Dear Friend, letters of a civil war soldier
Writing of what he called ''Mr. Lincoln's Army,'' the Civil War historian Bruce Catton observed: ''The point that is so easy to overlook nowadays, when all of the illusions about war have been abraded to dust, is that those young men went off to war eagerly and with light hearts, coveting the great adventure which they blithely believed lay just ahead. They went to war because they wanted to go, . . . and the obvious fact that in their innocence they did not have the remotest idea what the reality was going to be like does not change the fact. This was the army of the nation's youth.''
These are the letters of one of those youths, Hugh C. Perkins - about 17 years of age when he enlisted in the 7th Wisconsin Regiment in the summer of 1861 - written to his friend Herbert E. Frisbie, back home in Pine River, Wis. They are the particular letters of a particular soldier in a particular war. But almost a century and a quarter after the final battles of the Civil War, Hugh Perkins's words also speak to us.
The Monitor prints excerpts from these unpublished letters on this assumption - that all letters home from war are finally addressed to all of us.
Camp Randall, Wis.
September 8, 1861 Dear Friend,
We have got our guns and two suits of clothes. We got our new uniform last night. It is a nice one. It consists of a gray jacket, a gray pair of pants, and a gray cap, all fixed off with broad cloak. Our guns are a newly revised musket and very handsome.
All I have got to write on is my cartridge box, and that's good enough. . . .
September 29, 1861 Dear Friend,
We left Camp Randall a week ago last Thursday and was just one week on the road. We had an awful old time coming here. At every depot and station on the way the ladies would come out and shake hands with all the soldiers and sometimes kiss them. We was treated first-rate on the way. At every window in every house until we got to Baltimore the women and children were swinging their handkerchiefs and hurrahing.
At Chicago the streets were covered with folks, and we had six men out of every company go ahead to clear the way. We marched through all the principal streets in the city. I never thought that Chicago was such a big place. Every little while there would such sounds go up that it would fairly make us all jump just from spatting hands and stomping of feet. I will never forget that night.
We walked through every city and was cheered by all, but when we got to Baltimore there was quite an opposition. Some of the women would holler ''Hurrah for Abe Lincoln,'' and others at the same time were hollering ''Hurrah for Jeff Davis,'' and they appeared to be very much excited. I seen some prisoners that was just taken and sent to Chicago. You could tell very easy the Secessionists when you met them on the street. They would look awful sour, but they dastent (dare not) say anything. The Secession streets in Baltimore were all dark, while the Union streets was well lit up.
Arlington Heights, Va.
October 14, 1861 Dear Friend,
We have moved across the Potomac, and are now encamped on Arlington Heights, about fourteen miles from Bull Run, where we expect to have another large battle.
My Uncle Hiram visited here yesterday. He said he had been in three or four skirmishes, but expected to have the hardest battle there he ever was in. Hiram thinks we will not have more than one hard battle, and that it will be the largest on record in modern times. He thinks that all who survive that battle will see their houses before spring.
We expect to move further on towards Dixie in a few days. Our men are all anxious for the big fight to come off.
Camp Arlington, Va.
December 7, 1861 Dear Friend,
I hear your school has commenced. I hope you will enjoy yourselves as well as we generally do winters. I wish you all the pleasure imaginable and wish I could help you enjoy it. I don't think this war is going to last many years. It is the opinion of most of the folks that we will be home next Fourth of July. I haven't been homesick yet.
Our camp is situated in a beautiful place. The boys have been ornamenting the streets with cedar trees, and it looks beautiful. They have made an arch of cedars at one end of the street, next to the parade ground, and in the middle hangs the letter ''I,'' designating our company. The Colonel's tent they have ornamented with shells and moss so that everything looks splendid. We are going to be inspected by General (Irvin) McDowell in a few days.
Arlington Heights, Va.
January 9, 1862 Dear friend Herbert,
I have just returned from picketing again. We had a first-rate time, only it was pretty cold. It snowed a little that night for the first time here. It made the night awful noisy; and as one sat listening for Rebels, he could imagine he heard them approaching him every few moments, especially if he was a little scairt. One of the boys ordered a bush to halt, and at the same time fired on it. He shot three times at it.
Oh, Herb, I would like to see you first-rate, and all the rest of the folks in Pine River. I expect to before many months. McClellan says that this war is a-going to be short and sweet.
Camp Arlington, Va.
March 1, 1862 Dear Friend and Schoolmate,
The 22nd of February we went down to the Arlington House. The whole of McDowell's Division was there, and we had quite a celebration, after which McDowell made us a good speech, and ordered us to give three cheers for the Western boys who had been so successful in the late battles in the South and the taking of Ft. Donaldson, Ft. Henry, and other places; which we did. Twelve thousand men can make quite a noise if they are a mind to.
We all met there again yesterday and had some good orders. They were this: that the Division should be held in readyness to march at a minute's warning with knapsacks packed, and three days' rations cooked ready all the time; and the commandants of companies shall see that every rifle is in good shooting order; and that we must have our regular 40 rounds of sharp cartridges.
After the General had read the orders, the Colonel stepped out and said, ''Boys, if them orders exactly suit you, you may cheer,'' and you had better believe we roused him up three times good. The order states that we must pack our knapsacks as light as possible, and that the officers' clothing must be reduced to a common carpet-sackful. The boys seem to be in the best of spirits, and anxious to smell powder.
I am very much obliged for the program of your school. I suppose you have a good time there this winter. I would like to be with you first-rate, but I can't yet. But I think we will be together by the 4th of July if nothing happens. If I had time I would send you a program of my school (called the Military School), and I will sometime before long.
Camp near Fredricksburg, Va.
May 16, 1862 Dear Friend,
I have seen two brisk skirmishes, where we made the Rebels run for their lives.We still remain on the banks of the Rappahannock. We have got a splendid campground on the river bank facing Fredricksburg in a clover field. The clover is up to our knees. Am now right in a little pine grove filled with flowers of all kinds and beautiful singing birds, . . . which makes the woods a delightful resort for the soldiers.We live first-rate, especially I and two tentmates of mine. We had the good luck to buy two or three dozen $5.00 Confederate notes at 5 cents apiece when we left our other camp, and when we came to Fredricksburg they went at par with Secesh merchants. I and Joseph Hurd have passed notes to the amount of $41.00 and taken their checks in return, which are current here at par. You may bet we live top-shelf now. We have been here 8 weeks and I haven't eat a ration yet. We buy everything we eat. We have ham and eggs, fries, cakes, tea, milk, soft bread, maple molasses, preserves, fresh strawberries, ice cream, lemonade, and everything that we want. We want to spend all our checks here as we can't get rid of them out of town.The enemy attacked our pickets again today, but were driven back after losing about 20 horses and men. The bridges are all done as far as here; we will cross today or tomorrow. We expect a great fight.
Camp on the battlefield near Slaughter Mt., Va.
August 17, 1862
We have had long and tiresome marches all over Virginia since I last wrote to you. (Lt. Gen. Thomas J. (Stonewall)) Jackson has been reinforced and is advancing again. He has a strong line of pickets this side of the Rapidan (River).
We are now under (Gen. John) Pope. He is commanding the Army of Virginia. We will soon be engaged with Jackson's army. Now that McClellan has left the James River and they have nothing to fear from that direction, we will have to contend with the entire Secesh Army. The Secesh are down on Gen. Pope. They would hang him in two minutes if they could get him. They have ordered every officer that is taken under him to be treated as a guerrilla and hung.
Oh Herbert, I have been all over the battlefield, and it looks hard to see men buried like a lot of hogs, 12 or 15 together. But I suppose they feel just as well as though they had ever so nice a grave and coffin.
We had nothing to brag of in this fight. If anything I think we got the worst of it, but the boys are willing to try the thing once again. There is the large armies to meet soon. You will probably hear of a fight before long. That will be a fight. We haven't laid round here in Virginia all this time for nothing.
Camp on the battlefield, Md.
September 21, 1862 Dear Friend,
You said you did not know but I had forgot to write. It is not so. I may think of it every day, but it is easier to think of than do when on the march and expecting to meet the enemy every moment.
I have been in six battles. There is only four files in our company now. We have had the lead of this army clear from Fredrick. The Rebs have skedaddled before us. They made a grand stand here on this field for three days. In this battle our four files was not broke. We was in the hottest of the fight and lost not a man.
I was detained to help bury the dead. It was an awful sight. Some were killed so instantly that they never changed their position. Some was sitting up in the very act of loading, with their cartridges in their mouth and gun still in their hands. The Rebs fight like mad men. They will not leave the field until they are badly whipped, and sometimes they don't get a chance to leave then alive.
Herbert, I have seen some hard times and a good deal more than I expected to. My comrades and tentmates have fell on each side of me, and I am still alive and without a scratch. I have had the balls come so close that they made my face smart, but it didn't break the hide. It has got so that it does not excite me any more to be in action than to be in a corn field hoeing, or digging potatoes.
Only think of it, Herbert, of our 98 brave Waushara (County) boys, there is only eight here now fit for duty. There is not many sick at present. We have no stragglers like some companies, but still the men are gone. They have died the soldier's death or have been wounded on the field of battle. We haven't a coward in our company.
Camp on the battlefield of Antietam
September 26, 1862 Dear friend Herbert,
I have been in six very hard and hand-to-hand fights. The first we had was at Gainesville. Our brigade marched up there just at dark and engaged a whole division of Rebs. We fought an hour and 15 minutes, and our brigade lost 750 men.
The next fight we had at Bull Run, where Billy Mitchell got wounded. The next at South Mountain and two between there and here. We had the post of honor given to us at Bull Run by Gen. McClellan and have kept it ever since. We were the last to leave the field at Bull Run and have commenced every battle since then. Gen. McClellan calls us the Iron Brigade. By gaining this name, we have lost from the brigade seventeen hundred and fifty men. We have never turned our backs to the enemy in any engagement, although they have outnumbered us every fight we have had.
At the battle of South Mt. we was ordered to support a battery. We done so, and repulsed the Rebs 4 times. As they was approaching the fourth time, we got pretty near out of cartridges. At that Gen. (Abner) Doubleday came up to our Brigadier Gen. and told him in a great excitement that his brigade was out of cartridges and the battle would be taken men and all. Our little general heard his story clear through and then turned to him and said, ''Don't you be alarmed about my brigade. They have got a few cartridges, I guess, and when them are gone they will hold it if they have to do it by the point of the bayonet.'' And we did hold it.
Herbert, you spoke about me forgetting an old friend. That can never be so long as I live, but we have been under fire for 28 days at a time and had to keep our cartridge boxes on all the time. So we didn't get much chance to write. I think I will have a chance to do better.
Camp Arlington, Va.
November 22, 1862 Dear Friend,
You said you had some thoughts of enlisting. Now I will tell you one thing. I would not advise you to enlist, for I don't know how you might like a soldier's life. But Herb, if I had not enlisted I would the first chance I could get. Others may say what they please. I like the life first-rate. If a man wants to see the world, here is the place for him. I have seen more since I enlisted than I ever expected to see in my life.
We had a grand review day before yesterday. There were one hundred and eighteen regiments there. All the head officers, McClellan and McDowell and lots of others, besides the President of the United States, Abe Lincoln, and Governor Randall of Wisconsin. Of all the cheering you ever heard, there was the best of it. They took one Secesh that day, watching our movements.
We have just received news that 1,500 (Rebels) have arrived at Alexandria and delivered their arms and offered to turn and fight for the Union. But it may not be, so we will know by tomorrow whether it is or not.
From your friend,
Hugh C. Perkins
Tomorrow: Letters from 1864-65
These letters were compiled and edited by Marilyn Gardner, editor of the Monitor's Living page. She is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Frisbie, to whom the letters were written.