The Army of the Mississippi, February 17, 1863
Grant’s Army, including the 16th O.V.I. has made camp, since E’s last Civil War letter, moving down river from Arkansas Post. On January 20, they camp at Young’s Point, Louisiana, about three miles above Vicksburg.
It is hard to fault Erasmus for being discouraged. This “Long Encampment”, which is to last 45 days, straggles along the river on levees and ground made deep with mud from nearly constant rain. The weather has turned cold. The only escape from camp is working at digging muck to build “Grant’s Canal”, or occasional forays dreamed up by General Grant to find a “back door” to Vicksburg. Sporadic bombardment from the Confederates roar across the river with their noisy “Whistling Dick” . Replies from the heavy Parrott guns mounted on flat boats. their firing lighting up the night sky. Add to the smell of smoke, sweat and mildew, the stink of the hundreds of mules used to transport things up and down the slopes, most dying from the effort.
In this Civil War letter, addressed to “Dear Wife,” Erasmus alternates his thoughts of home with political rants and doubts about the decisions being made regarding the war.
Although Erasmus has just received four letters from home, he has a political conspiracy theory about the mail, and makes it know that The Emancipation Proclamation, that went into force on January 1, 1863, is not universally approved.
This sentiment points back to the 150-year-old argument about the purpose of the Civil War. Erasmus has consistently spoken in favor of keeping the Union together, but he does not believe he is fighting to free the slaves. In fact, his language and attitude reflects a strong prejudice against blacks (and liberal use of the “n” word).
As for “Republican postmasters” it is true that postmasters were eagerly sought political appointments. While I doubt that postmasters would actually hold back mail, no doubt the Postal Service was censoring mail, but mostly from the Union to the Confederate states. The more pertinent question here, I think, is how did Erasmus get away with his attacks on the government and the army if someone was censoring him?
On January 29th, Grant arrived to personally get the troops ready for the assault on Vicksburg. See Grant’s thinking on the preparations for taking Vicksburg.
Erasmus is not impressed with the idea of digging a canal.
Erasmus is thoroughly sick of seeing illness and death, although he never complains about personally being affected. He must have had that Iron constitution, when he says “I don’t know how long we will stay here but not long I hope for a constitution of steel could not stand this long.”
Wolbach’s account agrees about the health of the men.
The sick list of many regiments grew alarmingly, and the death rate was a matter of seriousness…The number of deaths in the 16th was small compared to the number under medical treatment.
As usual, Wolbach, twenty years after the fact, has a somewhat more sanguine view of affairs than Erasmus. He points out that those lower down the slope plus the work crews have beautiful views of Vicksburg. And he says:
“It is curious that amid circumstances that look dismal when viewed in retrospection, the majority felt little concern and even enjoyed themselves.”
Some “boys” even built boats out of scrap material and caught fish in the river. However he also mentions desertions and an attempted suicide.
Both Wolbach and Erasmus refer to Cpl. Thomas Phillips of Co. B, who disappeared on January 12 while they were still on the White River in Arkansas. Wolbach says that he went west and became a hunter and trapper. Erasmus says, at the end of his letter:
Erasmus is convinced that the Union is losing the war, and thinks they might as well just give the South their independence and get it over with. As in the last letter, he is still tempted by dissertion, but ever logical, he weighs the pros and cons.
While Wolbach, in Camp and Field refers to the back-breaking work of the “contraband”, the term used for escaped slaves, Erasmus, predictably, sees them differently.
The second half of his letter turns to affairs at home. He has learned of the death of Ephraim Cellars since his last letter, and he sympathizes with the family, particularly since Ephraim was the only son in a family of daughters. This death only compounds his despondency. Further illustrating his attitude toward the war and blacks, Erasmus says
The Union soldiers still have not been paid–going on seven months now–and nevertheless suttlers are charging extortionate prices–30¢ a pound for cheese; 30¢ for dried apples; boots from $6 to $20; and a can of peaches for $1.50.
After saying, as he as before, “I want you to get along the best you can,” and he is hoping for peace and that he can get home to his family,” he ends his letter abruptly.
Oh, it is so sad to hear him yearn for peaches, and so eerie for him to end this dark letter with this brief farewell.
See the prior letter, #7, Civil War Deserters, is here.
The following letter, #9, In the Dark Woods of the Mississippi, is here.
Notes: Besides the transcriptions of his Civil War letters which I use with the permission of a descendant of Erasmus’ widow and her second husband, sources 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.
- Ancestry.com where I find birth, census death, military and other records of my ancestors and the people that Erasmus mentions.
- All photos and the maps in today’s post come from the Michael K Wood site devoted to 16th OVI, and the photos are linked to that site.
- Other websites are linked in the body of the letter