Question of the Week: 6/21-6/27/21

What is your favorite letter written in the Civil War era? And why is it your favorite?

12 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/21-6/27/21

  1. Even before war erupted at Fort Sumter the U.S. Army identified a serious problem: the endless trickle of officers resigning from Federal service to “answer the call” of the Confederacy meant the Official Codes used to send encrypted messages were compromised. Perhaps the most innovative temporary measure introduced to circumvent this potentially fatal shortcoming was attributed to Major General John Fremont, after June 1861 with HQ in St. Louis, Missouri. Taking advantage of the large Hungarian community resident to St. Louis, Fremont pressed into service several Hungarian-language communicators (most notably Major Gustave Waagner) and assigned “interpreters” to key personnel (U.S. Grant, for example) and locations (Cairo, Illinois and Washington, D.C.) and sent his most important instructions and orders written in Hungarian. Very few Hungarians were resident to the South, meaning this “temporary encryption solution” was practically unbreakable during periods of a few days.
    Example of Fremont Hungarian telegram (electronic letter) sent from St. Louis to Washington 4 SEP 1861:

  2. Sometimes the best letter sent is the letter not sent and the best tweet or comment is the one not sent. Lincoln’s letter to General Meade after Gettysburg, written around July 14th was a stunning rebuke of Meade’s inability to make war with Lee before he crossed the Potomac. “You had him in your grasp and you let him go…”, along with other sharp criticisms which surely would have made Meade resign immediately. Lincoln knew it served no purpose and might have only been written to get his anger off his chest. But he kept it in his desk and saved it for posterity.

    1. this is a good one Ed … i had exactly the same thought … i believe i read somewhere that while Lincoln never sent the letter, Meade got the word that the President was not delighted with his pursuit of Lee post-Gettysburg …

  3. Robert Gould Shaw’s last letter to his new wife, Annie. She was a widow, two years older than Shaw when they married. He expressed his pride over his men recently going into combat along side of several white regiments, and helping them out of a tight fix. One of his interesting side notes was that he noted they had recovered several of their wounded, who stated that the rebel soldiers had actually treated them well. It was nice to see an example of humanity in the midst of the usual litany of mutual murder. I also cry reading this letter, and his Christmas letter of 1861. He was still so young, and so gifted, like so many of those who died in this war.

  4. I’m going to have to paraphrase heavily. About twenty-five years ago, I was viewing an exhibit on the CW at the Library of Congress. There, I read a letter from Robert E, Lee which surprised me by its humility. He was explaining his decision to resign from the US Army to a relative, perhaps his brother. There was no bravado, no defiance, anger or regret, just sadness, and words to the effect that a wiser man might follow a different course. Now I will have to locate that letter.

  5. My new favorite letter is the one that Chris Mackowski quotes at the end of his C-Span talk on the last days of General Grant. It was written by a little Michigan girl to encourage General Grant. It is very honest and moving and profound, especially from a little girl.

  6. Sullivan Ballou to his wife before First Bull Run, thanks to Ken Burns for including it in his Civil War series

    1. My choice, too, because it epitomizes the tragedy of every lost soldier and the loved ones left forever.

  7. Mine is Roland E. Bowen to Friend Ainsworth, September 28, 1862. It describes the burial of a Union soldier after the fighting in the West Woods at Antietam. It shows how soldiers tried to describe war and its results to loved ones at home (or, in this case, the parents of a lost friend).

    “Perhaps you don’t know how we bury the dead. Let me tell you about this particular trench and it will suffice for the whole. The trench in w[h]ich Henry is buried is situated near a log cabin just out side the garden fence. I believe its on the West side. The trench was 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 3 feet deep. The corp[s]es were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. are put together. Co. H was buried first in the u[p]per end of the trench next [to] the woods. They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep. Henry is the third corpes from the upper end on the top tier next to the woods. Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home. I am sorry, but I was too late to have it different. Then there is a board put up at each end of the trench with the simple inscription, ‘15th Mass. buried here.’ There is 39 men in the trench with Henry.”

    The monument to the 15th Mass. (Henry’s unit) is one of the most striking on the battlefield — a wounded lion defying his attackers. I’m sure many of us know it well.

    The full letter can be read in Gregory Coco, ed., From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg . . . and Beyond: The Civil War Letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1864 (Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 1994), 124-28.

  8. Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Mrs Bixby of Boston, Massachusetts dated Nov. 21, 1864. Lincoln was informed that a widow had lost five sons and they were hoping to get her a letter from the president in time for Thanksgiving. With the use of words; beguile, assuage, bereavement and a phrase; the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. It’s hard not to be your favorite!

  9. Lincoln’s letter of condolence to Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston in November 1864 … there is a lot of controversy over Mrs. Bixby herself, the death of all five of her sons (two of the five apparently survived the war), and who authored the letter, Lincoln or John Hay … whoever wrote the letter — my vote is Lincoln — penned a beautful, genuine and heartfelt message of sympathy… In Saving Private Ryan, the General Marshall character reads this letter to his staff before the Army sends Tom Hanks and his rangers to find Private Ryan.

    Dear Madam,

    I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

    I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

    I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

    Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
    A. Lincoln.

  10. The following letter to the editor appeared in the 24 Aug 1864 edition of the Southern Banner, an Athens, GA newspaper. This letter wasn’t written by a famous person, but it’s the only document I’ve been able to find that was written by one of my great-great grandfathers (2nd Lt. Thomas Jordan Dunnahoo of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry Battalion). I found the published version in the Southern Banner on microfilm while I was searching for information about Cobb’s Legion Cavalry. It gives the location of Lt. Dunnahoo’s company when the letter was written, as well as his concern for the reputation and welfare of the men he named. It also shows that he was the commanding officer of his company in July of 1864, a position that he held until he was shot and killed during the action at Swift Creek (near Raleigh, NC) on 12 April 1865 while the Legion cavalry was participating in the Carolinas Campaign.

    Near Stony Creek Station, Va.
    July 25, 1864

    John H. Christy, Esq.: – Dear Sir – You will greatly oblige interested parties by allowing space in your paper for the following statement:
    Papers emanating from Bureau of Conscription have been received at these headquarters charging the following named persons, members of this company, with being absent without leave, to wit: Serg’t A. C. Baker, of Hall county, Corp. A. T. Dent, Priv’ts A. M. Jackson and T. C. Jackson, of Clarke county, Ga. These charges are totally groundless and untrue. Neither of the above named members of this company have at any time been absent a single day without leave. I make this statement in justice to these meritorious soldiers and their friends as well to vindicate the honor and reputation of the valiant company to which they belong, because I have reason to believe that the country adjacent to their homes has been scoured for the purpose of finding the supposed skulkers, thereby causing the uninformed public to be led into error as to the true status of these men. I hope you will aid in correcting a false impression by publishing this statement.

    Lieut. Commanding.

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