Letter Writing
By Mrs. Sandi Vaughn

Displaced Civilian
Co. E, 3rd Regiment, Engineers

June, 1997

Enjoy, and incorporate some of these ideas into your next letter home. 

Several events ago, Mrs. Sandi Vaughn and I were discussing Co. E’s Mail Call, and the effort put forth by her and the other ladies toward this ‘much looked forward to’ part of our reenacting events. For all the effort the ladies put into this, some of the men need to polish thir writin skil, and put a little more effort into return letters. Remember if you don’t answer mail, you won’t get mail. Sandi mentioned several interesting things about the writin of the time, and it was clear to me that she had done some research. I always get excited when someone from Co. E takes the initiative and delves into a particular subject. So I suggested to Sandi that she write her ideas down and submit an article. The following is the result of some very good research, and a well written article for the Guidon.

During the Civil War, men left the lives they had always known to enter strange new lives far away. Most had never traveled more than a few miles from their homes in their entire lives. Leaving their families behind, Civil War soldiers suffered greatly from homesickness. There were no post exchanges, lounges or libraries. Of course, there were no televisions, radios, or phones, and even newspapers were rare in camp. The soldiers were left to combat their loneliness in whatever way they could. For most of these men, letter writing was the only direct contact with their loved ones back home.

Because of limited education, letters contained crude handwriting and phonetic spelling. Typhoid fever became "tifoid feaver", pneumonia appeared as "new mornion", and hospital was often "horse pittal". Letters could be models of literary excellence or so badly composed that they were impossible to translate. One man wrote his brother about the illegibility of his letters...John I want you to write to me more plainer than you have been writing.....This soldier then added that he had carried a bundle of John’s letters through two regiments but...there was not a man that could even read the date of the month...or the Alabama soldier writing to his wife...I had not a like to maid out half of yourre words...thearre i some that I hant maid out yet.....

Most letters were written in pencil because pen and ink were not only seldom available, but cumbersome and awkward to carry. Many letters were written on stationary with patriotic mottos and illustrations. For soldiers in the field, stationary had to be sent from home or purchased at inflated prices from sutlers, or else they were forced to use paper scraps, wall paper or anything they could find.

In the latter half of the war, paper was also not easy to come by in the South. Anything available was utilized for writing paper. To save paper, writing may have been unusually cramped and small, and every inch of space was used. There are many examples of "cross writing" where a letter was written first across in the normal way, then turned sideways, and written across the previous lines. Though awkward, it was readable and allowed twice the space to write on.

Letters were written to parents, siblings, friends and relatives. Rather than send separate letters to everyone at home, it was common for a soldier to ask the receiver to pass the letter on to others. Speech during that time would today sound stilted and formal. Contractions were seldom used, and vocabulary could be complex and elaborate. Letters would be written in a similar manner.

Contents of letters were wide and varied. Soldiers discussed battles and daily life ...I can set there and lok out yondr in the field and see 1000 men drilling one squad....we put up our tents yesterday evening and it looks like a little town. I reckon there are a thousand tents here. I can not write much but I could tell you a heep if I could see you. There is one regiment now leaving to go to Fare Creek. The artillery is saluting them by firing cannons. You cant hear nothing but drums and fifes here hardly. I could write more but everything is so confused... hopes, dreams, drew pictures, requested money or items to be sent to them..They spoke of food and friends, landscapes they passed and weather they endured. They described the terrible fears they felt when in battle, their hopes, dreams and prayers, they drew pictures, requested money or items to be sent to them......if you get a good chance to send me any clothes, I will pay the man that brings them for his trouble. All I have got is on my back and that is dirty and common, but I am well fixed as the most of the boys. I lost my blanket in the fight of the 17th and lay out on the ground til the other day when I bought me a blanket and a small tent which cost me $5.00 ...

Husbands and wives who had never used endearments or sweet words to each other at home, now wrote long, beautiful love letters. Soldiers sometimes in fun, would heist one another’s letters. Discovery of a sugary love letter would immediately lead to a broadcasting of contents and the taunting and teasing of the receiver. One day, a private J.W. Rabb received a poetic letter from his sister. When this note was discovered by Rabbs comrades, they jumped to the conclusion that the letter was from Rabbs sweetheart, and they began to tease him unmercifully. The fun loving, bantering character of the soldiers was written about in a letter back to the soldier’s sister: ...You roate me such a good long leter I like it so much for the boys all thot it was from my jularky and one little fellow deviled me so much about Fly home to thy native home gentle dove he sayed that i looked more like a paterage....

Many men directed their affairs at home from the battlefield. Sometimes, the subject was the war itself. ..This old war is opened up at last and thank God for it. It will be Death or Victory but if to the latter, I want them to either fight it out or quit one. So help me pray for a fight or peace. I never expect to see you till I can land home in honor for that is the only way that I ever expect to see old Gwinett. I expect to stay my hand in the Cause as long as I can for I am now sold to Jeff Davis and I expect to serve him til he discharges me in honor or until I die!

Sometimes they spoke of death...our regimient got there just as the battle was over. We stayed on the battlefield that night. Our line formed over many dead and wounded yankeys. We eat breakfast all over their dead, some with their brains out on the ground... sometimes about the enemy...I met up with twenty two hundred of my enemies yesterday evening, but they were prisoners. They was stout looking fellers. Tell the People back home to quit talking about "little yankeys for they are Big Devils and do look so mean that I could not help from cussing them....

Nearly all letters begged for letters from home. Letters were the lifeblood of the war for the men. They longed for news from friends, wives, girlfriends parents and siblings. More important, a letter from home meant that the loved one that wrote it was still alive....I have been nearly a month in this strange land amongst strangers--almost a thousand miles away--and have only one letter to tell me whethere you and your mother are alive or dead.

More pleasing than anything else was hearing from home. One soldier wrote home to his family confessing:...I can never remember of having been so glad before. I sat down and cried with joy and thankfulness.

Mail call took precedence over anything, including food. It was sometimes the only tonic for every homesick soldier of the blue or gray. We get the blues sometimes...worn out with duty, wet and muddy. The coffee is bad, the crackers worse, the bacons worst of all, and we are hungry as wolves. Just then the mail....arrives and immediately all the weariness is gone...the musty, fusty rusty crackers and bacon are better and I am just the happiest fellow in the world.

 

Citations gathered from:

 

Bolotin, Norman, For Home and Country, Lodestar, New York, 1995.

Gragg, Rod, The Illustrated Confederate Reader, Harper Perennial, New York, 1989.

Roberson, Elizabeth Roberson, Weep Not For Me, Dear Mother, Venture Press, Washington, 1991.

Robertson, Jr. James I., The Civil Wars Common Soldier, ENP Association, 1994.

Wiley, Bell Irvin, The Plain People of the Confederacy, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1943.