Editor’s Note: This letter to the Sunday Mercury appears here due to Bill Styple’s fantastic book Writing and Fighting the Civil War, which is where I first learned about these amazing soldier letters. You can purchase a copy of Writing and Fighting the Civil War at Belle Grove Publishing.
Sixteenth New York Volunteer [Heavy] Artillery.
[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]
FORT MAGRUDER, VA., July 17. 
Fortifying—A Review—New Colors—Vandalism of Soldiers—Heavy Duty—Richmond Prices—Brush with Guerrillas.
This has been a great day with the Sixteenth N. Y. Volunteer [Heavy] Artillery. The Colonel [Joseph J. Morrison] was placed in command of this post [Fort Magruder]1 on June 30 , and has been busily engaged—assisted by his able staff—in placing everything in order to resist an attack of the enemy, which is nightly expected, and has succeeded admirably; and now, though we have but a small force, we are rather anxious than otherwise that the Rebs may have the temerity to make a demonstration.
We were reviewed by Brig. Gen. [Joseph B.] Carr, commanding at Yorktown. The review was most satisfactory, and we anticipate a good report from the Inspector-General, Captain M. G. Cushing, a most gentlemanly man and thorough officer. Our band acquitted themselves most creditably; receiving their instruments but three weeks ago, they have already acquired a proficiency little excelled by far older organizations.2
The colors presented by the Board of Aldermen and Councilmen of the City of New York arrived a few days ago, and the presentation took place to-day. The speeches delivered on the occasion were in the most happy vein, and, being the outspoken feelings of the hearts of the utterers, were indicative of unswerving loyalty and patriotism, and evinced a determination to stand by and maintain our noble Government, and its glorious standard, under all circumstances, so that should we be fortunate enough to return at the expiration of our term of service, no stain but the honorable ones acquired on the battle-field will be suffered to appear on its folds.
The town of Williamsburg, one mile above, still retains, although in a ruinous condition, sufficient evidence of its once being the resort of the aristocracy of Virginia. The College of William & Mary, the oldest institution in the country, the pride of Virginia, and in fact of the United States, is now a blackened ruin, looming up with shattered walls at the end of the town a mute, but effective rebuke to the atrocities some of our soldiers commit without provocation. This college was burnt in a spirit of wanton incendiarism, long after the town was in our hands, and the immense library, the collection of two centuries, was almost totally destroyed. Many valuable private libraries have also been ruthlessly invaded, and rare editions of works rendered worthless by the sets being broken. The Eastern Lunatic Asylum however, contains a large number of books, carried there by their owners for preservation, being donated to prevent their destruction. Autographs of Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, are in profusion, especially among the papers of the Carter family, which are now scattered to the four winds of heaven. The statue of Governor Berkeley, a splendid work of art, erected in 1761, is defaced; but, of course, outside of its merit as a piece of sculpture, it has no value in the eyes of the descendants of the Revolution.
Our picket-duty is very heavy, our line is about ten miles long, extending in a semi-circle from the James to the York. Every point is well guarded, and the men are vigilant. Being isolated, our mails are very irregular, and New York papers are sought for, but seldom found. We are in considerable excitement regarding the Rebel raid in Maryland. The plunder they may take, if allowed to get safely across the Potomac with it, will be invaluable to them—for fresh meat is a great rarity in the Richmond markets, and commands $25 per lb. Refugees frequently come in, and as they are generally communicative, whenever I happen to be on guard over the guardhouse, I hear how affairs are in the Reb capital. It is laughable to hear of the prices; coats, $1,000 to $1,500 dollars; boots, $250; flour, $350 per barrel; tea, $45 per lb.; felt hats, $25, and everything else in proportion; whisky, $10 per drink. I wish to the Lord it was that price everywhere, and we might have more quietness North. Wages are high, ranging for laborers $100 per week, to good mechanics who command $500. They represent the people in Richmond as perfectly wild; anything able to walk is impressed in the service, and hundreds of girls in Rebel uniforms are drilling on the heavy fortifications around the city.
We are at present in some excitement, caused by a report brought from our picket-lines, that Rebel cavalry, in some force, are in the woods outside. The Colonel sprang upon his horse, and ordering the gun detachments to their places, called for twenty-five volunteers to follow him, and has gone to the front. I anticipate that it is a party of our own, who went off secretly to capture some guerrillas who were prowling around, as they had a brush with them this morning, the result of which has not transpired. When the Rebel raiders leave Maryland, I should not wonder if they attempted to dislodge us; but they will find it another Fort Stevens affair. Two of our companies have gone to Havre de Grace, and I hope they will arrive in time to meet the Rebels. The Government farms worked by the contrabands are in prime condition. Cornstalks are now nine and ten feet high, and promise abundant yield. I think if they are permitted to harvest their crops, the yield will be sufficient to maintain them, as the incubus they are on the Treasury is a serious matter, and the question is practically put: “What shall we do with them?” I should say, from present appearances even, that the Peninsula was a perfect paradise for slaves. Very comfortable quarters on every plantation, and in the town of Williamsburg the negro-houses are scarcely inferior to the mansions of their masters.
Yours as ever, JACKSON.3
Soldier Letters from the New York Sunday Mercury:
- NP: July 10, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 12th NY Folded Into 5th NY Veteran
- NP: July 10, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 12th U. S. Infantry at the Siege of Petersburg, Early July 1864
- NP: July 10, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 25th NY Cavalry at the Siege of Petersburg, Early July 1864
- NP: July 10, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 48th NY Guards the 18th Corps Trains, June 1864
- NP: July 10, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): USS Hydrangea and the Action at Howlett’s Bluff, June 21, 1864
- NP: July 17, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 146th NY from the Wilderness to Petersburg
- NP: July 17, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 95th NY at the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 18, 1864
- NP: July 24, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 170th NY from Spotsylvania to Jersualem Plank Road
- NP: July 24, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 5th NY Veteran Remains Separated at the Siege of Petersburg
- NP: July 31, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 57th NY Receives a Boost In Strength, July 1864
- NP: August 7, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 146th New York, Black Troops, Back Pay, and 500,000 More at Petersburg, August 1864
- NP: August 7, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 170th New York at First Deep Bottom, July 1864
- NP: August 7, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 3rd New York, Secesh, and Sutlers at Petersburg, June-July 1864
- NP: August 7, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): An “Old Soldier” Visits the 5th NY July-August 1864
- NP: August 14, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 48th NY at the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864
- NP: August 14, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The Fearful Explosion at City Point, August 9, 1864
- NP: August 21, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 95th NY Witnesses the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864
- NP: August 21, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The Fearful Explosion at City Point, August 9, 1864
- NP: August 28, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): The 6th New York Cavalry at First Deep Bottom, July 27-29, 1864
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This is the same Fort Magruder which played such a Central role in the Battle of Williamsburg, on May 5, 1862. Confederate forces fought a delaying action in Williamsburg against George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, with Fort Magruder serving as the centerpiece of the Rebel defenses. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 16th New York Heavy Artillery was a brand new regiment in July 1864, having finished organizing in February 1864. It was a massive organization, with over 3,700 men mustered. Per a newspaper clipping at the always excellent New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center site: “A MAMMOTH REGIMENT. The Sixteenth New York Volunteer Artillery, commanded by Col. J. J. Morrison, headquarters at Yorktown, Va., is the largest regiment ever recruited in the United States, and has men in the following places: At Yorktown, 1,140; at Williamsburgh, 736; at Gloucester Point, 147; at Bermuda Hundred, 270; putting up telegraph, 60; with One Hundred and Forty-eighth New York Volunteers, 46; with First New York Mounted Rifles, 272—transferred; with Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, 46; with light batteries United States Artillery, 22; with Army of the Potomac, 201—transferred; making a total of 2,928 men and 63 officers. (N.Y. News?, June 20, 1864)”
The regiment would go on to serve all over the Army of the James during the Siege of Petersburg. ↩
- “Sixteenth New York Volunteer Artillery.” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). July 24, 1864, p. 7 col. 2 ↩