Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Letters of John Viles

I set aside two days to visit the Army Heritage Education Center on my recent trip east in July.  I drove up to Carlisle, PA in the early evening the same day I toured Antietam Battlefield.  The Army Archive has several 13th Mass. materials in its collection.    I've known about these for years, but it took this trip east for me to finally access them.

For two days I copied original letters and other items with my digital camera.  The letters of Albert Liscom and John Viles were the two largest collections among the 13th Mass. stuff.  Albert was in Co. C, and John Viles was the arranger of music for the 13th Mass. band.  Albert's handwriting is small, with an elegant cursive, but  his handwriting is generally difficult to read.  John's writing is large, crooked and easy to read.  I copied some other interesting things, while at Carlisle, but the letters are most interesting for the information they reveal about life in the 13th Mass.  I was happy to run across this passage in one of John Viles letters, Dec. 20, 1861,  as it identified the two women in the adjacent photograph, which I came by several years ago.

– the Chaplain’s wife and 2 Children arrived here to day  Col Leonard and adjutant Bradley’s wives have been here 2 or 3 weeks."


That would be Adjt. David Bradlee, and his wife on the left and Mrs. Leonard and Col. Leonard on the right, assuming each man stood by his wife.

I transcribed John's letters when I got home, because they're easier to read.  I completed them in September.  There are 110 in all.  Viles' position in the regiment gives him a unique perspective on things, almost like a civilian observer.  He did not play an instrument with the band, so he did not have to participate in the morning and evening duties at dress parade, etc.  The arrangement of music kept him busy for a long while, but in time, when that was done, he had little to do.  The letters are written to his wife "Franky," whom he addressed as "Frank."  He had three children, a baby girl Fannie, and two sons, Franky and Gene,  the son Gene, quite a bit older.  Domestic concerns take up the greater portion of content in the letters.  He  was concerned for his wife's well-being at home, alone with the three children.  The fact that times were hard came up frequently, and it was clear John appreciated the fact that he was receiving regular pay with his fortunate position in the army, although he missed his family.

Early December finds his oldest son up to some mischief at home while father is absent:

I am sorry to hear the Gene has been up to such tricks.  I hope you have punished him for it – if he does the like again I think you had better set the constables after him – and I want you Should tell him I said so.

As early as the winter of 1861 -62 there were rumors of the bands being discharged from government service.

"About my getting much more money here – that is if we are discharged – you had best use it as economical as possible – I would not give you a word of caution if I was not afraid that would be the case.  I see by the Sentinel (the Waltham, Mass. town paper his wife sent to him) that a Town Meeting was to be held held last to consider the question of making a further grant of funds for the relief of families."

His letters also reveal that Col. Leonard granted members of the 13th Mass Band a great deal of liberty.  When other bands in their brigade started to muster out, they commented that they wouldn't mind staying around if their Colonel's treated them the same as Col. Leonard.

John caught a severe cold in late February and consequently did not march with the regiment when it finally crossed the Potomac River into Va to begin the Spring Campaign of 1862.  Here's how he treated himself:
"I think my cold is much better to day but I’m not so as to go out and don’t mean to tell I’m better – yesterday afternoon I went to bed with wet cloths on my Throat – Chest & Stomach – and my red Blanket wrapped round me – took compositon too and I sweat profusely all night I think it done me much good – to day I have cotton Batting applied to prevent taking more cold – I could not help wishing last night that you were here to take care of me but then Lawrence does first rate. It rained as fully last night but it is now clear and much colder – I’ll write tomorrow – good by for this time dear Frank"

The cold left him weak for many days.  He finally saw a doctor who told him he had had pneumonia, a sudden inflammation of the lungs.  He regained his strength  and caught up with the regiment while they were in Winchester, Va.  Here, he  fell into a good thing for extra cash -  writing down music for a theatre troop he met while the regiment occupied the town.

"my time is all taken up – here to write for the Band – every day – then at the theater there are two Singers – and they have no music for the peices they sing so I have to go In the afternoon and have them sing the peice over and over till I can write the music off – its slow work and takes some time as the pieces are new to me – then I have to write the parts out for the different Instruments – they say the Singers want I should arrange their songs so they can have the music when they go to other places – say they will pay me extra and you may suppose I shall make the most out of it that I can.  They have a new peice to Sing each night so Im busy all the time and when I write you – have to do it in a hurry – don’t think of any more to say but I almost always forget something that I meant to have written about – after too late – don’t fear anything for me about money – had $5 when I got here and am getting more every day –"



During the Spring and Summer of 1862, when the campaigning got hard, Franky, back home, began to have trouble with the landlord.

"I don’t like it very well of Ayers (the landlord) meddling with the ground – he has no business with it more than the man in the moon – he would’nt ask for such a privilege if I was about – but I’ll pay him for it some time –"

"If you don’t want the grass Plowed up around the House – all you’ve got to do is say so – Ayers has no business to touch it – he takes advantage just because I’m out of the way –"

"I don’t like what you tell me about moving – I think the legal time for him to notify you is when the rent is due – that is as you pay by the quarter he should have notified you the 15th – AM and I think he must notify you now on 15 July and then I rather think he must give you 3 months notice – nobody has any right to bring manure or anything else on the premises so long as you occupy it – I just wish I could be at home at this time – don’t let them hurry you out or make a fool of you –  don’t never pay him another cent without my advice –  I don’t know whether he ever Plowed the grass land but he’s no right to do so – "

Of course, the letters also comment on things happening in the field.

In April, Gen. John Abercrombie, commanding the brigade, camped the regiment in a foul swamp for a month.  Many soldiers wrote about it, as well as John.

– I think this the worst place we ever camped in – the ground is low and so much wet weather – then the water is the worst we have ever found – there is a great deal of sickness – though nothing serious. Mostly Diarrhoea"

When General Hartsuff assumed command of the brigade he moved the camp.

– I must tell you something about this new place that we are camped in – there are hundreds of Acres of open field well swarded with green grass the ground is quite high and the prospect beautiful – the woods have got on their foliage the Apple Trees in full Bloom – the grass is so high that it is waving in the wind – we have never had a camp ground equal to this before and why we staid down I that Sunken – Sickly hole so long is more than I can understand –"

One of my favorite letters is dated Waterloo, Va. Aug. 4. 1862.   The tough resistance put up by the Confederacy and the many Union setbacks in the Spring and Summer  forced the government to aggressively recruit more troops for the war effort.  John records the comments of Chaplain Noah Gaylord on the subject.

"Last evening at services we don’t have services till Just at night this hot weather,  the Chaplain had a good deal to say about the enlistments in Mass and attributed its Slowness to the discouraging Letters which the Boys had written home – he thought they had done a wrong thing and a great evil – he said they Should have encouraged every friend they had at home to enlist at once – he said he was aware they had to suffer much hardship but thought the cause and object they were engaged in was worth enduring much more – what he said was all right and good but I could not help thinking how little he knew about the hardships the men in the ranks endured -  at least by experience he don’t have to march with a knapsack on his Back – Blankets & Tent and Musket – stand guard and live in a Dog Kennel in all kinds of weather for 13 dollars a Month – he rides a Horse – has a good Wall Tent and a hundred Dollars per month or more – if a Private from the ranks had said the same – it would have had much more weight with me."

The letters date from August 2, 1861 - Aug 20, 1862.  The band mustered out of service ten days later, Sept. 1, 1862.

The band kept up its organization upon arriving home in Boston, adding new members as old ones dropped out.  I don't know if John stayed with them.  After John's death in August, 1882,  Franky rec'd a pension from the government.

I'm looking forward to adding various letters to the website in the future.

NOTE:  The picture of John Viles, and some biographical information comes from a magazine article written by Mr. Leonard Traynor, of Australia.  I am not sure of the publication's title.