DescriptionWilmon W. Blackmar, Medal of Honor Recipient, Archive of Letters Relating to the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry (Anderson Troop). An extensive and remarkable archive consisting of 117 letters, various sizes and from various locations, dating from June 26, 1859 to March 16, 1865 (the bulk of the letters are from 1863 and 1864), including 112 letters to and from Blackmar, primarily from Blackmar to family members; two copies of letters made by Blackmar, one letter from Blackmar's father to his mother; and two other letters concerning Blackmar. Also in the archive is a typescript, one page, 5.5" x 8.5", of entries from Blackmar's diary covering March 14-23, 1864, a newspaper clipping from May 30, 1897 issue of the Boston Sunday Globe, entitled "Was the War Worth All It Cost?" co-authored by Blackmar; and an engraving of Blackmar in his GAR uniform, 6.25" x 9.75"; circa 1890s.
The first five letters in the collection are written by Blackmar to his parents from Bridgeport, Massachusetts, where he attended a normal school or a school to train high school graduates to be teachers. While these letters consisted of Blackmar's reports on school activities, one, dated February 1, 1860 referred to his reputation as a spiritualist, which he did not dispute. "It has found its way over school that Blackmar & his parents are 'Spiritualists' so I am regarded as a queer thing for the school is blue, blue, Orthodox. I rather like to be on the off side and am ready to answer any imputations that may be made against spiritualism, with the best of my ability. The boarding house mistress asked me the other day if my parents were Spiritualists. I replied, My mother & father have had six children four have gone to the spirit land the balance of their hopes and love is in another world & I can not blame them for taking any opportunity which is presented for communicating with the departed." In his last letter from normal school, misdated April 18, 1860 (it was 1861), Blackmar wrote his mother of war fever in Bridgeport and of his interest in joining the army. "Every thing and every body is in commotion about the war. They talk of raising a volunteer company in this place. Would you & Father have any objections to my joining such a company? We all went to the depot last night and saw the car loads of soldiers go by. We cheered them and shook them by the hand and wished them a true 'God's speed.'" It is not known how Blackmar's parents responded to his question concerning joining the army, but he did not enlist at the time, instead he moved on to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In August 1862, Blackmar was working in a store in Philadelphia for the summer. In a letter to his father, dated August 17, he wrote of his conflicted feelings about enlisting. "There are a thousand thoughts flitting through my brain, and one minute I think my path is with the Army then I think of Exeter, of Law with Shepherd-of Mother & Father left alone-of death in some Southern State far from friends and kin....Every young man who has been blessed by living in America should take up arms in her defense, unless he can give an honest excuse, now can I?"
Soon after writing this letter to his father, Blackmar enlisted in the Anderson Troop in Boston, Massachusetts. In an August 31 letter to his mother, written from Camp Alabama in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Blackmar thanked his parents for taking "so sensible a view of my enlisting." The remaining letters in the archive concern Blackmar's activities in the Anderson Troop or the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, including descriptions of the routines of camp life, his health, fellow soldiers, his efforts to be transferred to another regiment, details battles and engagements with enemy soldiers, as well as family matters. Blackmar came under enemy fire for the first time when his company was on a scouting mission near Antietam, during that famous battle. He describes this in a September 23 letter to his mother and brother. "On Saturday last I was on picket duty and under fire for the first time. None of us were hurt as all the shot and shell were too high or low. I saved a six pound ball which came down near my horse and shall send it to Orison to keep for me as a memento of my first day under fire."
In early November 1862, the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry left Pennsylvania for Louisville, Kentucky, and then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, a month later and were attached to the Army of the Cumberland. It was not long before Blackmar was in the middle of serious fighting. On January 2, 1863, in the midst of the Battle of Stone's River, Blackmar wrote to his mother, describing his role in the engagement. "I suppose you have heard that we are fighting here in this department, yes, indeed, we are...On the day after Christmas, a part of our Regt. started for the field. We met nothing that day, but...the next day...before going far, we were made aware of the enemy's presence, and then ensued a running fight, lasting all day. We were under heavy fire from artillery, and the shells flew lively. We drove them and did well....Monday we had the advance again and felt our way along until near night, when one of our Majors, junior major, found the enemy posted in a wood and corn field. We-only 150 of us-rushed to his rescue, as the enemy were pressing him and his twenty men very hard. We left the turnpike and charged in splendid style through a piece of woods toward the cornfield, but, sad to say, we were outnumbered, for a whole South Carolina Brigade were there concealed and swept us down, men and horses. Both Majors fell, one pierced nine times, the other probably mortally wounded. My horse fell with others, and, as he was going at such a rate, the impetus threw him clear over and I under him. The weight was very great, but I was out from under him and he up in a twinkle....Wednesday afternoon, we, with some other cavalry, charged Wheeler's Brigade, and had the glorious pleasure of bringing off their colors....O, I have lived so much within this Christmas week-so far, I have been perfectly cool and indifferent under fire not being at all troubled as to myself."
All was not well in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, however. Angry due to the lack of officers, inadequate equipment and weapons, and enlistment inducements that never materialized, all but 300 of the enlisted men refused an order to march on December 26, 1862, towards the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro. More than 400 soldiers were arrested for insubordination. About half were reinstated when General William S. Rosecrans offered to release from confinement those immediately willing to be restored to duty. Those who refused remained in confinement. Blackmar wrote home about this situation in a January 19, 1863 letter, in which he expresses his mixed feelings. "I am very sad because our Regt. is so disorganized. I suppose you have heard by the papers and by other means that our Regt. refused to go into battle, no doubt some of the papers make it appear that we are all cowards for they neither do or wish to understand why we did not all go into the fight. I thought we all ought to go and so did some others, and so we went...but still we think and know we have been wronged and abused-and in point of fact we-who went-sympathize with our comrads [sic] now under arrest but we do not think that they are pursuing just the right course." Blackmar had more to say about the regiment's troubles in February 1, 1863 letter, in which he stated that they "grieve me very sorely. I wish the Regt. could be disbanded....Never was there better material for a Regt. than this Regt. had. The boys knew too much to be led by the boyish imbeciles who Gov. Curtin was unfortunate enough to commission as our Officers. There seems to have been a few men in the Old Troop, but most of them are fit for nothing else than to hold a general's stirrup when he mounts, beyond this they seem to fail-and when the worthy Gov. of Penn. put shoulder straps on them he made the veriest [sic] pack of fools that ever disgraced a military coat....We heartily sympathize with our comrads [sic] now under arrest, and protest against their being punished but we did not like their way of demanding redress, they are noble fellows and should have support, for they have suffered much to have justice done them."
A day after writing the letter just cited, Blackmar sent another letter to his father in which he lambasted the Copperheads and other Democrats critical of Lincoln's war policy, or in his words "wicked politicians, those wolves in sheeps clothing" who endeavor "to consummate a peace at the expense of Humanity, National Pride & Justice. They who oppose our Worthy President, are Rebels of a darker & meaner dye than those who have the spirit to take arms against the Union....Right triumphed for once in America and elected Lincoln. The other parties can not oppose the Republicans by fair means so they descend to chicanery, and even sacrifice National Honor, to gain their means."
In an April 18, 1863 letter from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to his father, Blackmar relayed interesting information about a Catholic priest, Father Tracy, who was General Rosecrans "spiritual advisor." "I was yesterday introduced to Father Tracy...he is a very sociable man and does not hesitate to take a glass of toddy with his friends & often takes a hand at Euchre-he also loves the weed....Father Tracy is a brave man. You have heard of the manner in which Gen. Rosecrans exposed himself to the enemy's fire in the late battle, and by his intrepid example saved the day, well Father Tracy was on horseback and at the Generals side all the time-and where death was almost certain there was Father even exhorting the troops as he rode up & down the line to do their duty."
Blackmar's regiment saw very little action since early January 1863. During the winter and spring of that year, Blackmar suffered several bouts of illness, including one that necessitated a furlough to Louisville, Kentucky, in May to recover from an intestinal disorder. He ended up staying with a slave-holding family, who provided excellent care. In a May 18, 1863 letter to his mother, Blackmar wrote that "I am now dwelling in fairy land and fast getting well. If I was the first born, the only child, of this house I could not be treated better." In between his bouts of sickness, Blackmar was attempting, through the aid of friends at home in Boston, to be transferred from the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry to a Massachusetts regiment. He remained in Louisville until the middle of July to regain his strength. While he cheered Union victories at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Gettysburg, he condemned the draft riots in New York City. As he wrote in a July 15, 1863 letter, "The Riot in New York is a disgrace and the way that Gov. Seymore [Seymour] does not put it down is still more a disgrace."
The Army of the Cumberland, under General Rosecrans, in their offensive in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia ended at the Battle of Chickamauga, fought on September 18-20, 1863, in which Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg defeated the Union forces. Writing to his mother from Chattanooga on September 21, Blackmar, whose regiment was attached to the Army of the Cumberland, claimed "the fight has been terrible and for looks bad for us. We hope to retrieve today what we lost yesterday." Two days later, in a letter to his parents, Blackmar wrote more of the battle and General Rosecrans' bravery in defeat. "Sunday was terrible. Rosy. tried hard to stem the tide of battle but all his personal daring was of no avail. He was where death reigned, and altho bullets were thick, he escaped....The Rebs. had an immense force from the Potomac they greatly outnumbered us...we hope to hold out until reinforced, or until Bragg is weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet."
On November 23, 1863, Blackmar wrote to his father that the Battle of Lookout Mountain had "opened and rages fiercely this afternoon, principally Artillery. Hooker came into Chatt[anooga] last night and pushed front....So far we have the advantage and have taken an Alabama Regt. prisoners....I do not know as I shall be personally under fire unless sent on duty to the Front." The next day, Blackmar reported "Two days of terrible fighting-to day Hooker us gallantly charging Lookout a daring feat, but we can see from here that he drives them splendidly. I hope he can hold what we can see he has won." In a brief November 26 letter home, Blackmar reports on the Union victory. "I have only time to say...that we have won a wonderful, and important victory. I was not under fire but have today been over the field, and seen 30 pieces which were captured....Considering the advantage gained, the almost impossible places charged & taken, our loss is slight."
General George H. Thomas succeeded Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. The year 1864 began with Blackmar serving as part of General Thomas's headquarters escort in Chattanooga. He was still hoping for a transfer to a Massachusetts cavalry or artillery unit, and would even consider commanding a black cavalry regiment, though he would prefer a promotion to a white regiment. On January 18 he wrote,"In regard to Negro Troops I am strongly in favor of raising them especially Cavalry for I am sure they would make good cavalry men but I have gained a position only one step from a Com in a white cavalry Regt. of the first water, and having so long commanded white men who are my peers, I should much prefer to command a white Regt. during the remainder of my term." Blackmar was a cavalryman through and through, believing that cavalry units were the key to the Union Army's success. "If we only had a large Cavalry force in the field now we could finish this rebellion by two or three well directed Raids on the Communications from Richmond, Charleston and Atlanta, but our Government has never see the necessity of large Cavalry forces and therefore many a well won field has been almost barren of results because we could not pursue with cavalry the disorganized Enemy."
By the end of February 1864, Blackmar had a prospect of being transferred to the 1st Virginia Cavalry, which he hoped would come to pass. As he wrote in a February 23 letter to his father, Blackmar wrote that his position "as 1st Sergt. is a good one as to be a 1st Sergt. here over such men as compose my Regt. is quite an honor. My chances of promotion are good, but still I should be foolish to refuse a certainty for the sake of a possibility therefore I would gladly accept a commission in the 1st Va." While stationed in Chattanooga, Blackmar sent home a printed speech of General James A. Garfield, chief of staff to General Rosecrans and future president of the United States. In a February 28 letter in which the speech was enclosed, Blackmar claimed that Garfield was "a fine man and perfect gentleman. We all loved him and are proud to hear him speak for our Rosey...keep this speech among my most valuable trinkets. I wish to read it often when I get home."
Blackmar's commission in the 1st Virginia Cavalry came through in early March 1864. In a March 10 letter to his father, Blackmar mentioned that he was waiting for the official paperwork to arrive in Chattanooga and that his men demonstrated their affection for him despite the fact that he performed his duty as 1st Sergeant, which was not usually a popular position with troops. "Since the boys got wind that I was to leave them there have been many demonstrations of regard on their part which touch one to the heart. My company seem to really love me....I do not speak of their love boastingly but thankfully, for it is seldom an Orderly Sergt. succeeds in governing his Company well without making enemies of the men, he it is who must make all details, enforce attendance to roll calls & drill, fatigue, etc. He must also decide many petty questions arising, and worse than all punish the shortcomings of the men by a judicious use of 'Extra duty' etc." Blackmar received his discharge on March 14 and the next day he started for his new regiment.
Wilmon W. Blackmar (1841-1905) was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania. In August 1861, while attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he returned home to Pennsylvania and in August 1862 enlisted in the Anderson Troop, afterwards known as the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, participating in various engagements with Company H and later Company K in the Western Theater and with the Army of the Potomac, including the Battle of Antietam, and was subsequently promoted to corporal, sergeant, 1st sergeant, and then to first lieutenant in charge of Company H of the 1st West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry, to which he had been transferred. For his heroism at the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia on 1 April 1865, in which he formed a line and charged into Confederate forces, causing them to disperse, Blackmar was promoted to the rank of captain by General George Custer and subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest and most prestigious personal military decoration bestowed for acts of valor in service of their country. He later served as Provost Marshal and Assistant Adjutant General to Colonel Henry Capehart of General Custer's Third Division of General Phil Sheridan's Cavalry before Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Blackmar mustered out of the army at the conclusion of the war, graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, studied law at the Harvard Law School, and married Helen Brewer in 1880, living in both Boston and Hingham, Massachusetts, until his death. He served as a lawyer and then, upon retirement, as judge advocate to several Massachusetts governors. Blackmar was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1904.
Condition: Most letters have usual folds but otherwise in overall good condition.
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