This letter was written by Henry S. Spaulding, 2nd Lieutenant of Co. I, 24th New Jersey Volunteers—a nine months regiment. Their winter encampment near Falmouth, Virginia, was called “Camp Robertson” in honor of their commander, Col. William B. Robertson. We know from the letter that the author had a chronic health problem and weighed only 160 pounds. From another letter he wrote in September 1862, we learn that he tried to enlist four times before he was finally accepted into the army. Henry enlisted in the 24th New Jersey Volunteers as 2nd Sergeant on 30 August 1862 and was promoted to 1st Sergeant on 14 November 1862. After receiving a musket ball in the shoulder during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Spaulding was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant of Co. I on 14 December 1862. Following his service with the 24th New Jersey, Henry was commissioned Captain of Co. C, 38th New Jersey Volunteers on 10 September 1864. He mustered out of that regiment on 30 June 1865. [See the Papers of Henry S. Spaulding, 1859-1865) housed at Virginia Heritage]
The letter is a fascinating piece of correspondence. It reveals the sagging spirits of the Army of the Potomac following the removal of McClellan as its commander, the debacle at Fredericksburg, the hopeless “Mud March,” and the dismay among some of the soldiers following the President’s Emancipation Proclamation convincing them that “the great object was to overthrow slavery more than to save the Union.”
Camp Robertson near Falmouth, Va.
March 29, 1863
I have been some time answering your kind letter of Feb. 4th but I have been almost constantly on duty. Have been moving camp & have been on picket a good deal. The Captain & 1st Lt. both being away, made it more than doubly hard on me—picketing especially is very wearing on the men. I went every third day for awhile & lost almost a whole nights sleep each time & stood out in storms a good portion of the time without any fire. Still I stand it & grow fat on it. I now weigh 160 pounds, have better general health, & my throat is better & voice much stronger than they ever been since my bronchitis commenced in February 1848.
Our pickets are allowed no fire excepting a little back at the reserve posts. All the long winter in the severest weather, the men had to stand without fire, day or night, while the rebels within 75 or 100 yards of them on the opposite bank of the river had wood hauled to them & had fires day & night. They would often call to our pickets & invite them over to warm themselves. Every day they propose to exchange papers & give tobacco for coffee. This is often done though contrary to the orders of our generals. They make little boats, put sails & rudders to them, & adjust them so they come over as nicely as though a lilliputian was in steering the boat. They say if the politicians & some of the generals on both sides were out of the way, the privates could & would make peace in 24 hours. Some of them have proposed that the next battle, the privates on both sides walk up to each other, stack their arms, & tell the officers if they want to fight, to go at it. But they say when we fight them, they won’t be driven if they can help it.
There are very many things, father, I could tell you that are truth & nothing but the truth, about the southern & northern armies that would entirely change the whole public opinion in the North, if they would only believe the truth. But correspondents don’t tell it, Official Reports don’t tell it, & when anybody does intimate anything bordering on the truth, the majority of the North won’t believe it. The general conduct of the soldiers & of the officers on both sides are misrepresented. Our successes & misfortunes in battles are misrepresented, & the opinions & political principles of the soldiers are misrepresented. True, there are but few Copperheads, if any, in the army, & on the other hand there are but few of the ultra-class of republicans. There are some officers & now & then a private of the latter class. This army, generally, are dissatisfied with the men in power, & with their ultra doings.
As an evidence of the feeling on these things, at the time “Burnside stuck in the mud,” there were fifteen thousand deserters during that move—500 from one brigade. The woods were full of guns, shelter tents, knapsacks & cartridge boxes hid by those who had left. Thousands of men from Massachusetts as well as from other states who swore they would not go into another fight—that they would be taken prisoners & be paroled if they were taken into another battlefield—some good, candid, christian men said they entered the service with as patriotic motives as could influence any man, but they didn’t see how they could conscientiously fire another gun. They thought the war was to restore the Union, but they believed now that the great object was to overthrow slavery more than to save the Union. The disaster at Fredericksburg, the unfortunate attempt to move by Burnside, & the ultra legislation in Congress all tended to produce this state of feeling, so soon after removing Gen. McClellan from his command. This one thing has a great effect upon the Army of the Potomac.
Now one thing more & I will change the subject. At one of the battles on the Chickahominy, our forces were successful in crossing the stream & destroying the bridge before the rebels came up to them. Many of the wounded had crossed the river & found refuge in our hospital. Among them was our Lt. Col. In the morning the rebels crossed & planted a battery on one side of the hospital, General [Edwin V.] Sumner, being on the opposite side. Immediately after the firing commenced, the surgeon sent a flag of truce to General Hill & asked him to respect the hospital. “Certainly!” he replied, “I always mean to respect hospitals.” He immediately moved his battery to a much less favorable place. The surgeon also sent a message to Gen. Sumner making the same request to him. “Hell! this is no time to respect hospitals. Let the dead bury their dead!” was his reply. Hill was driven back in consequence of his unfavorable position while his first position was a favorable one. ¹ It would require a large book to tell one half.
Now father, do not think that I had the least shadow of sympathy with the South in their rebellion. Some of their leaders didn’t want their rights under the constitution, consequently they tried us hard to prevent a settlement of difficulties as did the ultra-abolitionists of the North. They wanted to break up the government as much as did the political tribe of abolitionists who were ever trying to irritate the South & make them commit some overt act & to manufacture public opinion in the North against the South. They adopted the rotten, country destroying principle of Secession & fired the first gun. They threw overboard our constitution, trampled upon the glorious banner of our pride & strength, & challenged the North to the conflict.
Neither can I sympathize with those in the North who have systematically violated the laws of Congress & encouraged others to violate them, & who have sought to pervert the constitution; & cursedly & advocated it violation, when forced to admit that it did recognize the right of the South to hold slaves & adopt such laws & regulations as they might find best & necessary. I throw aside all personal, sectional, & party feelings & prejudices, & stand truly unconditionally for the Union, on the broad platform of my whole country—East, West, North & South, & not…
¹ I cannot find any notice of this incident published in books but I suspect it was conveyed to Spaulding by the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 24th New Jersey, Franklin L. Knight, who served previously as the Captain of Co. D in the 3rd New Jersey Volunteers, and was with that regiment in the fighting on the Chickahominy in late May 1862.