Editor’s Note: The Soldier Studies web site (http://www.soldierstudies.org) collects and published letters written during the Civil War. Owner/editor Chris Wehner was kind enough to grant me written permission to publish a selection of letters from his site which focus on the Siege of Petersburg. Look for letters to appear here during the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Petersburg and beyond. These letters may not be reused without the express written consent of Chris Wehner. All rights reserved.
Head Q’rs. 39th Regt. Ills. Vols.
Dear Uncle and Aunt
Although I am sitting in my tent near the trenches in front of Petersburg, listening to the roar of artillery and the steady crack of the rifle that are continually awakening the echoes along these heights, a long distance from you, who are busily engaged in more quiet and peaceful duties, yet I frequently think of you and call to mind the many pleasant hours I have spent beneath your roof; especially do I remember that short but delightful visit made during my veteran furlough.
Perhaps all thoughts of your soldier friend, the writer, have not entirely passed from your minds.
Did you know that often when undergoing some of the severe hardships & exposed to the imminent dangers incident to a soldier’s life we are many times encouraged by thoughts of our friends at home – cheered by the thought that they may even now be thinking of us? Perhaps at the very moment when we are in the midst of perils they may be holding our names before the altar of mercy & pleading for our protection – & to our own astonishment – sometimes we escape unharmed.
Those prayers you offer in your quiet homes are often answered on the battle field. Shall I tell you of an interesting scene I witnessed on the battle ground at Deep Run on the 16th of August? It reminded me of home & of a mother’s influence.
It was when the battle was at its greatest heights. We had just carried the enemy’s works at the point of the bayonet & were fighting inside the entrenchments. About me the dead and dying were strewn on every side. All at once my attention was attracted by a soldier dressed in gray lying in the trench, to all appearances mortally wounded. In his hands he held a Bible to which his attention was wholly turned. Around him the battle was raging fearfully, but he heeded it not, his eyes were fixed intently upon the pages of that book, perhaps he was looking upon a Christian home with its family altar , where he had often listened to the reading of that holy word and the earnest prayers of a father or a mother. Although he was an enemy, and my attention was mainly occupied with the fighting going on around us, yet I could not but admire that death scene on the battle field.
Notwithstanding the life of a soldier is a hard, rough life with the worst side of human nature constantly exhibited, yet it is not without its redeeming traits.
We are not altogether a set of “ruffians” fit only for works of blood, but men like unto those at home, not unmindful of the blessings which you, far removed from scenes like these, are enjoying. Hence it is that letters from “home friends” are always hailed with delight by the soldier.
They remind us that we are not mere machines, made to do the bidding of this one or that one; nor targets to be set up and shot at, but that we have an individuality of our own, that we are centers about whom the thoughts and affections of others cluster; and it is this thought which gives us courage & strength under the most trying difficulties.
It causes the languid eye of sickness to sparkle, and the laggard step on the weary march to quicken — .
It is by this mystic union, established through the instrumentality of the pen, that we receive our regular supplies of “home cheer” & encouragement, and as an army suffers by having its “communications” cut, so do we if the above supplies rail to reach us.
I sometimes think that our friends at home fail to appreciate the importance attached to this duty of writing often & freely to the soldier. Their letters do much more good than they may imagine. So Uncle & Aunt, when on some leisure evening you remember you have nephews in the army, fighting for you, sit down & write them good long letters, let then know you think of them occasionly [sic]. Now to something more interesting. Since my last letter to you we have had quite a chapter added to our “army life” in the way of hard fighting & hard marching.
You doubtless have seen full accounts in the papers of the operations of the 10th and 2nd Corps on the Richmond side of the James River.
It will be remembered, if you have, that our Division (Terry’s) did the principal part of the fighting incident to that memorable and sharp campaign. Our Division Commander, Brigadier Gen A.H. Terry, has been promoted to the brevet rank of Major General of volunteers for gallant and meritorious conduct in the field of battle in the various engagements that marked our tenure of Deep Bottom, in August, including the battle of Deep Run.
It was in the latter battle on the 16th ult. That Olin received a severe wound in the left arm. He was near me at the time he was hit, but I was not aware of it until after the action was over, when I discovered he was missing & learned that he had been sent to the rear. I have not seen him since.
I received a letter from him a day or two ago. He is in a U.S. General Hospital at Beverly New Jersey. He writes one that he has had an operation performed on his arm, from which they took a piece of his elbow. The injury is much worse that he supposed it was when he left us. He is confined to his bed, not able to travel. His arm will never be as strong as before, although he will probably be able to use it some.
I am sorry indeed for him, being wounded as he was after his time was up, having served his country faithfully for three years & more. A braver & more cheerful soldier than Olin is I never knew. I watched him closely on the 16th of August. He was as cool & collected, to all appearances, as he would be sitting by your fireside eating some of your nice apples.
We left our old camp near Bermuda Hundred on the 24th of last month & moved to our present position.
We occupy the old line formerly held by Burnside, near where he exploded his mine. Our camp is within musket range of our advanced picket line, where our regiment is on duty two days out of every three. There is continual picket firing along the line, which sometimes reaches battle proportions. Since Gen. Grant has opened his new branch to the Weldon railroad, connecting the City Point road with his left, the rebels have become somewhat exercised in mind about it & have been practicing with their artillery in the direction of the road but without inflicting any damage thus far.
They frequently turn their attention to our camps & shell them for awhile, but with about as much success as they have with the railroad. Sometimes, however, when they become annoying our batteries open of them with all the guns and mortars they have, which in a short time reduce the “Johnnies” to a complete state of quiescence; especially is this the case when our “Petersburg batteries” open on the city. From all appearances the day, & perhaps the hour, is not far distance when one of the greatest conflicts of the war will take place between the two confronting armies. Let it come when it may. Gen. Grant is ready for it.
In regards to the “political” question now before the people, this army stands firmly by the Administration candidate. The rebels are fast turning the McClellanites over to our side. To be a McClellan man here is considered to be in exact harmony with our enemies over the line, for we frequently here [sic] them cheering for little Mac. And the attitude which he presents with one foot on that disgraceful Chicago Platform & the ofhter on that milk & water affair, called his “letter of acceptance”, is more than even his personal friends with us can endure, & they are fast giving him the cold shoulder. But I see I have been quite lengthy, and perhaps not very interesting. Remember me to the friends and write as often as convenient. My address is 39th Ills. Vols. 1st Brigade 1st Division 10th Army Corps near Petersburg.
I almost forgot to tell you that I had been made the recipient of a very nice present from the Governor of the State Illinois viz: a commission as 1st Lieutenant in my Company (G) [next section is illegible due to missing and damaged portions of the paper] [the writing resumes] been my ambition to be useful & to do my duty wherever [sic] called upon to act. I am in hope that when I reach the terminus of my earthly existence I may be able to look back upon a record upon which the Judge of all can say “Well done, good and faithful servant” — . There is some talk of the Illinois troops going home to the State to vote in the coming election. According [illegible] act of the Copperhead Legislature of that State her soldiers cannot vote in the field. I am in hopes we will [illegible] of returning to help in rolling up an overwhelming majority for Uncle Abraham. If we return I shall stop in Ohio a sho [paper missing] time. But more abo [paper missing] this next time. Hoping this may [paper missing] all well [paper missing] remain Your aff [paper missing] tionate Nephew
Homer A Plim [paper missing] [Homer A Plimpton]1
- Plimpton, Homer A. “Head Q’rs. 39th Regt. Ills. Vols. Before Petersburg.” Letter to “Uncle and Aunt” 16 Sept. 1864. MS. Head Q’rs. 39th Regt. Ills. Vols., Petersburg, Virginia. This letter appears here due to the express written consent of Chris Wehner, owner of SoldierStudies.org and may not be used without his permission. All rights reserved. ↩