Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dan Welch.
War has long been a theme of human civilization. Wars require armies and armies require soldiers. One of the greatest challenges faced by soldiers of old and today is balancing the demands and responsibilities of being a soldier and those of a family. The hardest part is trying to explain to children why you are leaving, where you are going, how long you will be away, and what you will be doing while gone. How do you explain the intangibles of freedom, security, and the myriad of other reasons countries and soldiers go off to war and fight?
William Child, assistant surgeon in the 5th New Hampshire Veteran Volunteer Infantry, faced just such a challenge. When he left for the front and the Union army in 1862, he left behind not only his wife, but two very young children. His first son and first daughter to wife Carrie, William Clinton, or Clint, and Katherine, or Kate as Child called her were so young that only mere presence alone could sooth their longing for their father. Clint, according to the 1860 census was just one year old, thus being born in 1859. Kate, likewise according to the Federal census, had been born in 1861. At the time of this letter, Child was writing to a five year old son and three year old daughter. He shared scenes of camp life, stories to make them smile, hopes for their education, and reassurance that their “papa” was never far away. Letters to his children during his time in the army are but one of the many gems of this collection.
Camp near Petersburg, Va., Nov. 4th, 1864
My Dear Clinton and Kate:
Papa has time and will write his little son and daughter a letter. It seems a long time since papa has seen his children and mama. It has been more than a year. I think Clinton and Kate are quite large now – they must be taller – and can not wear the little clothes they used to when papa was at home. There are no little boys and girls here. None but large, strong men go to the army. Little boys and girls could not ride and walk so far – nor could they carry guns and drive horses.
Papa has had no house to live in this summer – he had to sleep on the ground, but he had a warm blanket so that he has not been cold. He has had no clean white plates like those mama has at home to eat from – but has tin plates – and tin tea cups without any saucers.
Papa has now a white horse to ride – and a red mule to carry his dishes and things to eat. The mule is like a horse only he has very long ears like a rabbit. When he is hungry or can not go with the horse he makes a great noise. You would think he was crying. Some times he kicks the horses, though he is not much larger than a little colt. A man wanted to ride on his back once – but after going a little ways the mule kicked and jumped and threw the man over his head on the ground. Then all the soldiers laughed and clapped their hands, but the mule did not care. He walked off to find something to eat.
Papa is glad to hear that Clint and Kate have been to school – and that they are learning to read and spell. That is right. By and by you will be men and women. Then you will know why we want you to learn to read and write. You know when you can write like mama you can tell papa all about what you and Kate are doing.
Papa ca not write a very long letter now. You must be good children – be kind to little Barney and ma-ma. Do not trouble ma-ma. You must do as she says. You must be kind to all little boys and girls that you see.
Papa wishes to se[e] you all very much. He thinks of you every day and night. He can see the same sun moon and stars that you see. God is here – the same as he is where you are. He will take care for us all, though papa is far away from you. Be good children. Good bye.
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.