January 1862: "You've no idea of the fearful state of the camp ground..."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Charles Fessenden Morse to Robert Morse, 31 January 1862

Letter from Charles Fessenden Morse to Robert Morse, 31 January 1862

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    In this letter of 31 January 1862 to his brother, Robert, Lieutenant Charles Fessenden Morse, gives a detailed description of the poor conditions that the Second Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry endured during the long winter months of 1862, and tells of the adventuresome journey he shared with his good friend and fellow officer, Lieutenant Robert Gould Shaw when they secured a brief leave from their military duties to visit friends stationed in Annapolis.

    Charles Fessenden Morse was born on 22 September 1839 on Marion Street -- which is now Park Square -- in Boston, Massachusetts. When he was a year old, his family moved to Jamaica Plain. At the age of 15, Morse decided he wanted to be a civil engineer and was admitted to Harvard College with the understanding that due to his tender age, he would live at home while attending classes. Morse frequently ate dinner at a private boarding house on the Harvard campus and there he met Greely S. Curtis, a student at Harvard Law School. The two became life-long friends.

    In April 1861 a career army officer from Massachusetts named George H. Gordon organized the Second Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. According to Gordon, Greely Curtis was the first man to apply for a commission in that regiment. Shortly after, Morse also applied. While working to recruit soldiers for the Second, Morse met Henry Lee Higginson, another life-long friend. Morse, Higginson, Curtis, and Robert Gould Shaw -- the future colonel of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry -- served together in various companies in the Second until after the battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861, when Higginson and Curtis left the Second to take commissions in the First Massachusetts Cavalry.

    In early December 1861, the Second Massachusetts went into winter quarters at Cantonment Hicks, just outside of Frederick, Maryland. The regiment would remain there until the end of February. In this letter, Morse describes to his brother the bleakness of the weather conditions, noting that it had rained for the previous two weeks resulting in the whole surface of the camp's grounds being "covered with this mud from three inches to a foot deep, one can't step out from a tent, with out sinking in over his foot..." (page 2).

    Morse also states that he and Lieutenant Shaw obtained a two-day leave to travel to Annapolis, via Baltimore, to visit their friends Major Greely Curtis and Captain Henry Higginson at the camp of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. Morse relates how while he and Shaw were walking on Charles Street in Baltimore, they encountered two women who were "aristocratic looking and very richly dressed" (page 3). However, as the women passed the officers, they "gave their dresses a slap & swept off to the furthest side of the sidewalk" causing Morse to comment that that the women put on a "ridiculous performance" and treated them as if they "were the plague."

    Upon arriving in Annapolis, Morse and Shaw had a reunion with Curtis and Higginson. As Morse tells his brother, Curtis arranged for him to race on his magnificent white stallion, a unique and exciting experience (page 5). During the visit, Curtis tried to tempt Morse to leave the Second Massachusetts by offering him a promotion accompanied by a transfer to the First Massachusetts Cavalry. Morse declined declaring his loyalty to the Second (page 6).

    Morse was promoted to the rank of captain and led Company B of the Second at the battles of Cedar Mountain, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. After the Battle of Gettysburg he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel. He held that rank until he was discharged from military service on 14 July 1865. In the years following the war, Morse achieved great personal and financial success, first as the general superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad and later as the general manager of the Kansas City Stockyards. His friend Henry Lee Higginson also found financial success, and later in life became a patron of the arts, founding the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881.

    In his personal memoirs, written for his children six years before his death on 11 December 1926, Morse relates with pride his service with the Second Massachusetts and offers that he never regretted his decision not to leave that company, despite the enticing offer by his friend, Major Curtis, in January of 1862.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    The Charles F. Morse papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society contain dozens of letters written by Morse to various family members during his service with the Second Massachusetts. A selection of these letters have also been published in Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865.

    Gordon, George H. Brook Farm to Cedar Mountain: In the War of the Great Rebellion 1861-62. Boston: J.R. Osgood and Company, 1883.

    Morse, Charles F. Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865. [Boston]: Privately printed, 1898.

    Morse, Charles F. A Sketch of My Life Written for My Children: And a Buffalo Hunt in Nebraska in 1871. Cambridge, Mass.: Privately printed at the Riverside Press, 1927.