Category Archives: Soldiers and Sailors

From Aden Cavins, 59th Indiana Volunteers

Letter from Captain Aden Cavins, Company E, 59th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, to his wife.

Steamer Nebraska

Tennessee River

April 21, 1862

Indiana State Flag | Image Credit:

I wrote you yesterday while landed at Fort Massac below Paducah (Kentucky). We are now steaming up the river rapidly. At daylight this morning we passed Fort Henry, which you will remember is twelve miles from Fort Donaldson. We will arrive at Pittsburg Landing about ten o’clock tonight and will not embark until morning. The Tennessee river is a beautiful stream, but there is not much improvement on its banks. The country is partly low, and part beautiful, rolling hills. The whole country is suggestive of poetry and fiction.

I had nothing to write you but not being otherwise engaged I write because it is pleasant to do so to you and because it will also afford you pleasure. You must not be so uneasy about me, for it would be a bloody fight indeed for one-tenth of my men to be killed and one-fifth wounded, so that though none are safe in battle, yet the chances are more in favor than against one. You will find consolation in the reflection that none die before their time comes and that there is a Providence that shapes and controls the destiny of the living and the dead.

When in company with some persons of education, you have heard us speak of the Differentials, or vanishing quantities employed in the higher mathematics. These are quantities infinitely small, but still are quantities. Human life seems to me when compared to the infinite future much like one of these Differentials. It is small, very small. It is a short dream filled up with episodes of light and shade, happiness and sadness.

You remember the beautiful tradition of some of the old Jewish Rabbis. It was that little angels were born every morning of the beautiful streams that go running over the flowers of Paradise, their life was sweet music for one day, then they died and subsided in the waters among the flowers that gave them birth. Forgetfulness soon came over their sweet roseate and musical life, and they are remembered no more forever. Such is that part of our existence called human life. We are born, live but a day, are placed in the temple of “silence and reconciliation” where lie buried the strife and fierce contentions of life. Soon the veil of oblivion is spread over all and there remains no heart beat to commemorate the departed.

I seldom indulge in fancies but merely have deviated from my usual habit on account of the poverty of news, and only do it in this case in view of the freedom I claim in writing to you in any way that judgment or humor may dictate. You are aware that at times a storm of fancies sweep across my mind. I have suppressed them through life, but they will loom up occasionally through the matter-of-fact surface that I have cultivated.

From David Ash, 37th Illinois Volunteers

Letter from David Ash, Company B, 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, three days after the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Sugar Creek, Arkansas

March 11, 1862

Illinois State Flag | Image Credit:


I seat myself down to let you know that I still am alive and enjoying good health. Well, Eliza, I received a letter from you a few days ago that had been on the way a long time. But I was glad to hear from you at any time.

I must try to tell you what we have been doing. Price and McCullough attacked General Sigel on the 6th. He retreated back to our camp, but kept firing into them all the way on the morning of the 7th. Our division was called on to rally and be on hand at any time. We kept moving from one point to another until two o’clock P.M., and we found where they were in the brush around.

Our brigade, the 37th and 39th Illinois regiments, formed a line of battle and marched into the butternuts. We marched up in front of them within about a hundred yards, and firing commenced on both sides. We all dropped down in the brush and fired and loaded. Jim Lee dropped dead at my feet by a shot from one of Company A, which was on our right. I saw the ball strike him on the back part of the head. He never moved a muscle.

The balls flew thick and fast. They cut the brush all around my head, but fortunately none hit me. We all fell back a few rods and loaded and went up on to them again. We fired into them again and they returned the fire. There were four regiments of them engaged at that time and only two of us. They had a good many Indians, one Brag, Louisiana regiment, and I don’t know where the rest are from…

There was a buckshot hit me in the shoulder, just merely going through my clothes, and made a little red spot. The ball had no force at all. It might have hit something before it hit me. I fired eight shots into them the first day, but it was not all over yet.

The morning of the 8th, we were rallied out before sun-up and went about a mile and formed a line of battle along a fence. Three of our company were positioned a few yards to the right along a fence, and our battery began to play upon them. There is two batteries firing at them but they have the best position and we moved back a short distance and formed again. They put balls around us with their battery until we moved, cutting trees off all around us. A ball hit one of our horses on the hind leg and cut it off but out men planted their battery again and began to fire into them, and in a short time they had silenced their battery entirely. They fired over us every time after we moved and did not hurt a man.

Five regiments then formed a line and commenced to advance on to them. We came on to them in about a mile (and) found them in the brush again. We opened on to them again and they ran like whiteheads. But we stopped some of them in the brush for good, they were thick laying dead as they fell. There was a flag taken. It was a beautiful one. Our Lafayette flag waved triumphantly that day. The Illinois 59th had no flag and Colonel White asked Captain Dick for it and he let him have it. It looked grand floating after the enemy, they brought it back honorable.

After we chased them clear out of the brush, we made a halt to rest and wait for orders. As we were very tired, I went all through the brush to see what had been done. I found any amount of dead secesh (secessionists, i.e., Confederate soldiers) and none of our men at all. I guess our division lost two or three men on the 8th and two or three wounded. They wound a great many more in proportion to what they kill than we do, for their guns are not so good–they have a great many shotguns and small rifles. Their surgeons don’t have many of our balls to pick out, for they generally go through.

It is the hardest sight a person could behold to see the dead lying round after they bring (them) in. They lay them in a pile until they get time to bury them. There was twenty-one killed out of our regiment (and) one hundred and nineteen wounded. Albert Hilliard was laying alongside of me when he was shot, says he, “Oh Dave, I am shot.” It was the hardest thing I have done for some time to call the roll the first time after the battle, so many of our boys wounded and one killed. But Eliza, I don’t know whether it is over yet or not, they’ve gone back a piece. It may be they are getting a good ready to come at us again. But I guess we can do the same thing for them every time.

I must close, for my paper has almost run out. If I am spared, I will write to you the first chance I have to send a letter. Dear faithful girl, I bid you goodbye for present. May the richest of heaven’s blessings be yours. Be a good girl and remember me.



Source: Tapert, Annette (ed.), The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1998), p. 40-42

From Robert McAllister, 1st New Jersey

Letter from Lieutenant Colonel Robert McAllister, 1st New Jersey Volunteer Infantry

Fort Albany

July 25, 1861

New Jersey State Flag | Image Credit:

New Jersey State Flag | Image Credit:


In writing to you yesterday, I had to stop short, as the cry was: “The enemy are coming.” But it turned out to be only a troop of horse. Fire was exchanged and they disappeared.

The right wing of our Regiment have since been engaged in throwing up breastworks at the Arlington Mills, some three miles out from the river at a road and railroad crossing, where we are planting a battery to sweep the road. We hope the North will pour down her troops so that before long we may take up our line of march to Centreville and Manassas Junction and regain what we have lost.

No retreat should have been ordered at Bull Run, for the day was ours. The enemy were whipped. The men fought brave enough, but we have too many cowardly officers. Yet we have very many brave ones who did credit to our arms.

Sabbath morning, July 21st, the 1st and 2nd New Jersey Volunteers were encamped at Vienna. Col. McLean commanded the 2nd New Jersey. Being Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Regiment, I commanded that unit, as our Col. Montgomery outranked McLean and thus had command of the whole.

The roaring of artillery announced the opening of the battle of Bull Run. Three of our companies were absent on reconnaissance and had not returned when orders came from Headquarters for us to move up to Centreville. We were soon on our way and moving rapidly toward the scene of conflict. We passed Germantown, the artillery sounding louder and louder. Some miles on this side of Centreville, we met a gentleman who said all was right, the enemy were driven in toward Manassas Gap. On we went, feeling elated. After a while, the artillery ceased firing. We then knew that the battle was decided; but which way was the question.

Soon this sad story was told by the confused mass of the retreating army. We determined to do what we could to stop the panic. We threw our columns across the road, appealed to their patriotism, to their honor, to the Flag, and urged them to return and help us fight the battle. But the panic was so great that our appeals were for the time unheeded. We then charged bayonets and stopped the stampede, letting only the wounded pass on…

Cheer after cheer went up for us as we advanced, and solemn promises were made on the part of the stampeders that they would fall in our rear if we advanced through them and formed a line of battle. Others cried: “Go up yonder hill and you’ll get it! You will be cut to pieces!” Still others encouraged us with hopes that we would save their retreat and bear the brunt of the battle.

The stampede was now stopped and we were on the summit of a hill. Col. Montgomery had a conference with Genl. McDowell and urged the propriety of making a stand on the heights of Centreville–throwing up breastworks, holding the position, and not retreating to Washington. The General consented and ordered him to take his command to the other side of Centreville and form his lines for defense. We passed Centreville and took up a position on the hill with our right resting on the road along which the enemy would have to come. But when we had accomplished this and were ready for battle, we found that our 2nd New Jersey Regiment had retreated. Two regiments under the command of Col. Blenker were the only troops left besides…

After sitting some time on my horse in silence–the men having nearly all fallen asleep–I passed over to the left wing on the other side of the road in order to throw out additional pickets. One of our Captains asked me if I knew the danger we were in.

“Certainly,” I replied.

“Why don’t we retreat?” he then asked.

I told him my orders were to hold this position and that I was going to do it.

“We may as well surrender all at once,” he said, “as we will be cut to pieces.”

I told him we would never surrender and that we would give them a tremendous fight.

I then returned to my position and remained there until Maj. Hatfield returned and informed me that we had to retreat. Our orders were given in a low tone, almost a whisper…

I do contend that we–i.e., all the army–ought to have formed at Centreville, according to Montgomery’s idea. Had that plan been pursued, we would be in possession of it yet.

A great many claim the credit of protecting the retreat and being the last to leave the field. But it is all in the imagination, for we were the very last to leave Centreville. In confidence I tell you that when our Colonel called on Genl. McDowell, he could not be found. He had retreated without giving us order to retreat, and we would have been left to be cut to pieces had we not accidentally discovered that Col. Blenker was retreating. You see it stated that Blenker’s command saved the retreat, and yet we were in Centreville two hours after Col. Blenker left.

I have now given a fair, unvarnished statement of the whole matter, but have been so much interrupted that I fear it will be uninteresting…


Source: Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 13-18

From Philip Powers, 1st Virginia Cavalry

Letter from Sergeant Major Philip Powers, 1st Virginia Cavalry

Camp at Fairfax Courthouse

July 23, 1861

Virginia State Flag | Image Credit:

Virginia State Flag | Image Credit:


Several Clark men, among them Knelles, were in our camp for a short time this evening but I was so busy I had not time even to drop you a line, and fearing lest the same thing may occur again, I write tonight, though excessively fatigued.

Yesterday we had a drenching rain all day and most of last night, and being without our tents we could not escape the rain and mud. We broke our camp however about midnight and marched to this place accompanied by two regiments of infantry and one battery of artillery. I was glad to leave, for as I wrote you we were near by a hospital of the enemy where (there were) over three hundred of their wounded, dead and dying. Many of them necessarily left out in all the inclemency of weathers to die. To pass by it was enough to soften and sicken the hardest heart. I will not dwell upon the awful scene.

The battle was nothing to this after piece. The excitement of the contest, the cheering of the soldiers, the triumph of victory and the whole field of many of its terrors–nothing could lessen the horrors of the field by moonlight. Enough–I cannot, I will not describe it. May God, in his infinite mercy, avert a second such calamity. Our march after we got beyond the scenes of he fight was rather cheering than otherwise. For twelve miles the road was literally strewn with every description of baggage, wagons, ambulances, barrels of sugar, crackers, ground coffee and thousands of axes, spades, shovels, picks, arms by the thousands, clothing of every description, cooking utensils–in fact, everything–and all left behind to expedite their flight, which was never stopped until they reached Washington.

Our troops have been busily engaged in appropriating everything they might possibly need, from a pin cushion to the finest army tent. In this place we found in several houses clothing enough to fill every room in our house. Their army was splendidly equipped with every possible convenience and comfort. But I cannot account for their utter confusion and panic. Their own papers give our regiment the credit of turning the tide of victory on our side. The papers if you can see them will give you all the particulars…

I do not know what our next move will be but suppose it will be upon Alexandria. All I desire is to drive them from our soil and secure peace–I would not shed another drop…

I cannot write now. Farewell! I pray that my wife and little children may be protected and comforted at all times.

Ever Yours,



Source: Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 11-13

From Eugene Blackford, 5th Alabama

Letter from Major Eugene Blackford, 5th Alabama Volunteer Infantry

Bivouac Camp of the Advanced Guard, on the railroad near Union Mills

Above Manassas

22nd July, 1861

Alabama State Flag | Image Credit:

Alabama State Flag | Image Credit:


We are very much fatigued and jaded by our late movements. I must relieve your anxiety by letting you know that I am alive and well. I was in the great battle of yesterday, tho our regt. arrived too late to take any considerable part in the action. But I will go back and let you know what I have been doing since this day a week.

Last Monday the enemy advanced their lines considerably and caused our pickets to fall back some two miles. We were up all Tuesday night expecting to march down to the battery to defend it. At 8 o’clock Wednesday, the advance guard of the enemy appeared, and we went out to give battle. We all took our positions behind our entrenchments, and remained there some time while parties of our men were skirmishing in front.

At last they were driven in, and the firing commenced upon our line. The enemy, having minie muskets, could fire upon us long before we could think of returning the compliment, and so we had to take it coolly. No wound was sustained by our men (in my company) except one pretty badly wounded. The balls make a very loud singing noise when they pass near you, and at first caused me to duck my head, but I soon became used to it. I never expected to be alarmed or excited in battle, but really it is a very different affair from what I thought it. I never was cooler in my life, and have ever since been very much pleased therefore, as I shall have no trouble hereafter…

Yesterday morning, about daylight, word was brought that the enemy was advancing on all sides, and that we must be ready to advance to the support of any point that might be seriously threatened. We had an alarm about 8 o’clock and set out immediately, but were ordered back before we had proceeded far, because the order was countermanded. We stood some eight hours in the sun on the road awaiting further orders. Since seven in the morning, heavy cannonading has been heard on all sides, mingled with a perfect roar of musketry. At eleven o’clock we set off at double quick to reinforce our men at Mitchell’s Ford and so, after crossing a dozen creeks, in the same creek a dozen times, we came upon the enemy. While retreating, they had been informed of our coming and had set off double quick, so we had our march of three miles for nothing.

We then came right about and set off to reinforce our men in the great battle (not yet named) about ten miles from us. This distance we marched at double time and came on the field about five o’clock, too late as I said to do much service, but early enough to smell a little gunpowder and receive a little of the enemy’s fire. We went over the battlefield several miles in extent. T’was truly awful, an immense cloud of smoke and dust hung over the whole country, and the flashing of the artillery was incessant tho none of the balls struck my company. One bomb burst a little above me, and killed and wounded several. This was our only loss. Had we been an hour earlier, many would not have lived to tell of it.

I shan’t attempt to describe the appearance of the field, literally covered with bodies, and for five miles before reaching it I saw men limping off, more or less wounded. We met wagon loads of bodies coming off to Manassas, where they are now piled in heaps. While we were looking over the field, an order came for us to go back to our batteries ten miles off, and defend them from the enemy who were advancing upon them, so we had to go back, tired as we were, to our holes, where we arrived half dead at twelve o’clock last night, having marched twenty-six miles heavily loaded. We have no protection against the rain, which has been falling all day. I have no blanket, not having seen my baggage since leaving Fairfax; I never was so dirty before in my life and besides I have scurvy in my mouth, not having anything but hard bread and intensely salty meat to eat, and not enough of that.

I do not however complain, nor do my men, tho I never thought that such hardships were to be endured. We have our meat in the blaze, and eat it on our bread. A continual firing is now going on around us.

Your affectionate son,



Source: Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 8-13

From Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island

Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, to his wife in Smithfield

Camp Clark, Washington

July 14, 1861

Rhode Island Regiment Flag | Image Credit:

Rhode Island Regiment Flag | Image Credit:

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days–perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more…

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing–perfectly willing–to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt…

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with might cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break, and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me–perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness…

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights… always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again…


Source: Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 82-83

The U.S. Sanitary Commission

June 7, 1861 – Secretary of War Simon Cameron reluctantly approved merging northern states’ aid societies into what became the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The idea for a centralized, national commission began in late April when Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the U.S., met with 55 prominent New York women to discuss aiding the U.S. Army Medical Bureau. These women joined with a group of male physicians to propose an organization that would supplement the inadequate and obsolete practices of the Bureau in caring for infirmed soldiers and providing for their families.

Logo for the U.S. Sanitary Commission | Image Credit:

Logo for the U.S. Sanitary Commission | Image Credit:

The Bureau had resisted the idea because civilians traditionally did not involve themselves in military matters. But after petitioning various administration officials, including Cameron and President Lincoln himself, the idea was approved and the Commission was officially established on June 9.

Cameron appointed the Commission’s members, which included several well-known professors and physicians. Dr. Henry Bellows, pastor of New York City’s All Souls Unitarian Church, became commission president. Bellows announced that the Commission would work to improve soldiers’ lives in ways the government could not do. Frederick Law Olmstead, the prominent architect of New York’s Central Park, became the Commission’s first executive secretary.

Officially the Commission only had investigatory and advisory power, but it eventually superseded that. At one time employing up to 500 agents, the commission involved itself in ambulance services, hospital care, and nursing. They also helped veterans to collect over $2.5 million in pensions. This month, the Commission’s work began when members issued a general circular requesting $50,000 in contributions.


Sources; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 36; Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 83; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 323, 481; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 656