1862: George E. Smith to Mother

This letter was written by a sailor named George E. Smith serving aboard the US Frigate Potomac during the summer of 1862. He apparently had a brother named Charles S. Smith who served in Co. F, 13th Massachusetts Infantry. In the regimental history, Charles S. Smith’s birthplace was given as Belgrave, Maine (He was taken a prisoner in the Wilderness and died a prisoner of war on 24 December 1864). My assumption is that George was also a native of Maine although he makes frequent references to Natick, Massachusetts, in his letter which leads me to conclude that his parents were living there by 1862. It would also explain his brother’s service in the 13th Massachusetts. Unfortunately I cannot (yet) find any more information on George’s career.


U. S. Frigate Potomac
Ship Island
July 10, 1862

Dear Mother,

It is some time since I had a letter from you. I wrote when we were at Key West. I have got two letters since we came from Mexico—one was from [brother] Charles dated February 23, and one from Aunt Olive dated the 25th of February. I have not heard anything from Charles since the army advanced. I have borrowed all the papers I could but I have not seen any account of the 13th Regiment. I know you have written to me but the mails are  not regular. The latest news we have is the 26th of June but the Southern papers say that McClellan has been whipped in front of Richmond but it is not believed here.

We arrived at Key West from Mexico on the 28th of May after a pleasant passage of nine days. The first time we crossed the gulf it took us 18 days going from further southwest pass of the Mississippi. After lying at Key West until the 4th of June, we sailed for Ship Island, arriving here on the 16th of June. There are about 25 ships here but only two men-of-war besides us. They are all store ships and prizes. The 13th Maine Regiment is encamped on the island. Neal Dow of Portland is their Colonel. The government has got stores and buildings on Ship Island. A steamer passed by here from Mobile loaded with flour for the poor of New Orleans; she was under a flag-of-truce. We fired a salute in the 4th of July. Salutes were also fired from the two ships and Fort Massachusetts on the Island. The papers say that England and France are going to interfere in our affairs. If they do, it will make this war a long one.

I would like to know what was going on at home on the Fourth? How is business? Where is Father? I am writing a letter to Foxboro. My health could not be better than it is now. Our Captain has been sent away and another has taken the command. Captain Farragut has not come down the river yet. We are expecting him every day. When he does come, we shall know where we are going and what we will do.

How much is flour per barrel? How do you get along? It will be some time before I get home. I guess Charles has had some hard marching to do in leaving the Valley of the Shenandoah and retaking it again. Do the children behave well and try to get along? Is clothing dear or cheap? Has anyone died or got married lately in Natick? Have you had any fires. There is one thing you do not mention in any of your letters.  Does Morse say anything about the house yet? I am afraid the family will have to leave it. Have you  planted the garden yet? How will the crops turn out? When you answer this letter, take this and look it over and answer every question. I have no good chance to write. If I had, I would try to write better but this is Mexican paper and you must try and study it out. Is all the family well? Has anyone failed in Natick?

Two men from New Orleans has been sentenced to hard labor for two years on the forts on Ship Island by Gen. Butler—one for exhibiting a human skeleton in his windows and telling the people that it was from the Yankee army. The other had a cross which he was showing around as the bones of a Yankee. We have New Orleans papers up to the 6th of July. The city is quiet and more respectable than it has been for many years. England does not like Butler’s ways of doing business. The Maine regiment which has been ashore on Ship Island are going up to Ft. Jackson. I expect it will be sometime yet before I get home.

When you write to me, get a large sheet of paper and write it full. I am ashamed to send this letter—it looks so bad. But paper is scarce and very poor. Don’t let anyone see this letter but burn it as soon as you read it. What kind of work are they doing and what prices are they paying in Natick? Has anyone gone to the war? Are they building any now? We were ashore one afternoon at Key West. It is not much of a place. Coconut trees grow around the houses. All kinds of fruit is sold in the shops. The place is under martial law. Many of the rich men have run away leaving their property behind—slaves and all.

There are two regiments there from Pennsylvania. If any person make a disturbance or sells any liquor, he is sent to Ft. Taylor and shut up for a month or so. When we were there, the English steamer Circassian lay a little way from us. The ship and cargo was said to be worth a million and a half. She was taken for trying to run the blockade. I expect there will be some change made in this crew. Some will leave this ship to go on gunboats. If I leave, I will write to you as soon as I find out where I am going. I have written all I can think of now.

— George E. Smith

Ship Island, Mississippi
July 10, 1862

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