Wallis: Civil War Letters

May 22, 2014

This year, spring has taken me back one hundred and fifty years to a time when the Army of the Potomac stirred from its winter camps when the summer campaigns - and the killing season - began.

I was dining with my parents last fall when my dad said - as casually as he might speak of the weather - that he was wondering what to do with my Great Great Grandfather’s Civil War letters. At the age of fifty, this was the first I’d ever heard of them. So all winter, I had one foot in the present and one in the past, transcribing dozens of letters from the Civil War.

My Great Great Grandfather, Major James W. Welch of the 19th Maine Volunteers wrote with a slanting text, difficult to read. The turns of phrase were as interesting as the adventures; I now plan never to arrive at 5:30 but instead to arrive at five and a half o’clock.

Major Welch and his regiment fought valiantly at Gettysburg. On the second day Welch suffered a head wound. Bleeding, he was helped from the field, but returned the next day and helped to fend off Pickett’s charge near the high water mark of the Confederacy.

By this April, my transcribing had reached letters from the Spring of 1864. The Union Army was packing up tents and heading out. Major Welch did not know where to, but he hoped it was, “On to Richmond .” On April 21st, he encouraged his wife Marge to care for his grape vine and give it plenty of dishwater to drink. In one letter home, he enclosed a Magnolia blossom, a tree not found Down East.

In early May, Margie wrote a couple of anxious missives to the Major, because she had heard there might be a terrible battle. James often wrote, “don’t borrow trouble,” when she voiced such concerns. But on May 12th, 1864, t here was a terrible battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Considered one of the most horrific days of the war, a seething mass of humanity fought in rain and mud for a full day at a place called the Bloody Angle.

Major Welch, in command of his regiment on that day, described the battle as “the greatest fighting that the world ever saw.” A bullet passed through his left thigh, gouged the bone and struck the other leg. He wrote, “The day I was wounded, we attacked the enemies line at day light and took their first line of breast works. I took a rebel flag on the breastworks and I have it now.” The flag was from the 33rd Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s old command. A grainy old news reel on the Internet shows Vermont’s President Coolidge returning the flag to Virginia, and the Virginia Historical Society has it now .

Having learned all this, it’s tempting to consider becoming a Civil War re-enactor. My patient husband tells me that he will still love me - even if I do.