Baltimore, Md. and Petersburg, Va. Jan. 3-Nov. 17, 1864. Twenty autograph letters, signed, most two to four pages on single folded bifolium stationery; handful of partial letters; and one Grand Army of the Republic membership card. Some fading, occasional spotting and foxing. Overall very good. Item #WRCAM55600
An informative collection of Civil War letters from a young Union soldier named William Shaw of Kendall, New York. Shaw enlisted as a private in the 8th Regiment, Co. K, New York Heavy Artillery, mustered out of Rochester. He describes his service at Fort McHenry guarding Confederate prisoners, southern sympathizers, and Union deserters; the severe injuries he received when he was shot through both legs; and his subsequent duties during the Siege of Petersburg. This final stage of Shaw's service is evidence of the lengths the Union army went to in the second half of the war, as re-enlistment numbers lagged, and wounded soldiers were pressed into further duties. Shaw's letters run from early January to November of 1864, in which he serves guard duty at Fort McHenry military prison in Baltimore, gets wounded (most likely in Virginia on the Wilderness Campaign), spends time at a military hospital on David's Island, then moves near Petersburg in Virginia during the Siege of Petersburg. Despite Shaw's very poor spelling, his letters are informative and personal, and he seems to be writing to his mother or a sibling. Smith mentions several times about sending money home, and asks after various relatives and friends. Smith's first letter, dated January 3, 1864 emanates from Elmira, New York while he is on the way to the war. As with other letters, Shaw mentions local men who are also serving in the war, reporting home whenever he runs into or hears about them. Four days later, after a thirty-six-hour train ride, he arrives at Fort McHenry (which he often spells "McHenria") in Baltimore to begin his service there. Shaw was stationed at Fort McHenry from January to September 1864, and most of his letters come from his time in Baltimore. During the Civil War, Ft. McHenry served as a military prison, not only for Confederate soldiers but for southern sympathizers among the Baltimore elite (the mayor and chief of police were put there) and Union soldiers and officers who had either deserted or were accused of some other infraction. At Fort McHenry Smith is amazed at the frenzied activity in Baltimore harbor, remarks about getting vaccinated, reports that Fort McHenry has a one-hundred-pound gun and seventy-five cannons, relates the movement of some troops to Federal Hill, includes a list of necessary clothing supplies and their costs, and offers other interesting observations. For the following selection of quotations from his letters, the spelling has been normalized: Fort McHenry, January 25: "100 prisoners I believe there is 130 men called on for guard every day. I have not got my gun yet expect it this week or next. I have taken off my undershirt as for my cough I have none." Fort McHenry, February 5: "I was on guard it is the first time that I have been on. I was guard over the Union prisoners, my orders were positively not to let some unite and to quiet all fuss with a piece of cold lead. I stood eight hours....I aint in so much danger of sickness here as I am to home, for we have a better diet here." Fort McHenry, February 16: "I was on guard last Sunday up in the interior. I could stand on my seat and count over 35 cannons and each cannon had 97 balls and several rounds of grape and canister -- canister is a pale holding some few quarts and filled with small balls...." Fort McHenry, March 6: "I mean to do my duty in the sight of man and God as far as it is made known to me. I think that being so much in a bad company it makes me more on my guard." Fort McHenry, March 19: : "...and our clothes on the inside and our cartridges boxes with 20 rounds of carriage in it and our cap boxes and our canteens and our haversacks and I tell you that it was pretty hard. I have drilled once on the mortars it is nothing but fun and I have drilled on the [cannon] they are pretty heavy they are only about three feet across the brick with a ten inch bore." Fort McHenry, March 24: "We was paid last Tuesday and I was on guard yesterday and I could not send it home so waited until today. I got a pass and went downtown for the first time in over two months and I sent $50 by express to Halley; I did not pay for it and spared all of the money I could and get my photographs taken. I stood for them today. I got a present for Wilbren, I will send it in a day or so. I was warned on the new ironclad that is billeting up the other side." Fort McHenry, March 26: "I am as tough as a bear and as hearty as the rain, the most that I have to want for is I don't [have] bread enough and have to buy some: five cents a loaf and I can eat one to a meal. I have to get one most every day. I forgot to tell you when I last wrote that we have moved into the barn again not in the same one we was in before that is 7 of us in a little room which we made got some boards and made a nice little room." Fort McHenry, April 9. Shaw describes a long trip around Baltimore that ends at Kent Island between Annapolis and the eastern shore, where they encounter African-American residents: "We landed on Kent Island in Queen Anne's Co. Md this is on the eastern shore of the state and we went up to the nearest house and the man was not to home, so we went down in the darkies' room and one of the boys asked the darkie what kind of a man their master was and he said the he was a very wicked man for he did not belong to the Methodist, then soon his son came and showed us in the parlour a large room, it was not furnished, there was a large fireplace in it and we stayed there until Wednesday morning and then went to the school house about a mile and a half out. I went and seen a wind mill for grinding corn, well we stayed there (to the school house) until the next day morning, then we came back to the place where we landed. Mr. Deggs gave over our hard tack out, [and] we had to buy our bread which was made of ground corn, not sifted, and water and we got a little wheat bread and it was made of flour and water and it was so heavy...and got all of the Oysters that we could eat. I ate so many last night that I could not breathe...." Fort McHenry, April 13: "I have been writing here in my bunk watching the guard, which is some 2 feet from me and an iron fence between us, well I am a prisoner, well that is something new isn't it, well we are all prisoners to Uncle Sam but such prisoners as we are get $13 a month." "Fort No. 1," Fort McHenry, May 4: "I tell you that we look nice when we all get out on dress parade. We have dress parade every night at five o'clock. Then we have to dress up in our best and black our boots and...get on our $7 coats, then we look most as nice as the darkies does. There is a regiment of heavy artillery in Baltimore (darkies I mean), they are dressed the same as we are." "On the battle line," presumably near Fort McHenry, May 18: "...we have been under fire of the rebels, we expect to be in a fight before tomorrow night, but I aint afraid of them. Based on the above letter, and Shaw's next letter, dated June 21, he was shot in the leg at some point in May or June. At this time, a great deal of Shaw's regiment was serving under Tyler's division, which was at that time waging the Overland Campaign (or Wilderness Campaign) in Virginia. There were a number of battles that Shaw could have been present at during this time, including Spotsylvania Court House. David's Island, June 21: Shaw is recuperating at the Union hospital on David's Island, New York, nursing a gunshot wound in which a musket ball traveled through both of his legs, leaving holes in both of them. "Well my wounds are getting along finally. The same ball went through both legs it made 4 holes in them. I got up and walked on crutches across the room." At this point, the letters jump to September, picking up with Shaw at Fort Wood, on Bedloe's Island in New York harbor (the future site of the Statue of Liberty) on his way to Petersburg, Virginia. Two of Shaw's letters emanate from Fort Wood. On September 10, Shaw remarks that, "we stay here five days and go some where, and be examined. Those that have gone before went to Alexandria.... I can't straighten my leg and the doctor says it never will be straight, so you need not be scared about my being sent to the front." Fort Wood, September 12 and 15: "Here we are in gunshot [range] of NY City and what a nice bread we have, it is the soft side of a hard board with nothing under us, and nothing over us but a rubber blanket. I have got in with a man by the name of Mills, he is in the 81 Williamstown Oswego Co. NY. O what a good grub we have, we have hard tack and cold beef and water, won't that make a man fat. Well when I was to home and went up to Mr. Opps I weighed 147, now I weight 163 1/2, so you can see that I am a getting heavy(?). I expect to go tomorrow.... [further, a note by Shaw appended to the end of this letter and dated September 15 reads] I have not gone yet and don’t know when we shall go. There is some a going soon tomorrow or next day. There is some 8 or 9 hundred here and there is 550 a going." By October 4, Shaw is near Petersburg, where he reports a rather remarkable battle encounter with Confederates, and his leg injuries are noted: "We have been moved to the front, I have just come in from picket, we was no more than 20 rods from the johnnies. We kept shooting all night and in the morning we told them we wanted to get some coffee and so we stopped shooting and so did they and we got up a wall and sat all around and so did they and some of the boys asked them if they did not want some soft bread and coffee for tobacco. They said that they had bread and coffee aplenty and one of them held out a loaf of bread. We stayed some 80 [?] hours on. I am just about sick: I tell the boys that if they march today that I shall fall out and go to the hospital, for there is no use of a man's killing himself for nothing. I have no cold, but my feet are wet all of the time and in makes my legs sore...." "Near Petersburg," October 29: "At noon we started for our left line and marched till 8 o'clock at night, and stayed there till 4 the next morning, then started and marched till morning, and then had a fight with the Johnnies and broke their lines and marched into their lines for as many as 5 miles, and then we met the enemy again and of all of the fighting that was the greatest: we would take a place and then they would try to take it again. We took a large white house and the boys got lots of stuff in it. There was a safe in it; the boys broke it open and one man, a private, got $400.00 in gold, and another 50.00 and one a gold watch, and another got two pair of gold bracelets and the boys got lots of other stuff. I got some honey. There was 4 barrels of flour, 3 barrels of molasses and a lot of cider and tobacco and most everything that you could think of...." "Near Petersburg," November 2: "I expect to have to go on picket tonight the first time since we have got back. Won't it be cold for I have not got my overcoat yet nor woolen blanket nothing but a rubber blanket but we expect to draw some tomorrow or next day. Then I shall have both....I shant date many more letters from here. It looks more like going back than it has before. The rest of the brigade has been ordered to fix up winter quarters." "Near Petersburg," November 13: "I did not write for some time when we was out on that raid. Well I was taking worse the other night and in the morning I went to the doctor and he gave me a quinine powder and it was done up in a vote with Horace Greeley's man on the back of it. I took the powder and it made me sick as a horse all of the forenoon but after I got better....We are doing picket duty here near Petersburg. We are so close that we relieve the pickets by the town clock in the City. I am in hopes that they will rather put us in rooms first or in winter quarters for we have to lie on the ground and it is getting so cold that it freezes the top of the water." In his last full letter, from near Petersburg on November 17, Shaw describes his nighttime picket duty (which he refers to as "violet post"): "I am on picket every other day. When I was on violet post that is in the night we first sent out a man some 5 yards in advance and he stands there and watches. We are on one hour and off two. Well what I was going to tell you is that while I was on violet that I went out a ways probably half ways to the johnnies and got my haversack full of corn and I have had all the popped corn I wanted since then but I have not got only two ears left. The last time that I was on the moon shown very bright ad we could see their violets. I had orders if they built a fire to order them to put it out and if they did not to shoot. Well they built a fire and I could see three men standing around it and I thought how I should like to have a good fire for a few moments so I let them go without molesting them. I think more of some of them than I do of some of our copperhead soldiers...." Despite his terrible leg injuries and his close proximity to the Confederate military during the Siege of Petersburg, Shaw lived through the war. Present in this collection is his 1884 membership card to Post 298 of the Grand Army of the Republic, located in his hometown of Kendall, New York. A useful and informative archive of Civil War letters from a young New York artilleryman wounded in battle, who spent most of the eleven months represented here on guard duty at Fort McHenry or on picket duty outside Petersburg during the siege.