First of two parts.
In light cast by candle and campfire, Civil War soldiers often spent quiet moments writing letters home.
The high literacy rate among soldiers in that conflict resulted in a strikingly rich, eyewitness accounting of what was felt and endured at the human level. These primary sources of information have provided much of the color and verve found in the canon of Civil War literature.
Recently Dr. David MacMillan, a Blacksburg physician, generously donated a stack of such letters to the University of Virginia’s Special Collection. The letters were penned by his great-grandfather, Oscar David McMillan, who enlisted in Company E. 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteers on April 20, 1861, just days after the war started.
McMillan was born Dec. 5, 1838, in Gettysburg, Penn. In 1841 the family moved to the new house his father had built just outside town at a place called Seminary Ridge.
When McMillan went off to war he couldn’t have guessed that one of the fiercest battles of the conflict would be fought on the fields surrounding his childhood home. In a letter written just two weeks after the horrific Battle of Gettysburg, he lamented the family’s loss, “in articles which money cannot replace.”
McMillan had apparently been one of the many who at the outbreak of war had answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call to serve for three months. That was the estimate of how long it was going to take Union forces to put down the rebellion.
McMillan showed he was in it for the long haul when he reenlisted on July 26, 1861, with Co. C, 1st Regiment P.H.B. Cavalry, Maryland Volunteers. One of the first letters in the donated collection is addressed to his sister Ada, and dated July 14, 1862.
By this time McMillan is a squad leader with 12 men under his command. They’re camped on the outskirts of Smithfield, with the primary mission of carrying dispatches between Winchester and Harper’s Ferry.
There was a lull in war-related activities and McMillan tells his sister that a number of his men “are out helping Union men to cut their grain.” He explains that field hands are very scarce and the loyalist farmers are having great difficulty harvesting the “dead ripe” wheat.
This letter provides a fascinating insight into the peculiar dichotomy of the war. Although Virginia had sided with the Confederacy, and much of the war would be fought on its soil, the correspondence reveals that a lot of its citizenry opposed the decision.
“Smithfield is about one of the strangest Secesh [secessionist] places I have yet stopped in, but the people are very kind,” McMillan writes. “We are treated to all the delicacies of the season.
“Yesterday dinner for instance, a lady sent the Sergt [sic] his dinner. It consisted of beans, peas, potatoes, ham, fried chicken, custard, pie and cream, bread and cake. It was very nice.
“When we get tired of town we mount our gallant steeds and go to see some of our Union friends in the country. It is singular but true we always meet more Union men in the country than in town.
“Not those miserable excuses who call themselves Union men when the Federal soldiers are about, there are plenty of that sort everywhere. But men who risk property and even life itself for their principles, who have to hide or fly when the rebels are about.”
The next letter in the collection was postmarked Feb. 5, 1863, and was addressed to “Dear Sister Carrie.” McMillian is at Bolivar and it’s snowing.
He notes that the previous month had seemed more like April than January. He has been promoted to sergeant, and a few nights before he and his men captured two Confederate soldiers.
“It was not by dash but stratagem as we caught them in bed,” McMillian wrote. “I suppose they didn’t like the change from a good warm bed to a seat behind a Yankee soldier and a ride over rough roads in the cold, but the way of the transgressor is hard and they certainly cannot claim exemption.”
As one delves further into this cache of history, the letters began to reveal the toll the brutalizing conflict is having on the young cavalryman.
Next: In it to the end.