When 1865 brought forth another year of the war and the Army of the Potomac still occupied its miles of trenches at the front around Petersburg, William Child, surgeon of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry was a man of mixed sentiments. He had coveted a promotion for weeks, even months, yet often wrote to his wife of leaving the army to return home immediately. Child reenlisted at the term of his enlistment in the fall of 1864, yet again, his letters revealed his thought processes of resignation in the early months of 1865. Above all, Child was deeply affected by the long separation from his wife and children.Melancholia, with at times depression, laced every written word to his beloved Carrie. Those feelings mounted to a point of no return. Child needed time away from the front, the war, and his responsibilities as an army surgeon.
Not long after we last left Child in January 1865, he was granted a furlough. We can only speculate what a man so long removed from his wife, children, friends, and neighbors did upon his return home. During that time no letters to Carrie or others were written, none were needed. While at home, developments at the front predicted an eventual demise to the Army of Northern Virginia and the war in General Robert E. Lee’s native state. Once back on the long road towards Petersburg, Virginia to rejoin his unit during the beginning of April, Child arrived in Washington, D.C. a day before what would become one of the most famous dates in American history.
Washington, D.C., Apr. 14th, 1865
My Dear Wife:
I arrived here at 8 P.M. yesterday. I am well—and had a pleasant journey.
The City celebrated the surrender of Gen. Lee last evening by illumination, fire-works – and one grand drunk.
There were some amusing incidents in my journey which I will relate at another time. I was a particular mark for all the Hackmen—sometimes much to the amusement of the crowd—and to my own discomfort.
To-day I have seen Genl. Grant. His pictures do not do him justice. You see the man only when he is in earnest conversation.
The prospect is that many of us will be at home within a few months. I do not care how soon.
I shall leave my valise in Washington to be sent on by Express.
Love to all. Kisses for you and our little ones. May God bless and protect us all. Will write again soon.
Child’s journey to Washington had taken him through New York and New Jersey. Certainly during his journey he was able to take in a wide view of reactions to the surrender of Lee’s army across several northern states, yet it was his experience during the “grand drunk” that he chose to write Carrie about in his first letter home during his return trip. Despite writing of the several incidents he witnessed, Child returned to a common theme he expressed, thoughts on service to the army and country and home. “I do not care how soon” wrote Child of the end of his service with the army following demobilization. Yet again Child exposed us as future readers of his words to the very complex men that comprised Civil War armies.
With his letter written, Child made plans for the rest of his day, which included attending a play at Ford’s Theater.
Join the Emerging Civil War blog later tonight to read Child’s account of that fateful evening, an account that was never included in the original eyewitness testimony of the Lincoln assassination.
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.