As if dodging bullets and eluding killer germs wasn’t enough to occupy the minds of Civil War soldiers, men in blue and gray had to deal with less tangible enemies: fear, hunger, loneliness and concern for loved ones back home. For young volunteers away from home for the first time, this was especially hard; they had to find a way to keep their frustrations at bay and keep on fighting. And while the news from home was not always encouraging, young troops quickly found that sending and receiving mail steadied their morale and helped them stand to their duty until the next letter arrived.
On the campaign trail, simple matters of survival distracted soldiers from other concerns. Back in camp, release from mental strain could be achieved in a number of ways—even through increased devotion to duty. Confederate Sergeant Edwin H. Fay channeled his misery into his work. Although he had refused further promotion several times, he nonetheless kept himself busy by doing the work of an adjutant and a lieutenant in addition to his own.
Those men who had not written off religion took solace in prayer, and attended Mass and religious meetings whenever possible. Illinois volunteer Ben Baker lost a brother at Perryville but still soldiered on. A visit to church, he wrote to his mother, “waked a train of reflections on bygone days that is easier imagined than described. When you read this you will say that I am homesick, but I aver that such is not the case.”
Some men turned to the bottle. Others busied themselves with camp recreations such as whittling, reading, playing checkers or cards, pickup baseball games and even snowball fights during the winter. But nothing soothed fragile psyches like a letter from home. Whenever they had a spare moment, even the barely literate put pencil to paper, torn wallpaper, pages from books or anything else they could find, writing home to request a response and reassurances that all was well.
Replies were often long in coming. All sorts of factors—unreliable transportation, roads clogged with strung-out armies, an incompetent postal service, supply-line raiding and soldiers’ frequent change of location—worked against timely mail delivery. At best, letters arrived within two to three weeks of being sent; in the spring of 1863 a Texas soldier received a letter sent by his wife the previous summer. Soldiers could do nothing about these problems, but they would not abide any harm done to precious notes within their reach. Pennsylvania Sergeant Tom Smith wrote home to his brother about one camp scoundrel suspected of tampering with his company’s mail: “There has been several letters missed lately and it is supposed that some person in our company steals them. We are going to set a trap for him and God help the Thief if he is caught for we wont have any mersy on him.”
Of course, mail could also bring bad news from home, making a disheartened soldier downright despairing. “I must come home,” Sergeant Fay wrote to his wife in 1862. “I cannot stand it here—I shall desert or do something worse—I cannot stand it. I cannot write—My heart is broken—I don’t deserve or crave to live….” Inconsolable at the death of his young son and desperate to be home with his wife and remaining child, Fay was unable to find a substitute to take his place in the army. Somehow, though, even this desperately unhappy Louisiana cavalryman managed to survive nearly four years of war and return home.
To officers and enlisted men on both sides, letters were lifelines—scribbled missives holding promises of a better life for them once the war was over, keeping their rifles (if not always their hearts) in the fight. “A letter,” a New York infantryman said succinctly, “is the greatest comfort that a soldier has.”
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.