July 1864: “…we are crawling into the Confederacy, taking the matter of driving Joe Johnston out of his strongholds with as much coolness as the weather will permit…”By Joan Fink, volunteer
Letter from George A. Thayer to Lorin Low Dame, 17 July 1864
This 17 July 1864 letter offers the rather unique perspective of one soldier writing to another, while both men are serving at the front in different theaters of the war. Writing from Vinings, Georgia, as his regiment participates in the Atlanta Campaign, George Augustine Thayer, a captain in the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry corresponds with Lorin Low Dame who is serving in New Orleans. The letter conveys Thayer’s pride and frustration as he shares his thoughts about the leadership of the Union Army, the bounty system, and the progress of his current campaign.
George A. Thayer was born on 6 December 1839 in Randolph, Massachusetts, the son of Elihu and Elizabeth Thayer. His family moved to Braintree in the early 1850s, which is where he was living in October 1862 when he was commissioned a lieutenant with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. He was promoted to captain of Company K in July of 1863. He remained in that post in December 1863, when the 2nd reorganized as a veteran regiment and was reassigned to the Army of Georgia. The 2nd actively participated in the Georgia Campaign, and Thayer and his company saw action in the battles at Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain as well as the Siege of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Lorin Low Dame, the recipient of the letter, was born on 12 March 1838 in Newmarket, New Hampshire, the only child of Samuel and Mary Ann (Gilman) Dame. When Dame was eight years old, his parents moved the family to Lowell, Massachusetts. After completing Lowell High School, Dame entered Tufts University, graduating in 1860 at the top of his class. He served two years as the principal of Braintree High School, before returning to Lowell to practice law. He enlisted in the army in February of 1863, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 15th Battery, Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery. On 1 March 1863--eight days before he reported for duty--Dame married Nancy Isabel Arnold, a former student of his at Braintree High School. At the time he received this letter, Dame was stationed in New Orleans and, as all the senior officers were ill, he was temporarily in command of two forts, one at Lake Pontchartrain and the other at Gentilly.
By 1864 the war had become a war of attrition, as Thayer describes in the opening pages of this letter. Thayer informs Dame, “Slowly but surely, we are crawling into the Confederacy” stating “there is no hard fighting like in Virginia” (page 1-2). Rather, as the Confederate Army is “too weak to fight us on open ground” and the Union Army “too shrewd to run our heads against his strong works” he expresses the Union strategy as “we settle down in entrenchments before him, worry him with our artillery and sharpshooters for a while, and then throw one or two corps upon his flank, whereupon he departs for new fortifications.” Thayer observes that the Union has a larger force, so even if the losses from individual battles and skirmishes are even, at the end of the campaign the Union forces will still have more men standing.
Later in the letter, Thayer expresses his disdain for the bounty system, a system that consisted of cash payments to encourage voluntary enlistment in the army. He notes that some men would “take the bounty with the intention of deserting on the first opportunity” (page 4). He goes on to state that these bounty jumpers are “a fraud upon the country, and a disgrace to those who send them forth as their representatives.” Thayer also communicates his sincere hope that the conscription law of 1863 will provide a better class of soldier than some of the “roughs” who were currently serving with him in the Georgia campaign (page 3-4).
Despite his contempt for the inferior quality of soldier fostered by the bounty system, Thayer writes of his respect for German soldiers, noting that “Germans generally are excellent material for soldiers as I have discovered from having several under my command.” Approximately 200,000 German immigrants fought in the Union Army over the course of the Civil War. Likewise, Thayer articulates his respect for the military talents of General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander of the Atlanta Campaign.
After the war, Dame returned to Massachusetts where he and his wife had two children. In April of 1866, he assumed the position of principal of Lexington High School. Ten years later, he became principal of Medford High School where he served for twenty-seven years as both principal and teacher of Latin and Greek. Dame was well known as a botanist and wrote several treatises on local Massachusetts fauna. In addition, he served as a trustee of both Tufts University and the Medford Historical Society. After suffering a heart attack, Dame died on 27 January 1903.
Thayer became a prolific author, writing several treatises including The Braintree Soldiers’ Memorial (1877), The Religion of Abraham Lincoln (1909), and The Third Critical War of Our National History (1918). In addition, at a reunion of Union Army Officers held in Boston on 11 May 1880, Thayer presented a paper on the history of the 2nd Massachusetts, which was eventually published. Thayer married Katherine Abbott and had two children. He later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served as pastor of the First Congregational Unitarian Church from 1882 to 1916. Thayer died in Cincinnati on 3 October 1925.
Sources for further reading:
The featured letter is one of many Civil War letters contained in the Lorin Low Dame papers held by the MHS. The collection contains letters from Dame to his wife, Nancy Isabel Arnold Dame, as well as letters received by Dame from various friends and family members while he was at the front. There are also two diary volumes containing entries covering June 1863 to June 1864.
Thayer, George A. History of the Second Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry, Chancellorsville. Boston: G.H. Ellis, 1882.