March 1864: "The Officers & men mean to have a good time, as long as they can, & I don't blame them. They see hardships enough "

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from Mary Ellen Baker Pierce to Julia Ashford Baker, 9 March 1864

Letter from Mary Ellen Baker Pierce to Julia Ashford Baker, 9 March 1864

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    “The Officers & men mean to have a good time, as long as they can, & I don’t blame them. They see hardships enough,” wrote Mary Ellen Baker Pierce of Boston, Massachusetts, in this 8 March 1864 letter to her sister, Julia, from the winter headquarters of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Culpeper, Virginia. Captain Elliot Clark Pierce, Mary’s husband, had brought her to camp for a three month visit from January 1864 to April 1864, while he was serving as Chief of the 1st Ambulance Corps. Since the Civil War was fought on American soil, it provided a unique opportunity for spouses and other family members to visit soldiers in camp. These visits, often lasting for extended periods of time, occurred when the troops were not actively engaged in combat, usually during the winter months.

    Mary Ellen Baker Pierce was born 21 June 1843 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to Ashford and Julia (Holmes) Baker. On 29 October 1862 at the age of nineteen, she married Elliot Clark Pierce. Pierce was born on 14 February 1831 in East Braintree, Massachusetts, to Elijah and Hannah (Reed) Pierce. Prior to enlisting in the Union Army, Elliot worked as an apothecary in Weymouth.

    In this letter of 8 March 1864 describing her stay at the camp, Mary writes of her pleasure in finding a kindred jovial spirit in Lucy Leonard, the wife of Samuel Haven Leonard, Colonel of the 13th Massachusetts, especially since she had expected the Colonel’s wife to be dour and straitlaced. Mary tells her sister that she and Mrs. Leonard spent time together trying to find some measure of levity while living in military quarters.

    Writing with some humor, Mary questions why Captain Porter, the Assistant Adjutant General, would deign to demonstrate interest in one of the Yager sisters, a “Secesh” girl who frequented the camp. Evidencing her bias in favor of northern women, Mary wrote that “Secesh girls are far inferior in intellect and appearance as are all the females I have met here.”

    Mary also writes of listening to the 14th Brooklyn Zouaves serenade the officers and ladies of the Brigade in the Chapel of the 16th Maine Regiment, and then, to her delight, a more intimate performance outside the Colonel’s tent, after which all were invited in for supper. Zouaves were volunteer regiments who adopted the specialized skills and unique uniforms used by some light infantry companies in the French army. The uniforms of Civil War Zouave regiments stood out on the battlefield, comprised of a fez with colorful tassel, tight-fitting dark blue jackets with red trim, and loose dark blue pants. Mary clearly appreciated the momentary pleasure that the Zouaves brought to the soldiers in camp knowing that the soldiers would face cruel adversity in the days and weeks ahead.

    To read additional descriptions by Mary of her activities at the regimental camp please see the online presentation of the Mary Ellen Baker Pierce journal, 7 January- 4 April 1864.

    Elliot Clark Pierce was wounded in May of 1864 near Spotsylvania, Virginia. He mustered out of service on 1 August 1864 with the rank of Major. After the war, Elliott and Mary returned to Weymouth, where hey raised two daughters, Madge and Kate. Elliot played an active role in post-war remembrances, arranging multiple reunions for the 13th Massachusetts. Elliot died on 21 May 1914 and Mary died three years later on 22 October 1917.

    Sources for further reading:

    This letter is part of the Thayer Family papers, 1783-1953. The collection also contains a series of diaries kept by Mary Ellen Baker Pierce, which are separately described.

    Davis, Charles E. Three years in the Army: the Story of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers from July 16, 1861, to August 1, 1864. Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1894.