Thirty-one-year-old Timothy O. Webster, overseer at the Detroit House of Correction, enlisted in the Union Army in July 1862. Private Webster was assigned to Company F of the 24th Michigan Infantry, which was dispatched from Detroit to Washington, D.C., in August. His regiment was later assigned to the famed Iron Brigade. Webster’s letters to his family and friends, housed in Navarro College’s Pearce Civil War Collection, vary in tone from bitter criticism of Federal officers’ behavior to cautious optimism for the Union war effort.
In December 1862, Webster wrote his wife Harriet (‘Hattie’) about the buildup of Union and Confederate troops near Fredericksburg, Va.: ‘We are about 15 miles from where a great battle is expected to come off soon. It is at Fredericksburg. There are mountains on each side of the creek and there are cannon of all size and it seems that they are without number on both sides. They are planted on these mountains base to base. It is plain to see each ones movements with the artillery. We have got 5 pontoon bridges swung across the stream. Our army is to cross under all their fire.’ Union engineers began laying pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock on December 11. The next day, wave after wave of Union troops crossed the river and moved against entrenched Confederate positions in and around Fredericksburg. On December 16, Webster described to Hattie the Battle of Fredericksburg, his green regiment’s baptism of fire: ‘I’ll take this present opportunity to write a few lines to you to let you know that I am yet to be numbered among the living. Last Friday we crossed the Rappahannock into the field of battle and I tell you it has been a field of battle with great slaughter. There have been 7 killed out of our regiment and quite a number wounded.
It was primarily cannonading and it is said to be the heaviest ever known and it lasted until last night when we fell back across the river. The rebs are strong and saucy. We laid out in the drenching rain last night and this morning we marched back 3 miles…[and] are to be ready to march at a moments notice….When I commenced this I expected I could finish it and send it right off but we were ordered right off on picket duty and we have just got relieved, and now we have got orders to march from here in the morning but I can’t tell where we are a going but it is supposed we are going to put up for the winter. We have faced the enemy and with their position they are too much for us. They can kill our men as fast as they have a mind to march up to them. From the way we made the attack on them, if we had not slid out in the night they would have completely annihilated our army before we could have gotten across the river. It is now the 19th. This war is the greatest curse that ever existed in the world. It seems that it will never be settled until the Almighty crushes it by sinking it in to the bowels of the earth or by some other wise plan of bringing it to a close.’
Overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the battle, Webster described the action in another letter to Hattie on December 21: ‘…I cannot forget the terrifying scenes and the horrible sounds of the battle field I must tell you a little more of it. The morning of the 11 we were about 4 miles off when the cannonading commenced. That day we marched to the brink of the river but had to fall back 2 miles where we stayed that night. The firing kept up all day. The next morning we started double quick time to cross the river but when we got there I suppose there were over one hundred thousand people to cross the pontoons before we could get a chance. There were 2 bridges placed side by side. There was a solid column a crossing all day. This is only the left of the army that crossed here. They were a great deal stronger in the center and on the right. Each of these divisions had their own bridges. The whole was a crossing at the same time. Well after we crossed the rebs began to introduce themselves to us in a manner that I was not much accustomed to. The first near call to us was a large cannon-ball struck right about the center of our regiment when we were all a laying down to rest but it did no harm, only tore up a big hole in the ground. After this the shells commenced bursting over our heads. Our Colonel [Henry A. Morrow] said it would do them good to stand the storm for a while. It didn’t matter if a few did get killed but the general [possibly brigade commander Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith] ordered him to march his men out of the enemy’s range so were led on more to the left and there we stayed that night. The next morning the fire of the enemy commenced right sharp all along the lines of the left and we were led right in front of all only the skirmishers. I will not try to tell you the horrible scenes that I experienced but I tell you the different kind of balls and shells that were flying around us made noises that could never be imagined by those that were never placed in their midst. Well we were kept in front till the arrangement was to retreat. It was done in the night. It was the night of the 15. I see the papers call this a grand reconnaissance in this advance across the river. It is just such things that are sinking our country so fast it will want twice as many men in the spring as we have got now. If this war is to be settled by fighting, then they must pass a law to not pay officers more than a private and let them go and fight for to gain honor and save their country and not all for money and party. If this is not adopted this war will last till our country is bankrupt.’ Casualties at Fredericksburg were severe; Union forces lost 12,000 men. It was an utter disaster for the Union cause.
On December 28, Webster continued his diatribe against officers: ‘This war will never [be] settled by fighting for the reason that our officers will not work together. They want it to last for the sake of big pay. If we had one million of active soldiers in the field we would not whip the south for the reason that the officers would not have a will to bring it to a close. If this was not so, the south would have been whipped a long time ago and time and time again so we might have whipped every reb in the south with our army that we had as we advanced this last time but were defeated on account of the officers not all working together.’
In late January 1863, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac, moved his forces up the Rappahannock hoping to cross the river again and take General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia by surprise. Disagreements with his subordinates, demoralized troops and severe weather doomed Burnside’s plan, which was quickly dubbed the ‘Mud March.’ On January 27, Webster wrote Hattie: ‘Since I wrote you the last letter we have had quite a story here in the army. When we marched was a week ago to day. We had orders to make another attack on the rebs. The roads was tolerable good in the morning when we started but it commenced to rain and it kept up, and the army kept marching until we got to the place where they were to cross the river. One side is held by us and the other side is held by the rebs….I will mention a little of this march….we had orders to strike tents Tuesday last. It was a fine morning and the soldiers of the Potomac were to abandon their huts that they had built for their comforts and they, feeling rather demoralized, commenced to pack their things, and many of them destroyed their huts after taking great pains to build them. We were soon drawn up in a line of march and the army once more expecting to front the enemy, but the rain came on in on the first days march and the whole thing proved a total failure but they kept us going on till everything was in great danger of getting stuck so fast in the mud that it would have to stay till spring. They used 20 horses to one wagon to get them over the worst roads. Well they got us all along on the banks of the Rappahannock where they intended to cross. The rain kept up and we got orders to return to our old quarters. We were all very willing to do that, for fighting is a playing out very fast with the Potomac army, [and the army] is becoming very demoralized and there are many desertions. There has got to be a change soon in the affairs in general.’ Lincoln had removed the luckless Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, replacing him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
In April, Webster’s regiment participated in the Chancellorsville campaign. On May 9, Webster wrote a friend: ‘I improve the present opportunity to write a few lines to you to let you know that I have gone through some of the hardest battles that have been fought since the war and still live…I was one of those that first crossed the [Rappahannock] River in the boats at the extreme left. We crossed under a very heavy fire but we came at them like so many wild men. They were scared and left their holes in a hurry as soon as we struck the shore. We all rallied after the rebs without waiting for commands. We did well. We captured about two hundred…Rebs. I hollered to one and told him to halt, and I suppose he thought I could not catch him and he continued to run so I sent a miney ball through his head in a hurry. He never knew what hurt him. I saw him fill a soldier’s grave.’ The Union losses at Chancellorsville were higher than at Fredericksburg, and morale in the Army of the Potomac dropped even lower.
On July 1, the 24th Michigan marched into Gettysburg and was among the first regiments engaged in the battle there. Webster wrote Hattie on July 17: ‘The two armies came in contact with each other and there was 4 days fight. At the first they drove our forces back through the city. Our losses were very heavy the first day, but theirs was much greater before they got through. We turned their whole force on their backward track and followed them back to Williamsport where they crossed the Potomac….I will not mention any horrors of this fight. It could not interest you. I wish it could all be blotted out of my mind what I witnessed.’ Despite his regiment’s 80 percent casualty rate at Gettysburg (the highest of any unit in the battle), Webster’s subsequent letters reveal renewed hope for the Union cause.
In September Webster wrote a discouraged Hattie: ‘You know it is darkest just before day. But for myself I have never felt better since I have been out here…We have gained victory after victory. We have gained all points and the rebels have lost until the soldiers in their ranks have become disheartened and don’t expect victories. I have talked with many of them and they say that is a general feeling among them. I can see a great change in things this summer. All things are working….if Uncle Abe can’t settle this little difficulty that man is not made yet that can….You may think it is a small thing, and the whole thing be settled without subduing the rebels. That cannot be done. They must be worn out and demoralized in their whole armies and all we want is to have a sufficient army to keep them in check and time will do more than constant fighting. If Abe called out every man that is in the north this war might last just as long as it will….You must be content a little longer and believe me you will be a thousand times glad. I have much to feel thankful for. I have been in many places of great danger and endured many hardships and it seems that God has been with me and protected me in danger and brought me through all my troubles in perfect safety. I wish I was there to talk to you about this war. I could show you that the general thing is working well. We must not think we are getting punished. Oh how we suffer, but in a just and holy cause. I am not discouraged in it. Right, will, must, and shall prevail in our land.’
On May 1, 1864, Webster penned: ‘There have been many changes here…since [Lt. Gen. Ulysses S.] Grant commenced to reorganize the army….You may be assured that there will be some big fighting here in this state very soon, and it will be the means of turning the heaviest tide of any campaign during this war. I now think it will crush the rebellion if we are victorious, and if we get whipped our government will be lost. Well my dear ones I think if I ever see one of you again I shall think I am wonderfully blessed. It will all be through the goodness of God for the exposures of death will be numerous this summer. Oh remember if I am not permitted to ever meet you again it shall be my last prayer in your behalf may god bless you for ever.’ The 24th Michigan fought at the Wilderness, then marched to Spotsylvania and finally on to Cold Harbor before participating in the siege of Petersburg. On May 31, Webster wrote a short letter home: ‘I am still alive but dreadfully fatigued. The battles are still a raging.’ Private Timothy O. Webster died in battle near Petersburg on June 18, 1864.
This article was written by Julie Holcomb and originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.