Reading the letters that her brother, Daniel Withum Sawtelle, wrote from Virginia in January and February 1865, Caroline Sophronia Murphy developed a good idea about what passed for winter in Virginia.
The widowed Murphy often traded letters with Daniel, born in Minot in April 1838 and raised in Township 3, Range 5 in southwestern Aroostook County. The growing settlement initially became Golden Ridge Plantation and finally, on Jan. 28, 1862 — exactly two weeks before Daniel Sawtelle joined the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment — the town of Sherman.
Sporting blue eyes and a fair complexion, the 23-year-old Sawtelle arrived at Hilton Head, S.C. in early June 1862 and reported to Co. E. He served at various locations on the Southeast coast before the 8th Maine was brought to Virginia in spring 1864 to reinforce the Army of the Potomac.
Sawtelle and the 8th Maine Infantry fought in several battles during the bungled attempts to break the Confederate lines along the James River between Richmond and Petersburg. In early December 1864 the regiment transferred to Camp Holly, located south of the Appomattox River.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, 1865, Sawtelle sat inside “our little house” in Camp Holly while writing a chatty letter to Sophronia, as he routinely referred to her. Made of logs chinked with dried Virginia clay, the hut measured 10-by-7 feet internally. “The door is at the end, the fire place at the side and built on the outside, in the cornor between this and the door is a little desk, at which I am writing,” Sawtelle described the cabin.
“Across the back end are the bunks, one above, the other three feet wide for the two bunks,” he told Sophronia. “On the back side is a shelf from the door to the bunks.
“Under this we put trunk, [and] on it keep our plates and tin cups,” he wrote. “In fact, it is a sort of [a] cupboard.”
The Maine soldiers had made chairs from peach trees, with boards nailed into the wood to form the seats. Split-pine boards formed the floor, and a tent formed the roof …
… which was a problem this particular Jan. 21, described by Sawtelle as a “very stormy day[,] the rain pouring in torrents.” He informed Sophronia, “The rain has soaked through the tent and a drop has fallen on my paper.”
Muttering in ink that he had to walk “about a mile” to reach “the other camp after break,” Sawtelle commented, “You have read of Virginia rainstorms and Virginia mud, I suppose. I do not believe you can imagine them half as hard as they are.”
Sophronia lived amidst cold and snow that winter; her brother lived amidst rain that seemed almost endless. “The rainstorms last a week and sometimes more[,] and the mud everywhere is ankle deep[,] and every step almost takes the soles off our boots,” he described the incessant rain.
But Sophronia had sent a pair of custom-made boots to Sawtelle. “They fit nice, are just the thing for marching, am ever so much obliged to you,” he thanked her.
The weather had just started to change (albeit briefly) improved when Sawtelle wrote Sophronia on Saturday, Feb. 4. “We have been having considirable rain lately, but this afternoon it suddenly cleared up[,] and there is every appearance of fine weather for a while,” he reported.
The weather had turned so unexpectedly warm that the Maine soldiers no longer needed to keep roaring fires going to warm “our little huts.” Sawtelle noticed the grass turning green and heard the Virginia frogs “croaking,” a springtime sound typically not heard until mid-spring back home.
“The season appears to be as far advanced as it is there [in] the middle of April,” he commented.
All along the opposing lines that winter, both sides saw evidence of an impending end, if not to the war, at least to the siege of Petersburg. Sawtelle predicted to Sophronia that “in two months at the outside,” the Union army would launch a “summer’s campaign” to capture Richmond.
Sophronia was well aware that the Army of the Potomac had tried each spring of the war to take the Confederate capital; Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Chancellorsville, and the bungled Overland Campaign came to mind. Spring 1865 should be different, however.
“It will be a fierce struggle, but we all think a short one[,] and unless we are beaten it can hardly be otherwise,” Sawtelle explained on Feb. 4. The Union troops outside Petersburg knew that William Tecumseh Sherman and his army were heading north from Savannah; faced with Sherman’s ultimate arrival in southern Virginia and the Union hordes already in place there, Robert E. Lee must deal with an insurmountable challenge sometime later that year.
“If Lee can keep all these [Union troops] back one month he must be something more than human,” Sawtelle told Sophronia.
But another mathematical catastrophe awaited Lee; he was running out of men as Sherman tore into South Carolina. The vaunted Army of Northern Virginia slowly disintegrated in winter 1865.
Starving Confederate soldiers responded to Union promises of food by deserting individually and collectively. Sawtelle admitted to Sophronia that “were his (Lee’s) troops in the best of spirits, it does not seem possibleble (sic) that he could keep us in check a moment.
“But they are not, they are deserting by hundreds,” he explained. “There is a not a night passes but some come in” to the Union lines. Waiting until they were assigned to picket duty between the main defensive lines, desperate Confederate soldiers — many lacked sufficient clothing and food — let their trusted friends know what was planned.
“They agree among themselves … not to shoot each other” as men fled to Union positions. Waiting for night and the moment when the officer of the day or an attentive sergeant was elsewhere, the deserters vanished into the dark. Their comrades would “call out halt, and discharge their pieces [in the air] so that officers” would think the deserters had suddenly decided to surrender, Sawtelle wrote.
Yet even with so many Confederates reaching Union lines, as well as many others simply walking away and heading for home, the veteran Sawtelle realized that Lee’s army would not collapse when the spring campaigning began.
He explained to Sophronia that while “we have as good men as they (enemy) and at lease three to one [in numbers],” there was no guarantee of victory. “Many a man has got to fall before they can be subdued — many a brave man too, for you must know that it is our best men who are fighting these battles,” Sawtelle wrote.
The end was coming; Daniel Sawtelle and most Union veterans outside Petersburg could sense that.
They also knew that defeating Lee would take blood and lives, as too many Maine boys would soon learn along Appomattox Road.
Next week: Appomattox Road — decision at Dinwiddie Court House
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.