Rhodes Committee: Civil War Soldier’s Letters Home
By Jessica Giannetti and Karen Martin
From the Summer 2015 Historian
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 and tore at the very fabric of American life. 2015 marks the 150th Anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 and the end of the Civil War.
Charles E. Jayne of Stony Brook joined the Union Army on November 27, 1861. He was the First Lieutenant in the 102nd Regiment. Charles would write letters home to his parents as often as he could, as many soldiers did. In these letters he gave details of his life in camp and the expectations he and his comrades had contemplated of what battles may lay ahead.
In Camp 3 miles from Winchester June 16th 1862
“Did you see the complimentary notice given us in N.Y Tribune?...complimenting our untiring energy in making Harpers Ferry impregnable-which we certainly did by fortifying Maryland Heights...Had the enemy taken Harpers Ferry the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road would have been in their possesion which they Could have used and run down to Washington if not Could have blown it up which would have left Banks totaly isolated… Why your son is a hero and if heroism is so easily gained I shall take a contract to be five or six heros before I return…”
While many men lost their lives in the Civil War, Lieutenant Charles E. Jayne made it home long before the war’s end, due to a gunshot wound in his forearm. He lived out the remainder of his life in New York as a ship handler and merchant.
Another perspective is gleaned from the letters of William Wheeler to his siblings John and Julia, given to the Society through the estate of his niece Kate Strong. The son of Russell C. and Theodosia (Davenport) Wheeler, William was born in New York City Aug. 14, 1836. Well educated, he graduated from Yale and in 1860 obtained a law degree from Harvard. In April 1861 he joined the 7th regiment of NY Volunteers and was promoted to sergeant. Discharged, he reenlisted in October 1861 as a first lieutenant in the 13th NY Light Artillery rising to the rank of captain. In May 1863 he was given command and led his troops at Gettysburg. Killed by a sniper at Marietta, Georgia June 22, 1864 he is interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.
William’s older brother John, born 29 August 1834, graduated from Yale in 1858. In 1862 he was commissioned Captain of the 15th Regiment of Volunteers from the Militia of Connecticut. He was taken prisoner at Plymouth, NC, April 20, 1864, incarcerated at Libby prison Virginia, then Georgia, and South Carolina. He would be released eight months later.
William’s letter to his brother John upon receiving word of his capture.
Headquarters Artillery 2nd Div. 20th Corp Cassville, Ga. May 20. 1864
“My dearest old boy: “…let me offer my most sincere sympathy and condolences upon your being captured, and that in almost your first hard fight. It must be rough in the extreme to be obliged to give in after such a gallant & stubborn defence, but it was better so than to uselessly sacrifice the lives of the entire garrison. You are the family hero, now, my dear brother; all my letters ring with accounts of your bravery, and you may be sure that no one could listen to them more eagerly than I. ….do keep up your spirits, that is the main thing; make a sett of chessmen out of beef bones or something of that kind, and study up all the gambits. But above all things, don’t grow melancholy or morbid about privation or confinement: for your own sake & that of your friends, “Keep your pecker up”. I feel very sure that we shall meet again in New Haven, and have many a good pull together on the bay: the idea of a home without you would be unbearable and as Bryant says in the “Future Life” “I shall feel the sting of ceaseless pain If there I meet your gentle presence not”.
In 1875 William’s mother published Letters of William Wheeler of the Class of 1855, Y.C. as a tribute to her son’s memory.
From the obituary of Theodosia Wheeler (1883):
“Her two sons went into the field early in the late civil war with characteristic decision and zeal and with the ardent consent of their heroic mother, the one to give his life by a rifle shot, and the other to bring back from the prison house, the seeds of disease which have sapped an intensely vigorous and energetic constitution. The first was buoyant, brilliant and accomplished, as may be learned from the volume of letters printed for private distribution, which sparkle with wit, insight and humor-who read Sophocles by his camp fire, and sent his breezy comments to his friend and instructor.”
To learn more about the soldiers buried at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery read Final Camping Ground: Civil War Veterans at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, in Their Own Words by Jeffrey I. Richman.