Portland soldier writes about a loss and love

Taking advantage of quiet time in their warm-weather camp, several Union soldiers write letters to the folks at home. In the foreground, a comrade wields needle and thread to repair his slightly worn clothing. (Library of Congress)

Having survived the Battle of Chancellorsville, George F. Moulton of the 17th Maine Infantry had a greater concern than the horrors of battle when he wrote “My Dear Mother” from “Camp Sickles near Bell Plain” on Wednesday, May 20, 1863.

Eighteen and single when he mustered with the 17th Maine Infantry at Portland on August 19, 1862, Pvt. Moulton of Co. B hailed from Portland. This particular Wednesday was “hot and sultry,” and “although I do not feel like writing today … yet I will send a few lines if no more,” Moulton wrote.

After acknowledging receiving from his mother “last evening” a letter “containing the tea & postage stamps,” Moulton cut to the chase.

“I have met with an unlucky loss,” he informed his mom. “I refer to my needle case that Miss Canfield gave me.”

Also called a “soldier’s housewife,” a needle case contained needles and thread a soldier used to repair his clothing. A soldier might also carry non-sewing items in a needle case, too.

The War Department did not assign seamstresses to its units, although some soldiers’ wives did earn money through their sewing skills. Now unable to make his own clothing repairs, Moulton was at a loss.

Located near Belle Plain (Moulton’s spelling error is understandable), Camp Sickles was named for Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, named commander of III Corps the previous February. The 17th Maine was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of Col. Samuel Hayman and the 1st Division of Brig. Gen. David Birney, who reported directly to Sickles.

After Confederate troops partially hammered the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in early May, the rattled Joseph Hooker withdrew across the Rappahannock River. He had more than enough soldiers to beat the Confederates, but militarily outmaneuvered and psychologically snookered by Robert E. Lee, Hooker wrested defeat from the jaws of victory and slunk away.

“I can not tell what day I lost it (the needle case) nor where I lost it,” Moulton told his mom. “I had it in my knapsack & I went for it & it was gone[;] about everything I had was in it & I had to beg an envelope to write to you.”

He evidently corresponded with Miss Canfield, and she may have been a romantic interest. “In my last letter to Miss Canfield[,] I wrote about a pretty wild flower I was agoing to send her,” Moulton recalled. Unfortunately the wildflower “dropped on the floor & was spoilt.

“Please, tell her about it,” he begged his mom.

Into the envelope containing his May 20 letter, Moulton placed something that not every Maine mother was receiving from the front line that spring. “Enclosed you will find a piece of Rebel Telegraph cable,” Moulton described the item. “I thought you would like to have it as a curiosity.”

He added to the envelope “some pressed violets from the woods of Virginia.”

Messages for the ladies at home now complete, Moulton turned briefly to Chancellorsville. By now the Maine newspapers ran articles (often wildly inaccurate) and some casualty lists from that bloody battle; Moulton told his mother about an incident involving Lt. Col. Charles B. Merrill, the 17th Maine’s commander in the absence of Col. Thomas A. Roberts.

“Col. Merrill led us in to battle & stuck by us all the time although two bullets came rather near Saturday night (May 2),” Moulton recalled. “One went through the top of his hat & made some ugly holes in it & another went between the side of his head and the top of his right ear & made it bleed.”

The Confederates were not done with Merrill, according to Moulton. During the fighting of Sunday, May 3, “a bullet or piece of shell struck him (Merrill) in the muscle of his right arm & made it very sore,” Moulton informed his mother.

Enough about zipping bullets and whizzing shrapnel: Moulton suddenly switched gears in his slightly rambling letter. Soldiers relished receiving mail from home, and other reading material (especially magazines and newspapers) was always welcome in the camps. Thinking about a recent package from his mother, Moulton wrote, “You don’t know how glad I was to get the Magazine Transcript as I have a chance to read now.”

Odds were excellent that other Co. B boys would read the Transcript, too.

Moulton shared news about “Geo. Martin” and “Charley Ring,” young men whom his mother would have known. And although “I will not ask you to send me any thing yet,” he admitted, “As I am destitute anything will be gladly received.”

Acknowledging to his mom that he was “your affectionate son,” Moulton closed, “Give my love to all kind friends with a good share to yourself.”

Source: George F. Moulton letter of May 20, 1863, Maine State Archives

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.