March 1862: "The Merrimac played us a pretty trick ...."


By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Richard Cary to Helen Cary, 14 March 1862

Letter from Richard Cary to Helen Cary, 14 March 1862

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    On 14 March 1862, Captain Richard Cary of the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment wrote this eight-page letter to his wife Helen. In this letter Captain Cary references the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (rechristened by the Confederates as the CSS Virginia), and meeting John Wilkes Booth. The letter also describes how a group of soldiers under Captain Cary's command occupied and looted a plantation deserted by everyone except the slaves. Captain Cary and his men found ham, corn bread, and native wine, which the Captain brought back to company headquarters hidden underneath his overcoat to "keep it from the gaze of envious or objecting eyes" (page 3).

    Richard Cary was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 27 June 1836. He was the youngest of eight children of Thomas Graves and Mary Perkins Cary. While still in his teens, his father sent him to Mobile, Alabama, to help with the family's merchandizing business and for most of the remaining years of his life, the younger Cary spent his winters in Mobile. On one of his first trips there, Cary met the actor Edwin Booth and the two became lifelong friends, sharing a love of musical theater and drama. Indeed, on 5 January 1862 Cary wrote to his wife asking her to have his sister Emma send him a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare and in a letter written on 25 June 1862, he reports just having read Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," which he found to be "very French" but nonetheless powerful in its message.

    In the letter featured here, Captain Cary describes meeting Edwin's brother John Wilkes Booth ("Wilkes") for the first time while in Baltimore. Cary takes an immediate dislike to Wilkes stating, "he rants and his face has no more expression than a board fence -- his voice is like Ned's" (page 8). As a proper Bostonian, Captain Cary did not use profanity of any sort in his letters to his wife --"Ned" was a common nineteenth-century euphemism for hell or the devil. It is interesting to note that Richard Cary's observation concerning Wilkes, the brother of his most trusted and loyal friend, was made three years prior to John Wilkes Booth's act of eternal infamy, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

    The letter also refers to the naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, which had occurred a few days earlier on 9 March 1862. Captain Cary notes with pride that the "plucky" Monitor was able to defeat the "iron clad monster," the Merrimack, although he acknowledges that he had to give the devil his due; if it were not for the Monitor, the Merrimack "would have raised Ned with some of our blockading ships" (page 7).

    Months after penning this letter, on 9 August 1862, Captain Cary was shot in the leg during the battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia. He was just 26 years old. Cary's wounds were not immediately fatal and men from his company attempted to remove him from the battlefield, but without the aid of an ambulance or other device to expedite the movement they were unable to bring him to the field hospital and he died of his injuries. Ironically, in April 1862, Captain Cary had written a letter, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, deploring the fact that that the lives of so many wounded Union soldiers were needlessly sacrificed due to a lack of proper medical care.

    Sources for Further Reading

    The featured letter is one of the more than 100 letters Richard Cary wrote to his wife describing his experiences in the Second Massachusetts Regiment. All of those letters, along with transcriptions, are included in the Richard Cary Letters held by the MHS. This collection also includes letters from Cary to his siblings and letters of condolence and remembrance received by Helen Cary after Richard's death.

    Additional manuscript material related to Richard Cary and his Civil War service can be found in the Cary Family Papers II.

    Cary, Richard. "Treatment of Wounded at Winchester." Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 April 1862.

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

    Wallace, Frederic A. Framingham's Civil War Hero: The Life of General George H. Gordon. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011.

    Online Resources

    The Massachusetts Historical Society's website, Massachusetts In the Civil War: 1861-1862, includes an online presentation of a carte de visite of Richard Cary and a letter written to his widow after he was killed during the Battle of Cedar Mountain.

    See the online presentation of an engraving, Action between the Merrimac and the Monitor.