Letters From American Civil War Soldiers

by Daniel Russ on February 5, 2011

Civil War Soldiers Pose For Photo

The Union Army had a post office near forts and camps, and a mail service that followed the armies for the men could purchase stamps and mail their letters. Later in the war, organizations such as the U.S. Christian Commission and U.S. Sanitary Commission gave out paper and envelopes to Union soldiers free of charge. In 1864, the U.S. Mail Service announced that Union soldiers could send their letters home for free as long as they wrote “Soldier’s Letter” on the outside of the envelope. Confederate soldiers never had such a luxury. Shortages of paper, stamps, and even writing utensils in the South became acute as the war progressed and it was often left up to the soldiers to find writing paper, including stationary taken from Union prisoners.

Almost every soldier in service made an effort to write letters home to describe their experiences, give their opinions on local matters and politics, and to assure their families not to worry. But not all soldiers could write very well or spell words properly. Rural education in America was not like it is today and most Civil War soldiers only had an education up to the fourth grade level. Many young men from rural areas had never attended school and could neither read nor write so they asked comrades to write letters for them. Poor education led to many words being mispelled or sentences left incomplete. Soldiers sometimes spelled words as they heard them- “raison” for reason, “horspitle” for hospital, “rafel” for rifle. Here is a portion of a letter written by Francis Russell, a Union soldier from the 140th Pennsylvania Infantry, with some of these misspellings:

Washington City, D. C.
Sunday, Dec. 14th 1862

Dear Mother and family.
I will take the pensil to let you know we are all well. At present hoping this will find you in the same. we let White Hall Station on Thursday about 4 Clock in the afternoon and got into Washington about 4 oclock in the morning on Friday whitch maid about 12 hours on the way, we then stay ther untill yesterday when we had orders to march about 6.5 miles and when I heard this I went to the head doctor ast him what I would do for I know that I could not carry my knapsack, so he told me that I would have to stay hear and so all them that could not stand the march was sent to the hospitle. Ther was 10 out of our Companny and that was myself and a nother young man, we did not hear the name of the place that they wer going to, but both James and Bob said that they would wright as soon as they wer sitteled that is they would wright home to you, ther is abut 50 sick and wounded in the department that I am in, I think that I will not be in hear very long, for I will try and get eather home or get to my Regiment for I don’t like this very well, it is not because I am not treated well for it is six times better than I expected but I canot be contented a way from my companny, my arm is about the same, I wright this mearley to let you know something about myselve for I canot say anything about the others now but I will have to stope so no more at present but reman your son and Brother.

Francis M. Russell

Address your letter to Stanton Hosepittle, Washington City. C.C.
I wish you would send me some postige stamps as we have not got paid yet, my money has run ashore and I want to wright some and so on.

Yours, F. M. R.

Source: http://www.nps.gov/archive/gett/gettkidz/letters.htm

Sometimes soldiers described battles, but more often they wrote about their daily existence and desire to be at home. Confederate soldier John Sweet of the 9th Tennessee Infantry wrote home to his parents in November 1863 from siege lines overlooking Union troops at Chattanooga, Tennessee:

We have just returned from a trip into East Tenn where we got big amounts of everything to eat and everything we eat is so good to me as I had been starved out so long on some bread & beef, all that we got while we were here besieging Chattanooga. up there we got sweet and Irish potatoes, chickens, molassas, wheat bread and everything that was good for a poor soldier. Oh, how I do wish that I could be at home now, for it is getting late in the evening and I have had nothing to eat since breakfast and no telling when we will get rations for our rations are out, since we left our ration wagons behind in coming here to this place, for I know you have all had a good & plentiful dinner. I know you will say poor John, but this is only a chapter in military service which we often read, but I am content and will be more so when we get rations. The independence of the bounty is what I want and I am I am willing to suffer for something to eat many, many days if it will only send me to my dear parents, a full and independent boy.
The enemy still holds their position in Chattanooga and our lines drawn up close around the place. We are now on the top of Lookout Mountain overlooking the town. We have a fine view of our entire line and also of theirs. It is said that we can see into five different states from our position. It is very cold up here, as cold as it is where you are in mid-winter. You must excuse this exceedingly bad letter as I have written in great haste. My love to you and all. Write when you can and a long letter as I am very anxious to hear from you.

John H. Sweet

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