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  • Jake Wynn

"The dire effects of war" - A Pennsylvania soldier's letter from war-time Washington

Soldiers streamed through the United States capital as the early September sun shone down brightly. Artillery and wagon trains followed the men through the dusty streets of Washington. In the teeming city's public buildings, telegrams flashed over the wires carrying news of invasion as rumors of intrigue and treason swirled in the air.

The unfinished United States Capitol in 1862. (Library of Congress)

It was September 6, 1862 and chaos had taken root at the seat of war. General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac River two days early and entered Maryland with eyes on Pennsylvania. Just days earlier, he had thrashed General John Pope's Army of Virginia and elements of the Army of the Potomac at Second Bull Run, sending Union forces running pell-mell for the protection of Washington's fortifications.

The two commanders at the center of the storm in the late summer of 1862, both striking a Napoleonic pose. John Pope (left) commanded the Army of Virginia that was crushed at Second Bull Run. George McClellan (right) schemed and grumbled and commanded the Army of the Potomac as it moved in pursuit of Lee into Maryland.

In this atmosphere, the newly minted 135th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry entered the warzone. Mustered into service at Harrisburg, this nine-month regiment arrived at Washington on August 19, 1862. This rookie regiment took up duty guarding key locations around the Union capital as the cannonading from Manassas roared at the end of August.

In a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Indiana Messsenger of Indiana, Pennsylvania, 23-year-old Private William H. McCreery described the events occurring at rapid pace around him and his comrades as they drilled in their camp on Capitol Hill, about 1,500 feet from the United States Capitol. His letter reveals the tension of the moment and the horrors that the men of the 135th Pennsylvania witnessed as the battle-torn survivors of Second Bull Run, Fairfax Station, and Chantilly were dragged into Washington's military hospitals.

From the Indiana Weekly Messenger, September 17, 1862:

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.

September 6, 1862

Dear Messenger:

The 135th is still in Washington and Georgetown, guarding important places in these cities. Co. A, Capt. Nicholson, is guarding at the Long Bridge. They are quartered in a brick house. Kinter’s company (Co. I) is divided, part of them guard at the Medical Department, and parts at the Soldier’s Home.

The Long Bridge was a strategic bridge crossing on the Potomac River just below Washington. (Library of Congress)

Wilson’s company (Co. D) is in a great many different places. Some of them are guarding at the Alexandria Ferry, or landing; 21 men guard at Carver Barracks, an extensive hospital; four at the paymaster’s office, and nearly all the rest at different hospitals through the city.

Carver Barracks on the northern outskirts of Washington (Library of Congress)

A few men are in camp all the time. Our present encampment is that formerly occupied by the NY 86th, and is composed of board shanties about 16 feet square. It is situated on a pleasant hill about 100 rods southeast of the Capitol, with a fine view of the city, the Potomac and Arlington Heights.

Although we have no real hardships to endure, yet our situation gives us a good opportunity of seeing the dire effects of the war. We see multitudes of wounded men coming into the various hospitals – men who have lost limbs, and are maimed in every possible way. We also see many of our old acquaintances coming in wounded.

We have seen some of the 105th come in wounded, among them are Captains Hastings, Kirk, Thompson, and Craig. We have seen some of the regiment who had been taken prisoners and were paroled. We see portions of the army passing through, going from one place to another. We see men almost worn out with the fatigue of fighting and marching.

Patients at Armory Square Hospital in Washington during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

We see new regiments every day going to the seat of war; we see prisoners marched in, and everything to show that the very capital of the nation is in a state of terrible excitement. We heard the cannonading very plainly in the late battles near Centreville.

On last Sabbath some of our men started for the battlefield to see if they could render any assistance to the wounded. They went as far as Alexandria, but could not get on. There they found the 61st. Our old friends of Co. A were in good health and spirits, and very glad to see their friends. Many more of us would have gone to see them, but they left on Monday. I do not know where they are now.

We have had some visitors from the 11th Reserves. Poor fellows, they have suffered terribly, but still retain their bravery. The men are loud in their praise of Cap. Dan S. Porter...

We are getting some praise for the manner in which we perform our duty. We are also very kindly treated by the citizens. The ladies brought us quite a lot of the best delicacies the appetite could crave, and bestowed them upon us freely. We showed our appreciation of the favor by appropriating it immediately to the use for which it was designed. We then thanked them formally, and gave them three hearty cheers.

Now, friends at home, one word in conclusion. Write to us often. We look with the most intense anxiety for your communications.

The war is now coming to a terrible crisis. The rebels at the South, and the traitors at the North are rallying their forces. While we are called to fight the former, let us be encouraged by hearing you rebuking the latter through the press and at the ballot box, and in every place they dare to show their heads.

We are generally enjoying good health. We had been long expecting to receive the advance money, and today we were gratified by receiving $27 apiece of the needful.

Goodbye for the present. More anon.

W.H. Mc.

[Private William H. McCreery, Company D, 135th Pennsylvania]

The crisis reached its crescendo on September 17, 1862 - the same day this letter was published in the Messenger - when General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac confronted Lee and his army near a rural Maryland community called Sharpsburg. In the victory at Antietam, the US Army ended Lee's invasion and put an end - briefly - to the political and military squabbling that enveloped the Union war effort.

A battlefield grave on the Antietam battlefield in September 1862. (Library of Congress)

As for the the 135th Pennsylvania, the regiment remained at Washington on guard duty until February 1863 when it was attached to the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac and headed south toward Fredericksburg. They took part in the Chancellorsville campaign in May 1863, but saw little action before being mustered out of the service on May 24, 1863.

Private McCreery and his comrades in Company D returned home to the wilds of Indiana County.


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