Civil War Top 100

Soldiers' Letters

he letters that follow were written by members of the original 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and provide a sense of what life in the regiment was like at different times and under various circumstances.

These letters are presented in chronological order. Each except the last, which was written anonymously, is preceded by a brief profile of the author, and each but the last is followed by footnotes shedding further light on the people, places and events the writer mentions. Spelling and punctuation have been corrected in some cases.

Sgt. John J. MacDonald of Co. K was a 27-year old merchant from East Boston when he enlisted in the 28th Massachusetts on Oct. 27, 1861. A Canadian by birth, he wrote the following to The Pilot, an Irish-Catholic newspaper in Boston, from the regiment's camp at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Just three months later, MacDonald was killed carrying the national colors at the head of 28th Massachusetts as it charged Confederate breastworks at the Battle of Secessionville on James Island.

Hilton Head, South Carolina, March 12, 1862.

Dear Sir,-- The kind of interest so unmistakably manifested by the many friends of the 28th regiment while in Massachusetts has not probably ceased with its departure from that state; but now that we are actually established on secession soil, that interest must rather be increased. With the view, therefore, of gratifying the friends of the regiment in M
assachusetts and elsewhere, I shall take the liberty of furnishing you with a few lines concerning it which you will please give through THE PILOT.

I shall begin by informing you that our passage from New York to this place was a remarkably prosperous one-not a single accident having occurred during the passage, and what is worthy of special attention is the orderly and quiet manner in which so large a body of men reconciled themselves to their close and crowded quarters aboard the ERICSSON. The good order that prevailed among the men drew forth the praises of the ship's officers who have had large experiences in the transportation of troops. Although a safe passage, it seemed anything but a speedy one to many who suffered from sea-sickness, and many others who were impatient to plant themselves on the soil of that state which was first to offer insult to the glorious banner of the Union. In a word, the boys were anxious to reach their destination, and be on hand to participate in any engagement which might take a place in this direction.

The line of our encampment is very pleasantly situated, and if it were not for the strong winds which prevail and the loose sandy surface with which the ground is covered, the situation would be much more desirable.What first surprises the visitor to Hilton Head is that a place possessing so many natural advantages and of so much importance in a commercial as well as military point of view, should show so little evidence of civilization or improvement. Since the capture of the island by our troops, a great deal has been done towards preparing the place as a military depot. A wharf and several buildings have been erected, among the most important of which is a spacious hospital now in course of being completed. The only building of any note which our troops found here is now occupied as the headquarters of Gen. (T.W.) Sherman. It makes a rude, clumsy display of architecture and shows visible signs of neglect by its former occupant.

The strictest discipline now prevails in our camp, and as a natural consequence, the men are rapidly acquiring an efficiency in the art of war which will speak for itself when the time arrives to test it. Col. Monteith (1) and Lieut. Col. Moore (2) show an almost paternal interest in the comfort of the regiment, and are ably seconded by Major Cartwright (3) and Adjutant Sanborn (4). Their dilligence and efficiency in the promotion of good discipline has inspired the men with confidence in them and the zeal which they manifest for the comfort of the men has rendered them justly popular.
The absence of a chaplain in the regiment is the subject of much regret, and one which calls loudly for the consideration of those to whom the deficiency is attributable. We are in hopes that the important omission will soon be supplied.

An association known as the "Monteith Literary and Aid Society" has been organized in the regiment, with Col. Monteith as patron. It has for its chief object the protection, by a monthly assessment of each member, of the widow and family of such members as may lose their lives in the discharge of their duty; it further proposes to forward the remains of such deceased members to their friends.

It seemed strange to many of us to find ourselves transported in the short space of a week from the frosts of February to what would pass very well for a Boston June; for, such is the difference between the temperature of our quarters at Governor's Island, New York, and at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Our regiment with several others of infantry and the (1st) Massachusetts cavalry were reviewed a few days since by Gen. Sherman; who, I am happy to have to say, complimented the 28th in an especial manner for their soldierly appearance, the cleanliness of the men, (and) their arms and equipments. Our regiment is the strongest in the brigade, and Col. Williams (5) of the Massachusetts cavalry, now acting as Brigadier General, has paid us some handsome compliments. The cavalry under Col. Williams are encamped about fifty yards to the right of our line, and their worthy Colonel has acknowledged that he finds it as much as he can do to keep his up to the standard of our regiment.

It will be gratifying to the friends of the regiment to learn that an excellent state of health prevails amongst us--there being but three sick in the hospital. This fortunate state of things may be accounted for by the superior and healthy composition of the men, taken in connection with the excellent sanitary regulations of our camp, which are strictly enforced.

The internal arrangement of each company seem to be conducted by persons who know and do their duty, and the "Mayhew Guards" (Co. K), of whom I can speak more particularly, are making rapid improvement under the command of Capt. Cooley, (6) Lieuts. Ahearn (7) and Killian (8). I think I am speaking the sentiments of nearly every man in the regiment when I say that nothing would please them better than an order to advance and assist in the taking of Savannah. If anything of importance takes place amongst us, I shall be happy to keep you advised, and, in the meantime, I remain, dear sir, respectfully yours."

1. Col. William Monteith was a 34-year old New York builder when he assumed command of the regiment at its formation. He was later court martialed and resigned on August 3, 1862.
2. Lt. Col. McLelland Moore was a 24-year old Boston bookbinder when he joined the regiment at the time of its formation. He resigned on July 25, 1862, soon after Monteith was removed as commanding officer.
3. Major George W. Cartwright was a 32-year old printer from Boston when he received a commission as Major in 1861. He served the regiment in this capacity and later as Lieut. Colonel in spite of two serious wounds received at 2nd Bull Run and the Wilderness. He was mustered out at the expiration of his service in Dec. 1864.
4. 1st Lieutenant Charles Sanborn was a 27-year old submarine engineer from Boston when he was appointed Adjutant at the formation of the regiment. He was wounded at Fredericksburg while serving as Captain of Company K, but returned to the regiment soon afterwards. He resigned in June of that year in protest to what he considered to be unjust and intolerable leadership of Col. Richard Byrnes.
5. Col. Robert Williams commanded the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry in the South Carolina campaign.
6. Captain John J. Cooley was a 34-year old bootmaker when commissioned on Dec. 3, 1861. He commanded Company K for less than a month after this letter, resigning on April 4, 1862. The next year, he enlisted as a Sergeant in the 57th Massachusetts and served faithfully until being killed at the assault on Petersburg, June 17, 1864.
7. 1st Lieutenant John Ahearn was a 28-year old bootmaker when commissioned. He resigned on September 23, 1862.
8. 2nd Lieutenant John Killian was a 22-year old Roxbury carpenter when he was commissioned in 1861. He was later wounded at 2nd Bull Run, and discharged for his wounds in February, 1863 as 1st Lieutenant.

Dennis Ford of Co. H was was a 38-year old laborer from Haverhill when he enlisted in the 28th Massachusetts on December 17, 1861. Although he wrote the following letter immediately after the battles of Second Bull Run and Chantilly, he seems to refer only to the latter engagement. A year later, Ford was recorded as missing in action at Gettysburg, but returned to the regiment and served in Co. H until being captured at Charles City Cross Roads, Virginia, on August 16, 1864. Exchanged three months later, he was discharged at the end of his three-year enlistment on December 19, 1864.

Washington, September 6th, 1862.

Dear wife and neighbors. I am living still, thank God. I (have) been in four battles since I left Newport News. We had two severe ones. We lost half (of) our regiment. The last fight, my clothes were riddled with balls. I was grazed in the right arm. It knocked my arm dead, though thank God I have not seen one drop of blood as yet. The rubber blanket I had on my back was riddled. A ball struck me on the shoe. They fell around me like hail. James Phillips (1) is shot dead. The rest of the boys are safe. John Maher (2) was wounded. Peter King (3) got something like a wound, (but) it is nothing. John Fenning (4) was wounded. Con (Cornelius) Roach (5) came out safe. Maurice(6) and the Donnellys (7) are safe. We lost in the last fight 130 men out of our regiment.

It would be too tedious for me to tell what I went through-the long marching for the last 26 days. Half hungry, some would kill cows and skin a part of them, cut off a piece and waste it, and never open them. Some would shoot pigs and sheep, and would never open them, only cut a piece and roast it and leave the rest behind. Some would carry their coffee in their hand and march in the ranks and drink it, (and) some would spill it.Sometimes, the dinner and breakfast would be cooking, (and then) they would get word to march, they would have to spill it and throw it away and march. The rebels fare worse than we do.

Let me know how are the children. Let me know about the note. I did not receive an answer to the last letter I wrote you from Newport News. Write as soon as you receive this, as we don't know the hour we will be on the march.

The war is raging in every direction (and) the rebels fight in the woods. So I must conclude. Give my best love and respects to all the friends and neighbors. Let me know how times are in Haverhill. We received no pay for the last two months. When you write, let me know all the particulars. Our priest (8) can't stand the hardship, (so) we fear he will leave though he is a smart young man. They treat him very bad.

So I must conclude. Do pray for us, we look shabby and thin, though we were called a clean regiment. I saw a great deal (of) shot and wounded. Balls drove through their (lines). The 28th Mass. suffered (along with) the 79th New York. Our regiment stood the severest fire that was witnessed. During the war, when we got into the woods, we ran through what we did not shoot. We bayoneted them. One man begged and got no mercy, a yankee ran him through. Thank God it was not an Irishman (that) did it.
So I must conclude. I remain your humble husband Dennis Ford until death. I am in hopes I will see Haverhill once more before I die with the help of God. Direct to Washington, to me, Company H, 28 Regiment Mass. Vol. Tell Mrs. McCormick her friend Thomas Cline (9) is well. There was one James Short (10) from Lawrence (who) fell in the last battle.

1. James Phillips of Company A was a 22-year old Haverhill shoemaker at his enlistment. He was killed on Sept. 1, 1862 at Chantilly.
2. John Maher of Company K was a 19-year old laborer from Boston when he enlisted. He returned to the regiment after being wounded at Chantilly, and was steadily promoted up through the ranks thereafter. After re-enlisting on Jan. 1, 1864, he received a commission to 1st Lieutenant, remaining with the regiment in spite of another wound in the assault on Petersburg, June 16, 1864. He was mustered out of Company C on July 19, 1865.
3. Peter King of Company H was a 36-year old Haverhill laborer when he enlisted. His slight wound at Chantilly did not deter him from returning to the regiment, and he served faithfully until being discharged at the expiration of his 3-year enlistment on Dec. 19, 1864.
4. John Fenning of Company H was an 18-year old Boston laborer at the time of his enlistment in 1861. He was wounded in August or September, 1862, and later was discharged for wounds on October 30, 1862.
5. Cornlius Roach of Company C was a 26-year Haverhill laborer at his enlistment in 1861. Promoted to Corporal in September 1863, he was wounded three times during his term of service at Fredericksburg, Charles City Cross Roads, and Hatcher's Run. Despite these wounds, he still managed to stay with the regiment until being mustered out with the rest of the regiment in 1865.
6. Maurice Roach of Company H was a 32-year old Haverhill laborer at the time of his enlistment. He was seriously wounded 11 days later at Antietam on September 17th. He was then discharged on account of his wounds in December, 1862.
7. John and Peter Donnelly of Company H, aged 18 and 36, were both laborers from Haverhill. John was wounded twice at Gettysburg and Spottsylvania, and then discharged due to his wounds in December, 1864. Peter, who enlisted as a Corporal, was killed 11 days later at Antietam.
8. Lawrence McMahon was a 35-year old clergyman when he enlisted on June 28, 1862. He replaced the regiment's first chaplain, who had resigned in May. McMahon would serve the regiment until he himself resigned on May 30, 1863. Henceforth, the 28th Massachusetts would have no regimental chaplain to serve them for the remainder of the war.
9. Thomas Cline of Company H, was a 24-year old packer when he enlisted as 1st Sergeant. He was killed just 11 days later at Antietam.
10. James Short of Company H was a 33-year old laborer at his enlistment in 1861. He was killed at Chantilly.

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