A new year was well underway in the Army of the Potomac’s camps outside of Petersburg, Virginia when William Child, Surgeon of the 5th New Hampshire wrote to his wife Carrie. He had last written her a week earlier. In his letters of January 8 and 9, 1865, Child’s longing for home and despair at the prospect for a leave of absence had increased, as it had for many soldiers who had been on the Petersburg front since the previous July. “I have been longing for home through the whole day” wrote Child on January 8. The very next day he wrote Carrie again and expounded upon this theme. “The times are very dull and I am very homesick. All the former officers are gone and all of my present supply of books and papers are read. I have no places of interest to visit. I have no business except for an hour each day. Therefore I am very uncomfortable….I have written to you so often that I fear my letter[s] are becoming of no interest.”
Child’s letter of January 9 also looked to the future and his dreams towards the outcome of the conflict in which he had been so intimately apart for the past several years. “I pray that the day may come while I live that our nation shall be what she should be—a united government against all tyrants—a home for the free—a refuge for the oppressed,” Child wrote. “I believe this will be, but there are yet to be years of war—and political turmoil. Our day of real trial has not yet come. Remember—and be prepared for darker times than we have yet seen,” he warned. The surgeon of the 5th New Hampshire melancholia only deepened in the intervening days between letters. We continue to follow Child’s story 150 years ago today.
Camp near Petersburg, Va., Jan. 16th, 1865
My Dear Carrie:
I received last evening your letter of the 10th inst – written just after your return from Newbury. The day before receiving it I sent you a letter stating that I had almost decided to resign. I can not fully decide yet. If I was certain that I could be mustered out next August when my three years will have expired I would not think of resigning now. But my last muster was Surgeon has placed me in a position to prevent that if the mustering officer desires to object.
Then again affairs at home may influence me. I fear that it is uncertain whether I can do much business there if I should return. I may be mistaken. I suppose some have changed in their feelings toward me. Yet I believe all will come right after a time. I am not always a fool – even if I do surprise ‘old women’ by some of my sudden and unexpected movements. When they understand me they will be just if men. I have no prospect of obtaining a leave absence at present. But after a few weeks I shall apply. If it is not granted I shall at once send in my resignation to the Sect. of War. If that is not granted I have only to submit. Now, Carrie, do not be disappointed if I do not succeed in either. In times of war we must submit to many unpleasant affairs. We must endure much inconvenience. But Carrie, it does grieve me to see so many at home who talk war, but do not act war. They wax valiant in bar rooms and about church doors but they and theirs are not in circumstances to allow them to execute what they could. They have poor health or a sick mother. Who and what are the women of the North. Are they daughters of the women of the Revolution. Carrie, there is a want of true patriotism—that love for country which incites men to suffer and endure for their native land. Some of our New England States have brought upon themselves lasting disgrace. At first they sent out thousands of her sons, but when these asked for aid they sent them the lowest and meanest men on earth to desert—and tax us all to pay these fools and rascals with whom no man can associate. Perhaps I had better not come home. If I do—and this subject is mentioned before me I may say some unpleasant things. I am out of all patience. Bath has sent many to the field. They have fought well and have died. All honor be to their names. They will be remembered. Yet why do not others who have ever been so urgent for war now prove their sincerity. Men are needed—men who have an interest in the welfare of our nation. Carrie, I remember men there who have accused me of being in favor of Slavery—of secession—of being opposed to the war—of rejoicing at the defeat of our armies. I know those men—and shall remember them. I neither fear them—nor love them. If they are sincere for their country’s good let them come and suffer no more than I have and I will be satisfied. Then if they have not enough then let them carry the musket and knapsack and engage in the deadly strife. Then they will think as I did before the war, that it is no small thing—and should be avoided if possible. I say Carrie I shall remember those men. I am independent of them and feel above them. I remember well what they said of me—how they called me traitor. I am independent of them all and consider them beneath the notice of a dog. They are either hypocrites or cowards.
One thing this war has shown who were men that talked as they honestly felt—and who were influenced by mere party spirit—or a just estimate of right and wrong. The cowards called me traitor because I would not stoop to their party god—and I notice that not one of those men have come to the war or sent a relative. Won’t I tell them some truths when I come where they are? I certainly will if I feel as I do now. Now with great complacency they fold their hands and say Dr. Child has changed his mind since he went to the war. They know about as much of the real affairs of our country as one can get from such papers as the N.H. Patriot and the N.Y. Tribune.
While writing the last word I received a letter from Parker. He mentions a subject which will require another sheet to say what I wish to upon it. Keep this letter close of course.
Despite his reenlistment in the fall of 1864, Child continued to talk about resigning from the army in his letters home to Carrie. However, his internal struggle of duty to country and the longing of home and the duties of a husband and father remained in his writings on this decision. “I sent you a letter stating that I had almost decided to resign,” Child confessed, but, “I can not fully decide yet.” One reason for Child’s lack of a positive decision in the matter may be the hope he still held for a leave of absence, or furlough. “I have no prospect of obtaining a leave [of] absence at present,” he wrote, “But after a few weeks I shall apply.” Child also had a fall back plan if he did not receive leave, “If it is not granted I shall at once send in my resignation to the Sect. of War.”
The surgeon’s own ideas of duty to country continued in this letter when he wrote of those that had yet to serve in the army from his hometown and surrounding community. Child noted, that “there is a want of true patriotism—that love for country which incites men to suffer and endure for their native land.” Patriotism or not, Child was right. Reenlistments had dwindled significantly by January 1865 and new enlistees were few. Of those new enlistees, many were bounty collectors and bounty jumpers and not the ilk that Child and other veterans of the Army of the Potomac had built their reputation upon. Child wrote bitterly, “…tax us all to pay these fools and rascals with whom no man can associate.” After a lengthy discourse on this topic, Child closed his letter by reminding Carrie to keep it “close of course.”
Would Child get his leave of absence? Would he resign from the army? Check back to learn of Child’s fate as the war entered its final year.
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.