May 1864: "I have just copied Stevie’s letters . . . . what horrible scenes he has been through."By Joan Fink, Volunteer
Letter (copy) from Stephen Minot Weld, Jr. to Stephen Minot Weld, 20 May 1864; with letter (copy) from Stephen Minot Weld, Jr. to Stephen Minot Weld, 25 May 1864; as part of letter from Alice Weld to Hannah Weld, [1 June 1864]
On 20 and 25 May 1864, Stephen Minot Weld, Jr., a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant colonel serving in the 56th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, wrote two separate letters to his father detailing his involvement in the battles of Spotsylvania Court House and North Anna, both parts of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Weld’s younger sister Alice carefully hand-copied both letters into a single document in order to share them with their oldest sister, Hannah, who was living in Baltimore, Maryland. As a result, the letter featured here offers not only a soldier’s view of battle, but also reflects the emotion and concern carried by so many soldiers’ siblings throughout the war.
The three Weld siblings responsible for this document were part of a larger New England family. Their parents, Stephen Minot Weld, Sr., a school master and real estate investor, and Sarah Bartlett Balch, were married in June of 1839. Together they had five children: Hannah, Stephen, Alice, Caroline, and Edith. In 1856, two years after Sarah’s death, the elder Stephen Minot Weld married Georgianna Hallet, and together they had two sons, Henry and Arthur.
Stephen Weld, Jr., attended Harvard, graduating with “The War Class” of 1860. In the fall of 1861, he entered Harvard Law School, but his time as a law student was short. In October he left Boston to serve as a volunteer aide-de-camp aboard the USS Baltic. Upon returning to Boston two months later, he sought and received a commission as a lieutenant, and joined the ranks of the 18th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on the staff of General FitzJohn Porter. In December of 1863, he accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel with the 56th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. When that regiment’s colonel, Charles Griswold, was killed during the Battle of the Wilderness, Weld assumed command of the regiment. As referenced in this letter (page 7) he also temporarily had command of his entire brigade (May 8-13) until Brigadier General James Ledlie arrived to relieve him.
In these letters to his father, Weld writes of the devastating losses he witnessed during the Overland Campaign. He captures a bit of the desperation felt near the end of the drawn out battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-21) as he describes the near suicidal orders he received to take an enemy position and shares that he is “glad to say” that his men would not follow the direction to charge for they faced certain slaughter if they did (pages 1-2). Recounting the action along the North Anna River several days later, Weld notes that he and his men were again “in a terrible fight” and that he had “lost some of my best men wounded and killed” (page 4-5).
In the quick note to her sister scribbled on the final pages of the letter, Alice reveals that in spite of his reassurances that he had come through “without a scratch” she is deeply worried about her brother. She observes that holding the colors, which he states he did during the fighting along the North Anna, was “almost certain to cause a wound at least” (page 6), and she hopes that he will not be called upon to do so in the future. Her fears are supported by Stephen’s statement that “I have had two color bearers shot & the color staff shattered, besides six or seven bullet holes through the colors” (page 3). Adding substance to her fears about her brother’s safety, Alice eventually learned that Charles L. Chandler and Wallace A. Putnam, the two wounded Massachusetts men Stephen mentions in his letters, died from the wounds they sustained in the battles.
In addition to being protective of their brother, it is apparent that the sisters were also protective of his letters. In a telling anecdote, Alice informs Hannah that she heroically kept the 25 May letter out of their Aunt Susan’s “clutches,” after Susan attempted to bring home the 20 May letter to “ ‘look it over’ when we had not all heard it” (page 8).
Sources for further reading:
This letter is contained in the Stephen Minot Weld Papers. The collection is primarily comprised of letters written by Weld to his father and siblings, particularly his younger sister Caroline (“Carrie”), while serving in the Civil War. The collection also includes a series of letters from Alice to Hannah, some containing copies of Stephen’s letters home, others completely original to Alice, and a series of letters received by Weld from various correspondents. The MHS also holds a carte de visite photograph of Weld; and late 19th century manuscript copies of Weld’s Civil War Diaries, which were the basis of the published edition listed below.
Benton, Nicholas. The Seven Weld Brothers: Six Generations of Descendants of William Fletcher Weld, George Richards Minot Weld, Stephen Minot Weld, Thomas Swan Weld, Christopher Minot Weld, Francis Minot Weld, John Gardner Weld, 1800 to 2000. New York: iUniverse, 2004.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.
Weld, Stephen Minot. War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1912.