December in Memphis-Erasmus Anderson Letter #5: Laying in Camp

Memphis, Tennessee.

Sudy, we have a kind of breeze today coming down from your way which is rather cool and it is snowing a kind of a soft snow which is not a very common thing here.

Erasmus Anderson Civil War Letter

December in Memphis, letter  from Erasmus Anderson to his wife “Suzi” 1862

The person who transcribed this read the first word as ‘Sudy,’ but it doesn’t look like that to me. What do you think? Is ‘Sudy’ a nickname for Susanne? What is that fancy first letter?

I am including this photo so you can see that even when he is in camp, and not entirely happy, E. manages to write beautifully, and orderly script.

On November 13, 1862, after a three-day march to the Ohio River and another march to Cincinnati, the Union soldiers of the 16th O.V.I. boarded boats and headed over to the Mississippi River and south to Memphis, Tennessee. The 16th occupied two boats–the Key West and the Mamora. Although this letter is not dated, it is clear that Erasmus wrote it after they had alighted from the boats on November 26, and before they had an inkling they would get back on boats again on December 20 to sail toward Vicksburg. They were to spend most of December in Memphis.

A boat probably similar to one Erasmus rode December Memphis

A transport boat probably similar to the one Erasmus rode on. Matthew Brady photo of The Lookout on the Tennessee River . From the National Archives.

Along the way, as they marched back up the Kanawha Valley to the Ohio River, and traveled by boat down the Mississippi, they saw reminders of previous battles, for as Cpl. Theodore Wolbach tells us in “Camp and Field”,

From the beginning of the war, Ohio soldiers had operated in West Virginia.  The historian tints the face of war with glory, but the soldier sees the ghastiliness of the background where his comrades sleep in the mysterious shadows.

This particular letter interests me as much for what it does not say as for what it does. A large portion of the letter shows that E’s mind is back on the farm. He opens with an evaluation of the land of Tennessee.

The people are busy here gathering in their cotton.  The weather is always nice and warm here only when it is storming and it is a nice beautiful country and I think a good country for a poor man to live in, niggers and all.  A good cotton picker can make ten dollars a day.  A man can get a dollar a cord for cutting wood and boarded and a man can get from 2 to 3 dollars and board for all kinds of work.

The pay, overdue by 4 months, finally arrived while the men were on the river, according to Wolbach, and that has led to all kinds of trouble with illegal purchases leading to inebriation leading to arrests and to desertions.  But it also means the men have been able to buy things they have been deprived of and peddlars did a good business in guns, boots and even counterfeit Southern money when the army stopped briefly at Cincinnati. Now they are in Memphis, everything is for sale–but expensive, as Erasmus notes in his discussion of sweet potatoes.

sweet potatoes

Everything we can buy is 3 prices except sweet potatoes which we think cheap at $1.00 a bushel.  They are so big and good. I want you to save some seed if you can and if I don’t get home in time you can put them to sprout for I want to have some if I am at home next fall.

E. is longing to know about the farm, rather than talk about his experiences in the army. Between the lines, he is surely saying “Do you miss me? Am I needed on the farm?”

I want you to write and tell me all about everything, tell me how you get along for wood.  If you had a wood machine and whose you had and how they sawed and where they got it and how you are getting along with your corn and how the sheep is getting along.  It will pay you to shear sheep next spring, but the pasture was all burnt up so I don’t expect they will do very well this winter.

When he does talk about his present experience, he doesn’t tell us anything about the 12-day trip on the rivers.  That surprises me, since one would think such an observant fellow would have found a lot of new things to see.  If you want to learn some of the intresting sights and experiences, you’ll have to read Wolbach’s “Camp and Field” pages 46 to 49.  As for Erasmus, he didn’t like the experience, but doesn’t seem to be doing a sightseeing around Memphis, either.

December in Memphis-pre war

Memphis before the Civil War. By Boyd Jones on Flickr.

There is a good deal of sickness in the regiment now, and I will not tell you about them you don’t know.  We were kept huddled up on the boat too long for the good of men.  Only think of 4 or 5 hundred men all on one little boat, all cooking on one bit of a box stove and you may have some idea of the confusion there is in such a place.  Then another thing is eating trash that they are not used to and it takes but little hurt them then.

Wolbach has an interesting story about “eating trash”.

..peddlars selling Washington pie–soft sweet filling like gingerbread, “was popular with the boys until it was discovered that the refuse being carried away from camp by the slop-gatherers contributed to the making of the pie.” 

Erasmus didn’t know about that, or didn’t care to mention it, now that he is back on land, He even gets a bit humorous.

We have the best times here we have seen yet.  We draw good bread and part of the time fresh beef which goes mighty good and most of the times warm [weather] which makes us feel as good as snakes in a spring sunny day… We are having good times here now for if a soldier ever had good times it is when he is laying camp, for it is not while marching, that is sure.

Erasmus mentions people whom Suzi knows, and I am trying to track down if they are neighbors or relatives (any help gratefully accepted).  In this letter, he mentions “Jake”–last name illegible “has had his trial but has not his sentence yet.” Although the name on the written copy of the letter does not look like Korn, there is a Jacob Korn in the company that was released on habeus corpus in December 1962.

E. also mentions that John has sent a letter to Julia, and he once again mentions E. [Ephraim] Cellars who has come to his regiment.

And, typically for Erasmus, he is thinking about how the war is going and when it will end.  He tells Suzi not to bother with sending newspapers–but he does not mention, as Wolbach does that there are newspapers peddled on the streets of Memphis which the soldiers avidly read.

It is hard to tell when this war will end but I think if we can’t whip them between this and spring, I think England and France would be perfectly justified in putting a stop to this wholesale butchery….[and later he adds]I don’t know how long we will have to stay but the boys all think it will be over by next summer. I know they all want it over…Hoping the time will not be long till I can return to them I hold dearer than my own life.

E. Anderson

See Letter #4: November in Charleston.

And Letter #6: Civil War Wounded

Notes: I apologize if you are upset by Erasmus’ language, but it is the language that he used and I think it is important to be true to his own expression, and the times he lived in. I do not believe there is any particular malice intended, although I believe it demonstrates that he is not fighting to free the slaves. He is not here as an abolitionist, but as a patriot who does not want the country divided.

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. That site is the source for Cpl. Wolbach’s “Camp and Field” report which was published in the 1880s.
  • where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors.
  • The Matthew Brady photograph of a river transport ship comes from WIkipedia, and I suggest you click on the photo to learn more about it, and restrictions on its reuse. Sweet potatoes and Memphis photos are from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license.


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3 thoughts on “December in Memphis-Erasmus Anderson Letter #5: Laying in Camp

  1. Kerry Dexter

    on reading this, one of the thouhts I had was — it’s really not that long ago, all of it. also had me thinking about what my ancestors were doing at the same time…building their lives back up from the Great Hunger in Donegal and Derry, working in the waters in the Maritimes of Canada… and those are just the ones I know a bit about.

    1. Avatar photoVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      You could write some great family history, Kerry. My Scotch-Irish ancestors got to America long before the Great Hunger–lucky them. And you’re right. All these events are so close, and when we reconstruct the way they lived it makes us feel like we could reach out and touch our great-greats.

      1. Kerry Dexter

        a few of mine were here earlier, as well — one with a rather unusual family surname, so could be true — is said to have walked through Newfound Gap with Daniel Boone’s group in the 1700s. times I have been up to the Gap I have thought of this….

        and about being close to our past — a friend of mine — the one who wrote the song with Killbuck in it that I have told you about — says that one thing she’s learned from history is that that time and circumstances change but people are much the same


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