Letters from the Civil War

Hi. Barb here.

When I realized my posting day was Memorial Day, I was a bit flummoxed. There are several people here on the blog who are better equipped to remark on this day than I am.

My father served in Korea, and my grandfather in World War I, and preparing to write this post sent me on a mad scramble to find a photo of either of them in uniform. I didn’t find any, and neither of them were the type to speak about their service. (And since my grandfather was a stockbroker, which meant he made his living on the phone, which meant he would talk your ear off about pretty much anything, the silence speaks volumes.)

But while I was looking, I did find something I hadn’t examined in ages, decades certainly–my great-great-grandfather’s letters from the Civil War.

Adoniram Judson Dickison (My brother has the sword)

I was almost afraid to look at them. I thought they might have crumbled to dust, but all but two are fairly well preserved. There are seven in all, written between January 19, 1864 and February 17, 1865 to a niece, Francis Alice Rozelle, back in Oswego, New York. Ancestry.com helpfully tells me that Alice would have been thirteen and fourteen at the time (though I haven’t yet figured out quite how they were related). A. Judson, as he is always called, repeatedly tells Alice that her handwriting is excellent and to stay in school as long as she can. Her side of the correspondence does not survive.

January 19th, 1864, Culpepper, VA

“Yesterday was a very nasty day, and to help along with, we had to move our train to the upper part of the town. Mud knee deep and raining quite hard, we had an awful time of it. I felt sorry for the men. No chance to get any shelter until they got their “shantys” up. I wish I could describe to you the way the soldiers live down here and how patiently they stand all manner of hardships and privations. I think it has improved me in some respects to come down here. I have learned to have a good deal of patience and forbearance. It requires a good deal to be on the march, for insistence, when it is raining as hard as it can pour down, and perhaps have to stand for hours without any shelter, wet to the skin, and not a murmur. I have often wished that people at home could know what a soldier has to go through with. If they did know, they would be apt to show them more respect.”

November 6th, 1864, Yellow House, VA

[The part at the top about his wife Sarah having bought a baby girl threw me for a bit of a loop, until I realized from other letters when his last leave had been. I don’t know if he is shielding a young girl from the realities of conception and birth, or if he is joking. The baby would have been my great grandmother.]

“You ask me what I think of this War. I think it is pretty near its end. We all think here in the Army that the Rebs are pretty well used up and there are very few but what think that the re-election of Lincoln will go a long way to closing up the War than anything that can be done just at present. All they are holding out now for is the hope that McClellan may be elected by which they hope to get better terms for Peace. But I think Lincoln’s re-election almost as certain as that the sun will rise to-morrow morning. How anyone who is not a traitor to their country could cast their vote for McClellan and the Chicago Platforms, I can not see.”

February 17th, 1865

“Our Campaign lasted six days, and suffice to say, we had a very nasty time of it. We got into a fight, and our Corps lost 100 killed and 900 wounded and about as many more missing and taken prisoners.”

The letters are fascinating and alternate between the harrowing (he casually mentions he has been taken prisoner “again” and has escaped “again.”) and the homely. He pines for letters from his wife, worries about money (his wife has had to borrow from relatives while he tries to sell a piece of property and waits to be paid) and writes frequently about the weather both where he is and at home in New York.

I do remember my grandfather, in his eighties, lamenting that he’d never asked his grandfather more about the Civil War. A boy of the 1890s, he was far more interested in cowboys and ranches. And here I am lamenting never talking to my father or grandfather about their service. Which goes to show something, I guess. Perhaps that people never change.


About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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36 Responses to Letters from the Civil War

  1. Gram says:

    Not an easy life for most in any war.

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing the letters. How special that you still have them.

  3. Karen says:

    My husband’s great-great grandfather was a prisoner at Andersonville prison in Georgia during the Civil War, where he died at a young age. He also wrote letters home that a cousin has now. On one of our trips to Arizona we stopped at the prison and graveyard where we found his grave. The conditions he lived and died in were beyond deplorable. So thankful he helped preserve the Union!! Not happy he died. Thank you to all my relatives who have served our country for over 240 years, including my father in WWII.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Barbara! Memorial Day seems to have turned into a three-day holiday for shopping at discount prices and barbecuing … celebrating, it seems. Being thankful and remembering those who gave their lives so we could be so callous doesn’t even to be part of the picture for a lot of people. On one side of my family men fought in the Revolution, and most wars since then. On the other side, being newer immigrants, they started with World War I — four of my grandmother’s brothers fought there, and we have a wonderful picture of all of them in uniform. One came home with
    “shell shock”. Today we would call it PTSD.

  5. Great post, Barb! It’s a sad truth that the price paid by our ancestors is often forgotten by many who enjoy the freedoms we hold dear.

  6. Jacki York says:

    Hi Barb!

    Great post and a great reminder of what our soldiers endure. I think it’s interesting that we never ask our relatives about their wars. It makes me wonder if it’s a condition of human nature that we don’t ask more questions and maybe if we asked more questions, maybe there would be less war? Probably just wishful thinking!

    • Barb Ross says:

      Maybe, Jacki.

      I think both my father and grandfather regarded it as a duty, and a period of their lives they wanted to move on from as rapidly as possible. They didn’t invite questions, that’s for sure.

  7. Vida Antolin-Jenkins says:

    What a wonderful post for Memorial Day! Being an immigrant myself, I don’t have a long family history of military service for the United States. But growing up next to Gettysburg, and frequently visiting the National Cemetary there, I was acutely aware of the many who paid “the last full measure.”

    • Barb Ross says:

      I was sure one of the letters was from Gettysburg, but when I looked, I didn’t see one. I’ll have to discover the movement of his regiment.

      I have been to Gettysburg several times (including the day after your wedding!)and I am always awed by it.

  8. Nikki Andrews says:

    Thank you for sharing these letters, Barb. They bring the reality of the times to life, and remind us that our ancestors were people just like us, caught up in horrors we can barely imagine–and in joys, cares, fears we certainly can share.

    My youngest sister has been working hard to archive and annotate our father’s WWII letters home, and has been in contact with a national organization that is collecting and preserving such letters from soldiers. If you like, I can put you in touch with her. I don’t know if they want to physically store the letters or just copy them, or if the choice is up to you, but it seems to me that the more places such things are made available, the better.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes, Nikki, that would be great. I remember first looking at these letters 50 years ago, when the Civil War was that much closer. If I don’t do something specific to preserve them soon, they’ll be gone.

  9. Beth Clark says:

    So fitting for today. Thanks for sharing these letters.

  10. Fascinating, Barbara. Thank you for posting these powerful letters.

  11. Amber Foxx says:

    Thanks for sharing these treasures. History means so much more in the words of those who lived it. I remember going through boxes and boxes of family documents with my sister, including some dating back that far, to get them ready to donate to the state archives. It was fascinating. We found WW II letters as well.

    • Barb Ross says:

      That must have been fascinating. Among the papers I have are some really, really old deeds, and lots of deeds to cemetery plots all over the northeast. Both my father and my grandfather were only children and my grandfather had no cousins that lived to adulthood, so it all has come to my brother and me.

  12. Thanks Barb for this post. It is so important to remember these wars and those who had to fight them. Sad as it is, every generation has its war. My grandfather WWI, my father WWII, I was in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my son was in the Persian Gulf in 03. My grandson ???

  13. Cheryl Worcester says:

    What a powerful reminder of what those who have served live through or die for…Thank you so much for sharing.

  14. What a treasure! I’m glad they haven’t crumpled to dust.

  15. Kait Carson says:

    Barb, these letters are amazing, not only that they exist, but that they were ever written. So many of the troops in the Civil War had neither writing nor reading. It’s wonderful that the letters exist and can still be read. Is there something you can do to preserve them further? First person accounts are always the most interesting, and what a reminder of the lost art of letter writing. Cherish them, as I know you will.

  16. Powerful stuff, Barb. Memorial Day shpu;d be extended to include the families of the veterans. They too serve. It’s the significant other who assumes the responsibility of keeping the home front together so that the veteran doesn’t have to worry about that. I was married the last two years I was in the Corps and my wife served every minute of that time. I made an allotment to ensure she got the majority of my monthly salary and I went overseas confident she’d hold things together. I believe she did a better job than I would have.

    • Barb Ross says:

      What a lovely sentiment. There is no question that military service is a career that is shared by spouse and family who also make sacrifices small and large.

  17. I’m so sorry I missed this post, Barb. The letters are remarkable. May I use Adoniram in my next historical mystery (please??)?

  18. Susan Santangelo says:

    What a fantastic post, Barb. Thanks

  19. Pingback: In Memorium | Wicked Cozy Authors

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