“My Dear Mamma, I am very much afraid I shan’t get home to you on Christmas. At present appearances, I don’t think it would be safe to leave the army before January, for of course it would be inexpressibly mean to lose a fight while philandering home in perfect health, particularly after sticking out here so long. It will be a great disappointment, but I think it will be the last Christmas in the army….
We have had a hard time on this last march. We marched from 8 o’clock one night until 8 o’clock the next night, 24 hours, making about 12 miles with a halt of 2 hours only. Warren & French were so played out that they left the management of the march to the staff, & they left it to any body who chose to take it, so we would march about 5 rods & then halt 30 seconds & so on; no man could sit down for fear of freezing, & it was really fatiguing. We had only 4 or 5 men hit. I’ll come Christmas if I can, but don’t expect me. Your aff[ectionate] son, H.L. Abbott”[i]
Written from Brandy Station, Virginia, on December 6, 1863, Major Henry Abbott’s letter briefly detailed the 20th Massachusetts’s experience during the Mine Run Campaign. A mix of war weariness and gritty determination is evident in this letter to his mother and in a separate letter to his father after the anticlimactic march, preparation for battle, and calling off the attack. Union General Meade’s decision to not fight at Mine Run produced mixed feelings from Henry. Though he acknowledged that an assault against the Confederate’s heavy fortifications likely would have produced “certain ruin” if it had been made and failed, he still felt “great disappointment that we didn’t do any thing.”[ii] In the same letter to his father, Henry postulated that his regiment would have followed General Webb’s orders when he told them “we had got to go into those works, & that every man must make up his mind either to be killed, [or] to go into those entrenchments.”[iii]
The fatalistic messaging and disappointment produced by not attacking contrasts with the letter that Henry wrote to his mother on the same day. In that letter’s paragraphs, he tells her he likely will not be home for Christmas, covers some family news, and gives her a few details about the campaign march. One sentence sticks out in contrast to his other war-disappointment letter: “I think it will be the last Christmas in the army.” Perhaps this sense that the war headed toward a conclusion made Henry more anxious to fight another decisive battle and push closer to a conclusion.
Henry Abbott had joined the 20th Massachusetts as a second lieutenant in 1861. His baptism of fire occurred at Ball’s Bluff, and he went on to fight on the Peninsula, during the Seven Days Battles, at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Bristoe Station. Illness kept him from combat at Antietam. Through the war months, Henry promoted through the ranks and in October 1863 became a major. Twenty-one years old at the end of 1863, he had already lost an older brother in the war, seen close friends killed or badly wounded, and had a growing premonition that he would not survive. Still, he soldiered on, determined to “stick it out” and do his duty.
Despite his resignation that he would likely spend another holiday season encamped in Virginia, Henry actually got a Christmas surprise: a leave of absence. He applied for leave on December 10 and received a 15-day furlough with permission to go to Boston.[iv] His mother must have been delighted!
Unfortunately, Henry became severely ill with chronic diarrhea during his leave. Unable to travel back to camp, he received a twenty-day extension, effective on Christmas Eve. He must have recovered in time to enjoy some festivities since there is record that he attended at least one dance.[v]
The veteran-written regimental history describes holiday furloughs. It seems reasonable to think that some of these experiences characterized Henry’s Christmas leave:
“The simple events of every-day life, once participated in and known by all, were listened to with rapt interest and almost incredulity, — how it seemed to live again in a warm house, to go to rest undressed, and sleep in a bed with white sheets and pillows of down or feathers, to rise in the morning at one’s leisure, to sit at [a] table covered with clean linen and eat slices of tender roast beef with vegetables that were really fresh, followed by a dessert of mince and pumpkin pies of substantial thickness and unheard-of flavor, while a wife or mother presided at the head, and daughters or sisters sat on either side, with smiles as sweet as those of angels and cheeks that mocked the dawn. These simple recitals might at times excite regrets, but they were pleasant and on the whole beneficial, for they recalled experiences once enjoyed, which all again hoped to realize.”[vi]
The end of the furlough section in the regimental history specifically mentions Henry Abbott, though the chronicler seems to have not had the dates of his leave correct: “Major Abbott went home on the first day of January 1864, and when leaving and bidding farewell to his family, this man of iron broke down and wept like a child.”[vii]
It was not the first time Henry had been emotional when leaving his parents and siblings. In the early spring of 1863, John Perry—a new assistant surgeon for the 20th Massachusetts—traveled with Henry and later revealed:
“On the Sound boat I gave way, and I confess to behaving as I did when a child for the first time away from home. I cried as I did then, —all night long. I thought Henry Abbott in the berth above me was fast asleep, when suddenly he rolled over and looked down upon me. I felt for the moment thoroughly ashamed of myself, but he said nothing and settled back into his place, and then I heard him crying also. We had talked things over a bit, and I knew the poor fellow felt that he had seen his home for the last time, and that he had passed safely through so many battles he could hardly escape unscathed again.”[viii]
Likely the same thoughts and feelings affected him in January 1864, putting a sorrowful tinge on Henry’s Christmas and New Year’s. Illness had already prostrated him at least twice during his war service, including the Christmas furlough, and he had been wounded in the arm at the Battle of Glendale in 1862. He had watched his regiment shrink before his eyes. He would have taken roll at the end of battles, writing down who was left dead, wounded, or missing. On at least two recorded occasions, he was overwhelmed with the feeling that he would meet his end in war.
Henry went home for Christmas in 1863. One last time with his parents and younger siblings, enjoying the traditions and comforts of “civilized life.” When he left, the calendar had turned to January 1864. Would it be the last war Christmas like he had predicted to his mother? No. There would be one more Civil War Christmas, but not for Henry. His 1863 holidays would be the last sparkling home memories that he enjoyed and took with him back to the war in Virginia to hold onto for the final months of his life.
Henry Abbott’s premonitions and courageous leadership culminated during the Battle of The Wilderness on May 6, 1864. Walking along his line of prone soldiers holding the Orange Plank Road, he inspired his men one final time and proved that his private fears could not overcome his commitment to his duty and regiment. A fatal bullet tearing into the abdomen sealed his fate, and Henry died quietly in a field hospital hours later.
John Perry, the same assistant surgeon who had been privy to Henry’s fears, wrote: “Henry Abbott was an ideal man; an ideal officer, reverenced by his friends and deeply respected by all who knew him. What will become of the Twentieth without him I cannot imagine; for he was its life, its discipline, and its success.”[ix]
[i] 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.) Page 236, Letter written from Brandy Station to his mother, December 6, 1863.
[ii] Ibid., Page 235, Letter written from Brandy Station to his father, December 6, 1863.
[iii] Ibid, Page 324
[iv] Ibid., Page 236.
[v] Ibid., Page 25.
[vi] George A. Bruce. The twentieth regiment of Massachusetts volunteer infantry, 1861-1865. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1906). Page 337. Accessed via HathiTrust.
[vii] Ibid., Page 337.
[viii] 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.) Page 19.
[ix] Ibid., Page 253.