January 1863: "...started again in the morning although it was raining quite hard."

By Claire Arnold, Volunteer

Letter from Daniel H. Spofford to Rachel Spofford, 25 January 1863

Letter from Daniel H. Spofford to Rachel Spofford, 25 January 1863

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    In this letter written to his mother, Rachel Spofford Heald, on 25 January 1863, Daniel H. Spofford, a private in Company H of the First Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, describes the futility and frustration of the so-called Mud March conducted by General Ambrose Burnside, then the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, just a few days prior. He also shares some details of his life in camp, including a visit to the hospital, a description of his winter quarters, and the predictions of a spiritual medium, also a private in Company H, regarding the close of the war.

    Daniel Harrison Spofford was born on 1 August 1842 to Artemas and Rachel Jane (Spofford) Spofford of New Hampshire. His father died in 1855 and his mother married S. C. Heald of Lynn, Massachusetts. In Lynn, Daniel was apprenticed to a clockmaker at a young age. In October 1861, the 19-year-old Spofford enlisted in the Union Army. He served as a private in the First Massachusetts until May 1864, when he mustered out of service.

    The First was one of the many Massachusetts regiments that fought under General Ambrose Burnside in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. After that defeat, and faced with decreasing morale among his troops, Burnside decided to take decisive and unexpected action by crossing the Rappahannock River in mid-winter. The Rappahannock, traversing northeastern Virginia, served as a strategic barrier to the movement of Union troops into southern Virginia, the heartland of the Confederacy. On Tuesday, 20 January, a mild and temperate day, General Burnside ordered his troops to march. That evening a two-day rainstorm began, turning the area into a quagmire. As the Army of the Potomac marched, the roads became “so soft that the cannons could not move and the wagons could not get up with provisions” (pages 2-3). This impassable mud prevented any significant progress, and after suffering the loss of many horses, mules, pieces of artillery, and supplies to the muck – as well as a large number of desertions – Burnside cancelled the movement, recalling the army to “the old Camp.” Spofford himself had not participated in the Mud March, as he was hospitalized with a case of the measles.

    Troop morale and faith in Burnside’s leadership dropped significantly after this failed attempt to cross the Rappahannock. Spofford notes that monetary matters additionally affected morale. He reports to his mother that while the government owed the troops five month’s pay, they had received only compensation for two months. Spofford theorizes that the government feared that if the soldiers received full pay “some of them might take a notion to go home without asking leave” (page 3). He relates that two whole companies from one of the regiments in General Sickles’ brigade deserted as soon as they received their pay. Rather than sending his own pay home immediately, Spofford indicates he plans to try to “use it for some particular purpose” first, perhaps taking advantage of the bargains offered by his regiment’s sutler (a civilian merchant who sold provisions to the army in the field).

    Beyond the mundane details of day-to-day life in the camps, Spofford also tells his mother about a medium among the men in his regiment. During the mid-nineteenth century there was a growing fascination with spiritualism and the occult. Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to have attended séances held at the White House in an attempt to contact her beloved son, Willie, who passed away of a fever at the tender age of eleven. Spofford states that the unnamed spiritualist predicted that the army would remain at their current location for 75 days, that General Joseph Hooker would soon take command of the Army of the Potomac, and that the war would last until 1866, ending only after General George B. McClellan resumed command. Although Spofford might have been interested in the medium’s prognostications, with the exception of General Hooker’s promotion – he assumed command on 25 January – they turned out to be inaccurate on all fronts.

    After the Mud March debacle, Spofford and the men of the First Massachusetts fought in the battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. Spofford survived the war, mustering out of service on 25 May 1864 when the First disbanded after completing its three years of service. He returned to Lynn after the war, and married a young woman named Mary who is mentioned in his letters home. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, he became a student of Mary Baker Eddy (then known as Mary Baker Glover), helping her to publish and disseminate her early writings on the principles of Christian Science. In 1878, he was expelled from the church and accused of attempting to harm a fellow church member through witchcraft. The charges were subsequently dismissed and Spofford settled as a physician living for a short time in Boston. In 1880 he married Ellen Carter of Newburyport, and the two had four children. Daniel H. Spofford died on 3 September 1924 in Haverhill, Massachusetts at the age of 82.

    Sources for Further Reading

    This letter is from a small collection of letters of Daniel H. Spofford to his parents in Lynn, Massachusetts, all written during his service in the Civil War, 1861-1864. Letters include descriptions of routine camp life, road building, troop movements, and several battles including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness Campaign.

    Milmine, Georgine. “Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science.” McClure’s Magazine. Vol. 29 (July 1907), 333-348.

    Municipal History of Essex County in Massachusetts. Volume 3. New York: Lewis Publishing, 1922.

    Spofford, Jeremiah. A Family Record of the Descendants of John Spofford and Elizabeth His Wife. Haverhill: Frothingham, 1851.

    ----. A Genealogical Record, including Two Generations in Female Lines of Families Spelling Their Names Spofford, Spafford, Spafard and Spaford … Boston: Mudge, 1888.

    “That Witchcraft Case.” Boston Daily Globe, 13 May 1878.

    Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.