These two letters were written by Samuel N. Gaston (1824-1863) of Co. D, 20th Connecticut Infantry. Samuel enlisted on 9 August 1862 and was mustered into the regiment on 8 September as a corporal. He was promoted to sergeant on 18 January 1863 and was wounded in the regiment’s first engagement at Chancellorsville on 3 May 1863. Regrettably, he did not survive his wounds. He died on 21 June 1863.
The first letter is a heartfelt letter Samuel penned to his wife, Rosalia (Welton) Gaston, from the regiment’s encampment in Loudon Valley near Harper’s Ferry in late November 1862. He had only signed the letter “Samuel” and it was a few days before I was able to pair him with the second letter, written from Fairfax Station in Virginia in early January 1863 to his young daughter.
Prior to his enlistment, Samuel made his living as a New York City book publisher, specializing in maps and geography, working on his own or in partnership with others. Knowing this, it’s understandable that his first letter would include a map.
In the 1860 US Census, Samuel (age 36) was enumerated in Hudson, New Jersey, with his wife “Rose” (age 28), their daughter Flora (age 8), their son Louis (age 3), and an Irish servant named Catharine (age 20). A review of Cemetery Inscriptions and Newspaper Notices in Connecticut reveals that “Louie” W. Gaston died at the age of 4 on 23 August 1861 so he he is most definitely the subject of the poem Samuel penned in his first letter. Most likely the couple had another child born between 1860 and 1862, and it’s sad to realize that yet another child was born to the couple, Grace W. Gaston, born on 17 July 1863—less than one month after her father’s death.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Loudon Valley, [Virginia]
November 30, 1862
My darling wife,
Today closes the sober months of Autumn and tomorrow ushers in the desolate reign of winter—thus the season’s come and go. 14 long weeks have passed, since with a bursting heart I clasped you to my breast and bade you the adieu which I felt might be the last. Since then, how my heart has been alternately filled with hope & fear as to the duration of my absence. A week ago it seemed almost over, [but] today it seems as far off as it did a year ago. And yet I hope on and content myself with thinking of you and that good time coming when we shall meet again. Oh blissful hour, when an age of joy shall be concentrated into an hour, a whirlwind in a sigh—and a millennium in a moment.
At the head of this letter, I have made a little sketch of our location so that you may see how we are situated. Near the S in “signal” was our old camp. There are 15 or 20,000 troops on Bolivar Heights and on the heights opposite Harper’s Ferry called Maryland Heights. Batteries of immense guns that can throw shell clear over the mountain and on our camp into Loudon Valley. We do not fear any force of Rebels so long as we stay here, and we don’t expect to leave here very soon, so you may consider me safe from rebel bullets.
How does our little “Mecca” up in the cemetery look? I need not ask if you have kept it neat, but are the plants thrifty? Have you got them fixed for the winter frosts?
There’s a dear little grave in the valley
Where the sweetest of summer flowers bloom,
Perfuming that Holy of Holies
Where we garnered our hopes to the tomb.
The greenness of summer hath vanished
Brown autumn is passing away,
Yet green as the Spring time immortal
In our hearts lives his memory for age.
The sound of his light bounding footsteps
And his voice in its wild baby glee,
Died away on that beach where his shallop
Launched forth on eternity’s sea.
And still fresh in our memories their echoes
Come back to our tremulous ears,
And we clasp in our visions the phantoms,
That gather in torrents of tears.
I feel that you are writing to me, and thinking of me, and God knows what kindly thoughts, what feelings of mutual love and regard some spirit friend may be inspiring us with, to whom we both are near and dear—Farewell.
May God bless you and keep you and our dear children is the earnest prayer of your own, — Samuel
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Fairfax Station near Fairfax Court House, Va.
January 4th 1863
My dear Daughter [Flora],
Your dear little letter came to hand enclosed with Mama’s night before last and would have been answered yesterday but I am acting as Company Clerk now and have had to write 13 hours a day for the last 3 days to get the Muster Rolls of the company ready to send to Washington so that the soldiers can get their pay.
Since I wrote you last, we have had quite a time here. Last Saturday week, the telegraph told us that 4,000 Rebel cavalry had crossed the Rappahannock River (you can find most of the places of which I write on the Map of Virginia in the Diamond Atlas) and were coming towards our camp. So General Slocum—who commands the Corps (the 12th Army Corps) of about 38,000 men—sent orders to all the regiments to have every man ready to march the next morning at 7 o’clock with 3 days rations—that is food in their haversacks for 3 days. So that evening each man had 2 loaves of bread and 10 crackers given him (hard tack we call them) and lay down in our tents expecting a battle on the morrow, and to think of those dear ones we might never see again.
You will say that 38,000 men should conquer 4,000 very easily, and so they could, only that they were all on horses and we all, except about a hundred, on foot, and 40,000 men cannot march together. They stretch for 10 or 12 miles so cavalry can dash down upon the long line, cut it in two, and often kill many before the others can come to their assistance. Still, not one seemed to be afraid of them.
At 7 the next morning, 4 buglers came out in front of the General’s tent and played the signal call and in a moment the drums of nearly 50 regiments were rolling and the fifes were screaming the call, “to arms.” Then the men hurried on their overcoats, belts, cartridge boxes, haversacks & canteens, and the tied their two blankets in a a long roll and threw them over one shoulder, seized their guns and began to form in long lines of 4 men deep. General Geary’s Division went first, then ours. About noon we heard the firing ahead of cannon and heavy volleys of rifles so we knew that General Geary was fighting them.
About 3 P. M., we came up to the spot where the fight had been but the Rebels had been beaten and on their fleet horses run away though some of them were still sneaking around to watch us and one of our men caught one of them. Our man came up to him alone in the woods and the Rebel asked him who he was. The Yankee told him, “none of his business.” Then both of them drew their long bright swords and each tried to kill the other. Soon the Rebel knocked the Yankee off from his horse and he fell flat on his back on the ground but in an instant he jumped up, drew his revolver, and pointing it at the Rebel’s head, told him to dismount. As Mr. Reb had no pistol, he thought he had better do so. So the Yankee marched into camp with both bridles on his arm, one hand hold of the Reb’s collar, and the other holding a pistol to his head. Our General kept his sword & horse and sent him off next day.
Well at night, after marching 15 miles, we lay down on the ground wrapped in our blankets with the cold moon and stars to watch over our slumbers and slept—or played we did—till morning. I was so cold, I could not sleep so I got up at midnight, made a fire, and sat by it thinking of my dear wife & children, sleeping sweetly in their warm beds far away, and then I thanked God in my heart of hearts that they were happy and comfortable and had still a husband and father to love them while [just] since I came to Washington, 50,000 soldiers have died [and 50,000 homes been made desolate by their absence, never to return.
Next morning we made coffee in our little drinking cups which we all carry and while waiting for marching orders, most of us lay down in the warm sun and took a nap. In the afternoon, orders came to return to this place and so we did, getting back to our tents at 7 P. M.
Meanwhile the Rebels has passed us on the left within 2 miles of us, come up across the railroad within 2 miles of here to “Burke’s Station,” took the telegraph operator prisoner, and then telegraphed themselves to the camp guard here “to burn all the stores ($1,000,000 worth are here) for the Rebels were coming” So our folks piled up all the bread & meat, flour &c. and were just going to burn them when a man came in and told them “that it was the Rebs that had telegraphed and not to burn them.” So on went the Rebels clear around our camp and back home safely. ¹
Now my dear, I have written you quite a long letter. If I ever come home, I shall be able to tell you a great many interesting things about the war and the country where I have been. I hope the war will soon be over so that I can again be with you to assist you in your studies and enjoy your love.
I shall always be pleased to hear from you. Take pains to write well. Make your letters small, neat and fine.
From your affectionate father, — Samuel N. Gaston
¹ Under the heading, “Another Rebel Raid,” Harper’s Weekly [January 10, 1863] printed an article about the “dashing attack, with cavalry and artillery in front of Dumfries.” Turned back at this point, the Rebels “pushed on to Occoquan where they met Col. Candy’s command and had another brush with them. Considerable loss occurred on both sides, and the enemy again made for Anandale by way of Bull Run and Wolf Run, and thence toward Vienna, which place they passed through at midnight. Meantime General Geary hastened to intercept them between Dumfries and Bull Run, chasing them southward. They seized the telegraph office at Burke’s Station and burned the bridge at Acotink. The enemy do not appear to have gained anything by the bold raid except a few sutler’s wagons and some ambulances they picked up on the way. They were reported to be 4000 strong but this is probably an overestimate.”