Confederate Captain Charles Bruce kept his father apprised
of conditions during the crucial Peninsula campaign.
Submitted by Faye Royster Tuck
On March 29, 1859, two years before the beginning of the Civil War, Charles Bruce, 18, was attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Little did he know then how much the terrible war would soon change everything. The letters Charles Bruce, Jr. (he was a “Jr.” even though he was named for his uncle), wrote to his father, James, in Halifax County, Virginia, after joining the Confederate Army offer firsthand accounts of the war.
Lands End [Va.], Jan. 7, 1862
I arrived here last Saturday in safety but very cold from having to ride 18 miles in an open wagon & that too on a rainy night. The change from a warm room to these board-covered houses is tolerably severe, almost sufficient to bring on an attack of rheumatism. I have been suffering with sore throat but am better today.
When I came through Richmond I went up to the Spotswood Hotel to see Mr. Seddon & give him your letter, but as he was not in I left it for him at the office. I heard nothing at all of Ballard [Charles’ brother William Ballard Bruce]. I did not go to Staunton [the plantation that James Bruce owned in Charlotte Co., Va.] to see him because I heard that they had become very severe about absence without leave and my furlough was out on Saturday. I would have called on his wife at Mr. Morson’s but I was suffering with headache all the time I was in town. If you have heard anything from him or his trial I would like very much to hear of it.
I heard today that there was a fleet of 200 vessels in Hampton Roads with an army on board but these sensational dispatches have become so frequent that we pay no attention to them.
When I got back here I found that our regiment had received orders to fall back at 1 o’clock at night & that they were countermanded before morning. By the way, these contradictory orders from headquarters are not improving the spirit of the soldiers much.
Capt. Claiborne went up yesterday on furlough. If there are any socks at home to spare I wish you would send them to Mr. Claiborne so that he may be able to bring them down with him when he returns.
Wilkins [Charles’ brother, who was three years older than Charles] has been complaining a little but is some better this evening. I shall send you a mouton by the first man that goes up on furlough, to be left at Boston for you. Tell Kate that Wilkins had hardly been here a day before he was wishing to be at home again.
Give my love to Kate and my sister Nannie & believe me,
Dear Father, Your affectionate son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Lands End, Jan. 21, 1862
I wrote to you three or four days after I got here & as I have received no answer I suppose it must have been miscarried. Our mail is so uncertain that Wilkins even has not heard from his wife for a week.
I was very glad to hear that Ballard had gotten out of his scrape so well. I always had great faith that Ballard would not get himself into a difficulty out of which he could not talk himself. I was very much amused at his idea of bringing charges against Colonel Harmon for an illegal arrest.
I heard the other day that Uncle Charles had been sent to Charleston with his company. I suppose he is very glad to go there for the winter so as to miss the cold weather & snow.
I see there is a bill before the legislature to force the volunteers now in the field to remain for the war. If it is passed it will ruin our army completely. If they will let the soldiers alone they will come back within a month after their term of enlistment is out. They will, however, go home at the end of the year in spite of everything that can be done. I think that the volunteers would be much better satisfied if the militia were drafted. The weather has been horrible ever since we got here. I do not think that we have had a clear day for a week. We had a snow a few days ago which bothered us a good deal. It drifted under the slabs & almost covered the floor. I think if the yankees are as tired of this war as we are, peace would be made in a very short time. Capt. Claiborne & Logan went a short time ago with the intention, I understand, of making a regiment for next year. I do not know when I shall be able to get off again as I have just heard that the General has said that he would not grant any more furloughs to officers.
Give my love to Kate & Sister Nannie.
Your affectionate Son, Charles Bruce.
Camp Randolph, April 21, 1862
We march at 12 o’clock & consequently I have time to write only a few lines. We are going towards Elizabeth City in order to cut off a body of enemy who are making a raid into this county. They are said to be about 3,000.
Our brigade, which consists of 3 regiments of infantry & 2 battalions of artillery, is to get between them & the sound whilst the Norfolk forces attack them in front. We have about 40 miles to march through the rain & heavy roads. They had a skirmish there last Saturday in which we lost 50 men. I am very well. What will you do if the Confederate army evacuates Virginia? It is getting to be the opinion in the army that the government is going to do that pretty soon.
I remain Dear Father your affectionate Son, Charles Bruce
Suffolk, May 4, 1862
We have just returned from our camp. We were about 2 weeks & I never spent a more disagreeable time in my life. When we started the General told us that we would not be absent more than two or three days & consequently we carried only one change of clothing.
I hear here that our troops are going to evacuate Norfolk. Two trains passed here for Petersburg laden with government stores from Norfolk & I understand that all the sick have been ordered from Norfolk & Suffolk to Petersburg.
I am afraid that it will be some time before I can pay you all a visit home as we expect to go on the Manassas line in a few days. I am getting extremely tired of camp as I have been here ever since Christmas. I think if the Southern Confederacy succeed, that I will deserve my part of the liberty gained by our victory.
I have not heard from you now in 4 or 5 weeks. I suppose your letters must miscarry some way or other. I find that Wilkins, tired of waiting for us to return, has set out for home.
I remain Dear Father your Affectionate Son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Petersburg, May 17, 1862
I got here safe this evening after having been delayed by the Richmond train running off the track near the Junction.
My regiment is here having arrived yesterday after marching all the way from Suffolk. I heard this evening that Petersburg would be evacuated in a week or two.
It is a mere rumor but I am very much afraid that there is some foundation for it. I have got another move of Huger’s to tell you. They tell me that the 53 Va. Reg. has been left near Suffolk & that it is very likely to be captured merely from our general neglecting to send them orders to march.
I remain Dear Father your affectionate son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Camp near Petersburg, May 22, 1862
We are now camped near Petersburg about half a mile beyond the race track. I was in town yesterday & saw them hauling all the cotton & tobacco to the other side of the Appomatox in order to burn it in case the yankees should get possession of this place. The Petersburg people seem to be in good spirits although I do not think that they would be willing to burn their town to keep the enemy from getting possession of it.
I heard today that Capt Claiborne’s brother was killed at Williamsburg. Have you heard anything about it? Instead of moving us to Jackson’s division I understand that we are to be reinforced here as the yankees have landed a large force near Smithfield intending, I hear, to form a Junction with Burnside & advance on Petersburg by the way of Suffolk. Tell Wilkins & Sandy that my company has to go on picket to City Point day after tomorrow & as there is a chance of a Skirmish I would like to have them along. I wish you would send me a pot of butter in the care of William Pannill, Petersburg.
I remain Dear Father your affectionate Son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Camp of 14th Va. Reg., June 6, 1862
I received a letter from you yesterday dated the 27th May. It was sent to Petersburg & by that means missed me. We are now camped on the York River railroad about 4 miles from Richmond. We got here yesterday after being on the outposts since Monday in a swamp knee deep in water all the time. Everything is quiet on the lines today. There was a pretty sharp artillery fight yesterday on our left without either gaining any advantage. In our fight on Sunday our regiment lost 8 killed & 37 wounded. When we were returning from the field on Sunday the commanding general, Hall of N.C., drew our regiment up in line & thanked them for their gallant conduct during the day.
The 53rd Va. Regiment was on our left during the engagement and at the first fire broke & fled but were afterwards rallied and we were compelled in consequence to fall back for a time to hinder the enemy from flanking us. We retook some of our men from the yankees who told us that the yankees had lost 150 men in the regiment opposed to the 14th alone. I think my company behaved as well as any I saw. When the general ordered us to fall back in consequence of our flank being recovered by the flight of the 53rd, I mistook the order & instead of falling back to a swamp behind us I stopped my company in a road fifty yards in front of it & was considerably exposed in consequence of it.
We stayed in the enemy camp Saturday night & the men loaded their knapsacks with quantities of clothing & blankets & the next day when we were ordered to the field the general ordered us to leave our knapsacks behind. Whilst we were gone fresh troops were ordered up & finding our knapsacks on the ground filled with clothes that we had gotten from the enemy’s camp, they completely emptied them & my men in consequence without clothing.
You tell Sandy & Wilkins that if they should like to take a part in a fight to come down & they can be accomodated. It seems to be the general impression that there will be no Big fight around Richmond but a series of small engagements until either the enemy or ourselves are compelled to retreat.
I am pretty well but I don’t think that I can continue so long under the exposure which I have been under for the last few days.
I remain Dear Father your affectionate Son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Camp on the York River Railroad,
June 8, 1862
We are still at the same encampment as we were when I wrote last. No advance movement on either side as yet. The enemy are throwing a breastwork on the railroad about 2 miles below us & I expect will make the woods about here too hot to hold us in a few days. There was a slight skirmish a half a mile ahead of us early this morning in which we drove in their pickets. There is heavy firing going on at this time on our left but whether we are just firing off our muskets or not I cannot tell. Our General sent us word yesterday that if any of our officers wished to go out on a scouting expedition, we had only to notify our outside pickets & go ahead right into the yankees lines if we wished. Now that the Battle of Seven Pines is over I have heard a great many persons asking what we gained by the victory. We whipped the enemy, took their camps, captured sixteen pieces of artillery and a good many stores both commissary & ammunition but on the other hand we lost from 25 hundred to 3 thousand men Killed & wounded & fell back to our former lines. It was reported here this morning that the enemy was throwing his forces on the right of our line across the railroad. Both parties seem to be afraid of each other, especially about this point–as both have thrown up a good many entrenchments here.
Mr Terry, Wilkins’ overseer, came down yesterday & told me that the dike at “Wilbon” had given away and that Wilkins would lose his corn crop.
Is Ballard in Richmond now for I should like to see him if he is. I sent Rob [Charles’ personal slave who went with him in service] up to Halifax today to bring down something to eat for it is almost impossible to get anything here in the midst of all this army. We have been without tents ever since we left Petersburg & we have to have our baggage 3 or 4 miles in our rear. I have been sleeping or rather lying down for two weeks without taking off my clothes or my shoes. By the way Edgar Carrington, son of Mr. Paul Carrington, was killed on Saturday by a piece of a shell striking him in the groin.
Give my love to all at home, your
affectionate Son Charles Bruce, Jr.
P.S. Enclosed I send you a letter one of our men found in the enemy’s camp sealed & ready to be mailed the morning of the battle.
Camp of 14th Va. Reg., June 22, 1862
We are doing nothing today but lying in our tents waiting for something to turn up. There was some heavy skirmishing on the lines last night after midnight. There was quite an unfortunate occurance during the fight. One of our regiments coming up to reinforce the pickets met another one coming out of the woods & mistaking them for yankees fired into them & killed 5 men & wounded some 20 or 30. I think something ought to be done to put an end to this picket-firing. It is of no use and besides being very disagreeable it is no use to either side. One day we drove in the enemy’s pickets & the next day perhaps he drives us back to our former position. The other day when I was on picket they sent us word to advance on the enemy. We were ordered to advance till a signal was passed from the right for us to halt. My company being the left company was seperated from this regiment by a pond with thick bushes around it so that I could not see any signals at all. I continued to advance with my company however until I got to the edge of an old field in which there was a battery with a regiment of infantry to support it. As soon as some of my men appeared on the edge of the field they were fired upon but fortunately they dodged behind some large pines that were near at hand. As I was not ambitious of distinguishing myself by storming a battery with a single company. I halted & sent back word that I was about as far as circumstances would permit me to go at that time. The enemy continued to fire on us for 15 or 20 minutes but without doing us any injury as we were all lying down behind the biggest pine trees we could find.
It is reported throughout camp that we are going to attack [Maj. Gen. George B.] McClellan in his entrenchments in a few days, but with what truth I do not know. If we do you may look out for the bloodiest battle that we have had yet. I expect that we will have to do it sometime for McClellan has not advanced his pickets a hundred yards in three weeks.
They say that the mortality amongst the sick & wounded in Richmond is terrible, amounting I understand to a hundred a day.
I hear it stated also that McClellan’s army is less by 68 thousand than when he left Yorktown.
I should like very much to pay you a visit at home now but I suppose that is impossible for a long time as yet, for I can not even get a pass to go to Richmond for a few hours to look up my sick men. I am better than when I last wrote but am still far from well.
Give my love to all at home.
I am Dear Father you affectionate
Son, Charles Bruce, Jr.
Captain Charles Bruce was killed on Tuesday, July 1, 1862, at 5 p.m. at Malvern Hill. The entry in James Coles Bruce’s Bible says, “Alas for thee my dearest, dearest son.”
Malvern Hill was the last of the famous Seven Days’ Battles on the Virginia Peninsula–a battle that Confederate General Robert E. Lee expected to win, despite the fact that Union troops occupied a nearly impregnable position. The 150-foot-high hill towered above the surrounding terrain and was protected on its flanks by deep ravines. Union gunners, with an open field of fire, slaughtered the atttacking Confederates in clusters, providing the war’s harshest example of the superiority of Northern artillery.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill said of the battle, “It was not war–it was murder.” At the conclusion of that one day of fighting, 5,355 Confederate troops had been lost.
Dr. P.S. Carrington, a local physician who attended the Bruce slaves and who lived with his family near Mount Laurel on land adjoining that of Clement Adkisson, wrote to James Coles Bruce on August 21, 1862, after Charles Bruce had been killed:
My dear Sir
I take up my pen to tell you some incidents which I have just heard, which gave me pleasure though melancholy & touching. My son, Dr. William A. Carrington, went on the Battle field in search of his brother & other friends & there heard of the fall of your son Charles. He searched for him & found him–had him carried into a house & put on a bed. Charles requested William to operate on him if it was necessary. William examined his wounds & told him that he must die. William had a good deal of conversation with him & remained with him until the approach of the enemy, it was unsafe to be in the house. William retired leaving another wounded man & his attendant, promising Charles to keep as near the house as he could & to return to him if it was possible. Charles told him he did not expect ever to see him again. What touches my feelings in this melancholy & trying hour was that Charles asked William when he was taking leave of him to kiss him. Amidst the horror of war such little incidents should be recorded in honor of humanity.
[ Top | Cover Page ]