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LT: November 28, 1864 “J. W. A.” (50th NY Engineers)

Editor’s Note: This item is part of a collection of letters from New York engineers written while their units were at the Siege of Petersburg.  Researcher and Engineer enthusiast Dan O’Connell generously donated all of the items in this collection for use at The Siege of Petersburg Online.  These transcriptions are copyrighted by Brett Schulte and may not be used without my express written consent.  I do not have images of these letters so some errors could be from transcription or in the original.

November 28th, 1864.

MR. EDITOR:—Letters from the soldiers have now become so frequent, and so many people have friends in the army who write good letters, that I fear one from a “poor private” will not possess much interest for your readers. Still many of my personal friends will be pleased to hear from me through the medium of your excellent paper.

The 50th N. Y. Engineers is commanded by Colonel William H. Pettes, a graduate of West Point, and a thoroughly educated man. The regiment now numbers about 1500 men. Although we are not strictly speaking a fighting regiment, still during the past campaign we have frequently rendered efficient service to our brethren of the infantry in the rifle pits and breastworks. Our first duty during this campaign was to lay the pontoon bridge across the Rapidan, at Germania [sic, Germanna] Ford. At that point the 5th, 6th and part of the 9th Army Corps crossed; here the brave Sedgwick and the gallant Wadsworth crossed with their commands also, never to return; but the memory of these brave officers will never die in the hearts of the gallant men who fought under them. After the army had crossed we took up the bridge and marched to Eley’s Ford and relaied [sic] it. After this we followed the army through all its various marches and flank movements, until we finally brought up in front of Petersburg. This has so far proved an almost impregnable barrier to our further progress, but we have no doubt but that the military skill and strategy of Lieut. Gen. Grant will yet compel that rebel strong hold to succumb to the bravery of the Union soldiers.

Our camp is now situated about one mile west of the Weldon Railroad and near Poplar Grove Church, about three miles from Petersburg, the nearest way. We can distinctly hear the cars on the south side railroad.1 For the past three months we have been busily engaged building forts and fortifications and strengthening our position here, preparatory to another movement. All the work of that kind having been completed, we are now drilling and becoming better accustomed to the use of the rifle, by target practice.

Co. M, of which your correspondent is a member, is temporarily in command of Lieut. Geo T. Dudley, the Captain (Richard Middleton) being on detached duty in Columbus, Ohio. Two of our Lieutenants have been dismissed from the service by order of a Court Martial, one for drunkenness and the other for disloyalty. Although we have been thus unfortunate in having bad officers, you must not infer that Co. M is composed of men of like character with our two Lieutenants, who were declared unworthy to hold their position. There are no better men than those composing Co. M, most of whom are mechanics and farmers, and accustomed to hard labor and exposure, and all love the old Union.

The election of President Lincoln, by such an emphatic majority, is a subject of rejoicing to all soldiers who truly love their country, and we are pleased to learn that the election passed off so quietly. It is one great beauty of our system of government that however excited the people may become upon the eve of one of our great national elections, after the question has been submitted to the people, and the matter fairly decided, all peaceably acquiesce in the will of the people and submit to the majority. Our Southern brethren repudiated this doctrine, and hence arose secession. Our Northern opponents, politically, are not so foolish, but I trust are now content to let “Uncle Abe” jog on with the government.2

I cannot close without giving you an account of our Thanksgiving dinner. It was a good thought in the people of the North to send the soldiers a Thanksgiving dinner; but if they thought that the soldiers would receive a good, substantial dinner, they have been sadly mistaken. Co. M received chickens enough to divide one among twelve men, and two apples to each man. These were received the day after Thanksgiving. There were not twelve baskets gathered up of the fragments of dinner after all had eaten. But we are sure the fault was not with the citizen’s committee, and we heartily thank our kind friends at the North for remembering us at all on Thanksgiving Day. Lieut. Dudley, with a liberality which is commendable, out of his own private funds purchased two barrels of oysters, and distributed them among the company on Thanksgiving Day. Had is not been for this we should have been obliged to have had recourse to our never failing though not always abundant supply of “hard tack and salt junk” for a Thanksgiving dinner.

In conclusion, Messrs. Editors, let us hope that this war, which has caused so much sudering and rendered so many homes desolate, may be brought to a speedy and successful close; when peace shall again return to our country and we shall go on more prosperously and happily then ever before, with our Union restored, our people united, and our Flag respected everywhere.

Truly yours, &c., J. W. A.3


Potential “JWA” Candidates:


AUSTIN, JUDGE W.—Age, 28 years. Enlisted, December 28, 1863, at Elma; mustered in as private, Co. M, December 28, 1863, to serve three years; promoted artificer, April 8, 1864; reduced to private, October 9, 1864; promoted artificer, January 1,1865; mustered out with company, June 13, 1865, at Fort Barry, Va.


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The South Side Railroad was, at the time of this letter, the last railroad still running into Petersburg.  The goal of this campaign was to encircle Petersburg, reach the SOuth Side Railroad and the Appomattox River, and compel a Rebel evacuation.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: Abraham Lincoln had won the election of 1864 over George McClellan earlier that November.
  3. “J. W. A.” “Camp of 50th N. Y. Engineers.” Letter to Mr. Editor. 28 Nov. 1864. MS. Near the Weldon Railroad, Va. This letter, which looks like it was copied out of a newspaper, appears here courtesy of Dan O’Connell, who has a large collection of letters from Union Engineers during the Civil War.
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