When young men went off to war in 1861 following the outbreak of hostilities between the states, the only way to maintain ties with loved ones was by writing and receiving letters. Fortunately, collections of these letters are preserved in archives and available to those interested in this period of our history.
In May, 2011, the Delaware Public Archives received a donation of some 65 letters Stephen Taylor Buckson wrote between 1862 and 1864 to his wife, Harriett, who was back home in Leipsic (http://archives.delaware.gov/CivilWar/buckson/). They provide insight into the emotions and difficulties experienced while dealing with separation and danger during a national conflict.
Buckson enlisted in the 4th Delaware Regiment in Wilmington in 1862. It appears that, at the time, he and Harriett had a son named John, and she was in a family way, awaiting the birth of a second child.
In a letter written in November of that year, Stephen informs Harriet that his unit may soon be ordered to the battlefront. He understands that Union army commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside has designs on capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond.
From Camp Seward near Washington, D.C., the young soldier describes the surrounding countryside of Northern Virginia as “all laid waste,” with the woods cut down and houses destroyed. He laments, “It is horrible to think that so many lives and so much property is already destroyed by this wicked rebellion, and it is more so to see it.”
He turns to personal matters and inquires why his wife has not answered his letters. Implying disharmony in their relationship, he implores: “If you do not want to answer my letters, let me know it, as I am in the enemy’s land and parted from you, one who I prize more than life, and may never see anymore on earth.” While perhaps intending to lay a guilt trip on his wife, these words signaled a premonition of things to come — a common phenomenon during the Civil War.
Discontent continues in a letter of Dec. 17, when Buckson informs Harriett that he has no money to send her and advises her to move in with her mother. He chides her for sending “grumbling letters” and denies that he joined the army just to make her suffer. Rather, he “felt it my duty to serve my country.”
Fast forward to May 17, 1863, when Stephen described a foraging raid in the countryside that gathered much poultry, meat, molasses and tobacco from local inhabitants; and in addition, 600 horses, 500 head of cattle and 300 sheep. He stated the obvious, that the soldiers knew how to provide for themselves.
On June 4, Buckson again referred to the possibility “if I fall, I fall in a good cause for God and my country, and we shall meet in Heaven.” He complained about that many men remained on the homefront, working in safe jobs, while their country needs them as soldiers.
By August 1863, the 4th Delaware had moved northward to Fairfax Station, Va., and Buckson informed Harriet that his unit had “not been in a fight yet.” In September, he unsuccessfully tried to get a furlough to go home. He hoped that the war would end, but said he thought that it would not until “every negro was set free, for I believe the Lord intends it.”
Buckson had suffered illnesses on a number of occasions. He said he believed that God had willed his recovery, because “He has a little yet for me to do on earth.”
The war was heating up for the 4th Delaware. Stephen describes battles and skirmishes near Catlett Station, Manassas Junction and Warrenton Junction, Va. However, he was not personally engaged.
On June 15, 1864, Stephen wrote to Harriett and asked her to kiss son Johnny and baby daughter Lena for him. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, now in charge of the Union army, had decided to cross the James River to capture Petersburg. Because of illness, Buckson could have remained in safe territory, but he said he felt it was his duty to stay with the regiment.
Harriett received a final letter, dated June 19. First Sgt. Alexander Harper briefly wrote, “We all have to mourn the loss of your husband, Stephen T. Buckson, who was killed while charging on the enemy rifle pits June 18, 1864.” In consolation, he added, “We can offer you only our heartfelt sympathy.”
Tens of thousands of wives and mothers received similar letters during the Civil War.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.