One of the first things to strike this reader is the affectionate nature of Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy. He was, simply, a nice fellow. It would be hard to find someone with whom a reader would care to share time and maybe a drink more than with Tracy. Editors Ryan W. Keating, History Chair at Cal State University San Bernadino, and Sarah Tracy Burrows, a descendant of Col. Tracy, have collected his letters from the Tracy family papers to put together this collection of letters written primarily to his mother.
From a prominent abolitionist family in Syracuse, New York, Osgood did not enlist in the first wave of Civil War volunteers. However, his brother William enlisted four days after the firing of Fort Sumter. Osgood’s decision to remain at home during the first year of the war appears to be a family decision concerning their mother’s security. The widowed Mrs. Tracy seemed to wield a firm hand over her sons, but when Osgood finally volunteered, it was with her blessings. He joined the 122nd New York State Volunteers in 1862. He was appointed a sergeant major, and his unit arrived at Sharpsburg shortly after the battle of Antietam, joining the Army of the Potomac.
His stream of letters home was only interrupted twice—once when his regiment was on guard duty in Sandusky, Ohio, and again during his capture and escape from a Confederate prison in May 1864 during Grant’s Overland Campaign. Tracy’s letters detail his war experiences, but they also tell the story of a liberal Northern family during the war. He constantly complained to his mother about poor luck attempting to court Ellen “Nellie” Amelia Sedgewick, who had spurned his initial proposal the week before Tracy left for service. He generously praised his fellow soldiers, was optimistic and cheerful most of the time and wrote frankly about his feelings concerning the political aspect of the war. A self-proclaimed “Black Republican” from a prominent family of Black Republicans, young Tracy spoke candidly about the war. He recognized his minority as an abolitionist in the army but constantly encouraged others to consider his views.
Civil War historian Ryan Keating adds illuminating discussion on many points, keeping readers historically grounded. For example, in Tracy’s letters home following his enlistment through the war’s end, readers learn of his brief imprisonment at Gordonsville, Virginia. As an officer, Tracy does not receive the same treatment as enlisted soldiers, but his family–both at home and in camp–worry for him. Yours Affectionately, Osgood contains a copy of his imprisonment and escape, written for and published in the Syracuse Herald.
I said at the beginning that I thought Colonel Tracy seemed like a nice man. His carefree affection for his mother and brothers shines through his letters. His self-effacing ability to laugh at himself about his romance issues is relatable, even today. Additionally, he is always nudging his mother, just as every child does, to send things to him. A big concern was fabric for bed sheets–could she send some? “Maybe more? Where is the material? Oh, and I need some stamps.” Compared to other soldiers’ letters, “Os” can appear to be a child of privilege. He also chronically asks his mother to check his pockets (in clothing sent home, one assumes) for orders mistakenly forgotten. There are myriad examples of the closeness Tracy feels for his family, and he is charming if a touch spoiled.
All ends well. The Colonel married Nellie Sedgewick, his brother, although permanently crippled, won a Medal of Honor, and nearly everyone came home from the war. Thank goodness the Tracy family saved this remarkable cache of letters and that they are so skillfully edited. Readers must remember that not every Civil War soldier was the same. The more examples that relatives and historians can find in attics and trunks, the clearer the picture will be of the armies that fought in the 1860s. Any reader who appreciates soldier letters will enjoy Yours Affectionately, Osgood, edited by Sarah Tracy Burrows and Ryan W. Keating.
Yours Affectionately, Osgood
Edited by Sarah Tracy Burrows and Ryan W. Keating
The Kent State University Press, 2022, $61.99 hardcover
Reviewed by Meg Groeling