1862-63: Swain H. Nelson to Brother

These two letters were written by Pvt. Swain H. Nelson (1837-1863) of Co. A, 46th Indiana Volunteers. Swain was born in Ulvik, Norway. Before his enlistment, Swain Nelson was employed as a carpenter and resided in Lafayette, Indiana. He had hazel eyes, light hair, a light complexion light, and stood 5’9½” tall. He enlisted for the duration of the war on 5 Oct 1861 at Delphi, Indiana, and was mustered at Logansport on 1 November. He entered the service as a Private, and was promoted to Corporal 31 Dec 1861. Nelson was injured by the “accidental discharge of a gun” in December 1861. He was sick at Memphis beginning 15 Jun 1862 and sent to hospital from Helena, Arkansas, 2 Aug 1862. He was promoted to Sergeant on 20 Oct 1862. He died 23 May 1863 of wounds received in action in the battle of Champion Hills, Mississippi, on 16 May 1863.

Sources: (Copies of military records, four letters written by soldier, photo; all held by Larry Nelson, Glenview, Illinois)

The 46th Indiana regiment was organized at Logansport in Sept., 1861, and was mustered in Dec. 11. It left the state at once, going to Camp Wickliffe, Ky., and marched for Paducah on Feb. 16, 1862, joining Pope’s army soon afterward in Missouri. It was in the attack on New Madrid in March, put up a battery at Riddle’s point and sustained an attack by five gunboats for over an hour without being dislodged. In April it started for Fort Pillow, but lay near Osceola for five weeks while attempting to pass the fort. On June 5 the flags of the 46th and 43d were raised over Fort Pillow and they occupied Memphis the next day. The 46th went up the White river with the gunboats, charged the works at St. Charles and drove out the enemy, capturing his guns and a number of prisoners. It accompanied a force to Crockett’s bluff, marching across the country and driving back the enemy, then returned to Helena, where it was assigned to Gen. Hovey’s division, with which it participated in expeditions to Clarendon, Arkansas Post, and down the Tallahatchie and Cold Water rivers. In Jan., 1863, it went to Devall’s Bluff, captured several cannon, and in February assisted in clearing the Yazoo pass of obstructions. It was in the Yazoo river expedition, participating at Fort Pemberton, and moved for Milliken’s bend with McGinnis’ brigade of Hovey’s division, 13th army corps. It was in the principal part of the engagement at Port Gibson and in the advance brigade at Champion’s Hill, suffering a loss of one-fourth its numbers engaged.

Artist’s rendering of the Battle of Champion’s Hill where Sgt. Nelson received a mortal wound.


Near Fort Wright, Arkansas
April 28, 1862

Dear Brother,

It is now some time since I last wrote to you and having leisure time today, I thought to let you know I was still in the land of life—but not in a land of liberty—far from it, for the  soldier is worse than slaves or at least treated so by our superior officers. An individual whom have not been in the service have not the slightest idea of the tyranny shown to the private. But I think I can worry through if any of them can.

We are some 75 miles down the Mississippi from the place where I last wrote to you. We have been some 2 weeks at this point. We were shipped here with the object of taking this fort. About 35 thousand troops were shipped in one fleet but finding that the troops were needed worse at Corinth, they were all sent there but the 46th & 43rd Indiana Regiments, the one left to help sustain the gunboat fleet–or the Mortar Fleet rather. They have to place the mortars near the shore so as to go on land when they fire them for the shock is so great that they can’t stay on board. They have been firing steady but slow since they commenced—about the same as at [Island] No. 10, only 5 shots every 4 hours. They are shelling them at the distance of 4 miles, throwing a shell weighing 260 lbs.  It requires 20 lbs. of powder to each shot. They are not wishing to drive them from this [place] until they are routed at Corinth. It is supposed that they are fighting there now but we don’t get any information by the river and we don’t get any mail—only 3 or 4 days.

There is contrabands coming from the Secesh camp almost every day. They keep us somewhat informed what they are doing. They say that last night they had 2 guns dismounted & several of their men killed. The first day one of the generals was killed. There was a nigger came in this morning crossing the river [who said] that one thousand of their troops were shipped down the river about 12 o’clock last night, probably to reinforce Corinth. It is supposed they have some 8,000 infantry & more cavalry.

The captain & mate of the boat that we came down on was arrested this morning suspected of giving information to the rebels & taking darkies & selling them. They had been gone 4 days.

We are on a plantation of some 1200 acres improved land but the owner has left with his niggers—some 200 in number—and resides in Columbus, Tennessee. Only one old darkey remains. His fine mansion is now taken and occupied by our troops for a hospital. There is about 150 sick in it at this time & I think if we stay long at this place, it will require a dozen such buildings. The extreme high water this spring have overflowed this whole country, destroying property & stock. I was out a scouting with a party the other day & I saw some dozen head of cattle on a small tuft probably 10 feet square & water for miles around them. The drifts along the river is full of dead stock and this water we are compelled to use.

There is parties sent out in boats for the purpose of scouting almost every day. The 43rd [Indiana] were out yesteday and coming across their pickets on this side of the river, they fired on them, killing one of them, The remainder run & they pursued them. Presently they came across 2 regiments of Secesh & backing out as fast as possible for thre was only 3 of them. They brought the fellow’s gun & cap with them.

The Old 46th [Indiana] was paid the first of this month for 4 months. I sent mine to Delphi, being $60 each but we have not received any clothing yet and we are the hardest looking set you ever saw. Some of them are almost naked. But the weather is warm here. I might say it is hot for I have seen cooler [days] in August in Indiana. The boys almost exclusively lie out of their tents on the ground but I don’t—when I can get to stay in camp. But we have to be constant on picket guard that it is not often we are in camp.

We are under the control of Commodore [Andrew Hull] Foote—the commander of the gunboat fleet—but rightly belongs to Gen. Palmer’s Division. There is 8 gunboats & about 20 mortars here. I would give a pretty [penny] to have you here them once—the sound of the shells as they pass threw the air. The whizzing sound can be distinctly heard 3 miles and the bursting of them I have heard 7 miles when they were at [Island] No. 10.

I will have to close for this time for I have to go to Dress Parade. Please write soon and give the particulars. — S. H. Nelson

46th Regiment Indiana Volunteers
Company A, Arkansas

A soldier’s desk is flat on the ground.


Peters Plantation, Louisiana
April 24, 1863

Dear Brother,

This is the first that I have had an opportunity to write. I left Helena about 3 weeks ago and joined the regiment at Fort Perkin on the Tallahatchie near its mouth and we staid there some 14 days. Then we were ordered to abandon the place and return to Helena. The [Yazoo] pass was so narrow, it being so difficult to get provisions to us. They were well-fortified and in a position so as to be an impossibility to get to them.

We were on picket one day and there came 6 men in charge of an officer with a flag of truce to see what had become of some children. The father had been taken prisoner when we first came down. They were good, hearty-looking fellows. While the officers of our squad went to headquarters with their dispatch, we had considerable talk with them.    One of them ¹ asked if we were not tired of fighting and we told them we were not and one might have seen me blush at the falsehood but I was not going to let them know it. They said they wished the war would cease. They wanted to know who was in command there and we told them we would be over some of these mornings to take breakfast with them & then then could learn this name. They laughed.

The last morning we was on guard at the Battery, they fired a shot at us and the shell bursted just over us & killed 2 & wounded 2 others.

Gen. Alvin P. Hovey

When we got to Helena [on 8 April 1863], we were ordered to go to Vicksburg, three hundred miles from Helena. When we arrived, orders came to General [Alvin P.] Hovey to take his Division & march around to get below & in the rear of Vicksburg whereas we marched 4 days and now are camped 12 miles below and 4 miles from the river. They have to pontoon a large bayou before they can get to the river to cross. There was 4 gunboats & two transports run the blockade [at Vicksburg] the other night and we can cross. The object is, I think, to cut their communication off from Richmond, get possession of that railroad, & then they will have to come out and fight or give in.

This country is the most beautiful farming land that eye ever beheld. Plantations under the highest state of cultivation but now they are deserted by all large steam mills on almost every farm which we have taken possession of now and are sawing timber to pontoon with and grind corn meal but the private soldier gets but a small portion of it. We have fresh beef but have but little salt & [with] the extreme heat, we can hardly get it to the kettle before the flies have hold of it. If we stop here some 3 weeks, we can have ripe peaches and they are abundant.

If a man had nothing to do, this would be the land to live in, but it would be almost an impossibility to labor out in the field at almost any sort of work. We have now tents and the fences are taken for miles around to make sheds to keep the sun off. There are a few Negroes seen but not like they were in [Ar]kansas. I saw but one white man citizen in traveling 80 miles. They fly before us as if we would kill all who chanced to come in our way & I have no doubt they believe we would. The Negroes are so feared of us that they would bake the last bit of cornmeal in the house if one of us say so and a good many of the boys take the last bit they can find. I have to stop. Please write soon. — S. H. Nelson

¹ The regimental history gives the name of the “exceedingly sociable” rebel as “Captain Sikes.” [Pg. 50]


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