Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dan Welch.
When we last left William Child, assistant surgeon in the 5th New Hampshire Veteran Volunteer Infantry, he had written a letter home to his wife in mid-October 1864. From the Union army’s position in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, Child had written of hopes for promotion to surgeon in the regiment, an increase in pay that came along with that promotion, and a time when he could return home to his wife and children. Since the composition of that letter, much has happened with William, the regiment, and his family back home.
Just two days after his October 12 letter, William confirmed receipt of a letter from his wife. Again, he was concerned about the financial affairs of his family. “Please tell me again just how much and where our money is,” Child wrote. His plan to construct a new barn on his property, plus desperately needed home repairs, rested on paying off all debts and providing a secure foundation of $1,000 dollars in the bank. He closed his latest letter to his wife eagerly wishing to hear her thoughts on his design on the barn, as well as the work to be done on his home, providing “a narrow yard for our hens and pig” as well as more space in their kitchen for “cupboards, etc.”
One day later, October 15, Child returned to events that took place at the front in the next letter to his wife. He described the numerous men and officers of the regiment “whose time of service has expired” and were leaving for home, noting, “I have just ten months more.” He also commented on a common problem in both armies during this part of the war, desertion. “[D]uring the last three weeks more than sixty of them [new recruits] have deserted to the enemy.” The problems in the 5th New Hampshire, although felt across the army, took the unit and Child to a new location on the front. “On account of these desertions our Regt. has been placed in a fort on the front line – fort Stedman.” Due to the mortar fire directed at the fort, Child wrote that the situation at Fort Stedman was “a perfect hell.” Coupled with this danger, Child became “very homesick.” His longing for home, for his wife, his family, and more letters from them grew exponentially as the month of October came to an end. He also longed for his commission, which still had not arrived by his October 24 letter to Carrie.
Another topic filled Child’s letters at this time as well, politics. Child discussed his stance on many political platforms of the day, including his reasons why he had selected the candidates in which he intended to vote in the pending election. “Why should we prefer Lincoln to McClellan,” Child asked? “There are very many reasons, which I would give did I think it necessary.” Not only had Child expressed his political views to his wife, but they had become known to his community back home and the assistant surgeon felt as though he had to defend his stance. “Now my ‘friends’ say that I have changed my political views. There is not one question before the people now like those of four years ago. I only differ with them on the present political questions.” Child later revealed in this same letter that he was serving in the army first and foremost to protect, defend, and preserve the Union, not “free every slave possible, put the able men into the army and give the women and children homes – and educations.”
By November 1, the mood and tenor, as well as the location, of Child’s letters home had changed. His unit had been relieved from the front lines, they had gone into better, more comfortable quarters, and as of yet, Child still had not received his commission to surgeon.
Camp near Petersburg, Va., Nov. 1st, 1864
My Dear Wife:
Much to our pleasure we have been relived [sic] from the trenches. We are now in a fine pine forest a mile or more in the rear. I assure you it is a great relief to remove our clothes – go to bed feeling that no tea kettles liable to explode will fall about your tent – to be away from the continual crack of rifles and the sharp whistle of bullets. We have been about a month in the front line. I had rather be in the rear even if we have to make long and wearisome night marches – and fight a desperate battle now and then.
We are very pleasantly situated to-night. Our Steward and I have a good officers’ tent. We have a good bed of small pine poles laid across sticks drove into the earth with six good warm blankets. In front of our tent we have a cheerful bright fire. We are very comfortably situated for soldiers. It is a great luxury for us who have not slept except on the ground and under the stars for more than five months.
How or where we shall pass the winter I do not know. I do not think it will be in Richmond or Petersburg. Yet we have a full month for active campaigning. I hardly think we shall move again until after the election unless Lee should make it necessary.
There is but little political excitement so far as I know in the army. But little is said by any one. Both candidates have their warm friends. Of course I do not pretend to know for whom the majority will vote.
Well I have given you the “situation”. With what shall I fill the reminder of the sheet. “Let me see” – our commissions have not yet come. We are waiting very impatiently for them. There are some thirty of us expecting promotions – and of course are anxious to get on our new straps. I have been assured from Concord that I was sure of getting it but I want the paper in my hand. I have received several letters addressed surgeon 5th from N.H. so I supposed that it is understood there that I am or am to be surgeon. Well I think I have earned promotion. I have been here two years – and I think no man can say that I have not endeavored to do my duty – and I have been as near the front as the surgeons will average in every fight. This the returned soldiers of Bath will say I think. If you see Weston I wish you would tell me how he feels – and what he says – and Mason.
Well my darling wife I cannot fill the letter to-night. Will write more to-morrow if we do not move. Oh my dear wife I love – love you. I am glad you are my wife – for I should love you if you were not – and could not be with you – nor write to you as I do now. Only assure me that you love me in return and I will not worry about the loss of political friends. Humph – how absurd, ridiculous, laughable, contemptible, silly, low and unlike a man. I am only mortified to suppose that any one who knows me would have any idea that I am one who would be influenced in such a manner.
Good night my dear wife. God bless and preserve you and our darling babes. Good night
Child began his November missive relaying the relief and comfort he, his steward, and the 5th New Hampshire had received by finally being pulled out of the trenches and sent to the rear. Trench life and trench warfare can quickly diminish a soldier’s combat effectiveness, especially morale. After a month in the trenches, Child was “relieved” to be able to “Remove our clothes…be away from the continual crack of rifles and the sharp whistle of bullets.” He was also relishing the ability to have a tent, a bed, warm blankets, and a “cheerful bright fire.” Sometimes it is the little things that can restore a soldier’s mind and body despite the front still ever present.
After describing his cheerful new conditions, Child returned to the thought of his commission. By the first of November he had not received his new commission promoting him to surgeon in the regiment. The commission would increase his pay and help complete the plans he had for a new barn, home repairs, and getting his debts settled at home. Yet, he remained hopeful that he had indeed gained his commission, writing, “I have received several letters addressed surgeon 5th from N.H. so I supposed that it is understood there that I am or am to be surgeon.”
Child once again closed his letter with thoughts of home and his wife. His expressions of love and longing had remained true over two years of war in almost every letter he had written her. Nevertheless, the height of the 1864 presidential election was building not only across the nation but within the camps of the Union army. Child assured his wife that as long as she loved him he would “not worry about the loss of political friends” based upon his political leanings. Only the coming weeks would reveal if Child had backed the right candidates both at home and at the national level.
Dan Welch currently serves as the Education Programs Coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park. Previously, Dan was a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for five years. During that time he led numerous programs on the campaign and battle for school groups, families, and visitors of all ages. Most recently, Welch was a part of GNMP’s special 150th anniversary programs, as well as the annual Mid-Winter Lecture series. He received his BA in Instrumental Music Education from Youngstown State University, and is currently finishing his MA in Military History with a Civil War Era concentration at American Military University. Mr. Welch has also studied under the tutelage of Dr. Allen C. Guelzo as part of the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College. He currently resides in Gettysburg with his wife.
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.