Tag Archives: Union

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.
  • Ancestry.com 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.


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.