The Letters of William Child—December 14, 1864

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author, Dan Welch.

William Child, surgeon of the 5th New Hampshire Veteran Volunteer Infantry, had decreased his writing of letters during the twilight of 1864. Few letters passed between William and his wife, Carrie, from late November and December. Despite William’s own admittance of a lack of “work” in the field hospitals and aid stations that dotted the front near Petersburg, not only had the number of letters decreased to Carrie, but also their usual length. One interesting theme, however, is William’s continued talk of leaving the army.

On November 26, 1864, the surgeon wrote, “If I should be able to get out of the service this winter….” This is a striking notion considering he had just received his commission from assistant surgeon to surgeon, and had reenlisted for three additional years not a month prior.

In addition to his sentiments of longing for his family and home, William relayed a conversation about “ladies” by “men of the moustache and brass button order.” One can only imagine the true words from that overheard dialogue. It was nearly three weeks later that William composed his next letter to Carrie. We continue William’s story with that letter 150 years ago today.

Camp near Petersburg, VA., Dec. 14th, 1864

 My Dear Wife:

 Three days ago I received a letter from you by Willie Weston. The chicken has become food for fishes. I thought perhaps it might keep good in such cool weather.         

It has been very cold here during the last few days. There have been some active movements during the last few days in which our corps took part as usual. Last Friday we broke camp about two oclock in the morning – marched about five miles before day-light. We met a small number of the enemy – drove them over Hatchers run. They had destroyed the bridges. Just on the other bank they had earth works. Our troops crossed the stream in the water nearly arm deep – charged and captured the works. Only a few of our troops crossed the run. We then camped for the night in a sever [sic] storm of snow and rain. We built ‘rousing’ fires – raised our shelter tents and slept as well as if in the best of beds. In the morning had breakfast of raw pork and hard bread – and after noon were attacked by the enemy, they driving us across the ‘run’ again. We then returned to camp – arrived in the night in knee deep mud mingled with snow and ice. The object of the expedition was to attract the attention of the enemy while Gen. Warren with the 5th corps went down the Weldon R.R. Warren has destroyed above twenty miles of that road – and is now marching into North Carolina. By the way I should like to march to North ‘Carrie’-olina. I think I will take twenty days rations and make an expedition there. I should at once lay siege to the chief town. I think I should have one unconditional surrender. And perhaps I may take up winter quarters there. I would rule the people as kindly as possible – at least if the people lay down their arms and returned to the ‘Union’.

I hear from several sources (not from letters however) the people in Bath have much to say in regard to your humble husband. Some of them have made very unkind and ungenerous remarks. They say that I voted for Lincoln that I might obtain surgeon’s commission etc. Now the fact is that it was settled months ago that I was to have surgeon’s commission. Again the next in rank would have it if qualified – and more I had received it and was mustered before any one here knew how I should vote. In fact they called me a strong McClellan man because I always disputed with those who said he was no man – no General etc. Well I expected this, yet I have always been so unfortunate as to always have a whole town buzzing about my ears. I thought I should be so far away that I should be forgotten. Really I wish I could be quiet. I know if I was at home now I should vex all parties. I would not give two snaps for either party in Bath politically. Old party spirit rules both rather than the real questions of the times. But it is not worth the paper to write about this. They may say as many unkind things as they please – I am conscious of having acted from no selfish or low motive. I have endeavored to consider all the circumstances – all the important questions in their proper light – and have acted according to the conclusions to which I have arrived. I believe that those who know me best will not say that I have acted from such motives as some have declared. We might as well say that we should use the rude implements of our ancestors as to say that we should be influenced by the political view of four years ago in deciding our action on questions of the present time. This I know that if I have ever acted with an honest purpose I have done so in this. I think I have acted in the right – and I am above all the petty ill will of any party.

I have just been out side the works – we are camped within a few rods of them – I would hear a rebel band distinctly. It gave us fine music – and its beauty was increased by the distance. I have heard very different music from them.

I am well though I do not feel like writing this evening. I feel tired and languid. I have not yet asked for leave of absence. On certain accounts I shall not until about the middle of Jan. If I get home this winter I shall probably be at home about the last of January or the first of Feb. But I am not certain of getting a leave this winter. It seems as though I must though. And if certain things are right I shall endeavor to leave the service altogether this winter. Should you advise me to do so? I some times wish to remain until the war is finished. It may end within another year. But it may not. I think our armies will be very active during the coming winter. I wish the President would call for 500,000 more men. Only give us 150,000 men above what we now have next spring and the war will end before six months. I will write soon.

Good night. Kisses to you all.

 W.

For the first time in a while, William recounted some battle action in which his regiment participated; contested ground around Hatcher’s Run.  The action, described by the surgeon see-sawed back and forth over the course of two days.  Little could Child know that a much larger action would occur months later near this same ground with other units from his Second Corps.  But William quickly dispatched with news about the skirmish and turned to a more lighthearted subject between a husband and wife.  His innuendos about marching to ‘Carrie’-onlina, laying siege to “the chief town,” and taking “up winter quarters” must have made his wife blush and taken William mentally back to the woman he loved so dear while writing those lines.  After some discussion of local politics in his hometown of Bath, William again returned to the idea of leaving the army.  “I shall endeavor to leave the service altogether this winter,” he wrote.  “Should you advise me to do so?”  Unfortunately we do not have Carrie’s letter to William to examine, but William’s seeking of advice on the matter from Carrie reflects his decision to reenlist for three years without it before.  This is not the first time he mentioned leaving, however.  Although his homesickness was nearing an all-time high as witnessed through his written words, one must question William’s understanding of his reenlistment.  Certainly he knew that signing up for another three years of service contracted him to the Federal army.  Yet, numerous times over the past month of his letters since his reenlistment he pondered leaving the service.  He does make it clear, however, that he wished “to remain until the war is finished.”

Continue to follow this series as 1864 draws to a close and the final year of the war begins.  Will William Child remain in the army? Does he receive a furlough home? Stay tuned.

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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