To many families came a letter that, as events proved, would be the last letter to arrive, forever and a day, from their soldier relative. Such a letter came to the White family living in Cambridge, Massachusetts in mid-1862. Though not connected with Maine, that letter represents similar correspondence reaching many Maine homes that year.
Twenty-one when he enlisted as a private in Co. G, 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, George R. White mustered with that outfit in Lynnfield on Aug. 28, 1861 and arrived at a Meridian Hill camp in Washington, D.C. by Sept. 9, when he wrote a letter to his younger brother, Henry K. White.
Camp life was strenuous, White noted. Rousted between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. for roll call, the soldiers then cleaned their quarters until falling “in for breakfast about 7,” with “guard mounting at 9” a.m. Learning the “manual of arms,” Co. G drilled from 10 a.m.-12 noon “and then fall in for dinner.”
Battalion drill began at 2 p.m., and “we commence today at double quick,” White wrote. Supper came later, a dress parade took place at 6:30 p.m., and after the 10 p.m. roll call, the recruits “turn in for sleep.
“If you can stand the work you are all right because the grub is simple, plain[,] substantial and just what any man ought to grow fat on,” George White commented.
Filling his letters with rich details about military life, White described traveling along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal aboard “the canal boat Elizabeth Snyder” after marching 17 miles to Edwards Ferry on the Potomac River on Tuesday, March 11, 1862. He “went up on deck to see the sights,” but with night settling over the canal, White “went below to sleep.
“We’re pretty crowded,” he realized, but a judicious application of “kick and push” resulted in White rousting “a fellow in Co. A” and sliding into his space.
Disembarking at Sandy Hook on Wednesday morning, the 19th Massachusetts boys “crossed the Potomac on a pontoon bridge and landed on Va. soil for the first time,” White wrote. The regiment passed through Harpers Ferry and saw “the engine house where John Brown was captured.”
Recalled to Washington on March 24, the 19th Massachusetts boarded the steamer North American and headed for Fort Monroe, the federal post at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. As did many Maine boys arriving at Old Point Comfort, “I saw the little Monitor sailing about the water ready to meet the Merrimac,” White wrote about the two ironclads.
The Monitor “looks as much like a couple of planks with a tar barrel set up in the centre,” he thought.
Sent “reconoitring” on Monday, April 7, the 19th Massachusetts experienced its “first time … under fire” and “having done a pretty good days work in the shape of reconoitring, we returned to camp,” White informed his family.
Moving with the army up the Peninsula, the 19th Massachusetts lost some men to sickness, but “my health is good,” White commented in a May 1 letter to his father. “The boys in the tent with me are first rate boys, not afraid to do a little work when it is for our good.”
A long-awaited box from home arrived on May 2, while the regiment camped near Yorktown. The box “had been so long coming that the eatibles (sic) were nearly all spoiled,” White complained. “I was sorry for I know they were good when they started espec ially the cream cakes.
“I know of nothing more at present except that I expect we are on the road to Richmond,” he wrote from New Kent Court House on May 10.
Belonging to the 3rd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Napoleon J.T. Dana), 2nd Division (Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick), II Corps (Brig. Gen. Edwin Sumner), the 19th Massachusetts fought at the May 31-June 1 Battle of Seven Pines, then meandered a bit around the Chickahominy River as George McClellan figured out how to capture Richmond.
“I don’t know as it makes any difference whether you direct [mail] to Yorktown or Washington,” White wrote his father on May 13. “My letters come as soon as anybody’s.”
That was about to change.
Next week: A Massachusetts family receives a last letter
Source: Letters Home From Geo. R. White, Robert C. Bartosz, self-published, 1991
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.