1862: Peter Mersereau to Betsy Lowry

This letter was written by Peter Mersereau (b. 1842), the eldest son of Israel Putnam Mersereau (1815-1883) and Elizabeth Benedict (1815-1885) of Owego, Tioga county, New York. Peter wrote the letter to Betsy Lowry (b. 1844), the daughter of David and Keziah Lowry of Owego. In 1865, Betsy was employed as a domestic servant in the Moses D. Mercereau’s family in Tioga county. Sometime prior to 1870, she married Charles Chester Cafferty (1872-1952).

Peter wrote his letter from the Union encampment outside Yorktown in April 1862 while serving in Co. E, 44th New York Infantry. He enlisted in that regiment on 19 August 1861 with the intention of serving three years but a disability resulted in his early discharge on 18 March 1863 after a year and a half. At this time in the war, the 44th had seen no action. They had spent the winter at Hall’s hill, Virginia, outside of Washington D. C., and had only recently arrived on the Virginia peninsula at the start of McClellan’s spring campaign. After the Confederates evacuated Yorktown, the 44th garrisoned Fort Magruder for a time before participating in the Seven Days’ battles with a total loss of 56 at Gaines’ mill and 99 at Malvern Hill, out of 225 engaged in the last named battle. Returning to Alexandria, the regiment moved by way of Fortress Monroe to Manassas, and in the battle of Aug. 30 lost 71 killed, wounded or missing.


Camp Winfield Scott near Yorktown
April 15, [1862]

Dear Friend,

It is some time since I have wrote to you. I have been on the march the most of the time since I wrote to you last, My health is very good and I hope this will find you enjoying the same blessing.

The tenth of March we were called out at two o’clock at night and we marched from there to Fairfax and from there to Centerville where we encamped for the night in the Rebels barracks. I found several letters sent from ladies of the South to young men who were quartered in the barracks. I wish I could have kept come of them but I lost all that I put in my pockets at that place.

The next morning we were ordered back to Fairfax where we stayed a couple of days. Then we were ordered to Alexandria where we lay several days more. I was provost guard there & had to patrol that city for strangers. We were put on board of a boat there and when we landed we were at Fortress Monroe. We laid there one day and were ordered on to a camp called Camp Wide Awake and it was named right for no one ever slept there, I do not think, for the frogs made such a noise.

One week ago, we were ordered on. When we started, we had three days rations with us. We marched past Little Bethel and Great Bethel. I never seen but one house in either place so I want you to explain the difference as both houses were of a size we drove [?] on. The Battery that is in our division shelled the Rebels out of their entrenchments at Shipping Point. One was wounded but the rest made good their escape for Yorktown which is strongly fortified with forts and guns to mount them with. We will most likely have a heavy battle here before they will give up.

We are called on at a moment’s notice here and have to go. I have started to write a half a dozen letters and would get them half wrote and be called off. You wrote to me in your last of Velt’s standing on a post where he could hear the rebels play. I stood or laid on a post so close the the rebels that I could hear them cough and talk. I had been on a post one day when they fired a volley at us—some a going over our heads [and] others striking in front and all around us. They would holler over, “Hello you damn Yankees!”

I have got to fall in for drill.

I have returned to our camp after one hour’s drill and I will finish this letter if I can. A volley of bullets, I meant, when I said a voley. I can see their forts and the men on them by a going a few rods and climbing up in the top of a tree. I heard their band a playing Dixie a week ago Sunday night and a good many others—[the] Marseilles Hymn for one.

I will have to close by bidding you goodbye for this time and i will try to write oftener or as often as I can. From your friend, — Peter Mersereau

[to] Betsey Lowry

If you can’t read this, burn it up.

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