“Dear Papa…I wonder how you still can be so good to me”

Josiah Gardner Abbott, c. 1870

Josiah Gardner Abbott (b. 1814) had a busy professional life as one of Massachusetts most successful attorneys and a regular civil servant in the offices of county judge, state representative, and state senator, but he made time to influence the lives of his eleven children as evidenced in his soldiers-sons’ letters. His sons Edward (Ned) and Fletcher (Fletch) volunteered for military service first and Josiah Abbott secured them officer commissions in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

His third son, Henry, proclaimed he had no “warlike tastes” and that there was “nothing -more odious than the thought of leaving home & profession for the camp.” However, Henry decided “I should be ashamed of myself forever if I didn’t do something now.” Josiah initially advised Henry to not volunteer, telling him that “two are enough to be shot out of one family.” Eventually, Josiah recognized Henry’s need to do something to save the Union and helped him to get a lieutenant’s commission in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

As he worried about his sons, the war, and the political homefront intrigues, Josiah Abbott also regularly got the inside stories about battle and camp. The published correspondence between Henry and his father points to a deep confidentiality and a father-son relationship growing and changing as experiences shape their thoughts and their family bonds. At times, Josiah is almost like the confessor, receiving the fears, dreads, and troubles of his son. Other times, Henry is gently correcting or advising his father on the true opinions of the soldiery and how it might influence the home front politics. In September 1863, the salutations of Henry’s letters change from “Dear Papa” to “Dear Father”, though he explained, “You see I have given up ‘Papa.’ It sounds too young in formal writing, but you may be sure that it isn’t because my feelings are any more formal.”

Henry’s letters usually did not contain excessive expressions of sentiment, but this one from November 1861 is the exception. He regularly used “governor” to address his father both directly and when writing about him and it seems to have been an agreeable nickname used in the Abbott family. This letter, written after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, comments on previous correspondence and accounts about that battle; like any proud father, apparently Josiah had been showing off his son’s historical account, but Henry wasn’t convinced that was good thing.

November 23, 1861

Dear Papa,

I do believe you are the best governor going. Ever since I graduated from college I have been thinking so more & more. When I remember how often I have been a self opinionated, self conceited donkey to you, I wonder how you still can be so good to me as you are. I feel very deeply the kindness of your last letter, you may be sure, or else I shouldn’t let myself out in this demonstrative kind of way; for I inherit your supreme contempt for fellows who are always doing it. But I think it makes one feel better once in a while.

Now, papa, you really have a great deal of paternal partiality. I know my letters must be very entertaining & interesting to the family circle, (how I wish I could drop in for one evening only, with the whole crowd there) but when you come to read that miserable old production of mind about the battle to strangers, & such distinguished ones as Judge Bigelow…. I must say I think your fatherly fondness is getting ahead of you. No joking, it was really a very slovenly production; however much you might like it, uninterested parties like the judge, I am afraid, would be bored very considerably by it, & you know the idea of being even the innocent cause of bother to the bigwig before who I am going to stand up some day, gives me a great deal of trepidation. Why, if you don’t look out, I shall begin pretty soon to try to write well.

Henry’s letter to his father on May 19, 1862, from the Virginia Peninsula, highlights Josiah’s patriotic sentiments and sacrifices through the eyes of one of his children:

My Dear Papa,

I just got your letter today. I certainly think there never was any body who itched for military glory so much as you. But it seems to me that the fact of your having 3 sons in the war is the very reason you shouldn’t be…asking every thing in one venture. As for patriotism, I am sure I don’t know of any man who has done more the war than you have. You have sent 3 sons. You have spent a great deal of money. But what is of the most importance, you have given your whole influence to the prosecution of it. I should say, as every one else would, that you ought to rest satisfied with what you have done, instead of disquieting yourself by thinking you haven’t done enough. You don’t know how much I am touched by your anxiety for us. I really think it makes you too nervous on our account. There isn’t much danger of any thing happening to any of us & we shall come back all right & immensely benefited by the experience we have had….

Henry L. Abbott

These two letters reveal and honor Josiah Abbott’s parenting. Like many fathers during the Civil War era, he experienced war from the homefront and through his sons’ letters, but he sacrificed much for the cause he believed in. He helped his older sons enter the army as officers and then followed their campaigns and battles from his home, worrying and praying for their safety. The relationship with his sons prior to the war grew during the conflict as they corresponded with him and confided their experiences and questions.

Epilogue, The Sad Part

“We shall come back all right,” Henry wrote to his father. Tragically, that prediction did not come true.

Josiah Abbott lost several children during the war years. In 1862, Edward was killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, a grief seems to have that deepened Josiah’s relationship with his other children. In March 1863, nine-year-old Arthur died at home of a childhood disease. Although he did not mention it letters to his father, Henry Abbott became increasingly convinced that he would not live through the war, and his comrades discovered him weeping in secret; if Josiah knew about his third son’s fears from conversation during furloughs, it went unrecorded. On May 6, 1864, Henry was mortally wounded during the Battle of The Wilderness. For the third year in a row, Josiah buried a son.

Josiah Abbott continued his political career after the war, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1876 to 1877. He helped to decide the presidential election of 1876 by sitting on the Electoral Commission to sort out the difficulties of that political race and results. Josiah died on June 2, 1891.


Henry Abbott. Edited by Robert Garth Scott. Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott. (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1991.)

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