Tag Archives: letters

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. 

Erasmus Letter #2–“In a bad humor” at Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison Old Guard House as it looks today. Photo by William J. Bechmann III, Cincinnati, OH

Nothing more but am truly yours until death. E. Anderson  

As we read through the letters from Erasmus, we learn about his personality. The man reflected in these letters is not much given to sentimentality. The only feelings he freely expresses, it seems, are negative ones.  So although I’m telling you about this letter on Valentine’s Day, and he is writing to his wife, Suzi, do not expect a love letter.

In his first letter, which started, “Dear Suzi”,  the closest he comes to warmth is

“Don’t be uneasy about me and try and take care of yourself and them two little boys till I can get back to help you.”

In letter two, we find that the new recruits have left the cushy life in Washington Park in Cincinnati and are in Camp Dennison, just north of Cincinnati at a place called New Germany.

Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison, Cincinnati, as pictured in Harper’s Weekly

It is October 7, 1862 when he starts his letter with sarcasm.

Well old lady in rather a bad humor.  I set down to send you my thanks for not writing.  I have looked strong for a letter every day but every day as the mailman come I was disappointed which made no more sure of getting one the next day but when the usual old disappointment come today I felt too wrathy to hold in any longer.

Well! That is quite a scolding for Suzi. Then he starts issuing orders.  Perhaps this man in his thirties, who has been his own boss on his own farm is beginning to chafe at having to follow orders all day. Particularly, since he does not appear to be the sort who would not question things, It only takes one cent to mail him a newspaper,he says, so he wants her to send them. He has heard some local boys have been drafted and wants to know who. He doesn’t want  the Pittsburgh paper, he specifies,–

 It is only our county paper I care anything about.  I think when you can you had better mail your letters in Millersburg, for I believe they mostly lay in Oxford [former name of Killbuck] three or four days.

Through with micromanaging for the moment, he goes back to complaining. He has only had two letters from his wife and Albert has none for a long time. He also mentions in this letter that Albert has been sick with mumps and fever but is getting better. (We will hear more about Albert, who Erasmus says now wants to be furloughed.)

You must bear in mind I have more letters to write than you have. Besides I have some to write for other fellows that can’t write and I can’t help it.

Ahh, that reminds us that many of the Civil War soldiers were illiterate, and Erasmus ability to read and write give him some extra chores, if not respect.

Civil War Regimental Flag

Civil War 16th OVI Regimental Flag

Turning to his immediate surroundings, he says they are looking for the 16th O.V.I. to march in soon.  This is the contingent that enlisted at the beginning of the war, which includes men from Holmes County–many that he knows.

They have made one of the most toilsome and hazardous marches ever made during the war and who is well and who is with them is more than I can tell but when I see them I expect to see a poor lot of ragged dirty worn down soldiers.  Poor fellows they have seen hard service by marching if not by fighting and now they are just where they started one year ago.

From a website that carries a wealth of information about the 16th O.V.I., Erasmus’ expectations are confirmed.

I would like to pause here and introduce a source I will be using as we continue to read E’s letters.  In 1881 and 1882, the Holmes County Republican published a series of dispatches called “Camp and Field”. They were written 20 years after the war by Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach of Company E (the company that Erasmus joined), and cover the troops official and unofficial activities from the beginning in 1861 until they were mustered out in 1864. 

Wolbach’s description of the 16th’s fight and retreat from the Cumberland Gap back north across the Ohio River shows what a grueling journey it was. The troops marched on 1/4 rations and left behind anything that might slow them down. “earth our bed and sky our covering. Lice, of which we had an abundance…”  In August  nearly all of his company ( a company started out at about 100 men) had been captured by the rebels, but after a couple of weeks they were released and escorted back to their lines.

They were constantly harried by the Southern forces. Sometimes the sick were left behind to be taken prisoner rather than endure torture by jolting rides over rough roads. On September 18, the order came to retreat north. But no sooner had they crossed the Ohio, and caught their breath, than they were on their way back to the Kanawha Valley in Kentucky for more fighting. In his next letter, we learn that Erasmus and the new recruits marched five days  down to meet the “old 16” rather than seeing them in Camp Dennison as he was expecting. The military grapevine is active, but not always accurate.

Surprisingly, Erasmus tells his wife not to send food, because they have all they need and “we know how to enjoy it.”  In fact he and Jim and John McCluggage and John Jordan” went out in the country and got half bushel of apples… for 25¢.”  The McCluggage boys, from Holmes County, later transferred from the 16th to the 114th regiment.  John Jordan died in the regimental hospital in Vicksburg the following May.

See Letter One: Cheerful Beginnings

See letter Three HERE

Civil War Letters From E: Cheerful Beginnings

Cincinnati park

Foundation Stone, Washington Park, Cincinnati Ohio

” Dear Suzi, We came here last night and are lying around in what is called Washington Park. It is a beatuiful place in the middle of the city with a nice fountain in the center full of fish and nice flowers, shrubs and trees, lots of pet squirrels playing around”

Erasmus Anderson enlisted in the Union Army in August 1862 and mustered into the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) at Wooster Ohio. It was a year after the first great recruitment efforts with public rallies and speeches, but the war was not ending as quickly as the Generals had thought, so a second push was made for volunteers.  Since Erasmus was 32 years old and had a wife and small child, he does not seem a likely recruit, but his first Civil War letters to his wife Suzanne, shows his enthusiasm for the task ahead.

Erasmus and other men from Holmes County were assigned to Company E. From Wooster the troops went to Columbus, Ohio, and then to Cincinnati where they would be trained at Camp Dennison. Erasmus didn’t think much of Ohio’s capitol city.

…but oh this is not Columbus.  God curse that hell hole.  They would not even board us and when they came to see us it was to cut the money out of our boys pockets while asleep or sell them provisions at an awful high rate, anyway at all to get our money.

Cincinnati was a different  story, he explains, because the residents were afraid of invasion because of their important position along the Ohio River and at the center of railroad transportation, and were therefore welcoming to the soldiers. He continues his description of Washington Park. (Note: a ‘nigger head’ is apparently a large water container.)

…for spring water we have a beastly big nigger head with holes bored in it and corks to draw water out, while little girls and boys and babies are playing around us and kind hearted women are sewing our clothes and gives us good things to eat.

Washington park, that he describes here, had been constructed just one year before in the area known as Over-the-Rhine.  You can still visit Washington Park, now refurbished for a modern age.  Erasmus is pretty happy hanging out with his buddies at Washington Park. As he does in many of his letters, he mentions food.

Here the women and children are coming and filling our canteens with good coffee and giving all that is good to eat.  I could willingly die for such people; while we draw our regular rations at the market house.

I italicized a phrase that makes me sad every time I read it, since I know that Erasmus did indeed die for these–and other people.   But in September, he is just beginning the adventure, and fortunately, he cannot see ahead.

The boys are all well and in the best of heart and would willingly fight if they only knowed how but we would be of little service as we are not drilled as much as we might be or would like to be.  I like it first rate and hope we will soon get through to the gap for I am uneasy about them boys there.

“the gap” that he mentions is the Cumberland Gap. From October to November 1862, the OVI 16th was assigned to the 4th Brigade, Cumberland Gap Division.  So while, the soldiers frequently had no idea of the larger picture they were involved in, Erasmus apparently knew that he would be going through “the gap.”

I don’t believe we will attempt to go through until the way is open as we have drawn no arms and I don’t think we will till we get to the gap.

Erasmus signed his letters “E”.

We’ll hear more in subsequent letters about the problem with not having enough weapons to go around. On next Tuesday, I will be speculating about what food those kind women were serving the soldiers.  And next Friday, excerpts from Erasmus’ second letter, which he wrote in October, from Camp Dennison, the training camp, just north of Cincinnati.

If you would like to follow along with Erasmus and ensure that you do not miss his letters, be sure to subscribe to the weekly E-mail from Ancestors in Aprons. Just click here.

See Letter 2 HERE.

Notes:  This series of Erasmus Anderson’s Civil War letters is definitely a group project. First I must thank the owner of the letters, who kindly sent me the transcript of the letters, and allowed me to learn about Erasmus.  Second, my brother and sister know far more about the Civil War than I do, and they are helping me with the background information on Erasmus the soldier.

Besides the Civil War letters, sources here include

  • The Cincinnati Parks Department website
  • 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.
  • Picture from Flickr.com with Creative Commons license. See more by clicking on the photo.