Two poignant letters home from soldiers tell of the reality of war, sacrifice, and Gettysburg
“The northern people do not know what war is.”
On July 12, 1863, Benjamin W. “Webb” Baker, a farm boy from Illinois, wrote to his mother from Winchester, Tennessee:
. . . I am truly sorry to hear of so much discord & contention at home. The war is for the restoration of the union. Will the people of the North be so blind as to invite civil war into their own homes? The northern people do not know what war is. Suppose a busy army of 20,000 should camp on Mr. Moore’s farm. In the morning there would not be a chick or pig or cow on the farm. The potatoes & onions & all eatables in the house would be gone. The fences would all be burned. If they stayed a week in the neighborhood the whole community would be a common, utterly devastated — no pen, let alone mine, can describe the horrors of civil war.
I never wrote Albert Moore an abolition letter, I am not an abolitionist, though I would rather be one than to be a secessionist. I never advised anyone to desert. I would not advise any man to dishonor himself & disgrace his friends.
Please Ma, don’t be despondent. Your trouble is hard, I know, but not so hard as some. I met a widow here who had 5 sons. All went into the southern army. Three of them have been killed, & the other two are at Vicksburg.
Write soon to your affectionate son,
A Soldier Writes Home about Gettysburg
On July 13, 1863, Private Wilbur Fisk, Second Vermont Volunteers, wrote of his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg ten days earlier:
“It was July third, the day of the severest fighting at Gettysburg. Although we acted a part there, our regiment was not engaged. Part of our brigade was on a skirmish line where there was some firing, but of comparatively trifling importance. Our position was on the extreme left, and as we acted on the defensive, we had nothing to do unless attacked. . . . The cannon’s roar was beyond all precedence of anything I have heard during the war. It fairly made the ground tremble, lasting with unabated fury for several hours. Of course our eagerness to know how things were going on was intense. Every straggler had his own story, and each formed his opinion from some trifling circumstance that happened to come under his own observation, making it extremely difficult to form any conclusion as to the general result. The officers continually represented things as favorable. They always do. Night closed the struggle, and we lay down tolerable sure that the battle had not gone against us. . . . Sunday morning the order came to pack up for marching; the rebels were falling back. We fell into line and marched through a short piece of woods on the battle-field. This part of the field was covered with jagged rocks and huge broken stones of every conceivable shape, — the ugliest place for a battle, or for anything else that one could easily select. . . . [M]ost of [those killed here] had been buried. Further on through another belt of woods the dead were still unburied. Here the troops halted for a short time, and those that wished to had an opportunity of looking over the field. I saw but a small portion of it, but I saw all I wished to. The rebel dead and ours lay thickly together, their thirst for blood forever quenched. Their bodies were swollen, black, and hideously unnatural. Their eyes glared from their sockets, their tongues protruded from their mouths, and in almost every case, clots of blood and mangled flesh showed how they had died, and rendered a sight ghastly beyond description. My God, could it be possible that such were lively and active like other people so shortly previous, with friends, parents, brothers and sisters to lament their loss. It certainly was so, but it was hard to realize it. I turned away from the heart-sickening sight, willing to forego gratifying my curiosity rather than dwell upon the horrors of that battle-field. I thought I had become hardened to almost anything, but I cannot say I ever wish to see another sight like that I saw on the battle-field of Gettysburg.
. . .
Benson Bobrick. Testament: A Soldier’s Story of the Civil War. New York, 2003. pp. 229- 230.
Hard Marching Every Day, The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865, Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt, ed. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992, pp. 115-16.
Many Civil War Soldiers Didn’t Pull the Trigger
July 13, 1863. “Often, it seems, in the heat of battle, soldiers went through the cumbersome process of loading their weapons only to fail at last to fire them. [For example,] Some 27,500 muskets were collected on the field after Gettysburg. Of these, more than 12,000 contained two charges. Another 6,000 contained three to ten charges and balls. One was found stuffed with no fewer than twenty-three rounds.”
Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, My Brother’s Face: Portraits of the Civil War in Photographs, Diaries, and Letters, p. 10.
New York City Anti-draft Riots Kill Blacks and Cause Major Damage
July 13, 1863. In New York City, anti-draft riots by poor immigrant whites, mostly unskilled Irish workers, resulted in 119 dead and millions in damages. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan writes, “Rioters burned a Negro orphanage to the ground, and black men and women were hunted in the streets and murdered when caught.” And yet, the working class remained loyal to the Union cause, and it was, Paludan continues, “the Sixty-ninth New York Regiment, an all-Irish unit, [that] marched from the battlefield at Gettysburg and helped to crush the mobs in New York streets, . . .[O]rganized labor in New York City was almost unanimous in condemning the riots. Most of the fire companies, composed of lower-class workers, courageously stood up to bricks and stones and fought the city’s fires.”
Phillip Shaw Paludan’s “A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861-1865,” pp. 190-195.