From the Western Theater, Letters Home, 1862-63
by Gordon Thorsby
Soldiers in blue and gray were quite similar to us when it came to things back home. The primary differences were in how they got from here to there and that unseen diseases took everyone young and old too soon. Their letters convey some of the soldiers' thoughts and their loved ones back home. Below are excerpts from four letters.
Over sixty men from the nearby small towns and crossroads of Owosso, Flushing, Maple Grove, Chesaning, St. Charles, Brant and Oakley, Michigan gathered to form most of Company G of the Third Michigan Cavalry. The Third’s campaigns included the areas around Western Tennessee, Northern Mississippi, and Trans-Mississippi and post-war stations at New Orleans. Significant portions of their actions were maintaining guard around Corinth, Mississippi and Duvall's Bluff, Arkansas to combat guerilla activity. Harrison Henry Carson, 39 in 1862, enlisted as private in Company G, of the 3rd Michigan Cavalry at Chesaning, MI.
Harry Carson’s letters always started with “Dear Family” so his words were meant for all to hear. At home, there was his wife, Agnes Rachel, their children, Winfield (forced to leave schooling to tend the farm), James, and Henrietta (Henrietta not related but resided with them.) Harry's letters often included fighting (incl. Ft. Donelson, Corinth, Coffeyville) but the thoughts he sent home contained his thoughts for home.
On January 16, 1863, from Camp Jackson, TN, Harrison scribbled this note inquiring about the livestock on the farm. Writing was quickly done because spare time was interrupted with calls to spurs and saddles:
"I am anxious to hear how you got along with the Irishman and the steers. If the mares are foal I do not want them to be fed too high on grain; give them plenty of hay and let them have exercise and feed them mill feed if you can get it once a day. How many of the cows are going to have calves? I want Simon and Dan (cows) well taken care of. I want to make a team of them when I get home." Harrison would not be discharged for over two years.
Carson went on to report his own “inventory” with comrades in his company; "...Ryness, William Case, John Kelly, the Curriers, Lemunyon, Arnold Miller, Nelson Phy, Seldon Patterson, Thomas Smedley, Mead, Halstead, and Lyman, Worden, R.P. Walker." Letters from Harrison were concerning his farm because the success of the farm meant a better quality of life for the family.
Near the letter's conclusion, Carson stated to Winfield, now in his late teens: "Winfield, you must stay home and see to things. Never think of enlisting, for you would not live here one month." Harry had seen other men young enough to be his sons die too soon.
Amongst the thousand or hundreds of thousands, loss and loneliness was extreme. Though many in camp were his friends from back home, nothing could match come close to matching the closeness of his wife, children, parents and his eight siblings. His disconnection to that life at home was captured by this remark to Agnes and the kids on January 17, 1863, and also from Camp Jackson, TN:
“I had a very pleasant dream a few nights ago. I must tell it to you. I dreamed there was an armistice, and Northern soldiers were sent to their respective states for six months and we were quartered by the schoolhouse, and you had gotten a supper for Company G and told me to call them to supper, and I actually felt the kisses on my cheeks, but it was a dream. You must not think hard when you did not get letters. We write regularly but the mail is irregular.”
We cannot know his true emotions as he penned this paragraph but he may have felt quite low with tears welling up.
A week later on January 24, Harrison wrote from LaGrange, TN. He had received a letter from his wife that she had been quite ill.
“Yours of the 14th is received, giving the unwelcome news of your sickness accompanying requests not to be uneasy concerning you.
Winfield, I want you to get someone to stay with your mother while she is sick and don’t let her want for anything, and I will send you money in a short time (monthly pay continued to be delay). Pay for such things as you need, There is nearly three months' pay due at the present time and I owe only $1.25, and I will send you all the money I can which I think will be not less than $25, and if it requires it all to furnish her with such things as she needs, get it for her. Don’t let her want for anything.”
The repetition of his concern "for wants" only indicates his worry for Agnes' survival in the Michigan Winter. That worry was in spite of fighting, disease and the weather that he was coping with.
Further in the letter was written, “The weather is fine here at present. We are looking for pay and a march south.”
This sentence was to remove any possible worry about him. On the back of the letter, “boys, do be kind to your mother.”
Then, there was one letter home on December 18, 1862, from Water Valley, Mississippi to his younger son.
“James, these little letters of yours might be more interesting by making them larger.”
Harrison’s instruction is that James’ letters were written with very tiny writing, that the letters on very small pieces of paper, or both.
Signed as every letter was written.
H. H. Carson
Agnes kept his letters home. Harrison sensibly could not.
Today, many of Harrison Henry Carson’s comrades returned to the same small towns where they rest still. For others, several rest at Corinth National Cemetery and in national cemeteries in the Trans-Mississippi area.
The Civil War Letters of Harrison Henry Carson, Edited by Len Thomas, Burton Publishing, Burton, MI, 2012.
The War for the Common Soldier, by Peter S. Carmichael, University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Sketch: from the Endowment for the Humanities.