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A Letter from Harper's Ferry, July 31, 1861

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by John Hartwell, Dec 6, 2017.

  1. John Hartwell

    John Hartwell Major Forum Host

    Aug 27, 2011
    Central Massachusetts
    By the end of July, 1861, the 2nd Massachusetts was a disgruntled bunch of men. They had only left Boston on the 8th of July, being immediately attached to Gen. Joseph Patterson’s command in western Virginia. When McDowell began his movement towards Manassas, Patterson was under orders to prevent the troops under Gen. Joseph Johnston then at Winchester, from reinforcing Beauregard’s army facing McDowell. We all know what became of that plan!

    Albert A. Young was a 20 year old teamster from Jay, Maine, who had enlisted in Co. G, 2nd Mass. back in May. He writes:

    July 31st, Headquarters
    2nd Mass. Reg., Volunteers
    Harper’s Ferry, Va.

    "Dear Parents: -- You may see me back again much sooner than you expected. The United States Paymaster was here today and told Col. Gordon that he had paid all the other regiments but his, and that he was not entitled to any pay from the United States, for he said that there is no such regiment in the United States service as the Mass. 2d. He says we are not mustered into the service yet; we only took the oath at Mass. We are to receive pay from the Bay State, so we are at liberty in three months, perhaps sooner.

    "When we came from Martinsburg to the Ferry, we sent a scouting party on ahead of the regiment. We had gone 5 or 6 miles when we were fired upon from the woods. We charged upon the enemy, and found 12 of them and 2 horses, which we took, with three men. We put irons on the men and put them under guard, two of our men riding the two horses. We came to a large and splendid house; one man besides myself went in, found no one but a negro, asked him what his boss was; he said that when he saw the northern army coming he was a pretty good Union man, but as soon as they were gone he would be secesh again. He gave us some cake and lemonade, and we left.

    "When we came to Charlestown, we went into a store -- the keeper was secesh, and told us to leave there. Six of us took him, tied his hands down to his feet, took what tobacco, butter, crackers, and cheese we wanted, and last of all we run onto a keg of rye whiskey; we dropped it on the floor and I may tell you the stuff came out of it in double quick time. We had no more adventures until we got to Harper’s Ferry. I went into a house and got a tip-top supper -- and what do you think it was? Slapjacks, by thunder -- just what I think I could eat most any time especially when very tired and hungry. The good woman kept me all night, and in the morning I went up to quarters quite refreshed.

    "I tell you what it is, they have made a bad piece of work here. It is too bad that the buildings have been destroyed so here. Gen. Johnston sent word to the people of this place that they could have only 24 hours to leave in. He has 20,000 men, and we expect him soon. We hope he won’t back out, for we shall give him roots.

    "We were not at Bull Run, but if Gen. Patterson had obeyed orders, we should have been there with 30,000 men -- and we would have had Manassas, too. He was ordered to Winchester, where Johnston was with 20,000 men. We started with 41,000 of us, Doubleday’s battery, 1st Rhode Island battery, and one New York battery, and 40 rounds of ammunition in our boxes, besides the wagons full; got within 2½ miles, and he marched us straight the other way. I tell you there was some swearing. We expected a fight, and to be cheated out of it by a cowardly General was too hard. If he had gone on, we could have had the place in six hours and saved Manassas, for they could not have had that 20,000 men to reinforce them.

    "The old fellow has been superseded by Gen. Banks, who is our general at present. All the Pennsylvania boys were with us then -- some 9,000 of them -- eager for the fight; now they have gone home, their time being up. Doubleday has unspiked a battery of 4 pieces which he found at Harper’s Ferry, spiked -- 3 24-pounders, and 1 32-pounder.

    "Today the Canal Boat run past here for the first time since the rebels destroyed the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal. Good bye for this time.

    "From your son, A. Y. Y."

    Such is private Young’s assessment of the campaign thus far. I am not familiar enough with the situation to judge it’s accuracy. But I have read that old Gen. Patterson was probably wise to have backed off from Winchester. Perhaps someone here could comment. Poor Patterson, who first saw action back in 1812, and did good service in the Mexican War, was retired before the end of the year.

    Whether Albert Young’s parents saw him back home “much sooner than ... expected” I don’t know. But his own time in the army would be brief, indeed. His record lists him as “Deserted September 1st 1861” barely a month after this letter.

    According to the record, the 2nd Mass. had been mustered into federal service back in May. What the problem was with the Paymaster is unclear. The regimental history seems to make no mention of it. But, the regiment re-enlisted and remained in service through the end of the war, earning for itself an enviable reputation.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2017

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