Catching Up With the Armstrongs

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

I’m very happy to add a brief postscript to last year’s seven-part series about Civil War soldier Dwight Emerson Armstrong. Last fall, following on the heels of that series, the MHS acquired the letters of his brother, Joel Mason Armstrong.

Mason (as he was called) was born in 1833 in Wendell, Mass. He worked as a carpenter in Sunderland before enlisting at the age of 28. He would serve for almost a year in the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Co. G., primarily in Louisiana. His collection is even smaller than his younger brother Dwight’s, but no less interesting. It consists of seven letters: six from Mason and one to Mason from none other than Dwight himself.

Dwight’s letter was written from Washington, D.C. on 15 September 1861, early in his service and before he’d seen any fighting. In it, Dwight described the building of batteries, the sound of nearby skirmishes, and a review of the troops by Gen. McClellan. I wrote about this period in Part II of the series.

All six of Mason’s letters were written to his sister Mary—the same sister, incidentally, to whom Dwight wrote his letters. Mason included some terrific details about life in the Union army, from the looting of nearby plantations for poultry, sweet potatoes, and sugar, to the days spent marching (“I find that I can tire out almost every one else & then march some ways further.”), to the thousands of formerly enslaved people who joined the Union caravan in the months after the Emancipation Proclamation. As for insight into Mason’s personality, I think this quotation sums it up: “I made up my mind long ago to make the best of everything and bear cheerfully whatever comes that cannot be helped.”

29 May 1863 letter from Joel Mason Armstrong
Letter from Joel Mason Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 29 May 1863

This collection also contains the letter Mason wrote to Mary on learning of Dwight’s death. Dwight was killed in battle on 3 May 1863, but Mason didn’t hear about it until nearly a month later, on the morning of the 29th. The news was confirmed by that day’s mail.

I Hoped that it was not so, until I got your letter & others telling the same story. I had not heard from him for a long time & began to feel anxious since we heard of the battle. It is indeed a sad blow to us. It seems hard to friends at home to think of dying so far away from home & friends; judging from my own feelings I think it is harder for friends at home than for those who die.

This patchwork of related collections is one of the advantages of a manuscript library like the MHS. Multi-generational papers, papers of different family branches, friends and neighbors running in the same social circles, letters from soldiers serving in the same military unit, travelers crossing each other’s paths—all of this overlapping and complementary material gives us a fuller picture of historical events and an opportunity to view those events from different perspectives. It’s not unusual to be working on a collection and run across the name of a person whose papers you recently processed.

I found biographical information about Joel Mason Armstrong in History of the Town of Sunderland, Massachusetts (pp. 254-5) and A Record of Sunderland in the Civil War (p. 14). The latter even confirms his aforementioned proficiency at marching! But these two sources don’t include one interesting personal detail that I turned up.

Mason and his wife Helen had seven children, but one online source contained what I initially took to be a mistake. Listed among his children was Clara I. Sweetser, but she was born a year before their marriage. A child from a previous marriage perhaps? The name rang a bell, so I looked back at my genealogical research from last year.

Sure enough, Sweetser was the married name of Mason’s oldest sister Sarah. Sarah and her husband both died in November 1864, just six days apart from each other. They left five children, the oldest only 14. After a little more digging, I found that six-year-old Clara, their only daughter, was in fact raised by Mason and Helen. (I couldn’t confirm it, but I assume her brothers were raised by other family members.) Sources seem to conflict on whether she was formally adopted, but her name was legally changed to Armstrong in 1865. Clara would marry in 1883 and have four children of her own.

Joel Mason Armstrong died in 1905 in Sunderland, Mass.

The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part VII

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the seventh and final post in a series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and Part VI.

For the last few months, I’ve been telling you about the letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong of Wendell, Mass., who served with the 10th Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War. Today we conclude his story.

Things were quiet for the 10th after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, which was just fine by Dwight. He did take part in Ambrose Burnside’s Mud March of January 1863, in which troops, artillery, and pontoon trains were trapped in a days-long downpour and got so bogged down in the mud that they had to give up and turn back. But after that disastrous march, the regiment settled in for the rest of the winter at the Union camp near Falmouth, Va. on the north bank of the Rappahannock River. Dwight called the lull “very agreeable to a man whose constitution will bear as much rest, as mine will.”

In early February, ten-day furloughs were granted on a very limited basis, but Dwight didn’t bother to request one because the time would be too short and, as he wrote his sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham, “if I should get there I should’nt want to come back. […] Do you know that it has been almost 2 years since I saw you.”

Of course, by mid-February, Dwight was complaining of boredom. The soldiers entertained themselves as best they could. On 7 March, Dwight and others attended a local “negro meeting,” which he described in detail in a letter to Mary the following day. He found the experience novel and amusing, writing, “I guess I laughed as much as ever I did in the same length of time.”

Apparently, Mary took exception to his mocking tone. (Our collection unfortunately doesn’t include her letters). Dwight replied to her more seriously a month later.

As for what you say about your not laughing, if you had been at the negro meeting I dont believe it. No doubt it was wrong to do it; but I’ll bet, you would have laughed, down in your stomach, all the while. […] No doubt they are sincere in their worship. It is strange, after being kept under, and abused, as they have been for generations back, that they are half as intelligent as they are. They seem to understand what is going on pretty well, and are loyal, and earnestly wish, and pray, for the success of our arms. […] They evidently are impressed with the belief that the good time is coming; when they will all be free and I dont see how any sane person can doubt it. How soon it will be, we dont know but I for one think […] we are only in the beginning of the war.

Dwight admitted that he’d underestimated the resilience, resourcefulness, and determination of the South, although he still believed the North would win the war, if for no other reason than that its army was larger. As he put it, “we have a good chance to break them and have a few left to start again with.”

On 8 April 1863, the Union troops were reviewed at Falmouth by President Abraham Lincoln himself, accompanied by General Joseph Hooker. Dwight had been harshly critical of Lincoln in previous letters, had even referred to him as “mad,” but now found his heart going out to him.

The President looks as if he was almost worn out. Poor man! I pity him, and wonder he is alive, surrounded as he is by such a pack of traitors, and numb skulls, and he the only honest man in the lot. I have scolded, a good deal about him, since he removed McClellan, and wished him in the bottom of the ocean, but was ready to forgive him, when I saw how pale and sorrowful he looked.

The last letter in the collection was written on 27 April. In it, Dwight primarily discussed mundane matters, but he also had this to say about the Confederate army: “If we could only drive them, off from the hills, on the other side of the river, so as to meet on equal terms I should have no fears of the result and have’nt as it is, much.”

Dwight was killed six days later on 3 May 1863 in the Battle of Salem Heights (or Salem Church), Va. He was 23 years old.

Coincidentally, the MHS holds a diary written by another member of Dwight’s company, Private George Arms Whitmore. Here’s an excerpt from George’s diary entry for that day:

In the afternoon we drove the rebels about 3 miles when they made a stand and we had a very hard time. There were 2 killed and we think one wounded. Their names were Dwight Armstrong Wm Ryther killed. And Christopher Megrath supposed to be wounded.

3 May 1863 diary entry
George Arms Whitmore diary, 3 May 1863

William Eaton Ryther was a 20-year-old from Greenfield, Mass. According to a history of the town, he and Dwight were buried on the field together. Dwight’s body was apparently later removed to Locust Hill Cemetery in Montague, Mass., where he’s buried with his parents.

Joseph K. Newell’s history of the 10th Regiment tells us that Christopher Megrath survived the battle and the war, but died in 1869 as a result of the wound he received that day.

Dwight’s sister Mary, to whom he wrote so faithfully, died in Springfield, Mass. in 1887.

Across the Rappahannock: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part VI

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the sixth post in a series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

We return today to the story of Dwight Emerson Armstrong of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. About two weeks after we left him, Dwight’s regiment fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., 11-15 December 1862.

Map of the Field of Fredericksburg, December 1862
“The Field of Fredericksburg,” from The Antietam and Fredericksburg by F. W. Palfrey (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882)

Dwight described the battle to his older sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham in a detailed eight-page letter, dated 21 December. He’d survived “without a scratch,” but there was no denying that Fredericksburg was a devastating loss for the Union. Dwight told Mary about the perilous crossing over the Rappahannock River via pontoon bridge, under fire, in the bitter cold, as well as the uncanny proximity of the enemy in the dark (“we could hear them cough”).

After the battle, writing from the relative safety of the Union camp at Falmouth on the other side of the river, Dwight was still shaken: “It makes me almost tremble now, when I think what a hole we were in. […] Some one is to blame for all this loss of life; and who it is time will show.” However, he reassured Mary, as he usually did, and with his characteristic humor.

You need not give yourself any trouble about my sufferings; it is not so bad as you imagine it to be. I have got toughened to it, so that heat, and cold, storm, and sunshine, have as little effect on me, as it does on that old bundle of cloaks, and hoods that used to travel around in Wendell [Mass.] with Aunt Sally Taft inside of them.

Dwight may have been “toughened,” but he was also very discouraged. He asked, “What have we gained? I know something of what we lost.” And he wasn’t alone. On 4 December 1862, an article appeared in a Massachusetts paper, the Springfield Republican, written by Springfield’s own William Birnie. Birnie was just back from a good-will visit to Union troops in Virginia. In his article, he described the men of the 10th Regiment as “demoralized,” “disaffected,” and “disheartened.”

His words received some backlash, but judging from Dwight’s letters, they were true. In fact, Dwight was probably quoting Birnie when he called his own regiment “the demoralized 10th.” Dwight was especially angry at politicians in Washington who sent men to fight but took “good care to keep beyond the range of the bullets.” He told Mary that he hoped no more men would be drafted.

I hope there wont a man come as long as things go on at this rate. As long as there is such a set of numbskulls in Washington it is throwing away lives for nothing. […] All he [General-in-Chief Henry Halleck] ever was put in command for, was because he was such a short-sighted old blunderbuss.

It was during this time that Dwight wrote what I think are some of his most compelling letters. First there’s this passage:

I do hope, though, that something will be done to stop this miserable buisness, before many weeks. I beleive if the privates of both armies, could get together, they could settle it pretty easy. The day before we recrossed the Rappahannock, there was’nt any fighting in the part of the field where I was; and our skirmishers, and theirs […] got up a treaty of peace among themselves; each side agreeing not to fire on the other unless obliged to do so. They had a fine time, and appeared to be great friends, for such enemies. It did look odd enough, to see the same men, who the day before were doing their best to kill each other talking together, and swapping whiskey and tobacco, for coffee and salt, and such like.

The day Dwight is describing is 14 December 1862, right in the middle of the Battle of Fredericksburg. The two sides had been firing at each other the day before, but on the 14th there was a lull in the fighting as both Union and Confederate troops waited in reserve on the field. The battle resumed the following day, and the South successfully drove the North back across the Rappahannock.

Now on separate sides of the river—and in spite of orders to the contrary—the soldiers continued their fraternization. Here’s what happened on 10 January 1863:

Our pickets are on one bank, and theirs on the other. Both sides are very peaceable, and I am not particularly anxious to have them go to fighting again. The river is so narrow, where I was, that we could talk with them very easily. When I went on guard down there, I stuck my gun up in the ground, and let it be there. My neighbors on the opposite bank did the same, and we walked back and forth, as pleasantly as though no such thing as war ever cursed the earth. Each side had strict orders not to talk with the other, so we had to keep mum most of the time. I couldn’t turn my back to them without a sort of crawling sensation, as though a bullet might possibly be coming after me, but I dont suppose they would have shot me any more than I would them.

Letter from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary
Letter from Dwight Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 17 Jan. 1863

These illicit meetings are confirmed in Joseph K. Newell’s 1875 history of the regiment, “Ours”: Annals of the 10th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers in the Rebellion. (Newell was himself a member of the 10th.) The soldiers even used a small sailboat to exchange newspapers, coffee, tobacco, and personal messages.

Join me in a few weeks here at the Beehive for the next installment of Dwight’s story.

“I Never Saw Such Slaughter”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part V

Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the fifth post in a series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Dwight Armstrong letter, 5 July 1862
Dwight Emerson Armstrong letter to his sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 5 July 1862

I am well, only some tired. I wish I could tell you what has been done here on this Peninsula for the last ten days but it would fill a volume. Many bloody battles have been fought, and it does seem as if it was about time this was stopped. […]  I wish you could have had one look at that battle field just after dark. It was an awful sight. Great streams of fire bursting from the mouths of these ugly looking cannons; shells screaming, and bursting, all around, and a roar like a thousand thunders, continually filling the air, made such a sight and sound as is seldom seen or heard.

These words were written by Dwight Emerson Armstrong of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry in a letter to his sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham dated 5 July 1862. Since his last letter, Dwight had fought in several battles and skirmishes near Richmond, Va., one after the other in quick succession, culminating in the Battle of Malvern Hill. This series of engagements became known as the Seven Days Battles. Union troops were now “taking breath” in the relative safety of camp at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

The MHS collection of Dwight’s letters unfortunately doesn’t include Mary’s replies, but we know she had some questions, which he answered when he wrote next two weeks later. What had the Union gained in those brutal seven days? Dwight replied, “I dont think we have made out much of anything.” Would they attempt to take Richmond again? Not likely, until reinforcements arrived. What were the prospects for peace? Dwight was understandably cynical.

When there is a union between the Powers of Light and Darkness you may look for Union between the North and South and not till then. […] A few weeks more of such fighting as the last week was, will pretty much use up the present generation.

At just 22 years old, Dwight was now an experienced soldier and had learned a lot. For example, he admitted that he’d underestimated the enemy.

The rebels are no cowards, and mean to fight to the last. They are perfectly desperate in battle, and care very little for bullets. Their Generals seem to care no more, for the lives of their men, than they would for the lives of so many flies. […] They would march their men in 5 or 6 great long lines, one behind the other, straight up to our batteries, that at every moment mowed them down by hundreds, I never saw such slaughter.

The 10th Regiment was stationed at Harrison’s Landing from 2 July to 16 August 1862, when it pulled up stakes and headed north. During the summer and fall of that year, Dwight wrote less frequently, only about once a month, due to the regiment’s many relocations and engagements. He was near enough to hear the fighting at Antietam, Md., on 17 September, but by the time the 10th was ordered to the field, that bloody battle was essentially over. Dwight saw only the aftermath, but the scene made a distinct impression.

I went around on the battle field, after the fighting was over, and the sights beat all that I ever saw. Men lay piled up in winrows and dead horses broken cannons, and everything else; covered the ground. […] I suppose this war is to go on until, all the men each side can raise are killed off, and then they will be satisfied.

A new concern cropped up in Dwight’s letters at this time—his brothers. He was disheartened by the news that his older brother, Timothy Martin Armstrong, had enlisted. Another brother, Joel Mason Armstrong—Mason, as he was called—also enlisted on 5 September 1862, according to that invaluable reference Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War. Mason was a carpenter in Sunderland, Mass., and would serve in the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry until he was mustered out the following summer. You can read a little more about Mason in A Record of Sunderland in the Civil War (p. 14).

However, Timothy never enlisted, as far as I can tell. This is confirmed in a letter from Dwight to Mary on 25 November 1862. Dwight regretted that Mason had gone to war, but was relieved Tim was staying out of it.

I think one out of the three, ought to know enough to stay at home and not come off here to quarrel about politics; that is all the fuss is about any way. It is just like two parties going to town-meeting, and getting into a knock-down fight, about their opinions. Perhaps it was not so when the war first commenced, but it is now.

Both Tim and Mason would live into their seventies, dying in the early years of the 20th century.

It was two days before Thanksgiving 1862, and Dwight found himself even farther from home than the previous year. He realized his earlier optimism was misguided and the war would likely drag on for some time.

I hope you’ll join me for the next installment of Dwight’s story here at the Beehive.

“I Was Some Afraid”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part IV

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the fourth post in a series. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Today we return to the Civil War letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. In March 1862, Dwight’s regiment left Camp Brightwood in Washington, D.C. and traveled south into Virginia as part of the Union advance on Yorktown. On 15 April, he wrote to his older sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham from his position near Warwick County Courthouse. The siege of Yorktown was underway.

As for the “miserable war” so far, Dwight had this to say:

I have not done much but lug a gun around. I dont want to come home until the war is over, now I have got here; but I sometimes almost think, that the Union costs rather more than it is worth. It sounds very well, for these great men, who live in good warm houses; and on the fat of the land; to preach of the value of this glorious Union but let these same men come down here and stand as picket guard some night in a pelting storm; and if they dont get some of their patriotism washed out before morning, I’ll lose my guess. Still I would not have you think that I am discouraged […] and as long as I can have the privilege of grumbling, [I] shall get along nicely.

Much of his time was occupied with repairing roads. The army’s wagons and artillery tore up the roads, rain filled the enormous holes left behind, and soldiers like Dwight were assigned to shovel mud into the holes to keep the roads passable. He understood the necessity of the work, but complained, “I dont think much of coming down here to mend their highways for them but I suppose I cant help it.”

Though he was bitter about the “great men” in their “good warm houses” and resented the drudgery of his work, he defended George McClellan against criticism that the general acted too slowly and cautiously. He called McClellan “a different sort of a man [who] cares something for a man’s life.” In fact, after a year of service, Dwight didn’t think he’d ever see much fighting.

May 4, 1862 letter written by Dwight Armstrong
Detail of letter from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary, 4 May 1862

On 4 May 1862, Confederate troops evacuated Yorktown, and the Union army, including the 10th Regiment, pursued them west across Virginia. The two sides faced off in the Battle of Williamsburg the following day, but by the time Dwight reached the front lines, the fighting was already over. He was both frustrated and relieved: “I have had no chance to fire again at the rebels yet, and there is no prospect of my ever having a chance to, and I am sure I dont want to, after what I have seen.”

He didn’t elaborate, but he may have been referring to the bloody aftermath of the battle, as described by Joseph K. Newell in his 1875 history of the regiment. Newell writes about the Southern soldiers unable to retreat: “Men wounded in every shape; some dead, and some dying; many shockingly mangled, to whom death would have been a blessing.” (p. 90)

Union forces continued their march west, closing in on Richmond. Dwight didn’t even know if the Confederate army was still in the city, but he hoped they would just get it over with, make their stand “until they get enough of it, and are willing to give up. I am tired of chasing them.” His regiment was positioned about eight miles from Richmond, at Fair Oaks.

It was here that Dwight would see his worst fighting yet. The Battle of Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines) broke out on 31 May 1862. The attack was unexpected, according to Newell, “like a clap of thunder from a clear sky.” (pp. 98-9) The Union army was driven back and suffered heavy losses.

June 2, 1862 letter written by Dwight Armstrong
Letter from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary, 2 June 1862

Dwight wrote a short note to his sister after the battle to let her know he was alive and unharmed, but didn’t go into much detail until 14 June.

You want to know how I felt while in battle. Well, I suppose I felt pretty much as you would to stand out and have shot, and shell, and all sorts of missiles thrown at you. I have often read that when a man goes into battle, he loses all fear, and only thinks how he can kill the enemy the fastest. I can imagine how a man, if he was nervous enough, could get worked up to such a pitch of excitement that he would lose all fear for himself; and dont doubt it is so in some cases; but so far as my experience goes it is quite the contrary. For my part, I am not at all ashamed to own that I was some afraid at first, though the thought of turning around and running away never crossed my mind. It is perfectly astonishing what an immense amount of lead it does take to kill a man. If a single thousandth part of the missiles thrown the other day had taken effect every man on the field would have been killed the first hour. Bullets sometimes come pretty close to a man without hurting him any but if a cannonball or a shell hits a body of men it makes bad work. […] The bullets tore up the ground under our feet, and whistled terribly close to our ears, and fell all around us like hailstones; and it seems miraculous that no more were hurt.

The captain of his company, Edwin E. Day of Greenfield, Mass., was killed at Fair Oaks. Dwight witnessed his death. Under heavy fire, Day’s men were forced to leave his body behind, but when the fighting was over, they buried him “as decently as possible.” After the war, his body was retrieved from Virginia and interred at Greenfield.

Dwight finished his letter by reassuring his sister, as he had many times, to “keep up good courage and dont worry about me.”

I hope you’ll join me for the next installment of Dwight’s story here at the Beehive.

“Let the Whole Government Go to Eternal Smash”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part III

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the third post in a series. Read Part I and Part II.

Letter from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary
Detail of letter from Dwight Emerson Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 21 Dec. 1861

When we left Private Dwight Emerson Armstrong in the fall of 1861, he and his regiment, the 10th Massachusetts Infantry, were stationed at Camp Brightwood (later Fort Stevens) in Washington, D.C. Dwight had seen no action yet, but was anxious to join the fight. Rumors abounded, both in camp and up North: the war would be over in a month or last another year; D.C. was in danger of imminent attack or perfectly safe; the regiment would be sent into battle at any moment or assigned to guard the nation’s capital; the troops were winning great victories or merely stumbling through inconsequential skirmishes.

Camp Brightwood was comfortable, and the soldiers had grown accustomed to the sound of nearby gunfire and cannon blasts, but the uncertainty irritated Dwight. His letters to his sister Mary (Armstrong) Needham in October 1861 were his bitterest yet, full of angry underlining for emphasis.

They have got old Armstrong this time but if Uncle Sam ever gets into another row with his rebellious children I know of one who wont help him chastise them, even if the old gent got whipped himself individually. Here they are keeping this great army here in idleness waiting for what; if anybody knows I wish they would tell. I believe that the officers are afraid to attack the rebels; it look[s] like it certainly and if they are not, why dont they do it.

In fact, the delay was making him cynical about the whole idea of reunification, and he told Mary that the Union should just fight or go home: “Now if the South cant be beaten why not give up at once and let the whole government go to eternal smash and have it done with.”

He’d started writing more broadly about the war and politics, criticizing the U.S. army for, among other things, their “foolish” attempt to starve the South “into submission.” There was also the undeniable fact that the Confederacy had chalked up a number of victories on land and sea, which called into question the reassurances of Northern generals. Dwight even began to doubt that God was on the side of the Union!

On 5 December 1861, Dwight reached the ripe old age of 22. Five days later, he wrote to Mary in a more introspective vein.

Many things have happened in the 22 years I have seen that we little thought of and how many, many things will happen during the next 22 years that we little think of now. It is true as you say we are all weaving the web of life and nations as well as individuals must play the part designed for them in the beginning and though we poor wretches often think that the machinery don’t work right yet doubtless in the end we shall all see that the jolts and wreckings were a part of the great plan and without which the web could not have been perfect.

Up to this time, he’d mentioned slavery only once or twice, but on 12 January 1862, he discussed the subject at length. He started by describing the “contrabands” at Camp Brightwood, enslaved people who’d escaped to Union lines.

We have got quite a lot of “contrabands” in our camp and they are very useful. Money would not hire one of them to set his foot out side of the camp for fear his master would get him. The slave as a class are much more intelligent than the white folks; after all that has been said about their not being able to get their own living and the like. P.M. General Blair has got some of the nicest slaves I ever saw. I wish I was half as smart as some of them.

(Montgomery Blair was Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general from 1861 to 1864. Blair lived nearby and, according to Alfred S. Roe’s history of the 10th Regiment, had visited the camp the previous October.)

Dwight went on to compare the enslaved people and free black people he’d seen in D.C. The freemen were “as much poorer than the poorest people at the North as you can think” and usually had to beg for subsistence. Most slaves, he said, were not only more intelligent, but better fed and clothed, so they felt superior to and mocked “their free brethren” when they met in the street. Knowing this, “the free shun[ned] the slaves as they would a pestilence.”

The collection unfortunately doesn’t include Mary’s reply, but we can fill in the blanks from Dwight’s next letter. On 21 January, he clarified:

You want to know why the slaves want to be free if they were much better off then [sic] their colored brethren. It is true that all the slaves I have seen are much better off in every respect than the free negroes. But there is no such thing as a man’s being contented in slavery so long as there is a single spark of humanity in him. Most of the slaves I have seen, seem to be pretty well contented, but after all they aren’t, and never can be, so long as they have a master.

The 10th Massachusetts Infantry left Camp Brightwood on 10 March 1862 after a seven-month stay. For more “jolts and wreckings,” come back for Part IV of Dwight’s story here at the Beehive.

“They Dont Stop for Meetinghouses Nor Anything Else”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part II

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the second post in a series. Part I can be found here.

On 16 July 1861, after a month at the Hampden Park training camp in Springfield, Mass., the men of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry began their journey South. Among them was Private Dwight Emerson Armstrong, whose letters to his sister Mary were recently acquired by the MHS.

The regiment passed through Medford, Mass., where they camped on the banks of the Mystic River at what Dwight called Camp McClellan. (Regimental histories by Joseph K. Newell and Alfred S. Roe use the name Camp Adams; the land had once belonged to John Quincy Adams.) This location was practically idyllic compared to Hampden Park, but the respite was short-lived. Just five days later, the first major battle of the Civil War broke out.

Photo of destroyed stone bridge
Carte-de-visite photograph of stone bridge destroyed in First Battle of Bull Run (Photo. #3.806)

The First Battle of Bull Run, known to the Confederates as the First Battle of Manassas, was fought near Manassas, Va. on 21 July 1861. Dwight heard via telegraph that “the rebels were beaten and 1500 stand of arms taken and a 1000 prisioners.” But these initial reports were wrong—the battle was a terrible loss for the Union Army, and the 10th Regiment was ordered to move to Virginia sooner than anticipated. Dwight gamely told his sister Mary, “I hope we shall not have to stay a great while and I don’t beleive it is going to be a long war.”  On 23 July, he wrote his last letter before leaving Massachusetts, closing with “about 900 pounds” of love to his nieces Annie and Jennie.

By 28 July, Dwight and his regiment had reached the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. He described to Mary the steamer journey up the Potomac River, between the Confederate state of Virginia and the border state of Maryland. He saw a few masked rebel batteries, Mount Vernon (“a most beautiful place”), and “two or three old dillapidated looking negroes,” but no enemy soldiers so far.

In fact, Dwight was preoccupied with and angry about the army’s provisions, which consisted entirely of hard bread and rotten ham…for the enlisted men. He blamed Quartermaster John W. Howland and the commander of the regiment, Colonel Henry S. Briggs. It wouldn’t be the last time he wrote in such defiant tones.

I know it is a serious offence to say anything about our officers but I don’t care when I get mad and I will say that we have got a Quarter-master that don’t know enough to go in when it rains and a Col. that so long as he can keep his own contemptible old stomach full of beef steak don’t care what his men have to eat.

The next letter in the collection is dated 12 September, more than six weeks later. By this time, the 10th Regiment had settled at Camp Brightwood (a.k.a. Fort Massachusetts, a.k.a. Fort Stevens) in northwest Washington, D.C., which would be its home for seven months. Brightwood was one of dozens of encampments constructed during the war to improve the capital’s defenses. In one interesting passage, Dwight described building fortifications, which necessitated the destruction of a local church.

We have been at work for sometime past building batterries; and have not got through yet by considerable. It is a great deal of work to build them but there are a great many to do it. […] The first one we built has got a good brick meetinghouse inside of it. It stood on a hill right where they wanted the battery so the meetinghouse has got to be pulled down. […] It seems a pity to take it down for the heathen want it or at least need it as bad as they do any where but in war time they dont stop for meetinghouses nor anything else.

This church, the Emory United Episcopal Church, whose bricks were literally pulled down and used to build the fort, was later rebuilt and operates today as the Emory Fellowship. Fort Stevens is a national park, and some of its earthworks still exist.

Dwight was optimistic about the outcome of the war, felt safe at Camp Brightwood, and was adjusting fairly well to military service, despite the nits and cockroaches that were, in his words, “just like the Southerners never satisfied with what they have got but always want more territory.” The food had even improved since the “Quartermaster was very Providentially taken sick.”

He’d seen no combat yet, but every once in a while an alarm was raised, and the troops were “tumbled out of [their] tents” and held in readiness to march at a moment’s notice. None of these alarms had come to anything, and Dwight found the whole thing kind of amusing.

It is curious how anyone can get used to almost anything so as to not mind anything about it. […] They were having a battle only a few miles off and we could hear the cannons thundering away almost as plainly as if we had been there but we had got so used to disturbances of this sort that no one minded anything about it and all laid down with their guns beside them and went to sleep as quietly as though they were a thousand miles from any danger.

Please join me for the next installment of Dwight’s story!

Signature line of letter from Dwight Armstrong to Mary Armstrong
Detail of letter from Dwight Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 12 Sep. 1861

“I Guess I Shall Stand It”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part I

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

I should have written to you before this but thought I would wait untill I knew when I was going to war. […] I never have been sorry yet that I enlisted but think quite likely that I shall be before I get back if I ever do. I hope we shall not be gone long and will all come back safe and sound. You must not worry any at all about me while I am gone…

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce our readers to another terrific collection of Civil War papers here at the MHS, the Dwight Emerson Armstrong letters. The collection is very small, consisting of just 38 letters written between 13 June 1861 and 27 April 1863, but the content is so interesting that I thought I’d start a short series here at the Beehive to talk about the story in more detail.

Dwight was born in the small town of Wendell, Mass. on 5 December 1839, the son of Deacon Martin Armstrong and Mary (Bent) Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong died when Dwight was only four years old, and Martin remarried to a widow named Almira (French) Root. Dwight had three sisters, two brothers, and one half-brother. He was working as a laborer in Montague, Mass. when he enlisted on 19 April 1861, just one week after the attack on Fort Sumter. He was 21 years old.

All of the letters in the collection were written by Dwight to his older sister Mary. However, the letters came to us without envelopes, so her first name was all I knew, and it took a little time to track down more information about her. A 1900 genealogy identifies her as Mary Bent Armstrong, named for her mother. I finally found a footnote referencing her in a book called Wendell, Massachusetts: Its Settlers and Citizenry. Mary’s husband was a farmer named Emery H. Needham, and in 1861, they were living in Amherst, Mass. with their two young daughters, Annie and Jennie.

Some of Dwight’s letters are written on stationery decorated with colorful images of the American flag, Lady Liberty, etc. (Incidentally, the MHS holds a collection of over 1,000 Civil War “patriotic covers,” envelopes printed with pictures like these.)

Dwight Armstrong letters
Two letters from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary, 1861

The letter quoted at the top of this post is the first in the collection. Eight days later, on 21 June 1861, Dwight was mustered into service as a private in the 10th Massachusetts Infantry, Company G. His regiment was mobilized at Hampden Park, a repurposed racetrack in Springfield, Mass. In his second letter to Mary, written that day, Dwight described life in camp as “a perfect pandemonium.” This pandemonium included some discontent over the army’s less-than-stellar provisions.

I presume before this reaches you that you will read terrible stories of the muss which we had here yesterday but don’t beleive newspaper stories. The truth is we did come very near having a pretty serious riot and I thought for a time the buildings where the cooking is done would surely be pulled down […] We can if nesessary live on dog soup and ham with two maggots to one meat but dont intend to at present.

For context, I consulted two printed histories of the regiment, Joseph K. Newell’s “Ours”: Annals of [the] 10th Regiment (1875) and Alfred S. Roe’s very similar The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1909). Both downplay this incident as nothing more than young men bristling at the restrictions of army life, or, in Roe’s words, “the unwillingness of Young America to submit to meets and bounds without some sort of protest” (p. 13-14). However, the discontent was real, and desertion was already becoming a problem. In his next letter, Dwight elaborated.

A good many have run away and I suppose they are afraid the rest will if they get a chance. As the time when we are to start comes on some begin to think they had better have stayed at home and a double guard is placed around the Park every night to keep them where they belong.

Regimental rosters in both Newell and Roe indicate that many soldiers did, in fact, desert during the short time the 10th was stationed at Hampden Park.

Dwight himself seemed relatively sanguine about his enlistment. July 1861 was “terrible hot,” but he was “tough as a knot.” He reassured Mary that “I guess I shall stand it as long as any of them.” He did complain about the drilling, guard duty, marching, and of course the food, but he kept it all in perspective.

We cant have a speck of butter and I miss that more than anything else. I suppose it is not best to find any fault for we cant expect to have anything as convenient as we would at home.

The 10th Massachusetts Infantry decamped on 16 July 1861 and began its long trip South. I hope you’ll join me in a few weeks to hear more of Dwight’s story.

An Archival Mys-Tree

by Hannah Elder, Library Assistant

Happy spring, everyone! In honor of this new season, I’d like to share a bit of an arboreal mystery that I recently uncovered. While thumbing through Volume VII of the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I discovered a series of letters exchanged between the MHS and Mr. D. McConaughy, in Pennsylvania, following the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The letters, transcribed in full in the Proceedings, were related to the transportation of the trunk of a white oak tree, riddled with bullets, from the forest of a hill on the battle site. I was immediately intrigued.

The first letter, addressed to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, reads:

Gettysburg, Penn., August 7, 1863

Hon. John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts.

Governor – I have selected from the forest upon Wolf Hill, at our breastworks, a trunk of a white-oak tree, fearfully riddled with bullets, so as to exhibit the effects of the withering musketry fire in the action of the 2d and 3d of July ult., when the enemy were so terribly repulsed on our right. In that wonderful strife, the Second Massachusetts Regiment bore a conspicuous and honorable part, as the thick graves of its noble dead eloquently attest. This scarred memento I desire to present to the Massachusetts Historical society; and have it now at the depot of our railroad, ready for shipment. Will you make the necessary arrangements for its transportation to Boston, and advise me of your readiness to receive it? For the life of your brave sons, poured out freely upon our soil, Pennsylvania sends this outgrowth of the life of her soil, eloquent of the dauntless strife and the glorious triumph here achieved.

With sentiments of high regard and esteem, yours truly,

D. McConaughy

Later that month, the Society replied:

Historical Rooms, Boston, Aug. 27, 1863

Dear Sir – Your eloquent and acceptable letter addressed to Governor Andrew has by him been forwarded to the Massachusetts Historical Society; in whose behalf I have the honor to communicate the wish, that you would add to the sense of obligation already conferred upon them, by transmitting by express, if no other means offers, the memorial of Gettysburg and its historic days which you have been kind enough to offer for their acceptance.

If directed to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Tremont Street, Boston I have no doubt it will duly reach its destination.

As I cannot speak authoritatively in the name of the Society, there have been no opportunity for them to act upon the matter, I shall not attempt to express, in such terms as I know they would desire, cordial response with which they would reciprocate the generous and patriotic sentiments with which you proffer this memorial of the great battle in this new war of independence. I hope a more formal recognition of these will be forthcoming when this shall have been added to the valued historic memorial which it is the purpose of this Society to collect and preserve.

Very respectfully your obedient servant,

Emory Washburn,

Chairman of Committee, &c.

The letters then tell the story of the tree’s journey from Pennsylvania to Boston over the course of September 1863. From Gettysburg, the tree traveled in an open-topped railcar to Philadelphia, where it was temporarily under the care of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which received a similar tree from Mr. McConaughy. While it was stopped in Philadelphia, it was under the guard of a police officer and a travel case was created for it. Next, the tree was placed on a steamship and it sailed to Boston, where it was received with excitement by the Society. After receiving the tree, the Society unanimously resolved to thank D. McConaughy for his donation of the tree, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for caring for the tree, and the Northern Central Railway and the Pennsylvania Railway, along with the steamship Saxon, for transporting it free of charge.

After reading this, I had so many questions – was the tree still in the collection? What exactly did “trunk of a tree” mean? How had we stored and preserved it? So I took a look through our catalog, ABIGAIL, and asked a few members of the MHS staff, but was unable to locate the tree. It seems that it left the collection at some point, but no one is sure when. It was time for some digging through the institutional archives! I looked through the library records; the “Library Letters,” correspondence detailing gifts to the library; the Cabinet Book, which recorded the donations of artifacts to the collection; and curatorial records, but had no luck.

Page of Cabinet Book
Page of the Cabinet Book where I hoped to find record of the tree

Next, I tried the various catalogs of the collection created in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. And I found it! In the 1885 Catalogue of the paintings, engravings, busts, & miscellaneous articles belonging to the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the tree is listed as Entry 119. The catalog record quotes directly from the initial letter from Mr. McConaughy and notes its presence in the Proceedings. I was excited to find the tree in the 1893 version of the catalog as well, but that catalog was just an annotated version of the 1885 catalog. The entry for the tree was unchanged.

1885 Catalog of the Cabinet
The tree in the 1885 catalog of the Cabinet

That’s where the tree’s documented journey ends, at least for now. I’ll keep searching, and I’ll be sure to post an update if I find evidence of the tree somewhere else in the collection.

In the meantime, in ABIGAIL I found records of other tree-related artifacts you may want to check out:

Fragments taken from the roots of the Liberty Tree

Nail and tree bark

Triangular piece cut from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree

Wood from the mulberry tree in the manor garden, Scrooby, England

Painted bark doll

Piece of wood from a tree reportedly used to hang witches

Oak leaves

If you want to view these artifacts or any of our other collections, please consider visiting the library!

Hints to Soldiers on Health: 14 tips for those serving during the Civil War

By Sabina Beauchard, Reader Services

In the Albert Gallatin Browne papers you will find a printed piece of paper entitled, “Hints to Soldiers on Health.” These “Directions for Preservation of Health” give pointers to soldiers serving in the Union Army during the Civil War on how to keep themselves in tip-top shape while living through the worst of conditions and on the move. It includes my favorite tip, number 11, regarding bleeding to death:

If, from any wound, the blood spirts out in jets, instead of a steady
stream, you will die in a few minutes unless it is remedied; because an artery
has been divided and that takes the blood direct from the fountain of life . . .

Aren’t those positive words? If your blood is spurting out, you will most likely die. Don’t forget to wear flannel!

The handout does mention the difference between blood spurting and blood flowing, and what to do in either situation. While it’s necessary to know these things when you are about to enter a battlefield, the rather blunt wording shook me, thinking of all those who did indeed bleed out over the course of the war on both sides.

Number 7 is also a good reminder:

Recollect that cold and dampness are great breeders of disease. Have a 
fire to sit around, whenever you can, especially in the evening and after rain; 
and take care to dry every thing in and about your persons and tents. 

Even in the warmest of climates, it seems like having a fire would still be necessary. As William H. Eastman, a member of the 2nd Battery (Nim’s Battery) of Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery writes home to his mother from Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, 8 May 1863:

. . . the flys are awful thick + as soon as the sun sets 
musquitoes “Oh Dear” tis no use for me to try +
give any idea of their number a swarm of Bees
is no comparison as soon as sundown we build large
fires of corn husks + keep them agoing all night
why if a man has occasion to do a job for himself
after dark he is obliged to take some husks out + build
a fire + sit in the smoke else his rear will be in rather 
a dilapidated condition rather a tough state of things
but such is the case. I am fortunately well off as
I have confiscated the Captains Bed and Musquito bar
that were among the stores but is rather hard for many 
of the poor fellows without bars ^who get up + walk around
half the night to pass the time away.

Well! Hopefully this post has made you feel a little more comfortable with your living conditions, and thankful winter will soon set in and erase mosquitoes from our lives for a short time. Remember, “if disease begins to prevail, wear a wide bandage of flannel around the bowels!”