Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 23 July 1863
Date: July 23, 1863
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from George Washington Whitman, Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 97-100. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Whitman Archive ID: duk.00343
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Tim Jackson, Kathryn Kruger, Gillian Price, and April Lambert
Camp of 51st Regt N.Y. Vols.
Near Milldale Miss.
I take the first oppertunity I have had in some time, to let you know that I am well and hearty.1 I fear Mother that you have been somewhat worried about not hearing from me in so long, but we have been so situated that there was no chance to send letters away, even if we had a chance to write them. I got a letter from Walt, a few days ago, dated July 5th, he tells me you have another Sissy2 at your house, I only hope she is as smart and bright as Sissy No. One.
We returned to camp this morning after about as hard a campaign of 19 days as I want to see. We are now back in the same camp we occupied before the fall of Vicksburg, this is the position where we expected to whip Johnson,3 if he had attempted to come to the relief of Pemberton,4 We are between the Yazoo and Black rivers and about 7 miles directly in the rear of Vicksburg. Our whole corps were encamped around here, before the surrender of Vicksburg, and we had dug miles of rifle pitts, and would have had a big thing on Johnson if we could have got him to come here and give us a fight. Vicksburg you reccolect surrendered on the morning of July 4th, and on the afternoon of the same day, we started off to find Johnson, as it was certain he would not come here to us. After a march of about 10 miles, our advance came up to the enemys pickets, who were posted on the opposite side of the Big Black river, (a deep creek about 100 feet wide) as soon as we came in sight the rebel pickets skeedadled, and we had to stop and wait, (nearly two days) untill a bridge was built, before we could cross. As soon as the bridge was ready we pushed on after the rebs, the dust laying in the road like flour, 4 or 5 inches thick, and the weather terrible hot, quite a number of the men fell down in the ranks, from the effects of the sun, and there was considerable suffering from the scarscity of water and we were forced to drink, from any little pond that could be found by the way no matter how bad the water was. Grub to was mighty scarce, and green corn was the chief article of food.
The enemy did not pretend to make a stand, untill they got behind their entrenchments at Jackson, this City you know is the Capitol of the state and is built on the bank of the Pearl river, their earthworks started from the river above the town and ran along the outskirts untill they struck the river again just below the city, makeing a line of about 3 miles in length. The enemy were supposed to be from 25 to 30,000 strong and on the afternoon of July Tenth we drove their skirmishers, inside of their entrenchments, and we threw forward a heavy line of skirmishers, reaching nearly the whole length of the enemys line, and within easy rifle range of the enemys works. Each Brigade had a certain part of the line, and the regts, releived each other every 24 hours that is, the ones that were up to the front one day, were moved back a short distance, the next, and held in reserve, but had to be ready, at any moment to fall in and sometimes when we heard heavy fireing, we had to fall in two or three times during the night. It seemed very curious fighting to me, and very different from what we had been used to. There was no general engagement but during the day, and sometimes during the night, quite a brisk fire was kept by sharpshooters on each side, Each party kept themselvs concealed as much as possible, the enemy behind their earthworks, and our side behind trees, and by laying flat on the ground, and the moment anyone showed themselvs there was two or three rifles pointed at them. I expected Gen. Sherman (who I believe had command on our side) intended to skirmish with them, and keep them buisy on this side of the river, while someone crossed the river, and made an attack on the rear, which of course would have cutt off their retreat, but for some probably good reason (that I know nothing about) nothing of the kind was attempted, as far as I can hear. The skirmish was kept up untill about daylight on the morning of the 17th when a white flag was run up, by some citazens on one of the rebel works and we soon found that the whole rebel force had skedaddled during the night, and we went in and occupied the place. Our Brigade5 was the first toops inside the town, and the 51st was the second Regt.6 We found the place very much damaged by our Artillery, and nearly deserted by the inhabitants, what few citazens we found had dug holes or burrows in the ground and there they had staid while the fighting was going on. The loss on our side, has been very light indeed and our regt. only had one man wounded, we took three or four hundred prisoners, and quite a large number of rifles and considerable ammunition fell into our hands. (Soon after we entered the town the western troops began to come in, and they ransacked and plundered the town completely. The western armies burn and destroy every thing they come across and the same number of men, marching through the country, will do three times the damage of the army of the Potomac. Sometimes on the march, I have known them to break and destroy, the most costly furniture such as Pianos and Sofas, and I have seen the roads strewn with the most splendid bound books, that would be taken from the libraries, carried a little distance and thrown away.)7 The planters had generaly left their houses, (when they found the yanks were comeing,) leaving darkies in charge, and the troops would often burn the houses, and the darkies would run away, and follow the sogers. We traveled through thousands of acres of corn, and sometimes 4 or 5,000 men with two or three hundred horses and mules would bivouac in a corn field. When we left here we only took the clothes we had on leaving our trunks here in camp, and two or three times I have went to a pond and took off my clothes and washed them myself, and two or three times I have been completely soaked with the rain, and laid down at night on the ground, (after drinking a cup of coffe and eating a cracker) and slept soundly all night, and got up at 4 O clock next morning feeling first rate, and I am now as well as ever I was in my life. We dont know how long we will stay here, or which way we will move next, but the general impression is, that we will start back for Kentucky in the course of a few days, so I think very likely the next letter you have from me will be from Kentuck. [You sent] me a letter that you had received from Hannah. Poor Hann, O how I should like to see her, I was very glad to hear from her, but very, very, sory to hear that she was recovering from her sickness so slowly. I was expecting to hear that she, was about comeing home I feel certain if she was only well enough to come home, that she would soon be well. Mother, you must urge her to come on just as soon as she is well enough to stand the journey.
I have seen a New York Herald, as late as July 9th it seems, that the Army of the Potomac, has at last done something pretty nice, the paper speaks as though the capture of Lee's Army was certain, but we have had him in a tight spot so often before that I cant help thinking that he will manage some way to get off. Walt seems to be getting along very well there in Washington. Andrew he says did not go to Newbern.8 I am glad to hear that he is getting better of his throat disease. I hope Mother, when we get back to Kentucky that I shall hear from you again often. Mattie and the baby, Walt says are getting along finely. Mother I hope you are well, you must take things easy this hot weather Tell Jeff to write to me often and let me know how things are getting along at home and Mother, you must write yourself as often as you can get a chance.
I see by Walts letter that you have received the 200 dollars that I sent you at last pay.
Good bye Dear Mother
Kind regards to all,
Geo. W. Whitman
1. The final destination of Burnside's Ninth Corps was supposed to have been East Tennessee, where it would have assisted General Rosecrans in his move against Chattanooga. On June 2, 1863, however, Burnside received a dispatch from Washington requesting him to support General Grant in his siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Leaving Burnside behind with his own Department of Ohio, the Ninth Corps, under the command of General John Parke, departed from Stanford (with the Fifty-First New York Regiment) on June 4, 1863 and arrived in the area of Vicksburg about June 15, 1863—in time to support the Union forces there. Shortly after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Ninth Corps was assigned to the Expeditionary Army of General Sherman. During the next eleven days, this force—in what Walt Whitman would later describe as a "tough little campaign" ("Fifty-First New York City Veterans," The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, edited by Emory Holloway, [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1921] 2:39)—pushed the Johnston army, then encamped near the Big Black River, back through Jackson, Mississippi, which the Union force occuped on July 17, 1863 (see Civil War Diary). [back]
2. Jessie Louisa Whitman, the second daughter of Jeff and Martha Whitman, was born June 17, 1863. [back]
3. General Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891), Confederate commander of the Department of the West, was operating near Jackson, Mississippi. [back]
4. General John C. Pemberton (1814–1881), commander of the Departments of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana—which embraced the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Union forces occupied Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, on May 14, 1863, shortly after the Confederate forces had fled. On May 16 and 17, 1863, Grant defeated the Forces of Pemberton in the battles of Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge. Hence, Johnston, near Jackson, and Pemberton, defending Vicksburg, were divided; and Johnston could not aid the Confederates at Vicksburg during Grant's siege. [back]
5. The Second Brigade. [back]
6. The Thirty-Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers was the first to enter Jackson. [back]
7. Parentheses added by another hand, possibly Walt Whitman's. [back]