August 1864: "If I cant have a horse to ride I wont work for Uncle Sam any more..."By Joan Fink, volunteer
Letter from Flavel King Sheldon to [Silas and Anna Sheldon], 2 August 1864
"Yesterday I was about half dead. Today I am just about half alive and the Capt is about as I was yesterday," writes Lieutenant Flavel King Sheldon in this 2 August 1864 letter to his parents. Sheldon, a member of the 37th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, describes the brutally hot conditions that he and his fellow soldiers endured while maneuvering in northern Virginia, and expresses his frustration with army leadership for sending all of the men of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac on fruitless campaigns in the scorching heat.
Flavel King Sheldon was born on 12 December 1831 in Southampton, Massachusetts, to Silas and Anna King Sheldon. After completing his education, Sheldon worked on the family farm in Southampton. He married Eunice Clapp in 1852. Eunice died in 1861, leaving him a widower with two young sons, Francis (Frankie) and Herbert (Herbie). Sheldon mustered into service with the 37th Massachusetts in September 1862 with the rank of sergeant. He was promoted to lieutenant in June 1864 and was serving in that capacity when he wrote this letter home.
In this letter, Sheldon gives a frank assessment of what he sees as a lack of military intelligence on the part of the Union generals. He notes that the leadership has no idea “which way to go” to find the Confederate forces (page 1). According to Sheldon, his corps is frequently ordered to get to a certain place to confront the rebel forces, but as soon as they arrive, they learn that the rebel troops have already left the area. Sheldon notes with frustration that on the day he writes this letter, the 37th was ordered at sunrise to commence a lengthy march. Then, while on a midday rations break, they received orders to march back to where they started that morning.
Sheldon relates the tragic death toll that marching in the extreme heat of late July and early August in Maryland and Virginia has extracted. He recounts that in one day “there was one third of the men sun stroke” and that between sixty and seventy men died (page 2). He mentions Augustus P. Bates, a soldier from his own regiment, who did not “come in” with the rest of the men that day. Military records show that Bates recovered and returned to the regiment, remaining there until the end of the war.
Sheldon questions the veracity of the rumor that the “Johnies burnt Chambersburg to the ground” (page 3), but that account turns out to be true. On 30 July 1864, Confederate General John McCausland ordered his troops to burn the entire town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, including the majority of the private residences. While Chambersburg has the dubious distinction of being the only Northern town totally destroyed by Confederate forces, its destruction gave the Union forces increased motivation to achieve military victory in the war.
Displaying a lively sense of humor, Sheldon writes that “if I live to get out of this, you will never catch me carrying a knapsack again. I shall know where to enlist next time. If I can’t have a horse to ride I won’t work for Uncle Sam any more after my three years are up“ (page 4). He then tells his parents that if his young sons have any inclination towards becoming soldiers someday, they need to be encouraged to learn to ride horses since the cavalry does not have to march in the blistering heat.
Sheldon was wounded on 2 April 1865 during an assault on Petersburg, Virginia. According to family lore Sheldon was shot through the hand and the bullet continued through and hit him in the chest, although his hand sufficiently slowed the trajectory of the bullet to prevent a fatal injury. The bullet then fell down through his clothes and was found in his boot. Sheldon is said to have kept the bullet as a souvenir and passed it down to his son Frank. Sheldon mustered out of service on 17 June 1865, receiving a discharge for disability.
After the war, Sheldon returned to Southampton, Massachusetts. He married his second wife Adella Brown in 1866 and they had a daughter, Grace. Sheldon devoted himself to farming and raising cattle. In 1884 he was elected to represent Hampshire County in the Massachusetts General Court. Sheldon died in Southampton on 24 November 1909 at the age of 77.
Sources for Further Reading
The featured letter is one of dozens of Civil War era letters from Flavel King Sheldon to his parents contained in the Flavel King Sheldon papers. In addition to offering a glimpse of camp life, Sheldon provides descriptions of his own involvement in the Mud March in January 1863, as well as the battles at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.