Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Dan Welch. Dan continues to chronicle the letters of a surgeon in the Army of the Potomac.
When we last left William Child, assistant surgeon of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, he had the unimaginable task of writing a letter to his young children, trying to explain his absence, what war and being a soldier was like, and his hopes and aspirations for his children. Days later, William wrote a reoccurring theme to his correspondence, a longing to hear from his wife. “Well here I am waiting anxiously for a letter from my wife,” he wrote. “I think you must have forgotten that you have a husband – or think that he is not anxious to hear from his wife,” Child continued. In the same letter, Child warned his wife that despite victory on the battlefield, “we are in a dangerous condition – not from the rebel armies but from a disunited North.” He was also concerned of a Confederate attack on election day, “But I think the rebs will find a very hot breakfast prepared for them…[if] they will do it to prevent our voting.” Child closed this letter with the confirmation of news he had been waiting for, the receipt of his commission to surgeon.
A week later, Child wrote home to Carrie yet again. In it, he described the bomb-proofs that were his living space on the Petersburg front, a severe cold that had plagued him, and a review of how their home town had voted in the recent election. What the newly-minted surgeon did not spend as much time on however, was the fact that he had reenlisted in the army for another three years. “Well Darling Wife, I have reenlisted for another three Years…it would be the happiest day of my life to be in the army when we could say the rebellion is crushed – our country is united – peace reigns throughout the land.” One could only speculate what Carrie might have written to William upon reading this decision he had made without her knowledge. Amongst other notes about weather and health William inserted news of a tragic event scheduled to take place and all too common in the army in late 1864. “To change the subject. There are to be three men hung in our Division to-morrow. One of them is from our Regt. They are to be hung for desertion to the enemy. They deserted to the enemy and were captured from their army with arms. It is severe, but I can not say unjust.” With that, Child closed his second letter to Carrie in a week, not taking up the work again until November 20, 1864, 150 years ago.
Camp near Petersburg, Va., Nov. 20th, 1864
My Dear Wife:
Two day since I received two letters – one from John Walker – one from Willie Weston. Weston says he expects to return to the army within a few weeks – and will bring any thing you wish to send. I know of nothing that I wish him to bring. I did think I would have him bring my over coat but it will be best for me to buy a government over coat here. That will do for me if I should ever return to live in private life. I wish he could bring me a few pounds of good sausage – or a baked chicken or two. But it is not of much consequence. Yet it would be pleasant for me to eat a little of the abundance that I know is at my father’s – even if I had to pay for the same. I assure you it makes me sad to be here deprived of all the home comforts and subject to all the dangers of cold, wet rain, storm swamp malaria and bullets – and shells – and receive so few words or tokens of comfort and sympathy from those to whom one would naturally look for such. I perhaps have no reason to complain – yet I can not sometimes help feeling as though for some inexplainable cause my relatives did not care for much for me – at least since I came here. I believe my father – and of course mother – Would do all in his power for my good – and of course my brothers and sisters wish me success in life. Yet I do not feel that I have that warm heartfelt sympathy from them that I desire. At least it is not expressed perhaps I do not deserve it. I have talked with you before of this. Carrie, I have wished a thousand times that I have, when young, and elder sister to whom I should have been willing to open my whole heart. I can see now how I used to long for some such person though I did not know what was wanting then. Ah, my dear wife, how my heart yearned for such a person – and I can see now that, though wholly unknown to me at the time, you were the kind of person I had so-long wished for. Yet it all seems strange to me. In fact my whole life has been kind of dream. Many persons suppose me to be a quiet, easy, good-natured, and some what “shiftless” and lazy individual. But they know nothing of me. You know that I have labored and struggled with many disadvantages – that I have the most violent passions to contend with – and the strongest appetites to control. You know that I have seen considerable of the world – and have mingled with all kinds of individuals – and am susceptible to influences. If we are avoided all or a part of the bad we will thank God, for the result is of no power of mine. It seems a fact of a plan that you were to be my wife, to preserve me from being a bad man. I have always aspired to be a true man – not selfish – nor desirous of applause of other men – nor proud or haughty – nor unjust or unreasonable, yet it is so difficult under all circumstances that I some times almost give up in despair. I believe you know just how I do feel – just what is in my heart of hearts. I know you will think of me and sem some kind words of sympathy and encouragement. I have been reading “Tom Brown at Oxford”. It is one of the best books I ever read. The language is very simple and its characters are well drawn. You must read it – and more I want Clinton and Barney to read it should they live to be able to comprehend it. The best character in it is one Hardy through [sic] he is not the hero. It has done me good. I have never realized that a man to be truly great must be pure in thought. I have never despised so much those low, mean characters who continually endeavor to grow by over-reaching others and a resort to subterfuge to gain their ends. They may appear well before the people but they have black hearts. One may be cunning, shrewd and sharp, yet not be a man. I had rather be a plain, blunt man than to be such an one. Such a one is living a continual lie. Oh my wife, if I should die here, strive to make my boys true men with pure thought and lovers of truth. Lean [sic] them to appear what they really are. I am most earnest in this request and write it with tears and a fully heart.
Throughout this series, I have often described the homesickness, anxiety, and deep emotions William presented in his letters. Some of his innermost thoughts were expressed in this particular letter. He ponders the reasons for a lack of communication or support from members of his family, both during his current situation and in his previous life. Child wrote of his need for an elder sister during his childhood, a role that he believed he had placed his wife Carrie since their marriage. Religion and the classic struggle of good versus evil at an individualistic level also appeared as he wrote his thoughts 150 years ago. Yet, it is striking, that while these deep-seeded feelings comprise the majority of this letter, William effortlessly transitions between them and thoughts of food from home, a current book he had been reading and its plot and characters, and other notions far from his revealed emotions. If nothing else, his words reveal a complex father, husband, brother, and son far from home during the twilight of the American Civil War.
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