These letters were written by John Harrison Parsonson (1835-1864), the son of veterinary surgeon, John Parsonson (1802-1852) and his wife, Phebe Harrison (1815-1905) of Rochester, Monroe county, New York. In 1856, at the age of 19, John Harrison Parsonson entered the U.S. Navy and served on the receiving ship, North Carolina. The Navy described him as 5’4″ tall, with hazel eyes, brown hair, and a florid complexion. From the pension file, we learn that Parsonson had returned to Rochester by 1858 and by 1861, he was employed as the captain of a Lake boat at Rochester.
According to his military record, Parsonson enlisted at Buffalo as a private in Co. I, 155th New York Volunteers on 15 September 1862. He was slightly wounded at Sangster’s Station on 17 December 1863 and again on 29 February 1864. But his luck ran out on 16 June 1864 in the first assault on the defenses at Petersburg where he was killed, left on the field, and later buried in a mass grave with other Union soldiers.
The last two letters in this collection were written by Charles N. Priest who was a comrade of Parsonson’s in Co. I. He addressed both letters to Mrs. Parsonson, giving her the details of her son’s death at Petersburg.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Staten Island [New York]
October 14, 1862
It is with pleasure that I take my pen in hand to write a few lines to you hoping that they will find you all in good health.
We arrived here on Sunday afternoon about two o’clock. I catched a train at Port Byron. The captain said he knew that I would get left when we did not stop into the depot but he knew that I would come on in the next train. We arrived at Albany about half past eleven o’clock Saturday morning. The ladies had a hot dinner all ready for us. After we had dinner, we took the ferry across the river to Greenbush [New York]. We then took the cars to New York where we arrived at ten o’clock Saturday night. We formed into line and marched up to the Park Barracks where Col. Corcoran met us. He made a short speech to us. He said that he will not ask us to go one foot nearer the enemy than he will go himself. He is a man that stands about feet feet and eleven inches high, slim build, and a very pleasant-looking man, and I think that what I have seen of him that he will make a fine general and be kind and good to those that are under him.
We stopped all night and had our supper and breakfast at Park Barracks. At ten o’clock Sunday morning, we formed into line and marched to the ferry and came over to our camp. our camp is about three miles from where we land[ed] in the ferry. We have had pretty hard times since we came here. It has rained about all the time until this morning so you must excuse me from writing to you before. There is a good many of our men in Buffalo yet. Some of our officers are going back there to get them in a day or two. There is a great many soldiers in this camp but how many, I do not know. There is one regiment leaves here today for the seat of war.
You must excuse my bad writing for I have not got any table to write on. I have got my knapsack for a writing desk. I have not got any more to write at present. Give my love to Willy and George and Phebe and Tunis and the children, and Mary and Libby and all enquiring friends. Accept of my love and best wishes for yourself.
From your affectionate son, — John H. Parsonson
P. S. Write as soon as you get this and direct your letter to me [at] J. H. P., Staten Island, Camp Scott, 155 Regiment, Company A, Care of Captain [John] Byrne
¹ “John Byrne was born in Ireland and came to the States at the age of five. He later served as an apprentice to a coach and carriage maker. His residence was not listed; and at 22 years old he enlisted on 9/6/1862 in Buffalo, NY as a Captain of the 155th NY. On 12/5/1862 he was commissioned into Co. I of the 155th. He was listed as a casualty on two occasions. He was wounded 5/18/1864 at Spotsylvania Court House, VA and 13 weeks later he is shown as a POW taken on 8/25/1864 Reams’ Station, VA. His promotions were as Major on 3/27/1863, Lt Colonel on 12/1/1863, and Colonel on 1/1/1865 (Not Mustered). Byrne was shot through the temple with the bullet exiting the opposite cheek taking with it the rear portion of his left eye. Even though he suffered a wound such as this, he was back in command in 10 weeks. Besides losing his eye, the wound also cost him his sense of smell. After resuming service, he was taken prisoner about a month later and was held for six months as a prisoner of war until he was paroled or exchanged. John Byrne was mustered out on July 7, 1865 at Washington, DC. In 1872 he became the Police Superintendent of Buffalo New York.” [Source: Joseph Maghe]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
February 1, 1863
It is with pleasure that I sit myself down to write a few lines to you all hoping that they will find you all in good health. Today being Sunday and not being on duty, I went to Church this morning. It is the first Sunday I have been off of duty since we have been here so I thought that I would go to a place of worship.
I suppose that before you get this letter that you will have heard of the battle that we had with the rebels yesterday morning, the 31st. One of our scouts came into camp on a Friday afternoon and reported that the rebels was in force at the deserted farm eight miles from here. So we had just go to bed when there came orders for us to get up and get two days rations into our haversacks and be ready to march by 12 o’clock. So away we went little thinking of the sights that we would see before daylight.
Our cavalry and artillery came upon their pickets about 2 o’clock and drove them clean in and opened fire on their artillery and infantry. Our regiment was ordered up in the edge of the woods and there we formed into line of battle, a little in rear of the artillery to support the batteries in case the enemy should attempt to charge upon it. We fought them there until about seven o’clock when they retreated back about six miles. As soon as they showed signs of retreating, we up and charged on them, but they would not stand the steel though. So the cavalry and artillery drove past us and came up with them and had another brush which lasted about a half an hour when they retreated again.
We then chased them to within about three miles of the Black Water and there they waited for us. As soon as our advance got up to them, they charged on them and drove them clean into the Black Water. It was the 13th Indiana Regiment of infantry and the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry that charged on them. So we waited a while to see if they would come across again, but they would not. So we started and came back to camp. We was gone about twenty-four hours from camp. We marched about thirty-two miles and fought about 7 hours. So if that ain’t a good day’s work, I don’t know what is. It was Friday morning instead of Saturday that we had the fight.
There is a funeral just gone past of two privates and a captain of the 69th [New York] Regiment yesterday. You can see nothing but funerals a going past our camp.
It was hard to see the poor fellows on the battlefield. You would see one with his arm off and another with his leg off. And close to him, one would lay with his head off. You could see them a laying in all kinds of shapes around you—both wounded and dead. There was three poor fellows shot dead not three feet from me with three different shells. Our artillery got a dreadful cutting up. They had about twenty killed but I do not know how many wounded. I think we lost about 75 or 100 in killed and wounded all together. There is only about six wounded in our regiment and about five missing. I cannot tell how many the rebels have lost for they carried off all of the dead and wounded as fast as they could. But we found a rebel major and sergeant major and buried them.
General Corcoran and one his aides found about 17 wounded and 40 dead rebels in one old house. He paroled the wounded there. I think that they got pretty well cut up but one thing we can say, [and] that is we gained one glorious victory.
You wanted to know about our clothes. They are all very good—all but our stockings and you can wear out a pair of [unfinished letter]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Fort Dix near Suffolk, Virginia
April 26, 1863
Having a little spare time, I thought that I would write a few lines to you to let you know that I am amongst the living yet. I suppose that you can see by the papers that we have had quite a lively time here for the past sixteen days. The rebels are all around us. They are within two miles of our breastworks but they do not seem to want to come any nearer. They are a trying to cut off our communication but they cannot do it. We have been a fighting here every day since two weeks ago last Saturday at some point or other. We have taken a good many prisoners and a five pieces of artillery and have whipped them out of every place that we have attacked them.
About twelve days ago, Col. McMahon took our company and a company from the 164th [New York] and one from the 170th [New York] and two companies from Dodge’s Mounted Rifle men and went out on the Eddington Road and engaged the rebels at daylight and drove in their pickets and drove them for four miles, clean into their breastworks and never stopped until they opened their cannons on us. We captured about twelve rebels belonging to the 17th Georgia and the 7th Louisiana Tigers. We had a pretty hard fight of it. We fought six times our number and had to charge through two open fields and drive them out of the woods. Our company had to take the lead and when the others got more than they could do, we had to go and whip them for them. We were complimented by Gen. [John J.] Peck and Gen. [Michael] Corcoran for our bravery. They said our company had gained a name for the whole Irish Legion.
We had five wounded—four privates and our captain; not Byrne for our old Captain [John] Byrne is promoted to Major. Our [new] captain is an old friend of George’s. He used to brake with him on the [raid]road. His name is Jack McAnally. He is wounded in the leg and the ball broke his leg. We sent our wounded to Fortress Monroe. Jack expects to go home on sick furlough as soon as he can stand the journey. He only just returned from home about two weeks when he was wounded. We went out yesterday and drove in their pickets and tried to draw on a fight but they would not come out. They have got themselves well fortified out there.
You must excuse me for not writing a long letter for I dont feel able. We have not slept a night in our tents since this commenced and it has rained the most of the time. We lay about ten days at the breastworks in the mud and water and six days in this fort. I have got a dreadful cold and the rheumatism so that I can hardly stand. I did not get them letters you sent me with the stamps in. No more at present. Write soon as you can for I am anxious to here from you.
From your affectionate son, — J. H. Parsonson
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
June 20, 1863
I received your letter and papers last night and was glad to hear from you. It was [first] the letter that I have received for over three weeks. We have just returned from another march of seven days. We got back night before last. We had a very hard time of it. We were marching all day long every day into the hot sun as hard as ever we could. I tell you what it is—it was awful. We had a force of about 10 thousand men. We went to the Black Water and attacked them at three different points but they would not come out and give us a chance to fight them and as we were on one side of the river and they on the other, and General Corcoran had orders not to cross the river, of course we could not get at them—only with our cannon and sharpshooters. But we had quite a lively time with them four times. We had about five killed and twenty wounded on our side but none out of our regiment as we were on the reserve. There was one Captain and two privates killed out of the 99th N. Y. V. and two killed out of the 130th N. Y. V. and about 15 wounded out of the 164th [New York] Regiment. That is the regiment that the most of our boys is in that we fetched from Buffalo and they all fought well and every man that was wounded was [from] our old regiment.
One must form some kind of an idea of the hardships that we endured on the march when thirteen of our forces dropped and died before our doctors could get to them. I don’t know how many we will lose but I think that we will lose about 200 men altogether. When we were coming in, they had to send out another train of ambulances to fetch in our men that was sun struck and wore out. They marched until they could not go any farther and then they laid down on the road and some of them died there.
We are leaving this place. Whilst we were out, the force in here was taking away the guns out of all the forts and tearing down the breastworks. There is only two brigades left here now and we expect to go away by Tuesday. But I do not know where we will go to but I think that we won’t go any further than Norfolk but I cannot say for certain.
Please tell Mother that if she ain’t sent them shirts, not to send them until she gets another letter from me. I have not got any more news to say at present. Give my love to your father and mother, to Tunis, and a kiss to all the children, and my mother and brother and sister, and all inquiring friends, and accept of my love and best wishes for yourself. Tell Mother that I have time before we go that I will write to her. So farewell for the present.
From your affectionate brother, — J. H. Parsonson
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
Fairfax Court House [Virginia]
July 21, 1863
Dear Mother & Sister,
I received your letter last night and was very glad to hear from you for it is a long time since I received a letter from any of you. I received that cake of scented soap that you sent me in the newspaper.
We left Portsmouth about ten day ago. We came to Washington onto a steamboat. We had a very pleasant time of it. the old steamer Maple Leaffetched one of our regiments but she does not look as good as she used to look. We marched through the principal streets and past the Capitol. Then we marched across the Chain Bridge into Virginia again and encamped about two miles from the town and stopped there two days.
I seen young Skully that was taken prisoner at Gettysburg. He is about four miles from Washington. I came across him just before we left and he told me that Tom McGinn was a working about a quarter of a mile from where we lay for two days and I never seen him.
We have packed up our knapsacks and sent them into Washington so we are out here under light marching orders. We left our camp near Washington four days ago and we got here yesterday but I suppose that we will be on the march again before night. We do not know where we are a going or anything about it. We will stop here until we get further orders and that won’t be a great while.
Our cavalry pickets brought in about twenty prisoners last night. We had a great deal of praise given to us a going through Washington. The people said that our brigade was the finest looking lot of men that ever they saw marched through town. I have not more news to send you at present—only that I will send you some writing that I found in the court house because it is so old. The most of the boys have got some to send home.
No more at present. Give my love to all my brothers and sisters and accept of my love and best wishes for yourselves and a kiss for each of the children. So farewell for the present.
From your affectionate brother and son, — J. H. Parsonson
P. S. Write soon as you can and direct to Washington or elsewhere.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SIX
Sangster’s Station [Virginia]
January 19, 1864
I received your ever welcome letter on the 17th of this month and was very glad to hear that you was all enjoying yourself. I was very sorry to hear that you are a suffering again with the face ache but I hope that you are better by this time. I was also very sorry to hear of George a being sick again but I hope he is a better before this.
I don’t see how it is that I don’t get any more letters from home than I do. I have to write three or four letters to you before I can get an answer to one. It is just a month since I got a letter from you before this and six weeks between that and the other one. I have not had a letter from any of Phebe’s folks for over two months but I shall get one as soon as she gets well enough.
Their aint any news of any consequence here. We are going to shift our quarters tomorrow. We are going about six miles further in towards Alexandria. It has been raining all day and there is mud up to your knees. It is a beautiful time to move now and sleep on the wet ground for a week until we build up new quarters. It will be kind of bad for me for I am nearly dead with the rheumatism again. I have suffered a great deal with it for the past two weeks back. I think that if I was to give up my doing duty, it would lay me up all together, but our company is getting so small that we can’t afford to have any sick. Our company is just half as strong as when we left Buffalo. We have been in four fights. We have had eight men wounded and nine taken prisoners and some of the companies in our regiment has never seen a musket fired at a rebel.
You wanted to know why I did not re-enlist. I will tell you. I think that if I spend my three years in this service, it will be enough without serving three years more for all the men that re-enlist have got to serve three from the time that they re-enlist. I don’t see the point.
I received a letter from Tommy Jordan this afternoon. I shall answer it as soon as I can. I have not received the paper that you sent me yet. I must now come to a close. Give love to all my brothers and sisters and all inquiring friends and accept of my love and best wishes for yourself. If you see Phebe’s folks, give my love to her and all the rest of them. So farewell for the present. Write as soon as you can.
From your affecanate son—a poor “soulger”—John H Parsonson
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SEVEN
February 1, 1864
I received your papers and magazines last week and I was very glad to get them as were entirely out of reading matters. I should of wrote to you before but I have been so busy all the week that I have not had time. We are a building a log house [blockhouse] here two stories high for to protect the bridge and railroad. When it is finished, it will be full of loop holes so that a man can put his rifle half way out and fire any direction. But we expect as soon as we get them finished that we will have to go to the front and the Invalid Corps will take charge of the log houses all along the line.
Since I wrote to you last, we have shifted our camp. We have come nine miles nearer to Alexandria. we are only a little over ten miles from Alexandria now. We have had very pleasant weather here of late. Anybody would think that it was the middle of summer here. There ain’t any news of any account here. When you write, I should like to have you tell me what your opinion is of the war. Give my love to Phebe and all the children and to your Father and Mother and all enquiring friends. Remember me to George Mosier. Accept of my best wishes for yourself. Write as soon as you can. Farewell for the present.
From your brother-in-law — J. H. Parsonson
P. S. Direct as before.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER EIGHT
March 30, 1864
It is with pleasure that I take my pen in hand to address a few lines to you hoping that they will find you all in good health, but I cannot say that I feel very good for I am nearly dead with my old complaint—the rheumatism. I am so lame with it that I can hardly walk.
I received your letter about three weeks ago. A couple of days after that I applied for a pass to go into Alexandria to see if I could not get transferred into the Navy but they would not give me a pass or let me leave camp for that purpose so I started up one evening and walked into town without any pass but before I got back, I was taken up for being into town without a pass and put in jail and there they kept me for twelve days before they sent me out to my company. But I am back here again all right and I think that I am a going to beat my smart officers for my name and about forty more names besides mine are gone to Philadelphia today to see if we can get transferred. So if everything goes right, I shall be in the navy to serve the rest of my time and then I shall be very glad to get the chance. And I hope I shall.
We got a letter today from one of the 13 Regiment N. Y. V. Cavalry which was taken prisoners about the same time as our boys was. He says that one of our boys was exchanged with him and that he died as soon as they got into the hospital. It is dreadful to hear how our prisoners is starved in rebel prisons. There was about one thousand soldiers got exchanged when he did and 80 of them died on the boat before they got them into the hospitals and they are dying off as fast as they can after they get them home here. It is dreadful to think of.
I must now come to a close. I hope that all the children and old folks are all well and free from sickness for this time. Give my love to all of them. There is a Rochester [soldier] home on furlough out of our regiment. He has promised me that he would call and see Mother and all the folks. I suppose that he has been to mother’s before this but …[unsigned]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER NINE
April 20, 1864
It is with pleasure that I take my pen in hand to write a dew lines to you hoping that they will find you all in good health as they leave me at present. We are having beautiful weather here lately and if it only keeps fine for a couple of weeks longer, which I hope it will, there will be a dreadful battle fought out to the front here. I wish that it was over and our side successful. I think that the war would soon be over then. Grant is a making great preparations to defeat the rebels this spring and I hope that he will be successful for I think that it would be a great blessing to me and all of us if we could only get back home and more, to see all of our folks that so dear to us. Every soldier’s eye is turned towards Gen. Grant and are a praying that he will have success in all his undertakings.
We are a having a very pleasant time of it here. We amuse ourselves with fishing. There is a large brook runs through here and we catch quite a number of fish out of it every day. We have made a pond about ten feet square and keep all the fish we catch in it. We have sod all around it and flowers planted in the sod and a nice fence outside of them so nobody is allowed to go inside of the fence. It looks very pretty. We have got about two hundred fish in it now.
I have only received one letter from home in over a month and that was from William. I don’t know how it is that I don’t get any letters of my folks. I always get letters regular from friends that I correspond with but none from my folks. There ain’t any news of army importance here at present so I must now come to a close for the present. Give my love to your father and mother and Tunis and all the children and accept of my love and best wishes for yourself. No more at present. From your affectionate brother, — J. H. Parsonson
P. S. Write as soon as convenient.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TEN
June 5, 1864
Camp on the Battlefield
8 miles from Richmond
Having a little spare time, I thought that I [would] write a few lines to let you know how we are getting along. We came to the Army of the Potomac on the 17th of May and on the 18th, we was put on a charge [at Spotslvania] against the rebels forts. The boys fought hard but it was of no use. We lost about one hundred and forty that morning, besides our Col. [Hugh C.] Flood, Lt. Col. [John] Byrne—our old Captain—and Major [John] O’Dwyer. So we lost all of our field officers at one slap. Our brigade lost about six hundred men on that day and ever since that, we have been supporting batteries and making forced marches all the time until the second of this month when we took our positions at the front, ready for the morning of the third when we was ordered to make another charge—and we did so. We gained a new position about a quarter of a mile in advance of where we was but our brigade got a dreadful cutting up in taking it. Our regiment lost on the charge as near as can be established, one hundred and eighty in killed, wounded and missing.
There is only a fragment of our brigade now. When we came to the Army of the Potomac, we had four hundred and eighty in our regiment, but now we have can only muster one hundred and eighty—or hardly that. You remember [Patrick] “Paddy” Blake ¹ that came to see you when he was on a furlough? He was killed on the charge. He has a wife in Rochester somewhere. The young man that I sent his photograph to George–my chum—he is wounded through the arm. Mother, the fighting out here is dreadful. You can’t describe it on paper. We are a laying in the first line of breastworks and the bullets are a flying over our heads like rain. We are in the Second Corps, Second Division, Fourth Brigade. Gen. Hancock is our corps commander and Gen. Gibbons is our division commander. I have not got time to write anymore at the present but if God spares my life I will [write] to you again before a great while. When you write to me, direct your letter to J. H. Parsonson, Co. I, 155th Regiment N. Y. Vols., 2nd Corps, 2nd Division, Corcoran’s Brigade, Washington D. C. or elsewhere.
Give my love to all my brothers and sisters and all my inquiring friends and accept of my love and best wishes for yourself. So farewell for the present.
Your affectionate son — John H Parsonson
P. S. Write as soon as you can and oblige your son. J.H.P.
¹ Patrick Blake enlisted on 6 September 1862 at the age of 27 to serve three years in Co. K, 155th New York Volunteers. He was killed in action at Cold Harbor on 3 June 1864.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ELEVEN
I take the liberty to write you a few about John Parsonson. John was killed on the 16th day of June in front of Petersburg. Your John never spoke after he was killed. I was there when he was buried. Someone took all he had in his pockets but I found a pipe and a matchbox on him. I sent them to you by one of our boys his name is [ ]. He is wounded and will go home and bring them to you. I will see that you get them. John was a good boy and brave as a lion. All the boys is gone in the company but 10. One more fight will fix us all. Paddy Blake is dead for sure. He was killed at Cold Harbor on the 3rd of June. I must bring my letter to a close. You must excuse my bad writing. If there is anything more you want to know about John, write to me and I will do all I can.
I remain your obedient servant, — Corp. Charles N Priest, ¹ Co. I, 155th Regt. N.Y.S.V.
¹ Charles N. Priest (1847-1892) of Buffalo, Erie county, New York, enlisted on 28 August 1862 “at age 19” [actually only 15] to serve three years in Co. I, 155th New York Volunteers. He was promoted to corporal on 4 May 1863 and wounded in action on 31 May 1864 at Totopotomoy, Virginia. He later served as as a second lieutenant in Co. D. He returned to Buffalo after the war and worked as an “Engineer.”
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWELVE
Front of Petersburg, Va.
July 7, 1864
I received your letter on the 6th and I have now sat down to answer it. I am just going to tell you how it is about John. We had the fight on the 16th of June. We were the first line of battle. John was killed about 60 yards from the rebel breastworks. Just after he was killed, we had to fall back so we had to leave him there for 24 hours. Then the Rebs fell back and then we followed them up. The first thing I done was look for our boys. John was the first one I found. I could barely tell [it was] him—he had changed so much.
To tell you the truth, Mrs Parsonson, I never felt so bad in my life to see the boys of my company laying dead all around me. John was a friend of mine. He was in the same tent with me all winter. I have nothing I could send you. I got everything he had in his pockets. Someone had got there before me and taken all they could find. His knapsack I could not find. He must have thrown it off when he went into the battle.
He was buried in a grave with a lot more [soldiers]. There is no chance of your getting his body. His grave is not marked. He was buried about one mile from Petersburg in a piece of woods. George [J.] Donnelly ¹—he was wounded on the third of June. I was wounded at the same place. I can’t tell where Donnelly is for we have not received any letter from him since he went away but if I can find out where he is, I will write and tell you.
I must bring my letter to a close. Please excuse all mistakes and bad writing. I remain your friend, —Corporal Charles N Priest, ² Co. I, 155th Regt. N.Y.S.V., 2nd Brig., 2nd Div., 2nd Corps., Washington D. C.
¹ George J. Donnelly enlisted at age 22 on 20 August 1862 to serve three years in Co. I, 155th New York Volunteers. He was wounded in action on 3 June 1864 at Cold Harbor and later discharged for disability in March 1865.
² Charles N. Priest (1847-1892) of Buffalo, Erie county, New York, enlisted on 28 August 1862 “at age 19” [actually only 15] to serve three years in Co. I, 155th New York Volunteers. He was promoted to corporal on 4 May 1863 and wounded in action on 31 May 1864 at Totopotomoy, Virginia. He later served as as a second lieutenant in Co. D. He returned to Buffalo after the war and worked as an “Engineer.”