"As for Gen. Grants doing better with us than Hooker could, I don't believe it"
[18th Massachusetts Regiment]. Sergeant Edmund Churchill Archive
of Over Seventy Letters, dating from August 16, 1862, through
July 13, 1864. This fascinating archive of letters to family
members back home in Massachusetts is written by a color bearer for
the 18th Massachusetts Regiment, which fought in numerous major
engagements, including Gettysburg. Churchill remained in good
health and was not wounded, so the reader is allowed to follow the
18th through much of the war. Some letters include their original
transmittal envelopes. Age-toned letters with minor soiling and
occasional foxing and water damage.
Hailing from Plympton, Massachusetts, Edmund Churchill (1842-1921) enlisted as a private in the 18th Massachusetts, Co. "E", on August 9, 1862. He served as a color bearer, beginning only four months after he enlisted. He was promoted to sergeant on May 1, 1863, and was present at almost every battle that the 18th engaged in, including Bull Run, Antietam, Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. He mustered out on September 2, 1864. He had two brothers who also fought for the Union; one died of disease during the war and the other was killed at the Battle of Second Bull Run.
Edmund's first letter of the archive is dated August 16, 1862, from New York. In his letter dated September 8, 1862, following the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862), Churchill informs his father that his older brother Frederick was likely "wounded and taken prisoner." Churchill was hopeful that he would hear from his brother soon, and that he would be exchanged. Unfortunately, Fred had died in battle. Churchill also notes in this letter that his younger brother Theodore "looks as though he had seen hard times." Only months later in December, Theodore died of disease. Informing his father of the regiment's movements, Churchill writes on December 10, 1862, that the they would "probably cross the river below Fredericksburgh and as we are the center grand division we may have some work on our hands after crossing, unless the rebels fall back towards Richmond." The Rebels didn't fall back. In the private's next letter (dated December 25, 1862), he reports on the numerous deaths in his company. He also reports on his new position of color bearer: "Since the battle of the 13th, I have been color bearer having brought off our colors from the field under a heavy fire. I have no duty except to take the colors out when there is a parade or inspection. So you see I get clear of guard and fatigue work." On April 13, 1863, he writes that "we were reviewed by regiments by the President, Hooker, and Meade."
Churchill writes his family news about the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863) on May 15, 1863. The rain made the "campaign" miserable: "The last night at the front was the worst, as we had got pretty well wet that afternoon and then had to go out near our pickets and lay down in the mud and water to prevent being seen." On July 14, 1863, only days after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3), the soldier writes an optimistic letter to his family, reporting that his regiment is chasing General Lee's army: "There is a fine prospect of another victory if Lee will only remain this side of the [Potomac] river for a few days. We are right upon him taking good positions and feeling out the enemy. There is a hopeful look to our efforts now, we have only to keep on a few months and there will be but a shadow of this rebellion left." Four days later he notes from "Virginia 10 miles from Berlin Md" that his regiment had crossed the Potomac "at Berlin 6 miles below Harpers ferry at night yesterday. We are now on the road to Warrenton."
From Camp Barnes in Virginia on January 24, 1864, Churchill states: "There are a large number of guerrillas between here and Washington and they keep Greggs cavalry division busy nearly all the time. . . . This corps is stretched all the way from here to Alexandria to guard the rear of the army." Later in the same letter, he shows his disdain for Rebels while noting that one of the surgeon's wives had arrived: "I assure you its quite a treat to see a respectable white woman out here. Tis very seldom we see a white woman and what we do see are regular secesh dev_ls. That is the name we call them." From "Camp of the 18th Ret. Mass. V. Near Beverly Ford Va" on February 7, 1864, the color bearer reminds his family that they danger of war was never far away. Writing of a nearby battle: "The fighting lasted all day and evening. From 5 to 7 there was a continual roll of musketry. There is nothing definite known here in regard to the fight. . . . There was a light rain falling all day and night. How the poor wounded must have suffered with the cold and wet last night they only can know."
In the winter and spring of 1864, Churchill writes several thoughtful letters home, ruminating on the end of the war and the new commanding general-U. S. Grant. From "Camp Barnes, near Beverly Ford" on February 10, as the army prepared to "begin to hunt up the johnies," the soldier predicts a coming final struggle to end the war: "There will be a hard campaign for all of our armies in the spring. The enemy is making great preperations for the spring. They are forcing all the men capable of bearing arms into the service and no doubt will be able to meet us with a force larger than they had a year ago. Then will come the final struggle of the war. If we are successful I beating back the rebel hordes the war will be soon counted among the things that were. But should the men of the north refuse or neglect to come to our aid in overwhelming numbers then our efforts will be unavailing to being about a speedy peace and the war will drag along perhaps for years." A month later on March 20, he reports that the regiment was told to quickly prepare to march, with no further instructions. They struck out and marched to Rappahannock Station, where they halted for a short period and then returned. He learned later why they had gone: "Stewarts [Jeb Stuart's] rebel cavalry was reported to be moving to destroy the bridges on the railroad. Lucky for him he did not come as he would sure stood a . . . [illegible] chance with his eight thousand cavalry when the bridge was protected by . . . the hands of the 'old eighteenth.'"
From Beverly Ford on April 17, 1864, Churchill informs his family about hindrances for troop movements and something that General Grant needs to learn: "I have enough of mud last winter and spring. When Burnside got stuck in the mud in January, and then just after Chancellorsville fight. We had as much as we could do to get back from Chancellorsvill and even then had to wait several days to get our pontoons back from the river. . . . As for Gen. Grants doing better with us than Hooker could, I don't believe it. Grant will find it different to maneuver in Virginia than in the west. As long as we try to get into Richmond with this army and have no other army to cooperate it will be the same as it has all through the war."
Later in May, Churchill and his regiment fought in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864). On May 13, 1864, while "lying behind works" at Spotsylvania, he reports that the Rebels are "on a strong position around the court house and we a half mile to the north . . . quite a warm artillery fight." Three days later he informs his family that "this has been the hardest campaign we have had since I have been out here. we were under fire day and night from 10AM on the 5th till 7PM of the 14th, 10 days in all, since then we have been under arms all the time but have not been engaged. Our brigade has made three charges. . . . At present the two armies are fronting each other. . . . I think we are coming out alright on this campaign. Lees army has been pressed as never before. We will give him all he wants." On May 24 from "the south side of the North Anna river," the soldier notes that "Divisions had a hard fight here . . . yesterday. We gave the rebels an awful whipping. They attacked us and found to their sorrow that the old first divisions were no demoralized as ye though we have seen 15 days fighting . . . . Lees army is whipped as it never was before. . . . I guess the rebels will not venture to charge the old first division again." Churchill mustered out on September 2, 1864, and went home.
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