Description

    Written from the Gettysburg battlefield: "War is a horrible thing"

    Thirty-Five Civil War-Dated Letters from Corporal Henry A. Cornwall of the 20th Connecticut Infantry. All letters are dated between February 12, 1863, and April 28, 1865, and were written from numerous Union camps as Corporal Cornwall marched with his "knapsack and Musket Rifle" through Virginia, Pennsylvania (Gettysburg), Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama, and, near the end of the war, with Sherman through Georgia and North Carolina (Cornwall was ill when the army moved through South Carolina). The highlights of these letters, all of which are written to Cornwall's parents, include one written following the Battle of Gettysburg and numerous others written during the Campaign for Atlanta.

    Henry Cornwall was fresh off of his father's tobacco farm near Portland, Connecticut, when he enlisted in August 1862 into the 20th Connecticut. He received minor injuries at Chancellorsville in May 1863 when a shell burst near him as he explains in a letter written on June 1, 1863, "It knocked me down. . . . I had a violent pain in my head." Within a month, he was back in battle at Gettysburg. There, his regiment helped defend Culp's Hill for seven hours against General Richard Ewell's advances. In a two and one-half page letter written on July 4[?] from "the entrenchments in front of Gettysburg, Penn," Cornwall informs his parents that "We had a hard fought battle of 7 ½ hours and defeated them. We went to reinforce our left and they came into the Breastwork while we were gone. The fight has been going on for four days but we were engaged all the while. . . . The fight has not been renewed this morning yet but may be at any time. . . . We had a long and tiresome march here and hard fighting. I am about played out but shall try and hold out until we have a chance to rest. . . . The ground outside of the works is covered with the dead. . . . War is a horrible thing and will soon end I hope." Following the battle, the young soldier was promoted to corporal.

    In the spring of 1864, Cornwall's regiment joined General Sherman's invasion of Georgia. As they marched toward the ultimate goal of Atlanta, the 20th Connecticut engaged a Confederate force outside of Cassville, Georgia. Cornwall explained to his parents in a letter, "I have passed through another terrible Battle and come out safe and unharmed while thousands were either killed or wounded. . . . For the past 13 days we have been hearing of cannon and musketry though not actually engaged. . . . On Sunday however we were ordered in. . . . Our Division was ordered to charge and charge they did as far as I can hear. They rushed up a Hill in the face of a murderous fire drove the Rebs Pell-Mell from their guns and took the fortifications and four guns. . . . I heard enough of the whistling and Bullets to Remind me of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville." That night, the Rebels "sneaked off" and the 20th captured Cassville.

    As the Union Army closed in on Atlanta during the Campaign for Atlanta, Cornwall kept his parents apprised of the army's advances, informing them on July 11, 1864, "We came to this place [Marietta, Georgia] from Acworth on the [railroad] cars. . . . Our forces are within about eight miles of Atlanta." In that letter, he requested that his parents "send me some more velvet for stripes on my pants. We all want to 'slick up' and look as neat as possible while in town." The velvet arrived on July 25, insuring that the soldier looked his best when he and his regiment were the first Union troops to march into Atlanta on September 2. His letter dated September 6, 1864, from Atlanta explained, "Atlanta's taken. . . . The mayor of the city came out and surrendered the city to the commander of our party, so the 3rd Div. 20th A.C.[?] has the honor of first entering the city. The citizens, most of them, were glad to see us - and waved hats and handkerchiefs to the boys as they marched along. On the 4th the whole Div. left the ford and marched into the city. I wish you could have seen us as we marched in. we entered the city with bands playing and colors flying. The inhabitants were out on the walks or stood in their doors - the Bands played 'Rally round the flag boys', Red white and blue and other patriotic pieces. . . . The destruction of property private and public was immense. . . . The Reb Army are terribly defeated and are tired and sick of the war, as are nearly all of the citizens of this State. I wish you [could] see the effects of our shells in the houses and trees in that portion of the city exposed to our fire. . . . In some places shell went into one end of a house and out at the other or burst inside tearing everything all to pieces. . . . Citizens lived in the cellars or dug holes in the ground. . . . Genl Sherman's main army is about 25 miles from here and has had several hard fights. . . . I think the Reb Army is pretty well whipped in this department. . . . Ever since the first of May [we] have been marching and fighting. This is the longest campaign of the war and I think it has accomplished the most. I hope Grant will get Richmond and Petersburg then perhaps the rebs will begin to talk about peace."

    In November 1864, Cornwall and his regiment joined Sherman's March to the Sea. At some point in the march, Cornwall became ill and was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to recuperate. His fervor to continue fighting for victory, though, was not dampened. From Chattanooga he wrote, "I am not discouraged one bit by the hard times, I am for the Union now and forever. Hurrah. I wish I could go and help Sherman siege Charleston. He is the Gentleman that can take it - Billy Sherman is the boy." In the early spring of 1865, the corporal rejoined his regiment and on April 15, 1865, he wrote from Raleigh, North Carolina, that he had "news of Lee's surrender to Lt. Gen. Grant. . . . What poor old Jef [Davis] will do I cannot imagine. Gen Sherman is giving Johnson no rest or peace. . . . 'Tis rumored upon pretty good authority that Reb Gen Hardee was in town to see about negotiations for the surrender of Johnstons Army and that Gen Sherman had gone to confer with him, if this is true (and we have every reason to believe it is) Jef Davis and his Confederacy have 'gone up'. Hurrah for the old Union and flag long may it wave. . . . I wonder now what 'Southern Chivalry' thinks about 'Northern Mudsills and Greasy Mechanics'."

    Finally on April 28, 1865 - two days after General Joseph Johnston received General Sherman's final surrender terms - Cornwall wrote from Raleigh, "We have just returned from the front - Reb Gen Johnston has surrendered. We left Raleigh a few days since and marched out to where the line was established between he two Armies. Ready to pounce upon the rebels as soon as Gen Sherman said the word. But 'tis all over now no more fighting is the word among the boys. . . . I tell you the assassination of President Lincoln has entirely changed the feelings of this army to all Rebels in Arms. 'They are a treacherous set the whole of them and ought to be wiped from the face of God's Earth.' . . . This is a fair specimen of the feelings of the soldiers to the death of our beloved Commander in Chief and while we lament his death we stand ready with willing hearts and hands to obey the commands of our new President for the further suppression of the Rebellion and the punishment of traitors."

    Cornwall's thirty-five letters are full of additional information concerning troop movements, news of fellow soldiers and officers, politics, sicknesses, deserter executions, comrade deaths, battle preparations, rations, comments on the countryside, the general hardships of soldier life, and uncertainty about surviving the war. In his letter dated June 24, 1863, he writes an account of having dinner with a southern "private family" in Virginia.

    The young corporal mustered out of service on June 13, 1865. He lived a long life until his death in 1898. (Included is an itemized invoice issued to the "Estate of Mr. Henry Cornwall" and dated September 20, 1898, from Cornwall's undertaker.) This historically important collection of Civil War letters has been well cared for; complete transcripts are included.


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    December, 2010
    11th Saturday
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