DescriptionCivil War Archive of Letters of Ira F. Gensel, 4th U.S. Infantry. An extensive and remarkable archive consisting of approximately 152 letters, including 145 letters to his fiancée, Miss Annie G. Robinson, 10 on patriotic letterhead, along 117 cancelled postal covers (including one with a rare "Congress" postmark); one letter dictated by Gensel; 2 letters from Annie G. Robinson to Gensel, and 4 letters written by others concerning Gensel's hospitalization and death.
Ira Fox Gensel (1831-1862) was a shoemaker and a court clerk in Doylestown, Pennsylvania before April 1861, when he enlisted as a private in the Doylestown Guards, which soon became Company 1, 25th Pennsylvania Infantry. Gensel went to Washington, DC, with Company 1 and received a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry in August 1861. A year later, in August 1862, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, Company D, 4th U.S. Infantry. He also served as Provost Marshall of his company. Gensel was present at the battles of Yorktown, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Bull Run, and Antietam. Gensel was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg and died of his wounds in Washington, DC, in December 1862. He was buried in Doylestown Cemetery in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Gensel's letters to Annie Robinson, who was living in Rock Island, Illinois, date from April 20, 1861, when he was about to depart with the Doylestown Guards from his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to December 8, 1862, when he was camped outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. A final letter to his fiancée, written on December 16, 1862, Gensel's informs her of his hospitalization resulting from receiving a severe wound at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Gensel's letters, averaging 2-4 pages in length, offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a Union soldier during the first two years of the Civil War. The earliest letters in this collection concentrate on Gensel's expression of love for Annie, including asking for her hand in marriage, discussing news from home and about his fellow soldiers, his optimism concerning a quick end to the war, and his promotions as 2nd and 1st Lieutenant.
Gensel's letters are written almost daily from camps in and around Harrisburg and York, Pennsylvania, Governor's Island, New York, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC, and several locations in Virginia. As Gensel's company gets closer to the war, his letters become filled with updates on camp life, troop movements, and the occasional hardships of camp life. In one letter, written in Washington, DC, on July 26, 1861, Gensel describes Union soldiers arriving in the capital from the Battle of Bull Run that had taken place five days earlier: "Washington City is just now wild with excitement. Thousands of troops are arriving continually and as many returning to their homes. Those returning home are almost over come with fatigue and many a poor fellow returns a cripple for life, hundreds are returning wounded, some of them badly and maimed for life. Thus it is in war."
Two interesting documents are included in the archive. One is a Confederate bank draft for 25 cents to the Farmers Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, and dated October 1, 1861. This was given to Gensel by a Confederate prisoner under his custody in April 1862. The other is letter from Lucy E. Curtis, a Southern property owner dated April 11, 1862, seeking protection from Union soldiers who were "committing depredations" against her family and property. Gensel forwarded the letter to a Lieutenant Birbank ordering the arrest of the Union soldiers.
In addition to these two documents, Gensel would occasionally enclose newspaper clippings and poems he wrote. In a May 20, 1862 letter to Annie, he enclosed a dried flowers (still with the letter) from Martha Washington's birthplace.
By April of 1862 Gensel was witnessing first hand battles as well as the horrors of war. On April 16 he wrote of an incident he witnessed while out riding near enemy lines in Yorktown, Virginia: "This morning I was riding out to the front...and the enemy's lines when our guns commenced firing. There was no response from the enemy for some time. At last they returned the fire. I stopped my horse for some time to see. Presently a cannon ball from one of the enemy's guns struck one of artillerymen cutting him in two, & killing him instantly."
While stationed outside of Yorktown, Gensel was reminded of the battle that took place there during the American Revolution and looked forward to defeating the Confederacy on that same battlefield. On April 23, 1862, he wrote: "They [the Confederate Army] must be crushed. The laws must be executed, the Constitution defended, the Union preserved. Until this is accomplished, I am for War, War, War, bloody though it may be. Genl. McClellan with the Army of the Potomac is now on the last battlefield of the American Revolution and surrounded by all the glorious memories of "the times that tried men's souls.'"
Gensel was a strong supporter of General George McClellan. In a May 3, 1862 letter from Yorktown, he defends the general against his critics: "McClellan's men have undivided confidence in him. To a General the confidence of his men is victory unless overpowered by superior numbers. No danger of that at Yorktown, the rebels have not got them. The fault finding and impatience you speak of existing in Rock Island is caused from the terrible crime ignorance. Many are finding fault and condemning McClellan to-day because he does not advance. A thing utterly impossible even if there were not more than one half the rebel batteries or obstructions....He is going to save life if possible, not sacrifice it unnecessarily. If the time comes and the fight is desperate, 'George's' boys as we are called will be ready to perform any duty required."
Writing from Cold Harbor, Virginia, on May 25, 1861, Gensel is less optimistic about the war, especially of taking Richmond. He bemoans the treatment of wounded Union troops by Southern women and Confederate soldiers and even questions the value of human life in the army: "The sick soldier is treated worse than a dog by the women and our wounded are treated by those in the rebel army far worse than if they had fell into the hands of Savages. I have no sympathy or pity for any one of them I get hold of and I feel confident that the best of them would cut my throat or hang me on the nearest tree if they only had a chance. Before I entered the army I had thought that human life was sacred above everything else, but I begin to look upon the life of one man as of no consequence or importance to anyone in the army but himself. If his health is good he fares as well as soldiers generally do. If however sickness should prostrate him, he is about half taken care of at best for that is all that can be. He soon wishes himself dead, and then ten chances to one dies. In an hour perhaps afterwards a hole is dug along the road, he is wrapped up in his blanket for a shroud. No coffin not even a box enclose his remains, and he is covered up much like a dog."
In an August 13, 1862 letter from Harrison's Landing, Virginia, Gensel is feeling more optimistic about the Union cause: "I am rejoiced to see that the President is becoming fully aroused to the magnitude of this rebellion and is determined to crush it by using all the means in his power. There is nothing so welcome to us-as to know that we are no longer to be left fighting against three times our numbers while there are thousands to help...Treason & Rebellion will not only now see the handwriting on the wall-and all their cherished hopes crushed and blasted forever-but proud and perfidious England, as well as all the rest of the world will look on in utter amazement to see out armies rush to the rescue of their Government, their Country, and its flag, which is still destined to wave over land and sea-though all the world should combine against it. Day is once more breaking. A Republican Government is no longer an experiment. The dark clouds which have so long hung over our Nation are clearing away-and the glorious Sun of Pittsburg Landing, and Malvern Hill shines forth in all its glory."
As a McClellan man, Gensel was no admirer of General Pope. After his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Gensel, in a September 4, 1862 letter, criticized the general and looked forward to the return of McClellan: "Wonder what the people will now say of Gen. Pope-Think the stock will go down about as fast as it went up. He is a humbug-at least so much so that Little Mac has again full command of the armies of Virginia."
Writing from the Antietam battlefield, Gensel provides a brief description of the famous engagement: "I have just passed through another great battle. It commenced on Wednesday Morning at daylight and continued until after Nightfall. The rebels fought desperately contesting every inch of the ground, we drove them on all sides and now hold their line of battle they having fallen back. Why the fight was not resumed yesterday I don't know. Suppose it will be this morning. I am uninjured but can't say well. I have been in the fight all through the night."
Gensel was proud of McClellan's victory at Antietam and was thus disappointed when Lincoln later relieved the general of his command of the Army of the Potomac. Writing from Warrenton, Virginia, on November 12, 1861, Gensel had this to say about Lincoln's act: "I am of course ignorant of the causes which led the President to do it, but with what little information I possess I cannot but look upon, and regard it as an unwise, impolitic an ill-timed act. I do not pause, stop, or care to argue whether Gen. McClellan was a good or poor general, or whether during the time he has commanded the Army of the Potomac, he has or has not committed grave blunders. If he was a prudent-capable General he should have been continued in command, if an incompetent one he should have been removed long ago. I will say here and all will and must admit, that Gen. McClellan has the most unbounded, and unlimited confidence of his troops-which is not the case with any other General in the field."
In his last letter to Annie, written on December 16, 1862, Gensel informs her that he had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg: "The wound though severe is not mortal. I proceed to Washington on the Cars this evening and will go to some convenient hospital when you will hear from me in a day or two."
The last letter in the archive from Gensel was dictated to his nurse in an army hospital in Washington, DC, and addressed to John Brock, who served as executor of Gensel's estate after his death. In the letter, dated December 21, 1862, Gensel sounds confident that he will recover: "I am wounded in the left side or hip. My wound is not considered dangerous. I am now in this hospital, and have engaged a lady, Mrs. Capt. Evans, to nurse me. I have a good surgeon, and comfortable quarters, and I think with proper care I shall soon be able to be about."
Gensel died a week later on December 28, 1862. The archive includes a telegram, dated December 29, 1862, sent to Annie Robinson, informing her of Gensel's death. Among the letters concerning Gensel's passing is one written to Annie, dated January 20, 1863, from the nurse who treated Gensel. There are also two handwritten legal documents, probably in the hand of John Brock, concerning the Gensel's estate, and a modern photograph, 5.75" x 5," of Gensel's gravestone in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
The letters in this significant archive, along with a CDV of Gensel in uniform taken at Whithurst Gallery in Washington, DC, circa December 1861, several newspaper clippings and poems written by Gensel, as well as the other enclosures mentioned above, are housed in two binders. In addition to the two binders, the archive also includes 9 manuscript poems by Gensel, 3 of which are signed by him; one envelope of newspaper clippings, presumably from Gensel's hometown, which include letters from Gensel with military news; and one envelope of what appears to be several pieces of a letter from Gensel, possibly to Annie Robinson.
Condition: Most of the letters are written on bifolia measuring 7.25" x 9 7/8"; 7.5" x 9.75"; and 4.75" x 6.50," and run 2-4 pages in length. Most of the letters have vertical and horizontal folds, with a small number having an occasional small tear at the intersection of some folds, but not affecting text. A couple of the 1862 letters have a light brown toning streak down the middle of the letter, but without affecting the text. Overall the condition of the letters and other documents is very good.
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