Say What? Saturday: "If It Were Not For My Family I would Make A Good Soldier"

Andy Cardinal

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Feb 27, 2017

William Ross Stillwell was 23 when he enlisted in the 53rd Georgia in March 1862. He had married Mary ("Mollie") Speer in September 1859 and the couple had one son, John Thomas ("Tommy"), who was born on June 4, 1860.

Stillwell arrived in Virginia in May, just in time for the Seven Days Campaign. Shortly after the campaign ended, Stillwell wrote a long letter home. In its, he wrote: "I think if it were not for my family that I would make a good soldier, but when I think of you and Tommy and that is all the time most, it makes me feel bad.”

When we read of campaigns and battles and discuss strategy and tactics, it is easy sometimes that the men who fought the war had lives away from the front. Many were married and had children at home, and and with the ever-present possibility of death by disease or being killed in battle, never knew if they would see their loved ones again. This weighed on their minds and affected their morale.

The following four case studies are all from the summer and fall of 1862. They are all from the eastern armies as well. But that is only because these are accounts I have happened to read recently. There are thousands of examples from both sides.

Case #1 -- William Stillwell

When the rest of Lee's army went north to confront Pope, the 53rd Virginia remained in Richmond to defend the Confederate capital. In mid-August, the 53rd Virginia started north to reinforce Lee's army. While at Hanover Junction, Stilwell took a moment to write to Molly. “There is going to be lots of fighting this fall yet,” he wrote. “This war has got to close in the next twelve months or last until both nations are ruined forever. It must close by that time, I think, but not before them, I am afraid.” Stilwell’s biggest concern, however, was about her. “I am sorry if you are in a family way but you must be careful of yourself and may God protect you safe through. I was afraid of it when I left but did not say anything about it.” He hoped that it would be a girl to play with their son Tommy.

Two weeks later, the 53rd Georgia had reached Manassas Junction. It had been a long march from Malvern Hill. “I need not say we suffered for you know that an army of fifty thousand men to march that distance in eight days would tire anyone and besides the troops having nothing to eat hardly but green corn and not much of that.” He was doing “tolerable well,” he assured her. “My feet are blistered some and my legs are a little stiff but having all of my baggage hauled, I did very well and as for provisions I have enough so far.” He was struck by the beauty of the countryside, he wrote: “Molly, we are not far from the Blue Ridge Mountains and you know what a man I am to study the works of God and here I had a great feast, something that was beautiful. One day we stopped at four o’clock in the evening on a large mountain in full view of the blue mountain and after I got through with my work I took my little bible and got off in a lonely place and thinking of the scripture which says, ‘Lord, thy righteousness is like the great mountains.’ I had a good time here…. I was so much delighted with the scene that I forgot the toil and trouble of war and enjoyed myself very well until the sun was about to bid adieu to earth when it was just throwing its last glittering rays on the big mountains behind which it had to go. It was then that I thought of myself and it was then that I wanted to retire to my little cottage as I used to do but, alas; I can do very well all day but when the sun sets I get lonesome and many tears have run down my cheeks by that time of day….”

Stilwell hoped that the great victory at Manassas meant the war was almost over. “Molly, this war can’t last at the rate it is going on now,” he wrote. “We are not going to stop as long as there is an army on Virginia soil and we may invade their country. They are in a good deal worse fix now than they were twelve months ago. I am impressed that when we drive them to Washington that they will stay there and never come back again.” He told Molly that he "could not help shedding tears while I read about you being so sorry for me to stand the hardships of camp life. It does me good to know that somebody feels for me. I have to take the broiling sun and the drenching rain but I take it all easy and can sleep all night in a wet blanket. I have got so I don't mind it at all, just go ahead like I was a hog and big pig, little pig, root hog and die."

Stillwell survived Antietam but he was shaken by the death and destruction he saw there. In a letter written from the battlefield, he wrote Molly of a dream he'd had: "I thought I was at home and could see you and Tommy so plain. Oh how I would like to feel of their little golden curls and see their little bright teeth shine and little plump feet paddle around the house. I reckon he can talk plain now and is most large enough to carry wood for his ma. I hope to see him soon yet. Surely this war can't last much longer but if it does let us do the best we can and trust to God for the rest." He added, "Molly I think of you while the cannon roar and the muskets flash. Never have I been so much excited yet but what I could compose myself to think of you, and is have often thought of I have to die on the battlefield, if some kind friend would just lay my Bible under my head and your likeness on my breast with the golden curls of hair in it, that would be enough." After signing the letter, he added a postscript: "Good by, Tommy, my son."

Stillwell agonized over Molly's condition throughout the fall and into the winter. "If I lose my Molly I lose my all," he wrote in December. "If I was to lose you I would not want to fight any more for what is life or liberty to me without my Molly." It was not until spring that he learned that Molly had safely delivered a baby girl. They named her Virginia.

Stillwell survived the war but lost a foot at Cedar Creek. He returned home and became a minister.

Case #2 -- Captain Edwin A. Brown

As Stillwell was crossing the Potomac, Captain Edwin A. Brown of the 6th Wisconsin was in camp at Upton's Hill, fresh from the disastrous defeat at Second Bull Run. "What is reserved for us in the future I don't know," he wrote to his father on September 5. "We have been out generalled. Jackson, Lee & Longstreet are too much for 'the Pope' and McDowell, who have commanded the army since we left Culpepper. The troops have no confidence in either of them. They curse them continually as the cause of our disasters."

Brown was from Fond du Lac, where he had been Colonel Edward Bragg's law partner before the war. The thirty year-Brown had married Ruth Pier in 1853. The couple had three children -- Louis, Edward (known as "Pier"), and Hattie.

Brown was one of the best-liked men in the 6th Wisconsin, and was known for his singing voice. He was a member of a singing quartet -- which also included Lieutenant Lloyd Harris, Lieutenant John Ticknor, and Orin Chapman, "all young, brave and handsome" -- which had "saved many a man from homesickness that undid men, even strong men" during the first winter of the war. Brown would say, "Let's do Benny Havens," and the quartet would sing. The song became a favorite in the regiment. “We were unconscious then,” Dawes recalled, “that his melodious voice predicted his own sad fate when he sang his favorite ‘Benny Haven, O.’ ‘In the land of sun and flowers, his head lies pillowed low.’"


Edwin Brown
After weeks of campaigning, Brown was physically and emotionally exhausted. He also missed his wife and children dearly. "Give my love to all, especially our parents," he wrote Ruth at one point. "I often think of them all -- My dear children -- give them all a kiss and god bless them from their pa. And Ruth, my love in this and the other world are yours and may God watch over and protect you All. I wear your miniatures in my breast pocket…."

Brown was physically sick while he wrote from Upton's Hill. "As to myself," Brown added in the letter to his father, "I have seen enough of the horrors of war, imagination cannot picture it, it is too horrible to write about. I am weary, worn out. I don't weigh over 115 pounds, and would like to seek repose with my family & friends. I have been on every march. In every place of danger, that my Co. & Regt. have. I have been broken so much of any rest, have had such hard fare that I am very weak, tired and thin. I tried to get a leave of absence for one week to rest in Washington but was refused. What the end will be I can't tell, probably a fit of sickness." Before mailing the letter, Brown had written across the top: "I don't know as I shall ever get a chance to come home -- I think the south will maintain their independence."

By September 13, Brown realized the possibility of battle was imminent. He took the opportunity to write home. He wrote to his wife:

Dear Ruth,

I have just time to write you a line -- nothing more. You are doubtless informed of the defeats of our army, which explains our being here. Three times has my life been in jeopardy, where danger was in every inch of space. You can say to your friends that your husband was no coward, where so many showed “the white feather.” The troops had no confidence in Pope or McDowell therefore many behaved badly. The only troops that really maintained a good name for themselves everywhere was Hooker’s and Kearny’s divisions and Gibbon’s brigade.

They have much more confidence in McClellan, none too much in him however. Rebels are in force in Maryland, we are massing to meet them. I am weary and sick. If the enemy were off our soil I should go to Hospital. Honor requires that anyone who has any patriotism left should meet the insolent foe. Should I live to see them driven out of the state and away from Washington -- I will have some rest….

My love to all, your relations and my parents in particular…. Kiss the babies for their war-worn father.

Good bye,
E. A. Brown

Despite this illness, Captain Edwin Brown led his company into battle at Antietam in September 17. He refused to go to a hospital, even thkugh several of this friends suggested that he should. Brown was "worn out and so lame that he could scarcely walk," Sergeant Andrew Deacon recalled. Brown told Deacon that once the Rebels were driven out of Maryland he would ask for a furlough, and if one were not granted he would resign.

The right of the regiment, under Colonel Bragg’s direct command, soon reached the Miller farm. Here they encountered a board paling fence. They easily pulled the fence down and pushed on. The left companies, under Major Rufus Dawes’s direction, reached a picket fence that enclosed a garden. Dawes ordered them to pull the fence down, but it was too stoutly built and the effort failed. Dawes “had … to pass the left wing by the flank through a small gate with the utmost haste, and form again in the garden.” Sword raised, Captain Edwin A. Brown called out, “Company ‘E,’ on the right file into line!” At that instant a piece of shell burst and tore away Brown's lower jaw. He shrieked in pain and fell to the ground. Private Lucius Murray knelt beside Brown and stayed with him until he died.

Case #3 -- Andrew Erskine

When the war began, 34-year-old Andrew Erskine was a prominent citizen in Seguin, Texas. He was married to Ann Johnson Erskine, the daughter of another prominent local family, in 1847 and operated a sawmill, gristmill, and a ferry on the Guadalupe River (the area is still known as Erskine Ferry). Andrew and Ann had six boys, who ranged in age from eight months to ten years old. Born in Virginia, Erskine's family moved west when he was four and eventually settled on the Capote Ranch. At the age of sixteen, he joined the Texas Rangers and fought in several battles against the Commanche, in which he was wounded twice. "In the battle of Salado Andrew Erskine received a ball to the right forearm," his son later wrote. "It was never extracted and I have heard him complain of it giving him pain." By 1845 he took up surveying before taking over his father-in-law’s mill after marrying Ann in 1852. He was elected county clerk of Guadalupe County in 1856, and in 1859 he served as a lieutenant in a militia company.

Andrew apparently considered volunteering during the first rush to war in 1861, but ultimately decided against it. Perhaps the fact that Ann was pregnant once again was one reason he decided not to enlist. "For a time his better judgment, his love for his wife, children and home, and his business affairs prevailed and he remained at home," his son later wrote. The men from Seguin and Guadalupe County formed what became Company D, 4th Texas. Among those who joined was Thomas Ignacious Johnson, Ann's brother.

Andrew and Ann celebrated the birth of their seventh child in January 1862. Only weeks later, however, tragedy struck when their 2 year-old son Powell drowned in the Guadalupe River.

Ig Johnson returned home in March 1862 on a recruiting trip. When he left for Virginia on April 30, Andrew, his younger brother Alexander, and two nephews went with him. "You know I left you and my sweet darling boys and my comfortable home because I deemed it my duty, and because I thought that the public expected me to go," Andrew wrote Ann soon after leaving home. "I was too proud to remain at home when everybody in the country able to bear arms had left to go in defense of the bleeding and suffering country." Andrew wrote of another motivation as well: “I am acting as all good patriots should act and although it may seem to you hard that I should leave you and my little boys alone, remember that no one could say hereafter to my children, ‘Your father did not aid in gaining the independence of the Southern Confederacy.’”

Despite his sense of honor and duty, it was hard to be away from home, and Andrew’s thoughts often turned to his wife and children -- especially Powell. “I never had a clear conception of the horrors of war until that night and the morning,” he wrote Ann after Gaines’s Mill. “On going round on the battlefield with a candle searching for my friends, I could hear on all sides the dreadful groans of the wounded and their heart-piercing cries for water and assistance. Friends and foes all together.” As he wandered the battlefield he came across “a picture of a little boy that reminded me of our dear lost Powell.” He picked it up and carried it with him, and over the following weeks looked at it often, thinking of his far-away home on the Guadalupe and his “sweet angel boy as I saw him when I found him in the river.” His thoughts also turned to the man who had been killed, whose family had been left without a husband and a father. “Doubtless some poor father who had been killed in battle that day had the picture of his dear boy to look upon to remind him of his own happy home before this dreadful war, with all its horrors, came upon him,” he wrote. “Oh! The horrors of this dreadful war.” Amidst all of this, Andrew learned that his father had died of natural causes back at the Capote ranch.


Andrew Erskine

At Second Manassas, the 4th Texas found itself charging a battery on the afternoon of August 30th. Running uphill toward the guns, Andrew Erskine saw Ig Johnson fall. "He was just ahead of me," Erskine wrote afterwards. "I saw him turn around and sit down." Seeing blood on Johnson's thigh, Erskine asked him if he was badly hurt. "Yes, pretty badly," Johnson replied. But Andrew could not stop for Ig. The battery continued to blast canister at the oncoming Confederates, even as they swarmed around the guns. By the time Andrew found Ig, he was dead. A piece of canister had sliced into his thigh and through his femoral artery. Later, Andrew sat down to write what was surely the most difficult letter of his life. "Oh my dear wife," he wrote, "how can I break to you and your poor mother and the children the dreadful intelligence I must convey…. Poor Ig is dead." After the fighting was over, Andrew and his younger brother Alexander had recovered Ig's body. They gave him "as decent a burial as it was possible to do on the battlefield." Andrew covered the rough grave with two stones on which he had carved Ig's name so that, "if I live through this awful war, I may be able to find his grave and carry home his remains so they can be interred by the side of his father and sisters." He hoped "that these defeats will satisfy the wretches that they cannot subdue us and they will listen to some terms of peace. Oh! how dreadful it is that so many of our kind friends and relations have to lose their lives by the wicked war."

Andrew was grief-stricken and homesick, and he considered the possibility of returning to Seguin to take care of things, especially now that his father was dead. But it was nearly impossible for an enlisted man to be discharged from the army. Andrew admitted to Ann that he was “truly tired” and that he wanted to come home, but “I am afraid I will have to remain in the service until the war is over, as it is very difficult to get discharged now on any account.” All he could do was continue on, although he was optimistic that the war might soon be over: “We will whip the Yankees so badly in their own country that they will be happy to acknowledge our independence very soon,” he wrote soon after Lee’s army crossed into Maryland. “I believe we will have possession of Baltimore and Washington City in less than a month.”

Andrew Erskine went into action along the Hagerstown Pike on the morning of September 17. The next day, Alexander Erskine wrote Ann:

"My Dear Afflicted Sister: -- It gives me intensest pain to tell you of the death of my dear brother, your husband, Andrew. Oh! how desolate is my sad heart at the loss of that brother twice endeared by the hardships and perils we have passed through together. But if my heart is so sad, what must yours be, my sister, deprived of a husband and friend? … Our dear one suffered no pain in death for he was shot through the temples. He was killed on yesterday morning in the fight at Sharpsburg in making a terrible charge on the enemy. In consequence of then conflict being undecided, his body has not yet been recovered, but Maj. George has promised to attend to his interment. I am too badly wounded to return to look after him, having been shot through the left arm and twice in the side."

Andrew's body was never recovered. I presume his remains lie at the Hagerstown cemetery with the other Confederate dead from Antietam.

Case #4 -- James A. Wright

The 21 year-old Wright was born in Sangamon County, Illinois. His father bought a claim in Goodhue County, Minnesota, but died before the family could make the move. His widow Amelia -- the great-granddaughter of William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence -- and her children reached their new home near the banks of the Mississippi in April 1855. "When I first set foot on Minnesota soil, I was a little, slender, red-headed, freckle-faced urchin of fourteen summers and fifteen winters, but with scant bodily strength, knowledge, or experience to fit me for the rough, hard life before me on the frontier," Wright recalled. "I was one of a broken family of nine, from whom death had but recently removed the head. A widowed mother and two sisters older than myself; one sister and four brothers all younger than I, completed the family roster." They found a broken-down cabin -- Wright wrote that it was a "distinct disappointment, which the copious tears of some of the company could not wash away" -- which they stayed in temporarily while they built a new home.

Tragedy struck again only a few weeks later when, during a violent thunderstorm on the night of June 11, a lightning bolt struck the house. According to an account of the incident:

"One of the older boys was so much frightened that he left the bed and went downstairs. While he was being told that there was no more danger in one place than another by his sister, Susan, a sudden crash came, which frightened everyone in the house. Mrs. Wright, the mother, was the first to regain consciousness. She saw the flames devouring the bed where lay her two daughters, still unconscious. Presently the water came down through the floor above in such profusion as to quench the fire. Soon one of the boys came downstairs drenched with rain, bringing in his arms the youngest boy, Wilson, dead. The same stroke of lightning had killed one of the girls, who were in the bed on the lower floor, immediately under that of the boys in the chamber. The boys in time had become conscious, and these three -- William, Beverly and James -- with their mother, laid the boy, Wilson, by the side of his two sisters, Mary and Susan, and began chafing them, in order to restore them, if possible, to consciousness. After some time, Mary … was restored to health, but Wilson, aged six years, and Susan, a young lady of twenty-one years, had been instantly summoned to the world above during that terrible storm.

"It was an awful calamity to an already broken household," Wright wrote years afterward. "I will only add that after the storm, with a cheerfulness and hopefulness that now seems almost surprising, we -- the mother and remaining children -- worked hard to finish the home and provide for ourselves."

Wright was a student at Hamline University in Red Wing when Fort Sumter was fired upon. The Goodhue Volunteers (later designated Company F, 1st Minnesota) were organized during a meeting at the courthouse in Red Wing on April 25. When a call for volunteers was made, two men leapt from the seats, jumped over chairs, and raced toward the front of the room, each determined to be the first to sign up. Edward Welch was in the lead but fell while jumping over the last chair, and William Colvill, an attorney and newspaper editor, and one of Red Wing's leading citizens, reached the front of the hall first. Welch signed next, and more than fifty volunteers -- including Wright -- followed. Colvill became the company's Captain, and Welch became the 1st Lieutenant. "They were, with few exceptions, young men and unmarried," Wright wrote. "Nearly one-third of them were, or had been until recently, attending school at Hamline University, and they had their plans and cherished ambitions, but they put aside all inviting prospects and personal interests, and promptly offered themselves to their country."

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James Wright
For James Wright and then 1st Minnesota Saturday, September 13 was another long day of marching. The Minnesotans had moved at first light and reached the Monocacy that afternoon. They crossed the river and entered Frederick. "Many Union flags were flying, and we received a hearty welcome," Wright recalled.

They bivouacked on the far side of town, with them Catoctins just ahead. South Mountain loomed behind. The mail came that night. Mail was particularly important for soldiers; it was their lifeline home. Wright had a letter from home which informed him of the death of his brother Beverly. "I lay on the ground some hours that night," Wright recalled, "watching the stars and thinking of those at home, and longing to be with them." His widowed mother was at home with her two minor children, with her two oldest boys away at war -- one in Kentucky and one in Maryland. "It was a troubled heart that I carried with me over the mountains on the succeeding days."
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Feb 19, 2021
Los Angeles, California
Just finished reading the first account. I will read the rest later, but this one was so moving that I had to pause and respond.

I can do very well all day but when the sun sets I get lonesome and many tears have run down my cheeks by that time of day….”

This hit me in the gut. While I have never served, I do understand this man’s sentiments. I’ve had some serious health troubles over the last few years which have strained me to a breaking point at times. Coupled with the everyday stresses of life, where I’m expected to remain composed in the company of others, the solitude of night (when the wife and kids are asleep) affords me a time for reflection. I can empathize with this brave man, who suffered but was given strength by the glory of God.

Thank you for sharing these. I look forward to the rest.
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