Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Letters from the Front

In the age of instant communication, it is easy to forget about the fading art of letter writing. Letters sent home from the Civil War reveal the musings of a young man. The Sandusky Library Archive holds copies of letters written by young Horace Harper Bill. Bill was born April 4, 1842, in Sandusky, the son of Earl Bill Jr. and his wife Roxy. He died in the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. He was a Sergeant-Major in 1861, but he voluntarily surrendered his position and went back into the ranks as a Private so as to be in the line of promotion and was promoted to 2nd lieutenant company K.

In a letter written to his father from Camp Chase at Pawpaw VA, Feb. 15, 1862, he detailed his sheer exhaustion: “We returned here about ten to twelve o’clock last night, tired, worn out and half frozen; and a bed never felt so good to me as my blankets did after I swallowed a couple of eggs and a cup of coffee and jerked my boots off.”

In another letter to his father written in April, he wrote home simply so his family would know he was still alive, although his many near misses likely did little to quell his family’s concerns:

I have no other excuse for violating a military order from Genl. McClellan, prohibiting the writing of letters by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac than this—that I know you and the family are all anxious to hear that I am alive and unwounded after the Strasburg Reconnaissance and the battle of Winchester. The particulars of these two important engagements will be known to you before you receive this and I will not render myself liable to a military punishment by dwelling upon them or stating details of our army. Suffice it to say that our officers and men behaved like heroes and fought like demons. Our regiment was in advance Saturday evening, all day Sunday and until noon Monday and elicited the praise of our generals by their coolness and bravery. The eight won golden opinions and showed themselves inferior to no other regiment in the field in the elements of good soldiers. We won the name of the “bloody eight” at the expense of the dead, forty wounded and three prisoners—one of which escaped from Mt. Jackson and has just arrived in camp. Col. Carroll was brave as a lion and cool and collected as a veteran on the right wing he jumped off his horse, snatched a “Mississippi Yager” from the hands of a wounded Secesh, and led his wing afoot to the bloodiest charge of the day. He had one bullet hole through his overcoat and Col. Carroll had ten through his coat and one ball glanced on his sword belt. I had many narrow escapes during the Winchester fight and the Strasburg skirmish last week. My hair was clipped twice by musket balls and one spent ball struck the leg of my boot, in the skirmish on the left flank, Sunday morning, and several times during the day shells struck and exploded within a few yards of where I stood. But, it seems almost miraculously, I escaped unhurt. The left wing skirmish Sunday morning was the only one I was in during the day. The right wing did all the fighting in the afternoon.
I am a little under the weather today and am excused from duty. My feet are very sore from marching and I feel worn out “intirely” but I think it is only fatigue. Within eight days we (the eighth) have marched nearly one hundred miles and fought more than our share of two battles one of which takes rank as one of the hardest fights on record during this century—and I think I have a perfect right to be tired.

On June 12, 1862, he wrote to his sister Rose:
The roads, during the time of our marching, have been pretty good, and we had no trouble about getting our knapsacks hauled by the wagons, so that our burden was not so heavy as it might have been—and now that we have rested a day, I feel as well as ever. You would hardly imagine what we become accustomed to in these marches. One day on the march between Front Royal and here, the sun shone most beautifully in the morning and it was very warm—in fact uncomfortably so—but we marched on cheerily and after making eight miles stopped for dinner by a beautiful stream. We had our coffee and hard bread and started on—but the sky became overcast with clouds and the remainder of the day we marched under the most sever rain and hail I ever experienced. Our wagon stuck in the mud, and after fording three creeks, one nearly waist deep, we had to sleep without tents—but I found my way into a little outbuilding that had been a spring house and took a position on a barrel in a corner, drew up my feet and wrapped my rubber poncho about me, put my musket in the corner and went to sleep with my head leaning against the stone wall and slept as sweetly as ever I did at home. In the morning I made a cup of coffee and breakfasted on that and a piece of bacon toasted before the fire on a bayonet, marched back two miles to the teams and helped them out of the mud, and made my ten miles to Luray at the head of the Company, and thought nothing at all of it for it is a very common occurrence.

The following is excerpted from a letter to his sister written September 7, 1862, ten days before he died at the battle of Antietam:

I will give you what idea I can of your brother’s quarters. Imprimis. A piece of canvas 5 feet by 4, supported at one side by a couple of pieces rail driven into the ground, and held down at the other side by a couple of pegs, forms my house, castle, tent or whatever you choose to call it, containing bedroom, kitchen, dining room, pantry, grret, cellar and parlor. Secundis: a rubber blanket spread upon the ground composeth the furniture of said elegant and extensive mansion, answering the purpose of chairs, table, bed, bureau and provision chest. Tertus. My baggage is at Alexandria and nary clean shirt or socks has [been] seen since he left there, ten days ago and he has been marching over dusty or through muddy roads all the time. But I will begin to complain if I don’t stop thinking of such things, or will dry up.

Earl Bill Jr., Horace Harper Bill’s father, received a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Sawyer giving the particulars of his son’s death:

I sent a dispatch to be telegraphed you conveying the sad intelligence of your son’s death on the 17th, and now avail myself of the earliest opportunity to write you more particularly of the facts.
French’s Division, in which is our Brigade, forded Antietam Creek early on the morning of the 17th and engaged the enemy about quarter before nine, when one of the most sanguinary battles of the world was fought, lasting, in our front, for over four hours.
Lieutenant Horace H. Bill was in command of company K, of the 8th regiment, it’s captain being absent, sick, and most gallantly led his company upon the enemy, and fell early in the engagement, pierced with three balls—one in the head, one in the body, passing through his sword belt, and one in the leg. He was not conscious after this, but life was not entirely extinct until near night. I made every effort to have the body sent to the rear, and to procure a coffin for it, but this was impossible. Capt. James. E. Gregg superintended his burial, on the field, and marked his grave, and has his memorandum book, and perhaps other things. He had no sword of his own yet, but wore Capt. Pierce’s (his Captain).
I can not refrain from mentioning to you the general esteem for Harper by all. With me he had always been a favorite. As Sergeant-Major, he was one of our field’s staff family for over a year, and his uniform good conduct, kind heart, cheerful spirits, and constant attention to his duties, won the affections of all. Since his promotion to the Lieutenancy he has been the only officer with his Company, the Captain being absent, sick, and there being no other lieutenant. During this period we have been in active service constantly; and, although he was assigned to a command in which he was comparatively a stranger yet he had won the good will of all his men. During this march it was the turn for his company to go on picket in face of the enemy’s pickets. He took his company forward, and when I visited them, found he had selected excellent positions and made the best possible use of his men.
It would seem from a memorandum, written the morning of the battle, that he had a presentment that he would not survive the day, and requested that the event be telegraphed to you. I saw him but once that morning to speak to him, and that, just as we were priming our pieces, and amid a storm of balls he said, “Colonel, our men are in fine spirits this morning, and will show a big fight.” Just then we were ordered forward and I did not see him again except as he marched up at the head of his company.
Thus early in life has passed away one of our brave and promising youth. I can not, I presume, fully appreciate the sorrow and grief of his father and family in their sad affliction, but sincerely extend my sympathies to all his bereaved friends.

Horace Harper Bill is buried in Oakland Cemetery.

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