1862: George Washington Barney to Brother

This letter was written by George Washington Barney (1843-1919), a private in Co. E, 85th New York Infantry. Barney gave Grove, Allegany county, New York, as his residence when he enlisted on 1 September 1861. His parents were Ziba Shaw Barney, Jr. (1815-1901) and Minerva Green (1819-1889).

New York Town Clerk’s Register of Men who served in the Civil War: “After serving over two years in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Seven Days fight on the Peninsula in Virginia, he was discharged on 31 December 1863. He reenlisted on 1 January 1864 for the town of Grove.” George was among the men who of the 85th NY Volunteers who were taken prisoner at Plymouth, North Carolina, but he escaped.

Joshua Barney (1835-1862); the oldest of four Barney brothers to die in the war

George had three brothers who also served as New York Volunteers; incredibly, none of them survived the war.

The oldest son to serve was Joshua Barney (1835-1862). Joshua enlisted at Canadea, New York, to serve in Co. I, 130th New York. He died in a Suffolk, Virginia, hospital on 7 November 1862, leaving a wife and three children. Another older brother, Ziba Eliakim Barney (1838-1863) also served as a private in Co. I, 130th New York Volunteers. He enlisted in August 1862, and died on 17 January 1863 in the hospital at Suffolk, Virginia. Then there was Harlen Barney (1841-1862) who enlisted in December 1861 to serve in Co. A, 104th New York Volunteers.  He died in camp at Geneseo, New York, on 19 February 1862 suffering from the measles. Finally there was George’s younger brother, John Barney (1845-1864), who served with him in Co. E, 85th New York Infantry. John was taken prisoner at Plymouth and died in a South Carolina prison in October 1864.

This letter was written shortly after George had heard the news that three of his siblings had died—Alvira and Wellington at home, and Harlan in a military camp at Geneseo, New York.


Meridian Hill
Camp Warren
March 8th 1862

Dear Brother,

It is with a sad and heavy heart that I attempt at this time to address you. I received your letter in due time from date and was glad to hear from you although the news that it contained made me heartsick and I went to bed that night feeling quite bewildered. I passed a sleepless night that night and the next morning I had a high fever and had to apply for medical aide for the first time since I enlisted. The doctor thought I was a going to have the yellow fever but thank God, I am again enjoying usual health and can again stand among my comrades. And in a few days, I hope that I shall again feel as well as before.

Engraving of George B. McClellan on Barney’s Letterhead

You wrote that it was lonesome times in Old Grove and I should think so too for though far away, I can well imagine how lonesome it must seem. You wrote that Alvira and Wellington was dead, ¹ and William and Welthia ² soon I should think by the way you wrote was sick and Harlen was sick at Geneseo and father had gone to see him. I have heard since that he [Harlen] had gone to his long and eternal home. Oh, how unexpected was this news to me and how it wrung my soul with anguish. When I thought that I was the most in danger myself, those that least expected it were cut down like a flower in Autumn. This is the first thing that ever overwhelmed me. It is the first time that I ever knew real sorrow and it is the first time that I ever felt sick at heart. And God knows that I hope it will be the last.

You wrote that you should like to know my true circumstances. I do not know that I can explain all of them to you but I will try. We live in tents made of cloth. Our beds are straw and cedar brush and it makes a very good bed for a soldier. Our living is as good as could be expected. It consists principally of bread, meat, rice, beans, sugar, molasses, coffee, and tea. Think not that we suffer here on the amount of something to eat for we fare well for soldiers. But we should not have been here now had it not been for the rain and muddy weather that we have had here for as soon as the mud dries up so they can move their heavy artillery, they are going to attack Bulls Run again and we never expect to be obliged to retreat again like we did before. Next week if there is no more rain, we expect to advance on them.

My mind is so confused that I cannot think of anything more to write so I will close hoping to hear from you again soon.

Give my love to all enquiring friends. Write soon. — G. W. Barney

¹ Alvira [Elvira] Barney (1845-1862) and Willington H. Barney (1861-1862) were George’s siblings. Both Elvira and Wellington died in February 1862 at Grove—probably from measles or scarlet fever or some other childhood disease.

² William Henry Barney (b. 1850) and Welthia Barney (b. 1851) were also George’s siblings but both survived whatever illness they were suffering from in 1862.


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