This letter was written by Benjamin (“Ben”) Curtis Lincoln (1840-1865) to his wife, Isadora (Whitman) Lincoln. Lincoln first served in Co. G, 39th Massachusetts Volunteers but later was commissioned as officer in the 2nd United States Colored Troops (USCT). Lincoln died at Key West on March 9th, 1865, of wounds sustained at the Battle of Natural Bridge three days previously. He was cited posthumously for “gallant and distinguished conduct” for his part in the Battles of Cedar Keys and Natural Bridge on February 9th and March 5th and 6th, and was recommended for brevets to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel. Dora’s fate is unknown, though in the early summer, she was once more living at home.
Recruiting, enlistment and training for the 2nd U.S.C.T. took place at Camp Casey, Va., in September and early October, 1863. Initially, Lincoln’s command was marked equally by an encouragement to religious worship and a desire to refine the soldiers’ Christianity, and by stern discipline. As might be expected from such a devout individual, Lincoln was deeply concerned for the spiritual and intellectual condition of his soldiers as well as their military preparedness, and at one he point he considered making the commitment to assisting African Americans his life’s work, suggesting to Dora that after the war, the two of them might lend a hand in the monumental task of helping to educate freedmen. The immediate task of training raw recruits was difficult enough, however, and was made more difficult by the hostility of white soldiers. On September 1st, 1863, a near riot erupted when a drunken white soldier came into camp and fought with one of the recruits in Lincoln’s command. Lincoln attempted to quell the disturbance by ordering the black soldier handcuffed and confined, and the near mutiny among his troops that followed was averted only by the force of Ben’s personality.
Lincoln’s friend, Charlie Brown followed Lincoln into a colored regiment, receiving a commission in the 7th U.S.C.T. in October, 1863, a regiment composed largely of former slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Both the 2nd and 7th U.S.C.T. would serve in Florida, though at opposite ends of the state, and throughout the remainder of their enlistments, Brown and Lincoln continued to share their experiences and became very close. The intensity of their relationship led Brown to write to Lincoln, “I love you Ben & my wife does also. I could write a love letter but I will not bore you” (ca. 1863 October or early November). The 7th became one of the most active colored regiments in the army, seeing action at the Battle of Olustee, in several small engagements near Jacksonville, Fla., at John’s Island and near Charleston, S.C., and in a series of engagements in Virginia, beginning with the Battle of New Market Heights.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1863, the 2nd U.S.C.T. received orders to move south, and Lincoln and Dora arranged a meeting in New York City while the regiment was awaiting a ship to take them to Ship Island, near New Orleans. In a hurried ceremony, the couple was married by Rev. Thompson on November 24th, and within a few days, Lincoln was on his way, with a lengthy separation from his new wife in store. In February, 1864, Lincoln’s regiment received orders to report to Key West, and in May, they had their first brush with enemy forces during a brief expedition to Tampa. Upon their return from the expedition, during which they sustained few casualties, the regiment was afflicted with an intense epidemic of yellow fever with a startling mortality rate. Lincoln himself fell ill, and while he survived, disease claimed the regiment’s colonel, a captain (Captain Reinhardt), and an unspecified number of enlisted men. After his recovery, Lincoln was promoted to major, possibly to fill a vacancy left by the epidemic.
Key West, Florida
December 5, 1864
My own little Wife,
I am somewhat dull tonight but I am about to commence a letter to you and that may make me feel better. Yesterday morning I did not attend church as I was busy making some arrangements about the fort but I attended Sabbath School in the afternoon. Had seventy-five scholars—a good number we thought. I had eighteen in my own class and I managed to interest them all, and I guess they had a good idea of the lesson I taught.
Sunday morning, Admiral [David Glasgow] Farragut came into the harbor in his flagship, the Hartford. The navy fired a salute in the morning which he returned and about noon we also fired a salute of 13 guns from the fort. About dress parade time he came down to the fort with Admiral Stubling and Gen. [John] Newton ¹ and I had a good look at him. He is a small man—pleasant looking and quite energetic-looking. I was glad I had a chance to see him. He left the harbor this morning and returned our salute as he passed out.
General Newton has returned from the mainland and I believe has decided to change the location of the troops, but what his real intentions are, I cannot yet say. He is now going to New Orleans and I think likely he may go for more troops and really commence action operations in Florida on his return. I think I should like this very much though I don’t know as our regiment would be sent away. This is mere conjecture on my part. I have been in hopes that I might have a command somewhere and perhaps I may yet. You must not give up the idea of coming on to me tho’ I must confess I don’t possibly see how you can come until after we are paid off. It seems as though we were never to see the paymaster again. However, I think before this month is out, he will make his appearance.
I wish my little wife was here now although sometimes I think on many accounts and for some reasons you are better off at home. For instance, you cannot be half as comfortable here, won’t have the living you do now, will have to pay double what you now do, and then it will cost you a good deal to come and return. However, we should be much happier together—-that I am certain of—and could enjoy more real pleasure in one month here than in a year separated from each other. Sometimes, my darling, I get so tired I don’t know what to do without you to comfort me. About all I then can do is to read your letters. I shall be glad when this court martial business is completed and I can attend to my proper duties. Now—after my return from the court—I am [still] obliged to look around the fort and see that it is properly cleaned up and this takes some time.
Tonight, my Dora, I have been playing chess with G. M. and Mrs. French. Therefore, I am tired now and so cannot write you such a loving letter as I ought. I wish my Dora, I could take you a little while in my arms this evening and that we could have a cozy time for an hour or two, but it is not any use to wish—that don’t bring you to me.
I think sometimes, my Dora, that you must be often disappointed in my letters—there is so little of interesting matter contained in them. But little one, I suppose that poor letters are better than none and therefore I write you. This morning I received a letter from Alfred but it was written some time ago and evidently mislaid somehow. As a large steamer came in last evening, I am somewhat in hopes that we may receive another mail this morning which would please me well. I wish I was so situated that I could hear from you everyday but if wishes would do me any good, I should soon have my little wife here.
I believe I waste and idle away a great deal of time. I don’t get up early mornings, and afternoon after I return from court I don’t improve my time as I ought—most always play chess when I might be studying something or other. But I am about to mend my ways and hereafter get up at sunrise. Then I shall have two or three hours of leisure in the morning
I leave the fort about half past eight and don’t return until about three—generally a little later—so that it is nearly four o’clock before I eat my dinner, or rather, before I finish it. Then all I have left is but an hour and the better part of that is taken up by inspecting the condition and cleanliness of the fort. The evenings now are quite long and then I most always play chess. You see I can beat any of my brother officers at this game and therefore I suppose I like it the better. You know we often take the book (Stanton’s Handbook of Chess) and play a game in that. Perhaps the book with say at the end of the game, black surrenders or resigns. Well I generally can take the men at that stage and instead of giving up the game, can beat my opponent which is doing pretty well. I think you would like the game and I’ll teach you if you will only come on here with the greatest pleasure. Isn’t that an inducement, little wife?
I am always glad to learn what you busy yourself about from day to day because I am interested in everything you do. How happy we shall be, my darling, when we live together and I hope this may not be delayed much longer. I think if you should come on here, [you] could make yourself very comfortable and would enjoy very much. I am inclined to think before many days we shall be together. Everything comes around alright if we wait patiently as our last two years proves. We thought we never should be able to get married but we did. Then we thought I should never get a leave of absence, which I also got. So I have no doubt you may by & bye come to me.
I must close now, my little wife, as it is time for me to get ready for the court. Goodbye. God bless you. From your own, — Bennie
December 7th 1864
My own Dora,
I wrote you a short letter this morning but I was then in hopes I should receive a letter from you by this afternoon. but upon my return from court, I find only one letter and that from Miss Halliday. I am disappointed because I expected at least one letter from you, or at least a note from Alfred stating whether he had started or not for this place.
I have learned today that the case of Major Weeks ² is the only one to come before our court and so we may get through by another fortnight. I shall be well pleased if we do and I think I must study upon the tactics in case I should be ordered to Cedar Keys. I should need to be thorough on them. One soon forgets little points of drill if he does not drill regularly. Yesterday one of the court asked to be excused from further sitting on the court. He had written a letter—or portion of one—and in it expressed an opinion in regard to the case. By some means or other the defense got hold of the letter and consequently Capt. Jarrett to decline sitting longer in the case. The letter was written to his mother. We have commenced on the defense now and I think by a week or so may get all the evidence in. Perhaps before that time, you may be here, who knows?
I suppose, little wife, you are occasionally low-spirited even now and in fact I don’t believe you will get over that habit until I come home for good. I am sure you did not have any dull hours when I was at home and only cried once or twice when I played cards—Foolish little one. However, when you come to me, I intend to teach you all the games of cards I know of and you’ll soon like them. That is, they serve sometimes to pass time away. There is no end to the happy times we’ll have when we get together, my Dora. How soon that may be, I don’t know but we’ll hope on until it does come. Perhaps by another year this war may be over and I be enabled to come home for good.
You must try and write me often and no matter if you do feel sad. Write a letter as you feel because I want to know how my little wife feels so that I may write her good loving letters in reply. I believe you can’t complain that I don’t tell you of my doings and whereabouts. Give my love to Ella and Grandma and remember me to Mrs. Gibson & Lena—Emma also.
Your loving husband, — Benjamin
¹ General John Newton was in command of the District of Key West and Tortugas late in the Civil War. Establishing himself in this post, he was checked by Confederate forces at Natural Bridge in March 1865. Remaining in command for the rest of the war, Newton then held a series of administrative posts in Florida into 1866. Leaving the volunteer service in January 1866, he accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Engineers.
² Major Edmund Cottle Weeks, a naval officer, was placed in command of a regiment of U.S. volunteer cavalry for service in Florida in the summer of 1864. A delay in his commissioning, however, “allowed for a period of dissent to arise in the regiment. The resulting problems culminated in a court martial for Weeks, who was charged with murdering a soldier under his command while encamped at Cedar Key. Even though the court martial brought to light charges of drunkenness against Weeks [the trial lasted 53 days],he was eventually exonerated. The murder charge followed him for the rest of his days in Florida. His cavalry unit, the 2nd Florida Cavalry, was brigaded with the Second Infantry Regt USCT during the events surrounding the Battle of Natural Bridge, which occurred south of Tallahassee in March 1865. This combined force attempted to take the bridge at Newport but was repulsed, which necessitated the movement to the “natural” bridge further upstream on the St. Mark’s River. The battle ended in a Confederate victory that ultimately prevented Union troops from capturing Tallahassee during the war.” [Florida Memory Blog, posted 10 March 2014]