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    "I saw sights too sickening to relate"

    [Suffolk Campaign]. Lieutenant Selwyn Bickford Archive, consisting of three letters (all dated from Suffolk, Virginia, between December 20, 1862, and April 24, 1863) and one carte de visite. All letters measure 7.75" x 12.5". Lieutenant Bickford, a twenty-nine-year-old Massachusetts clerk, enlisted as a first lieutenant in Company "G", 6th Massachusetts Infantry, in August 1862. He mustered out in June 1863. The lieutenant's letters tell the story of Bickford and the 6th Massachusetts marching to Suffolk and then participating in the first days of the Siege of Suffolk. Bickford's lucid writing is full of battle details.

    The first letter is six pages from "Camp Sixth Mass. Volunteers, Suffolk, Virginia," December 20, 1862. Shortly after arriving at Suffolk, Bickford describes in this letter his "first experience under fire" during a battle on the Blackwater River, sometimes referred to as the Skirmish at Blackwater Creek, west of Suffolk. As Bickford's regiment marched toward the battle, he saw that an acquaintance, Lieutenant Robert G. Barr, had been killed. "I saw him as he went by with his company, he looked toward me as he passed and nodded; it seemed not more than five minutes before he was brought along a corpse, it shocked me more than any thing else that happened that day. . . . The first we knew, bang went a gun from a rebel battery and a shell exploded over our heads. They came thick and fast, and we were ordered to lie down flat on our faces. The pieces flew thick about us, both shell and solid shot, they had got our range perfectly. One piece came within a yard of me." After the battle, the company retreated back to camp where they counted "our loss was five killed and eleven wounded." They then marched fifty-five miles to Suffolk, arriving in two days.

    The next letter is seven and one-half pages from "Camp Sixth Mass. Volunteers, Suffolk, Virginia," February 2, 1863. "The attack on this place has not yet taken place, but the rebels are about here rather thick," Bickford writes. He goes on to report about a night of heavy artillery fire he and his company experienced. As his company was marching ten miles from Suffolk, they stumbled across Rebel pickets. A battle ensued. "In front on both sides the batteries were firing, twelve guns on our side, and fifteen on the rebel. They had got our range, and they rained round shot, shell grape & canister upon us in terrible procession. Before we had been there five minutes a shell burst over us, killing a Lieutenant and two men and taking off the leg of one and the arm of another, all in Company B, of the 6th. They are the next company to us, and were within two yards of me. I heard it sound 'thug' as it struck and then heard the poor men groan. . . . Branches of trees were cut off over our heads and fell on us. . . . For three hours we lay and took that storm." The scene that Bickford saw at first light deeply affected him: "I saw sights too sickening to relate. . . . Our entire loss is twenty six killed and seventy-six wounded. . . . The more that I see of the horrors of war, the less taste I have for it." The regiment then marched back to Suffolk.

    The final letter is four pages from Suffolk, Virginia, April 24, 1863, to "My Dear Friend Anderson." In this letter, Bickford tells about the initial Confederate assault on Suffolk. It began on April 11 when "the advance force of the rebel army, under Gen. Longstreet came upon us driving in our pickets on the three main roads leading into the town. Immediately the scene about town was stirring in the extreme." The quick and decisive battle that Bickford expected did not happen. Instead, "the artillery of both sides fired volleys." The armies were so close that Bickford could write that the "rebel campfires are distinctly visible . . . and we can plainly hear their band playing, when we are on our picket post. Since the siege commenced we have been refreshed with the presence of Gen. Halleck, Dix, and Keyes among us."

    The Suffolk Campaign lasted from April 11 through May 4, 1863. Though the Confederates outnumbered the Union, the Union still repelled them. All letters are written on lined paper with only minor stains. The final pages of the February 2, 1863, letter (four integral pages) contains a hole in the center vertical fold resulting in the minor loss of text.

    Also included is a Selwyn E. Bickford Carte de Visite Inscribed. 4.25" x 2.5". Bickford, posing in Union uniform, has inscribed on the verso, "Truly Yours, / Selwyn E. Bickford / 1st Lt. Co. G. / 6th Mass. Vols." Minor foxing and toning.


    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    October, 2013
    17th-18th Thursday-Friday
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