July 1863: "I think Jeff davis will think he has made a great mistake in sending his army up this way."Joan Fink, Volunteer
Letter from Caleb H. Beal to Caleb Beal and Mary (White) Beal, 5 July 1863
In this 5 July 1863 letter, Caleb Beal, a second lieutenant in the 107th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, writes to his parents from the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Beal vividly describes the devastation wrought by this grueling, three-day battle, noting that he saw “dead rebels by hundreds laying just as they fell among the muck and the trees.”
Caleb Hadley Beal was born on 15 January 1832 to Caleb Beal and Mary (White) Beal in Hingham, Massachusetts. When the Civil War broke out, Beal was working as a bookkeeper in New York City and enlisted in the 14th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment in April 1861. In the spring of 1863, he transferred to the 107th New York Volunteers, commissioned as a second lieutenant. In December of 1863, he resigned his commission. Six months later, in June of 1864, he reenlisted as a private in the 35th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He remained with that unit until June of 1865, when he transferred to the 29th Massachusetts Volunteers. In addition to the Battle of Gettysburg, Beal saw action at the battles of both First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and South Mountain.
In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, Beal’s regiment marched from Brook’s Station, Virginia, departing on 13 June, through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, a distance of over 100 miles. In this letter Beal informs his parents that along the way, he had the pleasure of encountering Captain Edwin Humphrey, a contemporary from his home town of Hingham. Ironically, in this 5 July letter, Beal writes that Humphrey “looked as well as can be expected,” unaware that Humphrey, a captain in the 11th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, had been killed in action three days before.
Beal also relates that his regiment, the 107th New York, was very lucky at Gettysburg in that by “marching and countermarching” and being assigned to build breastworks, they escaped the fate of many of the other regiments in the Twelfth Corps that were involved in “the thickest of the fight.” Consequently, the 107th under the command of Colonel Nirom M. Crane, with 319 men in the battle, suffered only three wounded soldiers, one mortally so. These three were wounded, as Beal notes, when, as the regiment was engaged in building breastworks, they “raised their heads to look over – zip – came a bullet.”
Beal specifically notes that the 2nd Massachusetts and 27th Indiana “suffered severely” at Gettysburg. On the morning of 3 July, those two regiments were ordered to retake the breastworks that had been constructed the previous day and occupied overnight by Confederate forces. The effort was a costly one--the 2nd Massachusetts lost 43 percent of its men; the 27th Indiana, 32 percent. In addition, Beal recounts that the 14th Brooklyn, his original unit, lost 125 men in the first day of the battle, leaving only nine men alive from his former company.
Despite the difficult battle, Beal recounts that the Union army took “thousands of prisoners and made such havoc in their [Confederate] ranks.” Confederate prisoners of war told Beal that on the third of July, General Robert E. Lee had vowed to break the Union line “before he slept that night or else he would kill ten thousand men.” Notwithstanding Lee’s bravado, Beal writes, “I never thought I should see such a sight as I did on that day, as this is our victory if a victory is decided.” Moreover, Beal opines that “if the rebs could only see their men as they lay it would sicken them of rebbelion.” Using graphic imagery, Beal describes how the extreme heat turned the rebel corpses black with “their heads swelled up to twice their natural size.”
Beal mustered out of service on 29 July 1865. In a 2 July 1865 letter to his parents, Beal writes that “I shall always have the satisfaction of always having done my duty faithfully for my Country, and never disgraced myself by an act of cowardice.” In the last letter in this collection, written by Beal on 15 July 1865 to his uncle just two weeks before he mustered out of service, he discusses his desire to get back to Boston, noting that although he attended the Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C., it “did not seem anything like the 4th on Boston Common.” Caleb Hadley Beal died in 1876.
Sources for further reading:
This letter is part of the Caleb H. Beal papers which contains ninety-five letters of Caleb Hadley Beal detailing his Civil War service with the New York Infantry Regiment, 14th and 107th Volunteers and the 35th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. His letters describe camp life, movement, morale, and discipline of troops, and the battles of First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, South Mountain, and the Siege of Petersburg.
History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts. [Hingham]: Published by the Town, 1893.
New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg. Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1900.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.