Robert Aitken was 35 when he enlisted at Trenton, New Jersey, on August 9, 1861, and became part of Company B, 4th New Jersey Infantry Regiment. The 85 men of Company B came from a Trenton pottery and two neighborhood fire companies, one of which Aitken had been a member, the Eagle Fire Company. The 85 were among 910 Mercer County men who formed the 4th New Jersey, which became part of Philip Kearny’s famed New Jersey Brigade.
Born in 1826, Aitken was married with two children at the time of his three-year enlistment. His letters to his brother convey a sense of maturity and lack the early enthusiasm for the war apparent in so many writings of younger soldiers. His writings also illustrate his limited education. His wife Bridget could neither read nor write, and Robert’s brother would have to serve as intermediary.
The Jersey Brigade suffered heavily throughout the war, beginning with the Seven Days campaign. Many soldiers of the 4th fell ill to dysentery and typhoid fever as they camped along the swampy Chickahominy before the debacle at Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862, when most of the men in the regiment were captured. Exchanged on August 6, Aitken was hospitalized in York, Pa., from August 14, 1862, to March 21, 1864, and during that time he was reduced in rank from corporal to private.
The following letters are presented with Aitken’s original spelling, grammar and structure.
Seminary Va Nov 13th 1861
Dear Brother I take the plasure of writing to you that I am well and I hope you are all the same. I received your letter to day and I was very glad to hear from you that you was well I got a letter from home yeasterday they was all well. You wanted to know how the captain made out. He was under arrest eight days and released. We are going to have a general parade tomorrow there will be from fifteen to twenty thousand men in the field and the cleanest regiment goes to geard washington and we are a going to clean up our racket for the prize. We have got no money yet there is two months pay coming to us I went to washington the other day and I saw will and robert. You told me that you would send me the paper regular I have not got any the last three weeks. This morning about eleven o’clock the Mammoth Balloon Saratoga went over our camp we gave him three cheers he stood up and waved his hat and he came down on the new yorkers and he told them that he could not see the main body of the rebles at fair fax Court house. we have got back to the regiment we have got ovens in our tents they keep the tents warm and comfortable. David Reeder is in Halsteads Cavelry Squir Harris was over here to see us. We made him stay all night. That is all I have to say at pressent. Give my respects to all my friends. Yours with respect.
Camp Seminary Va Dec 19th 1861
Dear Brother I write to you to let you know that I am well and I hope you are all the same. I received your letter to day and I was very glad to hear that you were all well I got a letter from home today. It is reported in trenton that I was stabed in the back for running the geard. That is not true. On last Friday the whole division was ordered out to witness the Execution of Wm H Johnson for deserting his post while on picket duty. He was a member of Co D Lincoln Cavelry in our Bregade. He was martched between two regments around the square and as he pased in the wagon each band plaid the dead martch and after he was shot the whole division martched by him as he lay on the ground it was a solemn thing. Two of the men that was detailed to shot him was put in irons for not firing there guns off. There has been another fuss with our pickets last Tuesday the rebles took killed one of the 2nd reg and took two paisnors in 2nd and run Lieutenant Aaronson and a private so close that [he] threw his sword away and hid in the bushes and escaped them. We are fixing up for the winter we have raised our tents up three feet above the ground on logs set end wise in the ground. Congress is trying to put the Sutlers out of the army I hope they will for they rob the soldier. We have lost our 2nd Lieutenant John Warner he resigned and left for trenton this morning. I am still working around the camp at Carpentering for the Lew Colnel I get my wiskey too from him he told me this morning he had some in the back part of his tent I could help myself. I took one before dinner and one at half past four to clear my throat for supper. There goes tattoo. Write soon. Yours with respect
Camp Seminary Va Feb 13th 1862
Dear Brother I take the pleasure in writing to you that I am well and in good spirits. I received your letter this afternoon and I was very glad to hear that you were all well. The wether is mutch better than it has been. You say that bill says the mud is waist deep where he is. It has been over shoe top in our camp for several days so we cant drill but the regment was out yeasterday and today. Last night the regments was called out one by one in there Camps to hear the good news from the Burnside Expedetion. it is giving them blue pills that operates on different parts of the body. I got a letter from Will McMullin he is well. He says that his company was thrown out as skermishers in the fight at balls bluff. He says that they have not got half enough of officers in there regment some was killed and some taken prisnors and the rest is half drunk half of there time. when the fight was over at night the officers told them they must take care of themselves the best they could. Bill took off all his cloths but his shirt and cap and swam the river to the island where he got three Overcoats and two blankets and he got to camp about one o’clock the next morning. I got a letter from the west last week they were all well and one from Martha they was all well but hattie sha has got a sore finger. I saw will willis the other day. He is in good health and spirits. They are cheering in the N York camps but I don’t know what it is about I don’t what to write. I got the paper you sent me. Give my love to Ellie and all the rest of my friends and relations. No more at present. I still remain your brother.
The report is that fort donaldson is taken. if that is true the Army of the Potomac will have to Move before long and picknick party each man take his hard biscut and salt beef.
Fairfax Courthouse Va Mar 11th 1862
Dear Brother I take the pleasure of writing to you that I am in good health and I hope that you are all the same. I received your letter yeasterday in the city of fairfax and I read it in the Court-house. I was very glad to hear from you that you were in good health. We left Camp Seminary last Friday. We did not know where we was a going. I begun to smell the rat about ten o’- clock that night when we got our wagons stuck in the mud at half past four in the morning we found ourselves at Burks Station. Then the next day our company was sent up the rail road to geard the Telegraph and they were seven niggers came in to camp. gen Kearney took one with him and a portion of the Lincoln Cavelry and the remainder of our regt. when they got the other side of fairfax Station they had a brush. The Cavelry made a charge and took 13 prisnors. The Leuit of the cavelry was killed and two or three wounded. The 4th NJ was the first in fairfax and the 1st and 3rd NJ was the first in Manasses.The rebles is falling back on the cotton States. If you was down here you would see something that would make you feel patreotic for there has been troops on the move since yeasterday morning. I saw over 30 thousand go through in about five or six hours and still they come. They have been a move throughout the entire army. Our Bregade has got about 30 prisnors. One Lieut the Magor and an Orderley in the reble ranks. The Magor wanted him to go up to a house where they was some Union men. He refused and the ordley got his horse and left for our lines. He is in the 1st NJ Regmt. There is a report in Camp Now that our regt has to go to Alexandria to night and go down the potomac. Gen McClenin [McClellan] has given our Bregade great prase. No more at pressent. Yours with Respect I Still Remain your Brother.
Camp Seminary Va Mar 22nd 1862
Dear Brother I take the pleasure in writing to you that I am well and in good health. I received your letter yeasterday and I was very glad to hear that you was all in good health. We was in fairfax about four or five days and now we are snug as a bug in our old quarters at camp Seminary. The report is that we go down the river on the fleet in a few days and have got five days rations cooked on hand ready for a martch but we have to have patience untill we get the order to move. I think the yeankey Chees box [USS Monitor] will bother the rebles more than they think for if they had treated Dan Rice to some rotten eggs and then hammered his head till it was as big as a half Bushel it would have served him right. I should like to have seen the fun as it was. You say that you have got a bad cold. I have had one all winter but it dont stop me from doing my duty. General McClellen reviewed our division day befor yeasterday. When you write direct your letters the same to Washington or Elswhere. I don’t know what else to write. I have not got any letter from Will Mc Mullen for I don’t know where to write to him. I was in that we would run together on our martch at manases but we was ordered back but there is one thing that we can say that our regmt was the first in fairfax and the 3rd was the first in manases and that is the truth. No more at pressent I still remain your Brother with respect
General Hospital at York Pa August 19 1862
Dear Brother I take the pleasure in writing to you that I am alive yet but very near wore out from my imprisonment at Richmond. I am getting stronger I came here last Satturday night and the people is very good to the sickest of the men. I was in the fight at ganes mills on the 27th of June and we fought like Tagers. The 11th Pa Reserves relieved us and was taken prisnors with us. The balls flew around us like hail storms. I was wounded slitely in the back but it knocked me down. When I got up I was all alone but I run and caught the Regmt. Then we gave up our arms. That was a bitter pill for me to swallow and stand and see the Damed rebles take our Colors. It made my blood boil but we could do nothing. We was martched to general Longstreets quarters that night then in the morning we started on to Richmond both hungary and tired. We was confined in the tobacco ware house till the 15th of July. Then they took us up the river about 3 miles to Belle Island where they kept us till we was exchanged on the 5th of August. Our fair was half a loaf of bread a day some days a piece of fresh beef some days a cup of rice soup or bean or beef tea a day. A table spoon full of salt a week for each man. when we was started on our road they gave me four crackers to travel 20 miles on. They was one of our men died on the road and some of the geards they took all of our officers that was in the fight with us. Lieut Col Hatch from camden got away from them one day and got 9 miles from the Rapahanock river and was brought back to Richmond. They all got Lowsey as well us. They was all glad to take a private by the hand for they had to stay 5 or 6 days after came away. I tell you what Dick I am hard up for I have not had any pay for nearly four Months now and they owe me for 40 days rations while in richmond prison. I had to beg this paper to write to you. bill Cheesman from trenton died on the Island a prisnor. No more for pressent I still remain your Brother with respect.
Write as soon as you get this and direct your letter to me General Hospittal York, York County Pa
Dont forget to Write as soon as you get this. Give my love to Ellwood and all the rest that knows me.
General Hospital at York Pa September 13 1862
Dear Brother I take the pleasure in writing to you that I am gaining but I am very weak yet. I received your letter yeasterday and I was very glad to hear from you that you are all well and in good health. You say the reason you didnt write sooner was that the exciting news from Washington took your attention. Old Stonewall Jackson has taken the attention of the people here for they have moved all the money out of the bank and some of the folks has left the city. But Governor Curtin has woke up the gingerbread men to defend there State from invasion by the rebs and we have organized 4 Companies in the hospital in case they should make an atack on the town for there are about 8 or 9 hundred in here but the report is that McClelan has drove them back and Burnside is in the rear of them. if that is the case they will find that they will have tuffer time a getting out than thay had to come in Maryland. I wrote to Joe & Hattie wrote the Answer she said that it was like hearing from the dead when they heard from me and Will and me had a good time of it but my time was so short that I could not get around to see all the folks but if I get payed here I will trye to get on and see you. I wish you could only spare the time and money to come and see me but as it is we must waite fore awhile and maybe we will see one another after awhile. The report is that our Bregade has been cut up very bad. Our old General Kearney has been killed and his Successor George W Taylor and Col Talbut has the apointeanent now and he has reported the bregade unfit for Duty. Our Col has gone back to the regulars and Lieu Col Hatch from Camden has got the command of the remt. No more at pressent. Yours with respect
Write as soon as you get this for I may go to my regmt some time next week.
Aitken remained in the hospital for another 18 months. On May 12, 1864, just about three months shy of his enlistment’s expiration, he was severely wounded in the hip during the Battle of Spotsylvania. He was hospitalized again, this time in Fredericksburg, Va., though this stay would be tragically short. He died eight days later on May 20.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.