The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“We are doing a great deal here”: The Letters of Civil War Sharpshooter Moses Hill, Part 3

I hope you've been enjoying the letters of Moses Hill as much as I have. After last month's installment, we pick up his story in April 1862 at the beginning of the siege at Yorktown, Va. Moses anticipated a hard fight: “I dred it for I know there must be a great loss of life on both sides.”

Now eight months into his service, Moses wrote candidly about the realities of war, describing some of the fighting in wrenching detail. Sharpshooters played an important role in battle by picking off enemy soldiers from a distance to provide cover for their own troops. Moses told his wife Eliza how, at Yorktown, he and his company kept the Rebels from reloading their guns by firing at them every time they rose above the fortifications. While he was proud of his company’s skill, he refused to kill gratuitously:

I do not shoot Rebels for money or by the head. I shal not nor I have not shot any one unless it is agoing to do some good for the Countery. I have had balls come around me very close when I did not return a shot for as to slowtering men when it does no good I cannot do. When we fight for a victory then is my time if any. Some take pride in going out and shoot a man from the Rebel brest work when it does now good at all, but I cannot slawter in that way nor I will not.

Moses also disapproved of his fellow soldiers' predilection for drinking, gambling, and swearing. He felt too much was at stake to tolerate poor discipline, with the enemy so close and an attack expected at any moment. He described sleeping with his rifle by his head and frequently waking in the middle of the night to the “rower [roar] of musketery.”

The most poignant and evocative passages in Moses's letters are those juxtaposing these combat experiences with peaceful memories of his home in Medway, Mass. He painted vivid pictures of life after the war:

Eliza you do not know how much I think of home you and the Children. It seems as if the summer could not pass off without my seeing home. Tell Asahell Lovell that I would like to be at home so I could go a fishing with him this spring but I cannot. I would like to go down on the River bank where all is still and where I should not be oblige to look on all sides to see if some Rifle or a musket was pointing at me, or to not listen to here if there was a shell coming over my head so that I could drop on the ground before it bursts, or to lay myself down at night to sleep where I knew I should not be attacked before morning....There is cannonading now within a 1/4 of a mile of us. I stop my pen to listen to here where the shells burst.

The sound of gunfire was nearly constant, but all around him were signs of spring. Moses was sitting under a blossoming apple tree when he wrote: “If I ever come home...I shal know how to apreaceate home more then I ever did before. Men living in Mass dont know what home is.”

Confederate forces withdrew from Yorktown during the night of May 3-4, and Union troops, including the 1st Massachusetts Sharpshooters, followed them west to Richmond. Come back to the Beehive.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 1:00 AM


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