The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Civil War 

On the Road to Richmond: The Letters of Civil War Sharpshooter Moses Hill, Part 4

Welcome back to our series on the letters of Moses Hill, part of the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. family papers here at the MHS. In my last post, I described Moses' experiences during the Siege of Yorktown as part of McClellan's Army of the Potomac. After the siege, Rebel forces retreated to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, with the Union army hard on their heels. Moses' regiment, the 1st Massachusetts Sharpshooters, had been attached to the 15th Regiment  Massachusetts Infantry, Sedgwick’s Division, since April 1862. They traveled up the York River to West Point, arriving in the midst of the fighting there, then continued west through New Kent toward Richmond.

Some of my favorite letters in the collection were written during this time. Moses was especially reflective and honest after nearly a year of hard service. On 26 May 1862, he wrote to his mother Persis (Phipps) Hill:

Some times it looks rather dark and as if the war might last for some time yet, and some times It looks as if it might close soon. I supose you have seen all my letters that I have sent Eliza so I will not write meny poticulers but I can say I have seen some hard times....I am sick of fighting and shooting our Brother man.

Dear Mother I do not see such times as I use to when I could go to the old cupboard and eat of your cooking and eat my fill of boild vitils and custard pie and every thing that was good. I cannot have that now....I hope I shal live to come home and eat one good meal with you. How I would enjoy it.

Love to all, From your never forgetful Son Moses Hill

While Moses approached Richmond, two of his sister's sons, John and Albert Fales, were serving under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks in the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Infantry, Company E, and currently fighting Stonewall Jackson's troops in the Shenandoah Valley. Moses worried about his nephews in his usual understated way:

They dont know what fighting is and I hope the[y] never will. I have seen enough of it and I hope I shal not see any more....It is not very agreeable.

Unfortunately, just days later, Moses would take part in the worst battle he had seen yet. The Battle of Seven Pines, otherwise known as the Battle of Fair Oaks, was fought from 31 May-1 June 1862 on the outskirts of Richmond. Moses described it to his wife Eliza in gruesome day-to-day detail:

The Surgents [surgeons] was cutting of[f] legs and armes, and dressing wounds all night. The grones was terible. I did not sleep that night. [31 May]

The dead and wonded lay one top of another when the Battle was through. The ded lay on all sides of us where they was kiled the day before. Along the fences they lay some with their faces up, and some with their fases down and in all shapes. It was a horable sight. [1 June]

The dead was about all buared today. Our armey did not bring meny shovels with them so it took some time....There was one on each side of where I slep that lay dead with in a few feet of me. They s[c]ented very bad. The magets was on them, but they burried them as fast as they could. [2 June]

If you see any body that complains of hardship tell them to come into this armey and they will begin to find out what it is.

Even in the darkest times, however, Moses never seemed to lose sight of the humanity of his enemy. He wrote about the Confederate soldiers captured by the Union army:

They Belonged to Georgia Alabamma North Carlonia. I went and talked with them. They said they wanted to get home. The ground was so wet that it was very uncomftible for them. I pitied them from the Bottom of my heart. The ground was most all coverd with water. One of them asked me for my pipe and I gave it to him to smoke.

McClellan failed to take the city of Richmond and was driven back by Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days Battles. Stay tuned to the Beehive for more!



**Image: "War Views. Panoramic View of Richmond, Va. From Libby Hill, looking west." Published by E. & H. T. Anthony & Co. (New York, N.Y.). Original photographer unknown. From Adams-Thoron Photographs, MHS. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 1:00 AM

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch Diary, Post 23

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Friday, July 12th, 1863

4th. The great anniversary, rendered still more famous now, was very quietly spent here. At ½ past 1, I went into Boson, & at the depot bought a paper, containing the announcement by the President of the successful issue so far of the three days’ fight at Gettysburg, - which I read with thankfulness & hope.

Friday, July 19th, 1863

The great theme of conversation has been the riots in New York & Boston, occasioned by the Conscription. Blood shed in both. Law triumphant here, and I trust also there.

Meantime, thanks to God for victory at Port Hudson, - near Vicksburg, - in Arkansas, - and some success near Charleston.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 11 July, 2013, 8:00 AM

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch Diary, Post 22

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

June 18th, 1863

So too let me feel in regard to my suffering, bleeding country. We have heard within a few days, of the sudden aggressive movement of the rebel army, & its inroad into Pennsylvania. May the Ruler of nations grant that the pressure of each immediate danger may arouse a spirit that shall not slumber till it brings conquest and peace! The fine, calm eradication by President Lincoln of his course in making arrests, is worth noting at this time. God be thanked for our firm, honest chief magistrate!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 8:00 AM

“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.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 1:00 AM

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch Diary, Post 21

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Monday, May 11th 1863

I must leave to history the public events of this agitating time; but I have sadly to record that my dear pupil and friend, Frank A. Eliot, was killed in the recent battle at Chancellorsville, near Fredericksburg, Va. He was captain of the Phila [Braves?], - about 35 years of age, - brother of Dawes and William G. Eliot. We hope that an honorable end of this awful strife is near.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 11 May, 2013, 8:00 AM

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