Wednesday Nov 5th, 1862
I received your letter of Oct 26th last Saturday and now will try to answer it. I received a letter from Anne last Thursday. I will try to answer it soon. Last Thursday night we left our camp at Antietam about 7 o’clock and marched about 3 hours over hills that would make Charleston Hill feel ashamed of itself, and camped down till morning. Friday we passed through Harpers Ferry. Saturday we lay in camp and Sunday, while you were going to meeting wrapped in thick shawls and furs, we were sweating on the march, but since then it has been cooler. There was quite a frost this morning. I expect you have had some snow by this time and considerable ice.
I hope you had a pleasant day and evening for your (our) concert. It was a fine evening here. You must tell me all about it…
Mr. French is Chaplain of our Regt. He joined us 2 weeks ago Monday…
…All the sick from our Regt were sent to Baltimore last week. There are about 450 men with our Regt now.
It is not quite as long as it was when it left Portland 2 months ago.
We are on one side of a mountain and they say “Stonewall” is on the other. I guess he is pretty nearly cornered though you know more about it than I do…
Give love to all and accept much yourself from your aff Brother,
Will P. Lamson, Jr
William P. Lamson, Jr. to his sister; November 5, 1862.
On August 29, 1862, the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment mustered into service in Portland, Maine. 979 men and officers had enlisted and reported for duty. The regiment arrived in Virginia by the beginning of September.
By November, the regiment had not seen major action in a battle, but their numbers were reduced by approximately 529. More Civil War soldiers died of disease than bullets, and Lamson’s letter reflects that fact. (Note: 529 men had not died of disease in the regiment, but they were temporarily out of service due to illness.)
What contributed to the high disease numbers? Military camps were the perfect breeding ground for illness, and many of the young men hadn’t had childhood diseases…until they got in the army. In some areas, mosquito-carried illnesses – malaria and yellow fever – devastated the military ranks. And then there was the problem with sanitation in camps and on the march; without getting too graphic, let’s just say the soldiers didn’t like to dig latrines and routinely contaminated their water sources.
This particular regiment had only been in service for two months, had not fought a major battle, and disease was already taking its toll. By the end of the war, the 20th Maine would lose 689 men – dead, wounded, missing, prisoner, (according to the Maine State Archives) – 146 died of illness.
Marching & Weather
Lamson and the regiment were on the march, as the Union army finally started to move after McClellan’s weeks of inactivity. The roads would’ve been good – and possibly less dusty – as cooler weather and frosts started to settle in Maryland and Virginia.
Did you notice the contrasting remarks about the weather in Maine and the weather in Virginia? This was probably Lamson’s first time in the South and possibly his first time out of state. While his hometown was getting winter’s snow and ice, he was sweating on the march in Virginia. Ah, the difference of being just a little closer to the equator…
“I guess you know more about it than I do…” Will Lamson writes to his sister, regarding the supposed trap to catch Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson. It’s not uncommon to find soldiers asking their family and friends for reports on the exact war they are fighting. Sure, the soldiers knew what they saw, but the good rumors, reports on war strategy and overall campaigns either had to make their way through the army gossip chain or be heard from home.
How did the folks at home “know” what the soldiers didn’t? Newspapers. However accurate or inaccurate their news, journalists and illustrators kept the homefront informed of the latest military movements, suspicions, and rumors. Depending on the reporting accuracy (and whether or not she read the papers), Miss Jennie Lamson might have known more about what was supposed to be on the other side of the mountain than her brother who was actually camping near the mountain. Ah…the irony of it all!
P.S. We shared another Lamson letter last Friday in our discussion about Thanksgiving during the Civil War. Click here to enjoy that article.