Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year's Day in 'The Pen'

Happy New Year!

Here’s a letter written by Edward B. Holt, a 16-year-old from Nelson, N.H., on New Year’s Day 150 years ago. Holt was a new recruit of the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers. Most likely he had received a handsome bounty to help nearby Keene fill its draft quota. By 1864 bonuses for volunteers had risen to several hundred dollars, a huge sum.

Holt wrote from a large fenced-in replacement camp in Concord, the state capital. It was known colloquially as "The Pen." Many of the men temporarily assigned there were foreigners who would soon go south as substitutes in New Hampshire regiments. Towns paid brokers large sums for these men to meet their draft quotas.

Many of the substitutes had been picked up fresh off the boat in Boston or New York, and some spoke no English. Although some fought bravely, their desertion rate was high. Holt’s letter alludes to the strict security and rough conditions at the camp in Concord.

The sutlers mentioned here were private merchants who generally worked out of wagons or set up more permanent stores to sell goods to soldiers.

Camp at Concord
Jan. 1st, 1864

Dear Mother, Sister, & Brother,

Happy New Year

It rains here today and I suppose it does the same there, but it don’t make much difference here. The whiskey is pretty plenty here today but how they get it in I don’t know unless the guard let it pass on purpose. There is 13 barracks here besides the cook houses, officer’s barracks, and sutlers, about twelve in number. The fence around the ground is about ten feet high with guard around it all the time.

 There is a fellow here by the name of James Rogers. He has got out of the guard house 3 or 4 times. He was around here yesterday with his shackles that was on his legs broke. He set the guard house on fire the other night and they had to let him out it smoked so. There is some that get robbed every night in some of the Barracks though they haint troubled me yet.

We thought yesterday we should get a furlough. Horatio got a chance as clerk for the Colonel and he got one and went off and said he would help us but we did not hear anything from him. One of the selectmen and Smith from Keene was here. They said they would vouch for us but the officers said they did not. If they had we should got a furlough but I don’t expect one now for they say we have got to go Monday. A squad for the 9th, 6th, 11th, left today about 2 o’clock.

I should think there is a sutler here where you can get anything you want. I got most of my things in Keene. The night we came up (Monday) we had to sleep in the cars all night. We started from Bellows Falls [Vt.] and went up a mile or two and the engine slipped so we couldn’t go. There was a freight train coming down so we run back to the Falls and staid there in the cars till 8 o’clock. We came on and got to Lebanon at 10. We came on and got here at 4 Tuesday night. Some are gambling all the time, but I am thankful I never learnt to and I have no inclination to learn or to do anything of the kind.

I don’t think of anymore to write that will interest you. We have good rations, meat every noon. We have roll call four times a day. . . . I find things better than I expected to. The officers are first rate men what I have seen of them. I have wrote to the folks at Nelson Wednesday. I don’t think you had better write till I get to the Regt or till you hear from me again.

Receive this poor scribble from you son and brother.

E. B. Holt

Four and a half months after writing this letter, Private Holt was severely wounded at the battle of Drewry’s Bluff near Richmond. He served for a year after that battle and was discharged on May 25, 1865, in Wilmington, N.C. He died in 1888.

[My thanks to Dave Morin for the transcription of this letter.]

No comments:

Post a Comment