Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas letter 150 years ago

In the early hours of Christmas morning in 1861, 150 years ago this Christmas day, a 23 year old Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts sat down to write a letter to his mother…

Guard-Tent Second Massachusetts
Camp Hicks, near Frederick, MD, 3 ½ o’clock, A.M.
December 25, 1861
Dearest Mother,
It is Christmas morning, and I hope it will be a happy and merry one for you all, though, it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in a merry humour.
I should be very sorry to have a war with England, even if we had a fine army, instead of a pack of politicians for officers, with their constituents for rank and file; and all the more so, of course, thinking that we shall have to take many “whoppings” before we are worth much. War isn’t declared yet, but doesn’t it look very much like it to every one at home? Here, we have made up our minds that we shall have much more soldiering to do than we expected when we started. I think we may as well consider ourselves settled for life, if we are to have a war with England! [1]

My Christmas Eve has been very much like many other eves during the last six months. On the whole, I have passed quite a pleasant night, though what our men call the “fore-part” of it was principally occupied in taking care of two drunken men (one of them with a broken pate), and in tying a sober one to a tree. After this was over, I did a good deal of reading, and, towards 1 o’clock, A.M., had some toast and hot coffee, —having previously invited my Sergeant to take a nap, so that I might not be troubled by hungry eyes, and made to feel mean, for these wasn’t enough to give any away. The drummer (who, with the Sergeant of the Guard, for some reason which I never discovered, sits and sleeps in the officers’ tent) kept groaning in his sleep; and I couldn’t help imagining that his groan always came in just as I took a bite of toast, of a large gulp of coffee. This diminished my enjoyment; and when he suddenly said, “Martha! There isn’t any breakfast”, I was certain that my proceedings were influencing his dreams!

It began to snow about midnight, and I suppose no one ever had a better chance of seeing “Santa Claus”; but, as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worth his while to come down to the guard-tent. I didn’t see any of the guard’s stockings pinned up outside their tent, and indeed it is contrary to army regulations for them to divest themselves fo any part of their clothing during the twenty-four hours.

Please ask Father to bring me a pocket-revolver, if he can get it, when he comes,—one small enough to carry in the breast-pocket. Also, tell the girls that Harry would be very much obliged if they would send him seventy or eighty pairs of mittens. I heard him say he would like to have some. The men were all glad to get them, though, as usual, they didn’t express their thanks. They get so many things that they are spoilt, and think they have a right to all these extras. Thirteen dollars per month, with board, lodging, and clothes, is more than nine men out of ten could make at home. Poor soldiers! Poor drumsticks! But this is not the sort of language for me to use, who am supposed to stand in the light of half mother to the men of my company. I should like about fifteen more pairs mittens; and some warm flannel shirts and drawers would be very useful, if there are any spare ones. “Uncle Sam’s” are miserable things. “Merry Christmas” and love to all, dear Mother. I suppose Sue is at Mrs. Schuyler’s [a family who lived on Staten Island]. I am so glad she is coming with you next month! Alex. And Annie will be here next week.
Your loving son, 

Robert Gould Shaw [2]  

Robert Gould Shaw, the young man who wrote a letter to his mother on Christmas 150 years ago, became the Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts in 1863, the first African American regiment in the Union armed forces during the Civil War. Shaw was killed on July 18, 1863, at the age of 25, leading the famed 54th Massachusetts in its heroic assault against Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Over 600 men in the 54th Massachusetts made the valiant charge against Fort Wagner: 272, or 45 %, were either killed, wounded, or captured. After the battle, Confederate soldiers buried Shaw in a mass grave with his African American soldiers, seeing it as a sign of disrespect to bury a Union colonel with former slaves. Upon learning of his son’s burial, Shaw’s father replied that his son could have had “no holier place” for a gravesite. His father was quite proud of his son’s conduct and sacrifice, writing to William Lloyd Garrison, “We do thank God that our darling… was chosen, among so many equals, to be the martyred hero of the downtrodden of our land.” [3]

[1] The reference to a war with England concerns the famed Trent Affair, when the U.S.S. San Jacinto captured Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell aboard the RMS Trent en route to England to pursue foreign intervention in the Civil War. The crisis led to great popular outcry against Britain among the Northern people, as well as pressures and fears over a war between Great Britain and the North. The tension was defused when President Lincoln released the two captured Confederate convoys in late December, 1861.
[2] Robert Gould Shaw, Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, ed. Russell Duncan (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 168-9.
[3] Ibid., 54.

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