The following letters were written by Sgt. Matthew McPherson (1835-1865) of Co. B, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry [162nd Pennsylvania Volunteers]. Matthew was the son of Matthew & Martha (Black) McPherson. He was killed on the battlefield at Five Forks in one of the last engagements of the war.
Matthew McPherson was initially buried at Gravelly Run Church near the battlefield but later disinterred and relocated to the Poplar Grove National Cemetery when it was established in 1866. Regrettably, at that time, his named was misspelled as “McFersin” and his unit was erroneously recorded as the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. However, the family has verified—in conjunction with the NPS historian—that the soldier buried under headstone “19” is indeed their ancestor. The former barely legible marker has recently been replaced with a new stone with the original markings.
Additionally, Matthew’s surviving relatives erected a large monument in his memory at Manzer Cemetery in South Gibson, Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania.
These letters are from the Pension File of Matthew McPherson and were provided for publication by the express consent of Jeff Davis—a direct descendant. There were four letters submitted to the Pension Office following Matthew’s death demonstrating that Matthew regularly sent money home to his family whom they relied upon for support.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Camp near Potomac Bridge
April 2, 1863
Dear Father and Mother,
I take this opportunity to inform you of the state of my health and a little of what we are doing. I am well and the rest of the boys. We left our camp at Coles Landing [on Aquia Creek] the 21st and moved to this place which is three and a half miles from Fredericksburg. Before we moved we were ten days on picket. We were relieved on the 20th and came to camp expecting to stay for some time but to the surprise of both officers and privates, the next morning—before we had our breakfast, we received an order to have everything packed, tents struck, and four days forage and rations, and be ready to move at 10 A. M. So we had to move about right smart to make the time. However, we were all ready at the time and on the move.
The sick were sent to the hospital. The unwell that could not ride went to Stafford. There was five of the company that was on the unwell list—S. Barrett and E[dwin E.] Cory [Corey (1842-1930)] was among the number—but since that time they have come to the company. Neither of them is sick, yet they are unable to ride. But they enjoy themselves very well. They are first rate tent mates.
The wind blows high and dry today but [there] is no sign of dry weather. Yesterday it rained like smoke so it keeps the mud a good depth all the time.
Our situation is such we can see the [observation] balloons up every pleasant day. They are viewing Rebeldom. There has been a time set for a general move of the Potomac Army three different times. At each time, it has rained so much that the streams were impassable. The water raises and falls very fast. A storm we had eight days since caused a small stream that you could wade with cavalry boots and not get your feet wet to raise to such an extent that there was three horses drowned in attempting to cross it. Whether the contemplated move would have been right or not, we cannot say. We can but leave our success to the God of Battles and the Ruler of the Watery Elements.
Uncle Sam has a large family and it is impossible to keep the wheels moving so as to give perfect satisfaction to all classes. Besides, there is so many of his sons named Judas that it keeps the Old Man in hot water a good deal of the time. If it was fashionable to spoil and dispense 2 [dollar’s] worth of hemp on their necks as fast as they catch them, it would save some trouble.
Yesterday we received five months and sixteen days pay. I have expressed ninety dollars to S[amuel] S. Ingalls ¹ and payable to M. McPherson. I will say nothing about how it shall be disposed of until I hear from you whether you have received it or not. I send you an Order enclosed here which you can present to get the money or if you should not be able to go yourself, you can write an Order on the back of the Order.
S[tanley] Stuart has sent $52 dollars.
H[arvey] B. Wayman has sent $60
G[eorge] F. Rezeau has sent $55
J[ohn M.] Griggs has sent $70
W[illiam] Lee has sent $60
E[rastus] Bennett has sent $70
It was all sent in one package. If it gets to Washington, it will probably go through. There was $75,000 thousand lost between here and Washington of soldier’s money at one time. One of Tade Hill John Bennett’s sons has got his discharge and gone home. He was here to see us the night before he started. N. D. Coon has been here to see us and C. Tripp. They are well. No more at present, — M. McPherson
I enclose G. F. Rezeau’s Order. You can hand it to W. Rezean. George had not time to write.
¹ Samuel S. Ingalls (1818-1892) was a merchant in Gibson, Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania. He married Julia Ann Washburn (1817-1889). Sometime after the war they moved to Cook county, Illinois.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Camp near Brooks Station [Va.]
June 1st 1863
I received yours of the 24th [on] the 28th. I was glad to hear you were well and Father was getting better. These lines leave me in good health and the rest of the boys. You say you have not received a letter from me since I wrote about the money. I have written one letter to you and two to William since the.
The weather is warmer and dry and has been for some time. We are situated in a very nice place now and the water is as good as we could wish for, We will stay here until we move if nothing happens. While I am writing, E[rastus] Bennett is washing the dishes.
The Army of the Potomac is quiet at present. Our cavalry has had some fun with the Rebs. The Eighth Illinois [Cavalry] captured about eight hundred mules and horses and about as many contrabands besides wagons of all descriptions. ¹
The Rebs have been making quite a show at the different fords for a few days past and threatening to invade the borders of Pennsylvania. We think these pretensions is merely to draw Hooker’s attention, fearing he may reinforce Grant. The whole thing appears to depend upon the success of Grant [at Vicksburg]. This part of the army feels anxious for the news every day. The daily paper sells readily at ten cents. We have a variety of papers right smart of the Herald, the Times, and Philadelphia Enquirer. Sometimes the Tribune but seldom—it is not strong enough to suit. ² I think it would be a benefit to our country if the mouth of the press was stopped. The papers keep harping about Hooker and his retreat [from Chancellorsville]. He retreated when he had whipped the enemy and they retreated and tore up the Plank Road and blockaded every passage so that Hooker could not follow after them. But while the enemy was retreating, Hooker was ditto. There was appearances of a very heavy rain and it would not have been a very nice situation for such an army to be cut off from their supplies. My opinion is the Rebs will not want to meet Hooker on the same ground again. I look at this battle here as the most severe blow the rebels has received since the war commenced. Their own prisoners say they intended to destroy Hooker’s whole army but they have been sadly disappointed.
You said you did not know what to do with the money. You can pay Silas Howell [1824-1908] and John Smiley [1809-1872] the interest if they want it. Smiley amounts to $42.07 or $43.07. I think Silas’ is something over $15 dollars.
When we get the Rebs whipped so they will want a rest, the furloughs may be granted again. When there is no sharp jobs on hand, if I have any time, I will call up. We have had the finest times since the Battle [of Chancellorsville] we have had since we left Harrisburg. Our horses are recruiting fine. We are ready now at any time that Hooker gets mad. Our Lieutenant-Colonel [John B. McAllister] and the Adjutant [Perry J. Tate] has resigned and gone home.
This is writing enough at present—especially if it does not go through. — M. McPherson
¹ In his book detailing the History of the Eight Illinois Cavalry, Abner Hard wrote that when the cavalry returned from their expedition to the “Northern Neck,” the region between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, “the negroes belonging to the plantations along the line of march joined the emancipating column, coming in squads of from five to twenty, until there were finally accumulated fifteen hundred men, women, and children of the contraband persuasion. They brought with them all their personal property, horses, mules, carts, clothing &c…[and] not the least result of this expedition was the addition of five hundred valuable horses and mules; much needed in the service. The animals were with few exceptions far superior to those purchased by the Government for cavalry service.” [pp. 239-40]
² Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, though Republican in sentiment, was critical of the Lincoln administration policies throughout most of the war. The editorial staff advocated for a compromise with the South and letting the secessionist states depart the Union. They also criticized the Union generals, relinquishing all hope “for any display of genius or decided military capacity.”
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Camp near Front Royal, Va.
August 15th 1864
I have been thinking for some time of writing to you but have not found time to give you much of a history of our marches so I have put it off & we have had no opportunity to send out a mail for some time so I have not written & I find time as short at present as any time before. Our train has just come up and is going out in a short time so I scratch a few lines just to keep my hand in. I am well and doing my share at skinning sheep, hogs, & chickens as Mosby took the most of our rations a few days since. Our train was guarded by some of the One-Hundred Day men and they done no fighting & made very awkward work running. ¹
On the 11th we had a fight at Nineveh [West Virginia]. Drove the enemy. Our regiment suffered a loss of 9 wounded & 3 killed. ² The enemy have passed on to the Gap in the mountains. We are on picket four miles from Front Royal & two miles from Nineva. I patrolled to Nineva last night.
You may send my shirt by mail. I did not get the dried berries you sent me. G[eorge] F. Rezane & H[arvey] B. Wayman are well.
We just passed through Washington on the 6th. We lay there one day & night. ³
Our paymaster has come down. I suppose we will get our pay. He just missed being captured. He was with the train. We would just as soon he would keep the greenbacks now as we don’t want to buy much here & I see no chance to send it home at present. We could have used some change while we were in Maryland to very good advantage.
No more at present, — M. McPherson
¹ According to the regimental history by Moyer, the 17th Pennsylvania were on picket duty all day on the 13th of August at Old Chapel Church on the Berryville Pike. While there, Col. John S. Mosby’s guerrillas attacked the army supply train and burned a number of wagons near Berryville but were thwarted in relieving the paymaster of his government greenbacks.
² Henry P. Moyer’s account of the fighting in the regimental history was a bit more descriptive than Sgt. McPherson’s account: “On August 11th, the entire Cavalry Corps made a reconnoissance down the Shenandoah Valley, following the Front Royal Pike, and met the enemy in force in the vicinity of Newtown. Our brigade advanced on the right side of the pike, and found the enemy strongly entrenched behind stone walls. In a mounted charge, we failed to dislodge them and were repulsed with heavy losses. The Sixth New York and Seventeenth Pennsylvania were then dismounted, ordered to construct temporary breastworks, and repulsed several charges by the enemy. In the meantime, the Reserve Brigade engaged the enemy on the left side of the pike. The entire line again advanced, and the Seventeenth Pennsylvania, Sixth New York, and Ninth New York, in the order named, successfully charged the enemy’s lines, driving them from the field in great confusion, capturing a number of prisoners.” [pages 94-95]
³ “On the 3rd day of August, 1864, the regiment, with the brigade and division, embarked at City Point, Virginia, on transports for Washington D C., arriving at Guisborough, just below Washington, August 6th, it marched through Georgetown, the city of Washington and beyond as far as Tenleytown, Maryland, where it arrived shortly after midnight and made a short stop. Marching the regiment through the city of Washington, during the night, was the subject of much complaint on the part of the men, and the officers of the regiment experienced considerable trouble in keeping the men in line.” [Regimental History, page 94]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
Camp Winchester, Va.
November 26th 1864
I received a letter from William Mc on the 14th inst. He said nothing about hearing from the money I sent to S. S. Ingalls on the 21st October. It is about time I hd heard from it.
I am well and hope these lines may find you all in good health. We have had some quite cold weather here this week. We have had a little snow here and the mountains are quite white yet.
Our cavalry has been out to see where the Rebs were and find what they were doing. The found them preparing for winter quarters. They had a small brush with them and came back and went into camp. the Rebs has been reenforced by some Kentucky Cavalry and they think they can find no match so they followed our cavalry back and when everything was still, they dashed right into camp. Our men paid attention to nothing but catched up their seven shooters ¹ and went at them. They soon got out of the way and learned they were in the wrong camp and they will find out after they have had a fair introduction to the Old Division that they had better not bid them good morning in that way.
The [railroad] runs within four miles of this place. We escorted Gen. Sheridan to the station where the cars runs to at present. ² From the present appearances, I should judge the railroad would not be built any further at present. Our horses will laugh when the hay comes for them as they have had none in some time. They are eating their halters and the posts for the want of hay. We have been living a little extra since we have been here and I will give you a list of prices of some of the produce: potatoes $2.00 per bushel, cheese 50 cents, butter 65 cents, eggs 40 cents, apple butter 25 cents per quart, buckwheat flour (or meal, they call it here) 7 cents per pound and as black as the Southern Chivalry. I have been getting some very good pies made (custom work) at 25 cents per piece.
I was going to send for a pair of boots but my tent mate received a pair made at New Milford and they were too large for him and just my fit so I got them. They cost $9 at the shop and 33 cents express. They are a good pair of calf skin and lined.
We expect to leave here tomorrow but for what port, we will know as soon as soldiers are allowed to know. That will be when we get there. I have not received the other shirt yet but am looking for it and will see it when it comes. So no more at present.
From M. McPherson
¹ The troopers in the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry were reportedly carrying either Merrill or Smith Carbines at Gettysburg but I don’t believe these were “seven-shooters.” According to Matthews McPherson’s other records from 1864, the company was issued Sharps Rifles and they carried Colt or Starr revolvers.
² The regimental history tells us that, “The entire regiment escorted General Sheridan to the railroad station” on 25 November 1864.