Erasmus Anderson Letter #4: November in Charleston

Erasmus writes from Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia) on November 5, 1862, his mood considerably lifted just a week and a half after he sat huddled in a tent in the snow at Red House.

Civil War Regimental Flag

Civil War 16th OVI Regimental Flag

Dear Wife: It is with great satisfaction I inform you I am well with the hope you and the dear ones are enjoying the same.

My, how formal, you are today, Erasmus, but it is good to see you being more optimistic than is your usual mode. Today we see Pvt. Erasmus Anderson who is observant, generous, missing his family but adjusting to army life and quick to anger in frustration.

Fortunately for those of us reading his letters a century and a half later, Pvt. Erasmus Anderson goes into full pedagogical mode in this letter and gives us some wonderful details about life with the 16th O.V.I. as they make their way south from Ohio, passing reminders of fierce battles that took place earlier. He writes in a rather stream-of-consciousness manner, so I have combined some sections for more clarity.

Description of Surroundings

We passed the first rebel breastwork some miles down the valley but the birds had all flown the night before.  We asked a citizen what made them leave.  He said they heard a Yankee drum coming up the valley the evening before where I now sit.

And he mentions that they have 150 Rebel prisoners. “Part of them came in and gave themselves up of their own accord.”

Later in the letter, he describes their camp, demonstrating a farmer’s awareness of terrain and weather.

We are camped in a beautiful valley with mountains or high hills all around.  The war has given this valley [gondey?] the bridges are all destroyed.  Just now our little steamboat is coming up and I’ll bet there is a letter for me.  The river is so low none but the very smallest size boat can come and that is the hardest kind of work.  The last rain and snow raised the river up but it is gone down again .
From where I now sit, I can count seven different fortifications in every direction around us on the mountain sides but they are all abandoned.  If they were manned they could command this valley completely. But it would have been easy to get around them and they knew it and skedaddled.
Cpl. Theodore Walbach,

Cpl. Theodore Walbach, Co. E., 16th O.V.I., author of Camp and Field, published in the Holmes County Republican

Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach also mentions the fortifications, which he says were built by both sides in battles that swung back and forth.  Wolbach’s Camp and Field gives details of one of the encounters that forced the Union’s earlier retreat from this area.

We passed a fortified knob called Tyler Hill. It was told us that here Col. Tyler, with his 7th O.V.I., had made a fierce stand against an army that greatly outnumbered his forces.

You can compare Erasmus’ notes about Charleston to those by Cpl. Wolbach in the Holmes County Republican series (1881-1882) at the OVI Regiment web site. Wolbach, gives many details about the river traffic, that Erasmus does not dwell on.

Erasmus says that they are camped close to Charleston but he has not been there yet. [Wolbach says they are 3/4 mile from Charleston.] Although Erasmus says he could get a pass, he is uncharacteristically satisfied where he is.

Life in Camp

Civil War tent Stove

Civil War tent stove

I am satisfied in camp for we have got little stoves in our tents and we are very comfortable.  They only weigh five pounds.

He goes on to tell his wife that everyone except the new recruits has been issued overcoats, but he is confident they will get theirs as soon as possible. What with the new stove in his tent, he is no longer cold. He mentions his brother Will who has been out on picket duty and confiscated some potatoes. (Perhaps for a roots stew like this recipe?)

In this letter, Erasmus goes into detail about rations, but I am going to hold that information until next Tuesday when I talk about the rations and how the soldiers used some of them.

Thoughts of Home

He echoes what he said in his last letter about being away from family, with a hint of not wanting to worry Suzi and a bit of his righteousness.

You wanted to know how I liked soldiering.  I like it tolerably well so far and am as well and satisfied as could be expected of my circumstances for I think no man from his family can be perfectly satisfied nor should not be.

I have accused Erasmus of not being a romantic, however, he demonstrates his concern for his wife in  more practical ways.  In the section of this letter that best demonstrates Erasmus’ personality–quick to anger, and a man who prefers action–he rails against someone who has been giving his wife trouble at home.

As my brother says in an e-mail analyzing the Letters from “E”:  “To make things worse, the home folks keep pestering him with their domestic squabbles, and he feels powerless to protect his wife against liars and complainers. ” Erasmus says, obviously responding to a complaint he received from his wife:

I think you would have done right to had that old curse arrested for his abuse.  It would cost him some money and trouble both.  Good God but I would like to have come in the house about the time he was in his foam.  I would like to shown him the way home on double quick.

Without any segue, unless the “old curse” was claiming some of the Anderson sheep, Erasmus replies to an inquiry about the sheep by telling Suzi that she should have 38, including a pet.

The Softer Side of Erasmus

Fresh water clam

Fresh water clam

From Wolbach’s Camp and Field, page 45:

Here, on the Kanawha river, the shell of the fresh-water clam furnished fine material for the display of the taste and ingenuity of the soldier in making finger-rings and other trinkets. With the few insignificant tools at hand, some of these articles were finished so exquisitely nice that they seemed to rival the lapidary’s skill. The fine, soft, delicate pink and blue of the shell was pleasing to the eye, and when wrought into some tasty design, the effect was rich. No doubt many a finger-ring or charm of this material found its way by mail to fair and devoted creatures in the North, and perhaps to-day, some of these trinkets, rendered doubly precious, are treasured because the loved one who sent them never returned.

Col. John De Courcey

Col. John De Courcey, 16th O.V.I.

It is delightful and poignant (since we know his future) to learn that Erasmus is apparently one of the soldiers that Wolbach mentioned who make rings and other jewelry.  Since their commander De Courcey is drilling them “only 4 hours a day,” Erasmus, clearly used to working long hours, needs to fill his time.

I will send you another ring.  I still make some in my lazy hours as I am well at that as doing nothing.

In an earlier letter, we learned that Erasmus read and wrote for illiterate camp mates, now he tells us that he is out of paper and envelopes because “even if I have ever so much paper and envelopes I could not keep them for there is so many depend altogether on others for them.”  So he ends his letter with some instructions for Suzi:

Now whenever you want a letter just write one and put a sheet of paper and envelope and I will write and send it right back.  I will write as many as you send and then you cannot complain.  Nothing more at present but remain Your husband E. Anderson.

See Letter 3: Hard March to Kanawha Valley

See Letter 5: December in Memphis.

Besides the Civil War letters which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband,, sources here include:

  • A site devoted to the 16th OVI that is a real treasure trove of information about Ohio’s soldiers in the Civil War.
  • Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors.
  • The regimental banner and two photographs of DeCourcey and Walbach come from the Michael K Woods’ site that features 16th OVI. The clam picture is from Flickr.com with Creative Commons license. See more by clicking on each photo. 
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