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)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fredericksburg 150: The Cost of War

"Oh mother, how I do like to have you put in a word to year dear son in the war fighting to save his dear country. It looked sad to me to see so many dead bodys that I see the other day lying on the battlefield. I thought to myself if thear mothers could only see them they would be crasy."

150 years ago today, the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, which had met in battle at Antietam just two months prior, yet again clashed and engaged in great and terrible bloodshed. Thousands more were added to the death toll of the war.

Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Chase, of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, was just one of those men at Fredericksburg. Posted below, you will find excerpts of letters which Chase wrote home to his parents throughout 1862. Throughout his writings, Chase repeatedly told his parents that he hated the war, and hoped it would end soon so the death and killing would stop. These letters do not show us a soldier eager for killing and war, but a rightfully scared young man, who did not want to die, but only to see his family once again. As Chase wrote to his mother a few weeks before Fredericksburg, “I hate this foolish war more and more every day I live.” Chase’s words remind us that these battles were not fought by lines on a map, but by real people, who left behind fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, sons, and daughters. In many cases, these men would never again see their loved ones, as they laid down their lives that this nation might live. Many of these men were barely old enough to be called such; many were younger than twenty years old. The youth of the nation, dying upon once peaceful fields, gave our country a “new birth of freedom,” and that is what we should remember as we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Fredericksburg, and of the American Civil War.

Benjamin Franklin Chase enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry on September 16, 1861. He was 18 years old, five feet nine inches tall, had blue eyes and black hair. He mustered in at Concord, New Hampshire, on October 19, 1861, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant on November 11, 1862.

In camp, harrison’s landing, VA, james river

Dear Father,

(Most of this letter consists of small talk about the family, asking if his parents had received the letters he had sent, including one where Chase mailed three dollars to his parents. Chase also asks about different members of the family. Not much is relevant or of interest, except for the following lines)

… I guess I shall get my picture taken and send home, so if I should get killed out hear you could have it to look at. It costs 150 to get it taken.

… tell mother not to worry about me, not a mite. I stand one chance in 7 hundred thousand to not get killed. But perhaps I may get killed. I think I shant, cant tell.

Write all the news when you get this.

I am full steadier that I used to be at home, as good soldier as they is in the Co. dave and sarah said they were going to send me something when Hadley come back. I wish you would send me som stamps. Its hard to get them hear.

Write soon

B.F. Chase

The next letter is from August 3, 1862
In camp at harrisons landing, james river, VA

Dear father and all

As I received your kind and welcome letter a few days ago, I will now try and answer it. The first thing is, I am well as ever, and as harty as an old bear. Thease few lines I hope will find you and all our folks well as I am. I received those stamps and was happy to get um….

I still like pretty well and I hope I shall continue to like until the war is over. Which I hope will be soon but I am afraid it will last quite a while longer. We cant tell when it will end….

I am glad they have called for more troops, so as to have the war ended sometime or nother. It looks to us though it never would end, but they has got to be a settlement to it soon, one way or the other. It looks dreadful hard to see the poor soldiers killed of as they are hear. On our retreat was the hardest thing I ever see. I wish I only could be at home one week and tell you about what I have seen hear. I could think of anough to talk a week, all the time. I don’t put in eny thing in my letters that I write about what i have seen because I have anough else to write. I leave that out so as to tell you it when we get home.

I am going and get my picture taken to morrow and send it home to you all so if I get killed hear you can have it to look at and remember me by, to. How fast the time does pass away, almost fall again. I have been enlisted most a year, shall be the 11th of September….

We are under marching orders now. I guess I will put in a word to mother. Good by. Write as quick as you can.

B.F. Chase

The next, and last, letter in the collection was written just after Antietam, on September 28, 1862.

Sabath day


Sept 28th, 1862

Camp at harpers ferry

My Dear Mother,

I will now sit down and let you all know that I am a live and well. I hope this will find you all the same

We are hear to harpers ferry now. Ben hear 6 days and we except to stay hear some time. All the boys is well.

I don’t hardly know what to say to you, dear mother. I hate this foolish war more and more every day I live.

Oh, mother, the mail has just come in and I got your letter dated Sept 15, and o good Lord how glad I was to hear from you and the rest at home. Oh I am so glad to hear that you all are alive once more.

I spose you have heard what a hard battle we have ben in, but I was so lucky to get out of it alive. But it killed and wounded 118 men in our regt. We had to run about one mile before we got on the battlefield. When we was running I throwed away my blanket and one of them good blue shirts father sent me was in my blanket so I lost it.

Mother, it’s a nough to discourage eny one to see how this war go on. Half of our officers are traters, they don’t care how long this war goes on. Its makes me so mad to see how they go on, I don’t no what to do.

Yes, mother, good many of us thinks the war will be over before winter, but I don’t beleave it will be over for 2 more years to come. How I do wish I was out of it. I would give all my bounty mighty quickly if I could only get my way if I could see you….

We shall go into winter quarters soon, we think, we shall get paid of in a few days.

I shall be glad when I see the boys from the village

When we get paid of I shall write oftener

It’s a very pretty place hear to this ferry. The cars run up hear

I always like to write you, dear mother. I will write a piece to father and the rest.

Oh, mother, how I should like to set down to a good meal of brown bread and beans at home. Oh Lord when will that happy day come. Lord when will that day come when I can speak with you all again. I cant tell that, perhaps never and perhaps twill soon

Oh mother, how I do like to have you put in a word to year dear son in the war fighting to save his dear country. It looked sad to me to see so many dead bodys that I see the other day lying on the battlefield. I thought to myself if thear mothers could only see them they would be crasy.

Cant think of eny more this time. Tell lily when I come I will bring home candy. Write very soon and often. Good by mother, hope to see you soon.

B.F. Chase

That was the last letter Chase wrote to his mother. He would never see her, nor his father, nor the rest of his family, again. At the age of nineteen years old, Chase was killed during the Battle of Fredericksburg, 150 years ago today. His prediction that the war would last at least another 2 years was true. He was also correct in stating that if the mothers of soldiers could see battlefields after the fighting had ended, they would be “crasy”, and perhaps, wars would be brought to a close much sooner. While Chase expressed numerous times that he hated the war, he also did note in his letter home after Antietam that he believed he was engaged in a fight “to save his dear country.” Benjamin Franklin Chase, killed 150 years ago today at Fredericksburg, reminds us that war has a heavy price, and freedom is never free.

Source: Benjamin Chase Letters, typescript copies, 5th New Hampshire File, Antietam National Battlefield Library

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