A Letter from William Childs

The following post by guest author Dan Welch is one of a series of posts that will chronicle a Union surgeon’s letters leading up to the end of the Civil War, 150 years later.

One of the best sets of soldier letters from the Civil War, only recently published and largely ignored by scholars and historians today, was written by Union army surgeon William Child. What makes this collection so noteworthy are the many years of the conflict they cover and Child’s detailed notes about combat, battlefields, the aftermath of war, medicine, and the unimaginable hardship of leaving a wife and family at home during his service.

A native of Bath, New Hampshire, William Child was born in February 1834. He received a modest education near his home and eventually graduated Dartmouth Medical School in 1857. Deciding to join the Union war effort, Child was commissioned as an assistant surgeon in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in 1862.

Not long after his enlistment in the army, he began composing numerous letters that spanned the duration of the war. His writings continued well after the end of the conflict until his discharge from the army in late 1865.

With his regiment, the young, 28-year-old doctor witnessed some of the most climactic battles of the American Civil War in the Eastern Theater: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. In their aftermaths, he treated thousands of patients. From battlefields to a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers, Child had also been a spectator in a Washington, D.C.’s theater on the fateful night of April 14, 1865.

We pick up Child’s story in mid-October 1864 with the Union army in their works around Petersburg, Virginia. He had hopes for promotion, increase in pay, and a time when he could return home to his wife.

Camp near Petersburg, Va., Oct. 12th, 1864

My Dear Wife:
I shall expect a letter from you to-morrow, but will write to-night. I love to tell you of my hopes and expectations. Every thing now looks fair for obtaining surgeon’s commission. I shall now be much disappointed if I do not. It will be better for me in many respects. I shall receive $163.00 per month—about $40.00 more than I now receive. I am now making arrangements so that I can send home nearly or quite $100.00 per month. I expect a servant from Hanover, N.H. This will save to me about $25.00 per month—and I shall be in a mess with only one other person so that we can live for about $12.00 per month. Thus the expense of servant and board will be about $40.00 per month. This will leave $120.00. Then the $20.00 should clothe me. I am certainly hoping to lay by more than we have during the last year—say the coming year $800.00. But perhaps all my plans may not come about as I am now hoping. Yet it will do no harm to write of these things to you.
After Dr. B. goes I shall be the only surgeon with the Regt., but there will not be a great amount of labor I think. We shall not go into winter quarter until about the first of middle of Dec. Then we can be pretty comfortable. Until then we shall have rough times. But I can endure hardship much better now than during the first year. It is not unpleasant sleeping on the ground now. In fact I never had better sleep than this summer. I hardly know how a feather bed with clean white sheets would feel—and much less to be in bed with my wife. But these thoughts make me homesick. When I think that it will at least ten months before I can be at home. I shall endeavor to get home some time during the winter—perhaps for good though now I am undecided what will be best. But for all the then plans how much may happen before another year. But we will hope for the best. The past two years have been one of the events. Good by for to-night—kisses to you all.

It becomes quite apparent that William Child is concerned for the financial well-being of his family left behind in New Hampshire as he begins this letter to his wife. His finite calculations of income and expenditures based upon the prospect of promotion to regimental surgeon from that of an assistant surgeon demonstrate his expectancy of the post and how it will help alleviate debts that his family has incurred since leaving for the army and much needed home and property repairs. In another letter just a week before, Child wrote to a local builder in his hometown, Mr. Kimball, to provide estimates of labor and materials to build a much-needed barn on the property. Only the promotion and increase in army pay could secure for Child a new structure on his land.

Even with a promotion potentially in the near future for Child, he did not believe it would add much to his work load, writing “there will not be a great amount of labor I think.” Despite several probing attacks by Confederate soldiers along the extensive Federal front since the mine explosion at the end of July, few casualties were sent to the regimental hospital for Child to attend. As a side effect of the lack of combat, long periods of boredom and manning of the trenches took a physical and mental toll on the army. This boredom, lack of labor, and life at the front and in the trenches around Petersburg wore on Child as well. He looked forward to going into winter quarters and getting “pretty comfortable.”

Child’s closing highlights one of the many common threads found in letters and diaries of the era: a longing for home. “[T]hese thoughts make me homesick,” Child wrote his wife. His longing was not new to his writings. Indeed, from the moment he left for the army a yearning to return home set in, and at times, consumed his letters and reflected a much depressed mood. In the autumn of 1864 the hopeful surgeon found himself at a crossroads. He yearned for a furlough home in the coming months, yet realized his term of service still required another ten months before he could leave the army. At the same time he alludes to the possibility of finding another way out, “perhaps for good” when home on his anticipated furlough. Either way, Child still had much time at the front, and with that time he continued to write letters home to his wife, begging her to write more responses and yearning for an increase in their frequency.

For Further Reading
Child, William. A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, in the American Civil War, 1861- 1865. 1893. Reprint, Gaithersburg, Maryland: Ron R. Van Sickle Military Books, 1988.

Child, William. Letters From a Civil War Surgeon. Maine: Polar Bear & Company, 2001.

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