street on our left, and we supposed that some of the rebels we expected to meet were endeavoring to make their escape.  We could distinguish only two men.  Our lieut. stepped forward and challenged them; instead of answering the challenge, they (supposing that we were rebels) wheeled their horses and started up the street to a gallop; at this one of our boys fired without orders, the ball taking effect in the neck of one of the horses, and brought him to the ground.  His rider jumped from his back, and started on foot to alarm the regiment.  Just then our Lieut. Colonel, who had heard the firing, came down and ordered us to rejoin our regiment.

            The two horsemen proved to be a Lieut. of Artillery and his bugler, who were looking round to find forage for their horses, and who did not know that we were there.  All this trouble would have been avoided had he answered the challenge instead of running.

            This is a correct account of the affair at Martinsburg.

            The “letter full of triumph,” was undoubtedly written by a member of Co. A, but who the writer was we cannot find out:  suffice it to say that it was considered by all as an absurd and ridiculous epistle, and the writer has probably heard many unpleasant remarks with regard to it.  The general supposition seems to be that he is an officer, but it is impossible to say whether this supposition is correct or not.  The query– “Who took Martinsburg?” originated, it is true in Co. A, but it was only used to express their indignation of the manner in which things were transacted on that night, and not, as “Roxbury” supposed, in a boastful spirit.

            My object in answering the letter of R. was merely to place before the people of Roxbury, some of whom have relatives in Co. A, a true account of the affair at Martinsburg.

            Hoping that you will give this a place in the columns of your paper, I remain

                        Yours very respectfully,
                                   A Member of the 2nd Platoon.
     Such is the kind of detail that can be discovered from mining local newspapers for Civil War history.  I’ve always been more interested in the personal experiences of the soldiers than anything else.  After rediscovering this buried treasure I felt compelled to try and contact the sites creator, to inform him that a shadow of his excellent work still exists.  As a site owner myself, I appreciate the time, effort and expense that go into building a website.

A Talk with Tom
     I was fortunate in tracking Tom down and we had a pleasant phone conversation two weeks ago.  I told him how much I admired his site and gave him the web address of the archive so he could check it out.  Tom told me a little about his work.  All the papers came from the Boston Public Library collection.  He had a couple fellows offer to help him transcribe the letters, one guy doing as much as Tom could send him.  Of the several papers in the Boston area he thought the Herald was one of the greats.  The Chelsea Telegraph and Pioneer was the paper he spent the most time with.  He discovered the unflagging efforts of Mayor Fay of that city to support the soldiers in the field. Mayor Fay made constant trips to visit the troops, raised money and supplies for the men in the field and those in the hospitals, and otherwise did everything he could to support the boys from his community who went to war.   One of the interesting details lost to history was the name of the soldier who raised the American Flag over the Confederate Capitol when Richmond fell.  It turned out it was a Chelsea boy, and Mayor Fay, who was visiting the troops at the time reported it to the paper back home.

     The website disappeared for various reasons, partly because of time constraints and other commitments,  but the material still exists; perhaps over 2,000 letters, and Tom thinks one day, though it might not be until he retires, it will return.

The Archive
    For now, if you want to check it out, follow the link below which will take you to the index page laid out like a calendar.  Click on a month, and another page will load listing all the letters available to read for that particular month.  There are letters for several Massachusetts regiments; some from Connecticut, and other war items of interest too.  WARNING:  This page will take a LONG TIME to load, but it’s worth it.  (If you get a message saying the java script won't load, just cancel the action.)

*This refers to a skirmish at Antietam Creek in August, 1861, when Companies A and B were picketing the Potomac;  not the major battle that came a year later.

1 comment:

  1. Brad,
    Thank you for finding this fabulous archive of Civil War letters. What a treasure! Thanks too for the link to my 2 websites. With the voluminous amount of material available on the World Wide Web it is easy to get buried so every mention, plug, link, and exposure of any kind is a big help.