The last letter home, part 2

His staff riding hot on his heels, a senior Union general rides past cheering soldiers in an illustration from “Civil War Letters Home.” The soldiers’ incredible joy suggests the officer is Gen. George McClellan, beloved by many common soldiers. In his letters home, Pvt. George R. White of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry referred at least once to watching McClellan and his cavalcade ride by. (Courtesy Bob Bartosz)

To many soldiers’ families in New England came a letter that, as events proved, would be the last letter, forever and a day, from a loved one in uniform. The White family living in Cambridge, Massachusetts received such a letter in mid-1862.

Compiled in 1991 by Bob Bartosz, “The Civil War Letters Home From Geo. R. White” provided a richly detailed viewpoint of Army life as seen through the eyes of a 19th Massachusetts Infantry private. (Courtesy Bob Bartosz)

George R. White, a tired private in Co. G of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, had tramped up the Virginia Peninsula, fought at Seven Pines, and along with some 100,000 other Union boys waited for Gen. George McClellan to make a move — any move — against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

With his Army of the Potomac split by the Chickahominy River, McClellan did so Wednesday, June 25, 1862 by launching what he viewed as a decisive attack on the road to Richmond.

Army divisions commanded by Joe Hooker and Phil Kearny advanced to drive Confederate troops from high ground along which McClellan wanted to place siege guns to bombard Richmond, only a few miles away. Some 1,000 Union boys caught lead while moving their line 600 yards nearer to Richmond in the so-called Battle of Oak Grove.

The fight marked the opening of the Seven Days’ Battles.

Meanwhile, the 19th Massachusetts Infantry saw action not far away on June. Pausing briefly in his camp near Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), George White took a few minutes later that day to write home.

“Dear Father. I been in about an hour from a fight. the 19 went out to discover the enemy position, which we did. we found them in the woods and we were in the woods at the same time. I fired four times, but could not tell what damage I had done. we were under fire one hour. the bullets whistled pretty sharp but I did not get hit. officers acted nobly, particularly our field officers. the Col. says the regt. acted nobly. the enemy having ceased firing we returned to camp. casualties in our co. seven wounded three killed. can’t stop to write particulars. more next time.”

“Your obt. Son, G.R. White”

Within 24 hours, McClellan started his army running for Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Unnerved by almost kamikaze-style attacks launched by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, “Little Mac” lost his nerve and fled, reaching safety before his hard-pressed troops did.

If George White wrote another letter, it never reached Cambridge. There was no “next time,” because his June 25 letter was the last received by his family.

Pvt. George R. White of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was shot twice during the June 30, 1862 rear-guard fight at White Oak Swamp, Va. Driven from the field, his comrades could recover neither his body nor his belongings. He vanished. (Library of Congress)

But one final letter did arrive. Writing from Harrison’s Landing on July 4, drummer John C. Copp of Co. G, 19th Massachusetts Infantry addressed “Mr. Henry K. White.

“I received your letter of the [June] 20th this morning and … thought I would answer it immediately,” Copp began.

“George was shot on the 1st day of July at the Battle of White Oaks Swamp. He was shot first in the leg and was being helped from the field by one of the Company when he was again shot in the back and dropped.

Many Maine boys are buried at Glendale National Cemetery, located north of Malvern Hill on the Virginia Peninsula. If the body of Pvt. George R. White of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry was recovered long after his death on June 30, 1862, he probably went into this cemetery as an “unknown.” (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

“We were obliged to leave all our wounded on the field, to prevent being flanked and cut to pieces,” Copp told Henry. “Everything that belonged to George was lost. The Rebels attack was so sudden that they did not even have time to take his watch.”

Henry would have understand that George was dead, that no personal items had been recovered by his friends. Trying to ease the hurt, Copp wrote a bit about his comrade.

“George was a good soldier and a braveone. he was naturally kind and obliging and made a good many friends,” Copp wrote. “Our boys miss him very much. he was a general favorite with all.

“I am very sorry that I cannot obtain something of his to send to your Father for I know how highly he would prize it, no matter how small it might be,” Copp wrote.

“If there is anything that I can do for you, and you will write and let me know what it is, I will do it willingly,” he offered.

His body never recovered, George R. White vanished behind enemy lines. His name was etched on the Civil War monument dedicated in 1870 on Cambridge Common back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Source: Letters Home From Geo. R. White, Robert C. Bartosz, self-published, 1991

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.