Saturday, March 1, 2014

'I feel as though I could not turn my back on the Army til the last gun was fired' -- John S. Smith, 6th N.H.

As winter arrived in 1861, the 6th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry regiment came together at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds in Keene. On Christmas morning, after a brief training camp, the men marched 2½ miles to the train station and headed south. There they took up service under the whiskery Rhode Islander Ambrose Burnside, who would lead them as commander of the 9th Corps for much of the war.

John S. Smith, the 6th New Hampshire
Infantry's adjutant, had been wounded
three times by late 1864 but could not bear
to leave the army until the war was won.  
As measured by the human price it paid, the 6th was a fighting regiment. It suffered 388 deaths, 158 in battle, 197 of disease and the rest in accidents or sickness and starvation in rebel prison camps. It fought at Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, at Vicksburg and Jackson, Miss., from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, before Petersburg and at Poplar Springs, Va. Its heaviest loss came at Bull Run, where 66 of its officers and men were killed or mortally wounded.

Among the original members of the 6th was John Stearns Smith, who enlisted shortly before his 24th birthday. Like other young men from Peterborough, he went into Company E. When the regiment broke camp in Keene, he had already been promoted to sergeant. He rose to regimental adjutant and served until the end of the war.

Smith’s battle experience reflected his regiment’s. Despite a head wound at Bull Run in August 1862, he returned to fight at Fredericksburg, where the 6th lost 16 killed. He took a minie ball to the hip at Jackson, Miss., in July of 1863. Just over a year later, at the Battle of the Crater, he suffered a slight shell wound to his hand.  

In the following letter, Smith refers to a furlough in September 1864, possibly to recover from his wound at the Crater. Written to from Hancock Station, one of the Union army railroad depots during the siege of Petersburg, the letter paints a vivid picture of the domestic life of a veteran officer in the field.

But in the most moving part of the letter, Smith lays bare the conflicted emotions of a soldier. After three years of war, why would a man who had seen so much death and tempted death himself stay in the army rather than take an honorable discharge with his comrades? Despite the danger Smith wrote, “I feel as though I could not turn my back on the Army til the last gun was fired.”

Here's the letter:

Headquarters 6th N.H. Volunteers
Hancock Station, VA
December 8th, 1864

Dear Cousin Eunice,

I think you must have forgotten your promise to write me on the Sunday following my departure from home in September. Perhaps however, the letter was lost in transmittal; at any rate I will so consider it. I have written to Scripture and directed him to print a copy of the Elm Hill view and send it to you by mail according to my promise. Did you see those copies printed by him before you left? And how did you like them?

Good-natured Phin P. Bixby of Concord 
Sergeant Badger* returned to the Regiment from hospital a few days since. He is looking finely, but will never recover the use of his hand.

We have just returned from a raid toward the Weldon Rail Road, or rather toward Weldon NC. We had an exhausting and disagreeable march through the snow and mud. Found no enemy except a few straggling guerrillas and accomplished nothing worthy of note. Except to destroy fifteen or twenty miles of Rail Road and plunder innumerable corn cribs, cattle farms and poultry yards.

We are now comfortably settled down on the old hill again and have built good quarters. The field and Staff have quarters together on a hill by themselves and mess together. The mess consists of five persons. Lt. Col Bixby, Commanding “a fellow of infinite jest.” Major Quarles, a New Hampshire lawyer and politician, somewhat radical and visionary in his views, who insists that “true courage consists in concealing well your terrors.” Dr. Noyes, a very credulous and unsophisticated fellow; at whose expense many a joke is perpetrated. The Chaplain, a good man, and a practical one, who can preach, work or fight, as occasion requires and myself. We get along fairly together.**

Samuel D, Quarles was the son of a judge in
Ossipee, N.H. He attended New Hampton
School and what is now the University of
Michigan and became a lawyer at 28 the year
the Civil War began. He resigned as Carroll
County school commissioner to join the 6th.
We are extremely fashionable in our habits. Go to bed at twelve and rise at eight. Have breakfast at 9 and again at 4. The house I live in was built by myself. It is the first one I ever owned; and I feel quite independent in it. The style of architecture is decidedly primitive. It is built of logs, about ten feet high with canvas for a roof and the tips of pine boughs for a carpet. I have a fireplace, broad and deep and a mud chimney with an empty barrel on top through which the smoke and sparks whirl and eddy in an indescribable way. The walls are papered with Frank Leslies Illustrated Weeklies which give the room a very picturesque appearance.

My upholstery is from the largest establishment in the Army and consists of a bed, table, office desk and some chairs, all of which are appropriate and comfortable if not elegant. I shall not complain if I am compelled to stay here all winter, nor ask why the Army of the Potomac don’t move.

I hear from home about once a week. The family were all well when they last wrote me. Susie is getting along fairly with her school. In a letter from mother about two weeks since I first received the mournful intelligence of your father’s death. I know how idle and unsatisfactory any words of consolation must be coming from one who cannot feel the terrible misfortune as you do. Yet I cannot help saying that I sympathize with you sincerely in this sad bereavement and asking you to be of good courage. Looking for comfort and consolation where only it can be found. I should be glad to see a paper containing an obituary notice of your Father. Mother said she received one but sent it with Jonathan.

James H. Noyes of Nashua joined the 6th
in 1861 as hospital steward and stayed
long enough to become regimental surgeon.
Many of the officers and men of my Regiment left the service and were mustered out on the 1st of this month. I might have received an honorable discharge at the same time on account of having serviced three years. But I feel as though I could not turn my back on the Army til the last gun was fired.

I went with the officers and men to the train the morning they were mustered out to see them off. They were a jovial bunch I assure you. They have served faithfully for three long years and no one can question their patriotism or fidelity for the cause. For they have a right to go. If they had got off the cars and volunteered their services for three years more, I could not have found a heart to enlist them. It would have been like requiring their death warrant.

When I turned my face toward the Regiment again it was with feelings of regret and sadness that I can hardly express. These men had been with us during three long years. Three weary years of suffering exposure and danger. We had marched shoulder to shoulder in twenty battles, had participated in the hardships and dangers of many campaigns and in the pleasures and conviviality’s of the camp. Our mutual friends and comrades have mingled their dust with the soil of many different states and it was not stranger perhaps that the breakup of these associations, the strongest that can exist among men, should awaken some emotions of sadness in the hearts of the most indifferent and unfeeling. Only a fragment of the original Regiment remains. Who can tell how many of that number will respond to the roll call after three years more service?

A Salute of one hundred guns was fired at sunrise this morning in honor of General Thomas’ victory in Tennessee. Tonight we hear that Sherman is in Savannah. If this glorious news be true we can almost see the beginning of the end.***

I have written more than I intended. Please inform me if you receive the view of Elm Hill. It is getting late and I must bid you good night.

Sincerely yours
Cousin J. S. Smith

My address is 2nd Brigade 2nd Regiment
9th Corps Army of the Potomac

John S. Dore served as the 6th's chaplain from
Nov. 1, 1863, when he was 23 years old, till
war's end. 
*Henry E. Badger of Peterborough was 18 when he joined the same company as Smith in late 1861. He was wounded at Antietam and at Bethesda Church, Va., and, as Smith says here, wounded severely at the Crater. Like Smith, Badger served until war's end.

**A native of Piermont, N.H., Phin P. Bixby was a 32-year-old Concord merchant and former printer when he joined the 6th as adjutant in 1861. He was captured at second Bull Run and wounded twice during the siege of Petersburg. He rose to colonel and commanded the 6th late in the war. Bixby returned to Concord after the war and died there in 1877. Samuel D. Quarles of Ossipee, N.H., enlisted at 28 and served as a company commander in the 6th.  He was wounded severely at Spottsylvania on May 18, 1864, but soon returned as the regiment’s major. James H. Noyes of Nashua was assistant surgeon and, eventually, surgeon of the 6th. The chaplain was John S. Dore of Bangor, Maine.

***These references suggest that Smith may have worked at this letter for several days after starting it on Dec. 8. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s troops won the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., on Nov. 30, 1864. On Dec. 15, a week after Smith’s dateline, Thomas took Nashville. After the March to the Sea, Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops entered Savannah on Dec. 10, two days after Smith's dateline.

[Thanks to my friend Dave Morin for the transcription.]

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