Two Soldiers, Two Stories

Many of you may remember that this past school year I accompanied 35 students on a civil rights trip from Atlanta to Memphis. I was asked to accompany the instructor who organized it, but this year my school is requesting that I lead a trip for what we call Exploration Week, which takes place in March. It should come as no surprise that I am thinking of a Civil War trip for about 15 to 20 students – going small for the first year. What I have is little more than a sketchy outline of some of the sites that I want to visit, but they will likely fall between Gettysburg and Fredericksburg. 

While the trip will focus on the major battlefields of the East, as well as broader questions related to the evolution of the war, I do want to personalize it for my students. I am hoping to structure the trip around the experiences of two soldiers, one Union and one Confederate. This is where I need your help. I am looking for two soldiers that fought through the war from December 1862 to July 1863 and who left an account of their experiences. Ideally, I am looking for a diary and letters collection that has been published. The United States soldier should be from the Boston area, but the Confederate side is wide open.

I am currently reading, A Corporal’s Story: Civil War Recollections of the Twelfth Massachusetts, which was written by George Kimball and who lived in Boston before and after the war. He is buried in a cemetery just up the road from my school in Lexington. I would prefer a wartime account, but Kimball’s narrative is very colorful and, apparently, he used his letters home during the war as well as other sources while writing his memoir.

So, your suggestions are very much appreciated and don’t be surprised if I hit up a couple of you to help me out at specific locations. You know who you are. 🙂

22 thoughts on “Two Soldiers, Two Stories

  1. Al Mackey

    It’s a target-rich environment. I suggest also considering Antietam and Harpers Ferry. For soldier writings, I think the perfect one would be Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, edited by Robert Garth Scott. Abbott was in the 20th Massachusetts, “The Harvard Regiment.” That would be great because then you can point out the “Pudding Stone” monument to the 20th Mass. at Gettysburg. Abbott fought from Ball’s Bluff to his death in the Wilderness. Might want to also check out Francis Channing Barlow of Barlow’s Knoll fame. Native New Yorker, but a Harvard grad buried in Mass.

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  2. Pat Young

    Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh. He was a Canadian immigrant who enlisted in the 28th Mass. Boston’s Irish Brigade regiment. The letters are amazing. They are particularly interesting because he spends significant parts of them debating with his wife, an Irish immigrant who did not think that a discriminated against immigrant group should risk its young men in other peoples wars. The negative is that while he enlisted in Boston, he was living in NY before signing up.

    Although Margaret Welsh’s letters have been lost, her voice is clearly heard in the letters, and it is a strongly dissident one. There is also a transnational aspect to the letters as Peter writes to her father in Ireland and offers advice to young men in Ireland thinking about emigrating.

    His status as a heroic color sgt. never change his wife’s questioning of immigrant involvement in the war. However, he is an able respondent, sketching forth the role of the Union army in preserving democratic values for the world. Really amazing stuff here. The fact that he is mortally wounded during the Irish Brigade’s assault on the Muleshoe at Spotsylvania after teen listing makes them even more poignant.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      This sounds like a great collection. I really want a local as a representative of the North to help connect my students to local history as well as the story before and after the war. Thanks.

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      1. Bob Huddleston

        I also recommend Irish Green and Union Blue. An Irish immigrant, Welsh lived in Brooklyn, NY, and worked as a carpenter. In 1861 he went to Massachusetts to find work, got drunk and ended up in the 28th Massachusetts, the Irish Brigade, as a private.

        He served until mortally wounded at Spotsylvania Court House, May 12, 1864, and died on May 28. His letters home are breathtaking: his wife and his father-in-law both wanted him to desert but he penned eloquent answers back that if the American democracy failed its test, then Ireland would never be free. Margaret never remarried and kept Peter’s letters until her death.

        In March of ’63 he was promoted to color bearer … but let Sgt. Welsh tell the story (the spelling is his):

        In Camp near Falmouth March the 19th/63

        My dear wife
        ….
        I must tell you now that i have the honor of carying the green flag when we were ordered to fall into line on St Patricks day the color bearer did not bring out the flag when we got in line our Captain asked where the colors were and no on could tell him our company is now the color company so he told me to go and get the colors and bring them i went to Colonels tent and got the green flag and brought it out and he made the sergeant that used to cary the flag take off the flag belt and give it to me i put it on and the Captain told me to keep that flag and cary it so yesterday he seen the Colnel about it and i was made color bearer I shal feel proud to bear up that flag of green the emblem of Ireland and Irish men and espesialy having received it on that day dear to ever irish heart the festivel of St Patrick …
        I must now conclude praying God to bless and protect you

        Your affectionate husband

        PETER WELSH

        In camp near Falmouth March the 31st/63
        My dear wife

        I received your welcome letter of the 26th last night … My dear wife i am sory that you feel so uneasy about my carrying the flag but it is not so bad as you think as you will see when i explain it to you each company has to take position in line acording to the rank of captains and by the resignation of the senior captain our companys position is the color company which is third in rank now supposing the colors to be a dangers position i should be near them whether i carried them or not and if as you think the colors were aimed at by the enemy i would be in full more danger in any other part of the company then carrying the flag there is no such thing as taking shure aim in the battle field the smoke of powder the noise of firearms and cannon and the excittement of the battle field makes it impossible so that if the colors are fired at those on either side of the colors for the lenght of a company are more likely to get struck then the color bearer I will give you some facts to show whether the colors are a much more dangers position then any other or not This regiment has been in seven battles and has had but one color bearer killed and that was in the first battle in James Island he carried the national flag in all the seven battles there was but two men wounded carrying the green flag the sergeant who caned the national flag at fredericksburg got slightly wounded but the one that carried the green flag did not get a scratch and he was promoted leutenent next day by General Meagher he resighned since and is now home clear of soldiering Another thing that will show you that it makes no difference what part of the regiment a man is in is that the company which carried the colors in nearly all the battles did not lose as many in killed and wounded as some other companys and the company that carried the colors at Fredericksburg did not have as many killed and wounded as our company which was not near them In the seven battles this regiment has been in there was but forty nine killed but there was a large number wounded more men have died from sickness then have been killed since the regiment came out and this is considered one of the healthiest regiments in the field I did not lose my comfortable little house by being made color bearer i am still in it and attend to the drawing of rations there is no one else in the company who understands it they do not know how to figure up the amount a given number of men should draw so i keep an acount and see that we get the proper alowence and the other sergeants help give it out you would not think me unlucky if you were here this morning when a detail of about 8o men and oficers had to go out on picket we had a snow storm last night and it turned to rain and sleet this morning they have to go about three miles through slush and mud and stay there untill tomorow at ten Oclock when they will have to trug back again if i was not color bearer i would have to take my turn on picket and guard now as there has been promotions in the company which would have changed me from my old job but getting the colors just saved me from it i am not required to do any duty only go out withe colors which is only on dress parade reviews or batalion drill i do not have to keep a musket nor cary any amunition nothing but my knabsack grub bag and canteen that will make it much easier for me when marching If this brigade should be kept in front it can not do anything but skirmishing for it is to small and in that case i will be out of it for when a regiment or brigade go out skirmishing the colors always remain behind with a reserve You ask if there is way that i could get clear of carrying the flag i cannot think you would advise me to do a mean or cowardly action to taking it when offered to me would been playing the coward to try to get rid of carying it now would be mean base and cowardly and i would consider it the more so on account of it being the green flag of old Irland i will carry it as long as God gives me strength for i know that he can as easly protect me there as if i was in strongest tower that ever was built by the hands of man God bless and protect you

        your loving husband

        PETER WELSH

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  3. Patrick Young

    If you don’t mind an officer’s account, try Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian Samito published by Fordham University Press (1998). Guiney was an Irish immigrant from Boston who against the odds became an attorney. His letters to his wife show a deep connection to his family in Boston, as well as describing dissention and rivalries in his regiment and brigade. Guiney began the war as a war Democrat, and ended it as a Republican.

    He was badly wounded at the Wilderness. His daughter years later wrote of seeing him for the first time when he returned.

    Louise Guiney recalled the scene: “It was my earliest glimpse of the painful side of the war, when he stood worn, pale, drooping, waiting for recognition with a weary smile at the door of the sunny little house we all loved.”

    Instead of running to him, the little girl “slipped headlong, like a startled seal from the rocks, and disappeared under the table.” Louise wrote that she viewed the wounded man as a “most bewildering and appalling stranger.” She said that, “In vain my [father] called me by the most endearing names.”

    Louise was convinced that the man was an imposter, a wasted ghost playing the role of her virile father. She wrote, “I shut my disbelieving eyes, and crouched on the carpet… What was this spectre… whose head [was] bound in bandages… What was he in place of my old-time comrade.”

    Louise’s father had been “blithe and boyish,” she wrote, now he was replaced by this refugee from death.

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      1. Patrick Young

        One interesting aspect of the Guiney letters is they get into the weeds of how a young family supports itself when the breadwinner rushes off to war in 1861 without making any financial provisions. Patrick Guiney of Tipperary, wrote to his wife on June 4, 1861, shortly after he joined the army, that she needed to find a way to make ends meet without depending on him.

        “Compensation, at present, I fear is out of the question,” he wrote her. “Government is proverbially slow…some months may elapse before payment is made.” Guiney realized the difficulties his young wife faced because of his enlistment and he advised her to seek public assistance. He insisted such aid was “not charity,” but still told her to proceed “quietly, letting no one know.”

        Guiney himself apologized to his wife for the “possible rashness of my resolution to volunteer.”

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  4. Ken Noe

    There’s always Howe’s edition of Oliver Wendell Holmes letters and diaries, entitled Touched with Fire. I really like David Blight’s edition of Charles Brewster’s letters, When This Cruel War is Over, but he was from Northampton, which may be too far away for you. On the Confederate side, there’s obviously an embarrassment of riches, but one of my favorites is Lowe and Hodges’ collection of Marion Hill Fitzpatrick’s letters, Letters to Amanda.

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  5. Dudley Bokoski

    It’s hard to find good material on the Civil War navies, but “Aboard the USS Monitor” by William Frederick Keeler sounds like a good bet (haven’t read it, but it was published by the Naval Institute so it’s got to be solid). The reason I mention it is because so many people neglect the Navy’s role in 1862. The Navy might have gotten to shell Richmond if the Monitor and Galena had been able to get by Drewry’s Bluff (which is a really great site not many people get to near Richmond). Plus you might consider a visit to Fort Monroe and also the Mariner’s Museum (where they have a full scale mock up of the Monitor in addition to the salvaged gun turret and artifacts). I might also point McClellan retreated under cover of the gunboats at Berkeley Plantation. If it had not been for the Navy I suppose the next phase in his change of base would have had to involve swimming lessons. Seriously, though, the monitor was huge in 1862 and is a great story in human terms but also in the role of technology in winning the war.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Great points. I’ve thought about both the Mariner’s Museum and Fort Monroe. I would love to see what they are doing with the latter given the recent transfer to the NPS.

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  6. John Heiser

    Kevin- Here are a couple of others you may wish to consider, though they maybe a bit difficult to find in your area:
    William T. Poague, Gunner With Stonewall, Reminiscences of William Thomas Poague, (McCowat-Mercer Press, Jackson, TN, 1957)

    Kimberly Ayn, Graham C., & Michael Owen, The War of Confederate Captain Henry T. Owen (18th VA Infantry), (Heritage Books, Inc., Westminster, MD, 2004)

    Jeff Toalson, editor, Send Me a Pair of Old Boots & Kiss My Little Girls, The Civil War Letters of Richard & Mary Watkins, 1861-1865, (iUniverse Books, Bloomington, IN, 2009)

    Edward K. Cassedy, ed., Dear Friends at Home, The Civil War Letters& Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, (Butternut & Blue, Gaithersburg, MD, 2001)

    Sounds like a great project!

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