'We marched on a solid sheet of ice': Letters from a Stonewall Brigade Soldier | HistoryNet MENU

‘We marched on a solid sheet of ice’: Letters from a Stonewall Brigade Soldier

By Susannah J. Ural
2/20/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

A Stonewall Brigade soldier kept his family well informed of his highs and his lows.

Thomas Smiley was two months shy of his 19th birthday when he enlisted in Company D of the 5th Virginia Infantry. When he marched off to war in April 1861, he stood above many of his peers at 6-foot-2, his blue eyes set off by the uniform his mother and sister had made. The Smileys were Augusta County farmers, running a profitable farm largely with their own labor, through during harvest season they may have owned or hired local African-American laborers, who comprised about 20 percent (with most of those enslaved) of the county’s population. Augusta was a conservative area that resisted the secession rhetoric of 1860, voting overwhelmingly for the Southern Unionist candidate, John Bell, in the election that year. But once war came, Augusta County voted strongly in favor of Virginia’s ordinance for secession. The correspondence between Thomas and his family comprises the “Letters of the Smiley Family, 1861-1865,” housed only at the Valley of the Shadow Project (vshadow.vcdh.virginia.edu). In addition to offering a broad perspective on the conflict from the home front, the letters also provide and inside view of an elite unit, the Stonewall Brigade, in which Thomas served from 1861 until his capture in 1864.

FRIDAY NIGHT, 10 O’CLOCK, APRIL 26, 1861

My Dear Brother

…We have received two letters from you one Wednesday and one to day and I tell you we (as well as others) were about as anxious to hear from you as we could well be only Thomas they were entirely to short….We would like very much to know what sort of a life you lead in camp. What have you to eat and have you plenty of it. Great fears are entertained that you will suffer for food….how are you camped, in houses in tents or in the open air with the sky for your covering?…

from your sister Mary A Smiley

HARPERS FERRY, MAY 9, 1861

Dear Aunt

…We do our own cooking and washing sleep on the floor with a blanket for a bed And in short we enjoy all the privileges and luxuries of Soldiers I do not know exactly how many soldiers are stationed here but I suppose there is from five to ten thousand and we are expecting more there is now some 300 Kentuckians here and about 1800 expected There is some Georgia and Alabama troops expected here in a few days….

T.M. Smiley

MAY 23, 1861

Dear Brother

…This is election day it has been beautiful so far even the morning appears to favor the election for ratifying what the convention has done. I think a great majority of the people will go for secession revolution or what ever it is called. The greatest number of the papers urge the people to ratify the acts of the Convention to present a bold and united front to the North against its tyranny….I dont hear of many union people about here now….

MAY 30, 1861

Dear Brother

…We have been making tents at Newport this week. There was some 20 or more there yesterday and the day before sewing at them….I expect there will be big doings at Newport Saturday [as] it is expected to raise a secession flag then….

Thomas have you received your secession badge yet? Hannah was telling us that she had made one for you but Ma told her she ought not to have done it as it would be a mark for the enemy to shoot at.

In June, Thomas’ family urged him to take precautions against disease.

SABBATH EVENING, JUNE 1861

Dear Son

…[I] am very Sorry to hear that the measles are in Camp As it is A very dangerous disorder to be exposed in. I want you to use every precaution and be as careful of yourself as the circumstances in which you are placed will admit of. Some of the Ladyes are making Soldiers Cloakes out of their Piano covers; I have none But will send you one of my Oil cloth table covers….I want you to Spread [it] down when you have to make your bed on the ground. It will keep the dampness from you. I want you also to wear it Around you when you have to stand guard when it is raining….If we knew what you wanted if you need Stockings or any thing send us word that we may have time to prepare it Your Pa will send you some money. I will send you a Round of Beef and would like to send you some cakes; but think they will be old and dry before you could get them….

Nothing more but I remain your affectionate Mother

In July 1861, while Thomas was battling a severe case of the measles, only news of the Confederate victory at Manassas Junction raised the rest of the family’s spirits.

JULY 13, 1861

Dear Brother

We are all well at present but hear that you are sick, in the hospital with the measels….You I suppose meant it for the best not to let us know that you were sick, but I say never do that way again, truth is always better than uncertainty. It is two weeks yesterday since we heard from you. I thought you might have written and the letter been miscaried but ma was getting very uneasy and I dont know what she would have done by this time had we not heard you were sick….

From your affectionate sister Mary A Smiley

JULY 27, 1861

Dear Brother

Received your letter yesterday & now hasten to answer it & give you the desired information as far as I know myself. The loss of the South in Sundays battle is reported to have been 500 killed & 800 wounded whilst the North admit a loss of 5,000 but it is estimated at 10,000 by the south. All their cannon was taken except two pieces, 67 in all, amongst them the Shermon battery, which is said to be the most famous battery in the United States….

Mary A Smiley

Two letters from Thomas at the end of 1861 describe conditions around Winchester, where soldiers were battling storms natural as well as economic. With one missive he included an unusual gift for his sister, Mary

CAMP NEAR WINCHESTER, NOV 16, 1861

Dear Aunt

…We are now camped near Winchester in a flat piece of woods [with] mud about shoe mouth deep….[T]his week has been very rainy, and now…snow and very cold. [O]ur tents are a great protection from the cold, and wind, but still not as much as could be desired; during the storm of last friday two weeks there was not more than a dozen tents left standing in the whole regiment the wind was so strong it carried them off as fast as they could be put upp. [Y]ou ought to be here to see us cooking; making bread, and pies & we get bakers bread sometimes which comes in very good; we get plenty of sugar, and coffee, and beef of the very best sort. [B]utter is selling at from 25 to 50,cts a pound in Winchester, that is of a good quality; eggs is 25cts a dozen, cabbage is selling at from 10 to 15,cts a head according to quality, apples 25,cts a dozen, and every thing else in proportion. [Y]esterday was fast day and I suppose was as well kept in the camp as it was at home. [A]n order was issued that there should be no drilling and no other duty except that which could not be dispenced with and we certainly did not eat much because they have it in their power to withdraw out rations and keep it from us. [T]here was preaching here by some strange preacher but I did not hear him as I had just come off guard, and was wet, and cold; but I believe he preached a very good sermon.

CAMP STEPHENSON, DEC 26, 1861

Dear Sister

…I hope you all enjoyed your Christmas as it was certainly a beautiful day here…I received the things you sent me and it just come in time as we were about out of provisions. [W]e do not fare very well on a march as there is not time to cook our provisions. [B]ut in camp we fare very well. [T]he roundabout you sent fits me very well and the socks I will keep although I do not need them just yet but I suppose I will need them after while. I will send the box home by Mr Lucas. [W]e have got knapsacks and I will send my sachel with what things I have. I sent the undershirt home again as I do not like to wear them here. I have put my uniform coat in and some lead and other things. [S]am Lucas has a pair of pants and a flannel shirt in, and David Hanger put in a pair of old socks. John Beard sent his old knapsack. [I]t is a black one and the other sachel is B.F. Hupps. I had some other things but when we moved every thing that could not be taken along was thrown away and destroyed… [postscript] I send you a button taken off the coat of a dead United States soldier who fell on the battlefield of Bull run July 21st 1861

Thomas’ 1862 letters are filled with descriptions of camp life—and always the weather.

CAMP NEAR CROSSROADS MORGAN CO., JANUARY 10, 1862

Dear Sister

…I am well and getting along pretty well considering the hardships we have had to go through with since the commencement of the present year. We left camp Stephenson on New year’s day and since that we have been almost constantly on the march and when night came we had to lay down without our tents in the snow and rain. We marched to Bath, the County seat of [M]organ, and was five days in getting there. The first snow we have seen this winter fell on us the third night while we were laying on the side of one of Morgans Numerous mountains. And after that we marched on a solid sheet of ice. [T]he wagons runing on the road packed down the snow and it got so icy a person could hardly stand on his feet. [T]he horses falling down, wagons sliding off the road and breaking to pieces. [T]here was several men [who] slipped down and broke their legs and arms. [T]here was a great many horses killed and crippled, not so many in our brigade but in those that came from Western Virginia. [T]hey are weak and poor and can not stand much hardship. [W]e drove the enemy out of Bath took 24 prisoners killed and wounded 8 or ten. [We] took their comissary stores &c. [W]e got about 6-or 8000 dollars worth of property [and] our success would have been much greater had it not been for some militia we had along with us. 2 regiments of them run from some 25 Yankees and their general, in the first place, disobeyed orders throwing the whole plan wrong he has… been placed under arrest by Gen Jackson. If the Militia had done right we would have captured the whole…force, baggage, and every thing they had and made a complete disaster to the enemy….Tell pa that he need not be uneasy about my enlisting for the war as I have not had any idea of it yet there is a bill up in Congress now for the purpose of keeping the twelve month volunteers in service during the whole war but I do not know whether it has passed or not our regiment are all wanting to go home when their term expires as they do not like their officers.

Not until 1863 did Thomas share some of the ugliest details of war with his family, including a powerful account of the Battle of Chancellorsville and in September the execution of some North Carolinians for desertion. On Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg, Thomas became a sergeant in Company D, 5th Virginia Infantry.

CAMP NEAR HAMILTON’S CROSSING, MAY 12, 1863

Dear Aunt

I seat myself this morning to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well with the exception of being very tired from the effects of the late terrible suffering we have passed through. We lay in line of battle for nearly three days and nights besides the hard fight of May 3. On Tuesday evening May fifth it commenced raining and did not stop until [F]riday, the whole of which time we were compeled to lay out or be marching through the mud. This last battle is one among the most terrible that we have had lately, a great many of the wounded Yankees being burnt to death. The large brick house at Chancellorsville took fire and burnt up with about two hundred wounded yankees who were so badly hurt that they could not move and their own soldiers did not help them any. Later in the day the woods took fire and a great many more helpless men perished. I seen some of these buried and it was truly sickening to see their burnt and charred bodies and their burial was not much better as there was so many that our men could not dig graves for them but just threw a few shovel fulls of dirt over them and passed on to the next remarking as they did so that if they had staid at home as they should have done they might probably have gotten a decent burial. I seen some of their dead who had been buried in gutters with the clay all washed off of them and they almost as black as charcoal from exposure to the air. I suppose you have heard of the death of Lieut Charles Calhoun. [H]e died [S]unday morning from the effects of amputation of his leg. [H]is father came down [S]unday evening. [H]e had heard of his being wounded but did not know that he was dead. [H]e seems to be very much distressed. Cyrus [S]trong was wounded badly we heard [S]unday that he was not expected to live but have heard nothing since. Last Sunday was appointed by General Lee as a day of Thanksgiving. [I]t was prety generaly observed through our part of the army.

…your affectionate nephew Thomas M. Smiley

Ps (Please write soon & direct to Hamiltons Crossing)

CAMP STONEWALL BRIGADE, AUGUST 28, 1863

Dear Aunt

…Every thing wears a more cheerful look now than when we came to this side of the mountain. Our army is filling up rapidly. We have over fifty men in our company which is more than we had when we started to Pennsylvania. Every body is in good spirits. [T]hey think that should… Meade advance we will be enough for him although he had the best of us in the battle of Gettysburg….

CAMP STONEWALL BRIGADE, SEPT 9, 1863

Dear Father

There is hardly anybody in camp to day as there is a Genereal review of troops and they have all gone. From every appearance I think that the army will not remain stationary much longer. [I]t is rumored that some of the first Corps has already commenced moving but in what direction I cannot say.

There was a military execution took place in our division last Saturday (10) ten men of the third North Carolina regiment were shot for the crime of desertion. They marched around the division to the stakes with as much apparent firmness as they would into a battle. [T]hey knelt down, their hands were tied, eyes bandaged and then the command was given to the firing party, ready; aim, fire, when a hundred and twenty muskets belched forth their leaden storm and the poor fellows are dead. They had the privilege of any Chaplan they wished and they chose a Catholic priest…The division was then marched past their bodies which lay just as they had fallen….

Thomas’ third year of the war opened with optimism. The first letter of 1864 focused on  preaching in camp, sharpshooters honing their skills, and his faith in Confederate victory. But he was captured on May 12, 1864, during the  fighting around Spotsylvania Court House, and  correspondence subsequently focused on attempts to secure provisions while he was imprisoned at Fort Delaware—and convince his father (and possibly himself) that he was fine, using the word  “well” five times in six sentences.

CAMP RANDOLPH, APRIL 20, 1864

Dear Aunt

…Our time at present is pretty well taken up with drills and police duty. We have two drills each day and dress parade in the evening There is preaching nearly every day or night as it suits. The preaching is pretty well attended and pretty good attendance is had during the services…. Our sharp Shooters are now out practising firing at a target which reminds us very much of the commencement of a battle but it is to be hoped that we are not to have many more battles to fight as from late northern news they are more unsettled now than they have been for some time past. General Grant seems to be making great preparation for an active campaign but some persons think it is only done for a show….

Mr Thos N Smiley

Co D 5” Va Infantry

FORT DELAWARE, NOVEMBER 3, 1864

Dear Father

I will attempt to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well: & hope on the receipt of this that you may all be well. All of the company that are here are well. Thos McCray and W. Dice are both well. I am getting along pretty well at present; as I have been getting a little assistance from different persons in the north which helps me materially. I have written five letters home and received but two: one of them by flag of truce. Please write soon as I am anxious to hear from you.

Thomas M. Smiley

Prisoner of War

1st Division, Fort Delaware

MOFFETT’S CREEK VA, DEC 21, 1864

My Dear Brother.

Have not had a letter from you of later date than Sep 15th Heard through J Hanger. Have looked long and anxiously for letters but disappointed until we have almost ceased to expect a letter, but know it is not your fault that we do not hear. Wright’s Beard’s & ourselves started a box to you. Hope will have received it. There was a suit of clothes a piese for you and H Wright also some eatibles. Aunt Lizzie had a ham to send but wasn’t room for it. Beards sent a box tobacco and pair socks….how I wish you were here

From your devoted sister Mary A Smiley

Released from Fort Delaware in June 1865, Thomas Smiley returned to Augusta County and took up the farming life once again. By 1870, he was still living in his father, William’s, household, as was his younger sister Mary. An 11-year-old African-American laborer, Jobe Carter, lived with them as well. The Smileys’ landholdings remained nearly the same in 1870 as they had been in 1860, though their declared personal wealth had declined from nearly $2,900 to $700. Thomas would live in Augusta County for the rest of his life; he died there in 1920.

 

Susannah Ural is the Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest  book is Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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