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LT: July 4, 1864: William B. Phillips to Annie Richards

In this letter1, William Beynon Phillips of the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery writes his future wife Annie Richards from the siege trenches before Petersburg. In the letter, he describes the June 17, 1864 assault on the Rebel fortifications.

Headquarters, Provisional 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery
2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Army Corps
Near Petersburg, Virginia
Fourth of July, 1864 (Evening)

Dear Annie,

I am exceedingly happy to answer your letter (or wee note) received yesterday. I would scold you for such a puny thing as that was, but, that you were so kind as to put some trouble on something which I prize very highly, and am very, very thankful indeed. Now my dear, what shall I say? I say that another Fourth is about receding into that eternity, which many of us poor fellows are threatened with, spent, I need not add in not the most agreeable manner, cooped up, and not dare stand up to straighten a stiffened limb without getting a reminder, from those fellows over the field, who are very careless in firing their pieces, they may hit a fellow. The only agreeable feature in the day is that we have all day been expecting “to move on the enemy’s works” or at least a lively artillery duel. But I am disappointed even in this. Everything and everyone has been quieter than I have experienced in the campaign. [There is] nothing to be heard but the sharpshooters who, like the wicked, are never at rest. A plague on them.

We had a big treat today. Somebody sent us a barrel of onions, and about 200 pickles. The boys have a breath this evening more strong than sweet. If the “ Johnnies ” ever attempt a break tonight, I half believe they’ll be driven back by the rather strong odor of onions. Since I wrote you last, nothing has transpired in Army matters – only that from there we have advanced some 900 yards. I hardly like this monotonous business of besieging. There is not enough excitement to counterbalance the danger. But I must grin and bear it, take a smoke, and build castles in the air. It’s no use, you know, to despond, but to hope on, hope ever, and make calculations for some good old time I am going to have next winter. I believe I am a lucky youth. I suppose – if you only saw what the Rebs have thrown at me for the last 60 days – you would think so too. But on that awful 17th [of] June , [the battlefield] was the hottest place yet. I was so excited, that I knew nothing of the danger. My eyes saw all, in red and flame, but I could not digest it somehow. [The] only thing I knew I was rushing [forward], half carried on by some other power than myself, until I tumbled head and heels in the rebel works, to see the “Johnnies” put through the woods beyond. But I didn’t stay there long, for they rallied and drove us out. But the next time we made them leave, and stay at a respectable distance of some 1000 yards.

Fighting is a serious business, Annie. It’s no use for any one to say that he cares nothing for a battle. I do. I don’t like it. But when I am ordered into it, I go. And after getting up my pride a little, I manage to stand up to the scratch as good as anyone – I mean that – when I have to run up on a charge, right in teeth of their batteries. I don’t care half as much when the rebels attack us. Then by George, the shoe pinches on the other foot. My stock in trade to do this business is about an ounce of courage and the balance in pride and honor. With that, I manage to put on a bold face and give the Rebs a dusting now and then.

Now I suppose you will find a good many errors in this letter. Excuse them, my dear, if you please. Those confounded sharpshooters have a particular spike on my headquarters, and the dust flies all over from their shots, fired onto my embankments. That, you know, is not very pleasant. Then those abominable mortars – they are opening again and, from the fact of our lines of battle being between the Rebel Artillery and our own, and both sides working their guns to silence the other, we are in a nice fix.

I am going to get out of this business next winter, as soon as the campaign is over. I believe I can find something more agreeable, where the idea of getting cut up into nobody knows what is not entertained. My love to Sue , and tell her I am expecting a letter from her. There goes another. Phiz, bang.

Write soon. Write often. Love to all. Now I am done.

Goodbye, Good night. My best affection and love,

Yours & Yours, Amen — William


  1. Phillips, William B. Letter to Annie Richards. 4 July 1864. The Civil War Letters of William Beynon Phillips, 1864.  Letter used with the written permission of Greg Taylor.  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of this letter may occur without the express written consent of Greg Taylor.
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