Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    John Francis King, 42nd and 190th Pennsylvania Infantry Archive. A large archive of over 80 letters, dating from circa August 1861 to June 7, 1865. The archive also contains some additional letters from other authors and postwar Pension Office documents. The letters, addressed to King's fiancé Martha, provide details on nearly every aspect of soldier life, with articulate and thoughtful descriptions of his near four years of service.

    Francis John "Frank" King was born January 26, 1838 in Suffolk, England. At some point before the Civil War, he immigrated to the United States. Although he came from a Quaker family, King enlisted as a private in August 1861, and was mustered into Company I of the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry, also known as the Bucktail Regiment. On May 31, 1864, he transferred to Company I of the 190th Pennsylvania Infantry. During the war, he was taken prisoner twice, and was wounded at the Battle of Gaines' Mill. After the war, he published his experiences in and the conditions of Salisbury Prison in "History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865". He lived to the age of 65, passing away in Washington, D.C., and he is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

    Early into his army service, King had already encountered the animosity between the soldiers and the local residents. In an August 21, 1861 letter to his fiancé he wrote, in part: "...Orders to march, when all ready and in the ranks, some slaveholders came amongst us & took some negroes who had secreted in our files; by orders as they said of the adjutant. They took them up behind themselves on their horses & rode off with them. There was four I think. I tell you it looked hard to see the poor creatures forced away. We marched under a hot sun as far as Hyatt's Town & put up at Wildcat Camp. On the road some of the boys in other companies stopped at houses to get provisions. They were afterwards taken sick & it was found that they were poisoned & the people who sold the provisions were rank secessionists. Two of the boys died I believe & one of them from our regiment is very sick now & hardly likely to live..." Continuing one week later, King wrote that the man had passed away, having "suffered intense agony. I could not look on without feeling great pity for the poor fellow..." [Fifteen pages, 5" x 8".]

    Despite the fact that King was not stationed on the front lines, he was still aware of the dangers to his life. On September 10, 1861, King wrote to Martha to reassure her of his commitment to the cause, regardless of what might become of him. It reads, in part: "...As I was going to creek this afternoon I crossed the line when some soldiers were firing their guns on a knoll & they were firing into the side whilst I was on the top, but one ball struck within a very few feet of me, for I saw the dust fly when it did strike...Now Martha, there is such a chance as you probably know, that I may never come back. I don't wish to hurt your feelings by referring to anything so painful. But I do want to tell you that if I die, I do so fighting for my country. But I may possibly be taken prisoner & in that case reported as killed. Now what I want is to impress on your mind the importance of not putting too much faith in reports, but until you receive official news do not give me up for lost. When I meet the foe, I trust my life in Providence and with the aid of a good gun, fight for 'The Flag' & 'down with rebellion'..." [Four pages of a bifolium, 7.75" x 12.5".]

    While stationed at Camp Pierpont in Virginia, King had the honor of seeing the President during a review of the troops. He wrote home about the experience on November 25, 1861, saying: "...Finally reached the 'ground', which is just beyond Munson's Hill, about noon...The Genl [McClellan] & staff & Lincoln with his Cabinet then rode along the lines, greeted on by each regiment with cheers...I had a good view of the General, Commander in Chief, President Lincoln, Seward and Cameron. But Lincoln took my eye more than all the rest. Although not handsome he has a kind attractive expression on his countenance, which anyone seeing cannot help but revere him..." [Four pages of a bifolium, 7.75" x 9.75".]

    Following the Battle of Dranesville, where the Union Army scored a victory against General J.E.B. Stuart, King wrote about the valiant fighting of the Bucktails, particularly Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Kane. Writing to Martha from Bucktail City on December 26, 1861, King described the battle:

    "...At 11 o'clock and very near Drainsville, we expected a movement for we pulled down a fence and were marched into a ploughed field; but it seemed to end in smoke for the Colonel led us on through a wood into another road; we marched here about a mile & stayed about fifteen minutes near a house from which we took a secesh prisoner & then countermarched. As we came in sight of the Drainsville road we heard the report of a musket & commenced to 'double quick'. We were drawn up in line opposite a brick house on a barren piece of ground & we here caught sight of a body of Rebel infantry who were firing on our troops. I saw one man who had been shot through the neck & the blood was running down his coat; this awakened me to a sense of my situation & a very queer sensation ran through me. We were marched up to the house and ordered to lay down. Lieut. Rice and a handful of men occupied the house & fired on the rebels from the chamber windows. The house lay between us & the rebels, so that they supposed we were all inside and kept up a fire of shot and shell at it; but almost all went over. Here while laying on the ground I regained my self-composure & what little fear had gained prisoner of me, left entirely. I lay with a perfect indifference as to my fate, with balls & shell whistling over our heads, one of which cut a limb off a tree very close by us; I was even surprised at my coolness. Col Kane proved a very tiger; he kept talking to us & would laugh when a ball struck anywhere around without hurting anybody. It was funny to see him. Finally our artillery was put to bear and then the noise. I never heard sweeter music in my life than when our battery was firing her 12 & 24 pounders. In about half an hour Col Kane told us we had now the opportunity we had so long been looking for & says he 'shall we give them a big licking? Shall it be a big licking?' Then we answered altogether & with a full determination, 'Yes.' Then says he, 'Rise and charge!' Up we got & going but a few rods, he pointed with his finger & says he, 'See that officer with a sad cap, do not let him escape.' I will not pretend to say how many guns were fired at him. We staid then about thirty minutes; loading our pieces while laying on our back & standing to fire, dropping immediately. I fired six rounds & my knapsack & canteen bothering me while loading. I threw them off & in consequence, lost them. The Rebels soon ceased to return our fire, so we were ordered to charge bayonets & take their battery. The enemy had been concealed in a wood all this time so we could not see them...We then were ordered to charge; but the woods were very thick, so we had to go slow and the line was necessary very uneven; we kept on about a mile & then halted. Then orders came for us to turn back, which the Col was very loth to do...When we first began to fire, Col Kane was wounded in the face with back shot...The Rebels did not come back to bury their dead even; so last Sunday our cavalry did it for them..." [Six pages, 7.75" x 9.75".]

    At the Battle of Gaines' Mill, King was wounded and taken prisoner by the Confederates. He was later transferred to Belle Isle, where he was held for approximately three months. Following his release, he wrote to Martha about some of the hardships he had endured and lamented the items lost while in captivity. Dated September 30, 1862: "We left A[lexandria] under the impression that we were exchanged but since coming here it does not appear so...After a soldier has lost his knapsack containing his kit of necessities both for accommodation & comfort & been imprisoned, three months besides, there are many things necessary for his comfort & use that can be obtained only by money. For my part I am minus comb, toothbrush (which I always used in the service) glass, towels, writing material and a great many other things that government does not furnish. However I have written to Rob for a loan which will satisfy my pressing wants. I wish I could get a furlough but I'm afraid it is impossible...I will not conceal the fact, but I am getting decidedly home sick. Once discharged from the Service I would never show my face in it again. Then is some talk of our being sent home, if it is true God speed the time. I would much rather tell you my Belle Island experiences than write it. A sorrowful tale truly I assure you; and all newspaper accounts I have seen yet are not one whit exaggerated." [Four pages of a bifolium, 5.25" x 7.75".]

    On January 9, 1863, King wrote about the horrors witnessed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, which appear to have haunted him, despite not having partaken in the battle itself. In part: "The fight at Fredericksburg was a most horrible battle. I am informed by eye witnesses that a portion of the field was covered with dead grass, which getting a fire from the exploding shells, burnt to death a great many wounded fellows who else might have lived. Horrible! Horrible! It makes the blood of a soldier even run cold when he thinks of the unutterable suffering those poor fellows must have endured. The army itself was saved by a cunning stratagem. It was exposed to the fire of the Rebels from their works, who could have cut it all to pieces, but, the avarice of Generals even is such that they waited expecting Seigels Division, which appeared on the heights on this side the river, were going to cross, which then done they would destroy the whole forces. In the evening however under cover of the darkness our troops removed, the wheels of the guns belonging to Seigel were wrapped up in blankets and the whole army moved silently off. The Rebels, expecting in the morning to find a large forcer and easy prey under their guns saw nothing but the dead and wounded laying on the field. It was a brilliant affair truly." [Two pages, 7.5" x 12.5".]

    The Bucktails were also engaged at the Battle of Gettysburg, where they were stationed upon Culp's Hill. The brigade successfully repulsed the Confederate attack on July 3, and Colonel Kane was later made a brevet major general for his service at the battle. Following the defeat of the Confederates, King wrote on July 9, 1863: "...we have been on the march every single day (except when fighting) for the last fifteen days and such a march!...My feet have been blistered up, my neck chafed as sore as a bite, and my whole body one big ache all through...I was not in the battle but on the morning of the fourth I was with the regt in the extreme front. A battery played on us with shell but was soon silenced by our sharpshooters. We had seven killed among which was our Colonel, forty one wounded. Frank Bell was wounded in the foot making amputation necessary. My instructions now are in case of a battle to keep in the rear...We were up by daylight again and marched to Gettysburgh [sic] & fought the same day. I helped to carry off a couple of wounded men going right in the rear of our regiment whilst it was fighting. I tell you the bullets whistled some so did the shot and shell...Enclosed find a secesh letter taken from the battlefield. You may gain a hint from it for the future." [Two pages, 8" x 12.5".]

    On August 19, 1864 at the Battle of Globe Tavern, King was once again taken prisoner. Although he was still imprisoned, Martha received a letter from "Camp Parole", dated October 18, 1864 that read: "Madam, I take this pleasurable opportunity in writing these few lines to you to inform you...Mr. Frank King esq Sergt Major...He is in the Rebels' hands held as a Prisoner of War. I was captured also and was confined with him in Libby Prison, Richmond, VA. We was kept there a short time when the Rebels transferred us to Bell Island. While there I took sick and was sent to the Confederate Hospital. Before leaving he requested me to you and inform you of his whereabouts if I should happen to be paroled...I have since been paroled and as a young man of honor I considered to fulfill my promise... George Losee / Section D Ward 40 / Camp Parole / Anapolis, MD".

    King was finally released in March of 1865. As briefly mentioned, his archive of letters also includes several military documents from the Pension Office. A fascinating group that provides King's experience of the war, spanning from the start of the war to the final days and makes for a superb read. It would be a great addition to any Civil War enthusiast's collection.

    Condition: Letters have varying degrees of creasing from mail folds, soiling, wear, and toning. Some chipping at edges in places. The letter from Camp Parole has a fair amount of paper loss. Penmanship is clear and legible.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    May, 2019
    14th Tuesday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 2
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 512

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $300,000 (minimum $49), plus 20% of any amount between $300,000 and $3,000,000, plus 12.5% of any amount over $3,000,000 per lot.

    Sold for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)
    Track Item

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Consign to the 2021 June 6 Arms & Armor, Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction - Dallas.

    Learn about consigning with us

    The resulting auction of my property overwhelmed me. I want to thank Tom Slater and the Heritage team for a very satisfactory experience and profitable result with my historical consignment.
    Henry L.,
    Lexington, KY
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search