Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 18 June 1864
Date: June 18, 1864
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), 120–122. 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.00356
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, Luke Hollis, Kathryn Kruger, Gillian Price, and April Lambert
About Two miles from
I got a letter from Walt yesterday (dated June 11th) enclosing one from you of June 8th and you dont know how glad I was to hear that you are all well. It has been some time Mother, since I have had a chance to write to you, and I have felt quite bad for fear that you would frett and worry about not hearing from me, and I have often thought, I would give almost anything to let you know that I was all right. The last time I wrote you, I believe we were somewhere near Coal Harbor2 (although I dont think I knew the name of the place when I wrote) and since then we have been kept pretty buissy building rifle pitts, cutting roads and throwing up earthworks &c (I believe I told you in my last letter that our Regt had been detached from the Brigade and was doing duty as an Engineer Regt)3 we like the change first rate as we are not expected to take much part in the fighting, but as our folks drive the enemy, or take a new position we go to work and fortify it.
The most of our work has to be done at night, and we often surprise the enemy in the morning, with works that we have made during the night within 4 or 500 yards of their line of battle. About half of our Regt. are detailed as Head Quarter Guard for Genl Burnside4 and are on duty at the Generals quarters, so you see Mother we are having pretty good times, and I rather think the old 51st have struck a streak of luck at last. Sometimes we are rather short of grub, and sometimes pretty well played out with hard work, but as long as we are gaining ground, I dont grumble at hard work or short rations.
We had quite a lively little time a few days before we left Coal Harbor. Capt Sims and myself (I have been acting Major for the last Month)5 took the Regt out on the skirmish line one afternoon to build rifle pitts, and as we were in plain sight of the rebel skirmishers we were considerably puzzled how to work without exposing our men to much, for as soon as the men began to dig the rebs commenced to blaze away at them, and we were likely to loose quite a number of men, so I proposed a new plan I got a lot of empty cracker boxes and stationed the men about 10 ft apart, gave each man a box, and made him crawl out on the line lay down behind the box fill it with earth, and then I took each one annother box so that in a very few minutes the men had first rate protection and could work without much danger, and everything was going on finely when just as I had sett down to take a cup of Coffe, I heard the rebs give a yell as they charged down our front. Our boys dropped their spades and seized their rifles that were stacked near at hand and in a few minutes we cleared our front entirely of the enemy, but a regt. that was working on our right gave way and allowed the rebs to come round our right flank, and as I saw there was no way for us to prevent the enemy getting around in the rear of us and takeing us all prisoners I gave the order to fall back to the next line of breastworks where our troops lay in line of battle, I did not much like the idea of being drove off and before I left the rebs were some 100 feet in the rear of our line, but I knew a way down through a ravine, that I could get out all right. We lost one man killed 4 or 5 wounded and some 6 or 7 taken prisoners, and I hear the Regt. gets considerable credit at Head Quarters for the way it behaved.
We arrived here day before yesterday and found the fight going on and it has been kept up ever since (sometimes very sharp and then again it dies away) ever since we arrived here. So far the fighting along the front of our Corps has been altogather in our favor and we have been steadily driving the rebs ever since we came here, and now as I write there is a very savage fight going on in our front, and I think by the fireing that our boys are pushing the enemy back and unless the rebs can make a firmer stand than they have made here yet it will not be long before the long covetted City of Petersburg will be in our possession I notice by the papers that our Corps is very little spoken of, but for all that they have done some splendid fighting, although we seem to be, rather outsiders here in the Army of the Potomac,6 and Genl Burnside is one of these kind of men that does the work they give him to doo and finds no fault and I am sure I dont object to the noble Potomac Army's getting their full share of praise.
Our Corps met with quite a serious loss yesterday in the death of the Cheif Engineer of our Corps Major Morton.7 Our Division (the 2nd) had just carried a very formidable line of rebel works and Major Morton had just gone up on the line to lay out some work for our Regt. to do as soon it got dark, when he was hitt in the side with a rifle ball and died almost instantly.
He was a good friend to our Regt and is very much regrettted by the whole Corps. Last night I took the Regt up on the line and worked all night. We were in a large open plain, our Batteries were just behind us and the rebel Batteries were just in front of us, and Three or four times during the night the Batteries opened on each other and kept up a pretty sharp fire for 10 or 15 minutes and then they would quiet down again. It was splendid where we was, both parties fired over our heads, but so high that we were in no danger, and we could watch the shells bursting in front and rear of us, and down to the right and left, we could plainly see both lines of skirmishers blazing away at each other, and could eaisily tell by the direction of the flame as it left the rifles which was our line and which the rebs.
Well Mother I hope you wont keep yourself in a frett this hot weather but just keep as cool as possible. I am very anxious to see you all, but if I cannot see you the next best thing is to hear from you often and whenever you hear from Hannah, dont fail to send me the letter. Good bye Mother for the present Much love to all
G. W. Whitman
1. Going through the Battles of the North Anna (May 23–26, 1864) and the Battle of Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864)—where, according to Walt Whitman, the Fifty-First New York Regiment "came near being flanked and taken, but got off by bold movements and fighting, with the loss of sixteen men" (Emory Holloway, "Fifty-First New York City Veterans," Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1921], 2:39)—Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside's army, along with the forces of Maj. Gen.'s William Farrar Smith, Governeur Kimble Warren, and Winfield Scott Hancock, assaulted the Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia from June 15, 1864 to June 18, 1864. [back]
2. 'Coal Harbor' was actually Cold Harbor in Hanover County, Virginia. [back]
3. The Fifty-First New York Regiment had been assigned as Acting Engineers for the Second Division of the Ninth Army. [back]
5. See the letter from George Washington Whitman to Walt Whitman of January 13, 1863 for Capt. Samuel H. Sims; George Whitman was not officially promoted to the rank of major until May 18, 1865. [back]
6. At the outset of Ulysses S. Grant's expedition into Virginia, Burnside reported directly to Grant, instead of to Gen. George Gordon Meade, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac, because Burnside was senior in rank to Meade; therefore, the Ninth Army Corps was a separate unit during part of the Petersburg campaign. After Burnside's poor performance in the Battle of the Crater, however, the Ninth Army became an official part of Meade's army because Burnside was relieved of command and suceeded by General John Parke, who was junior in rank to Meade. For more on Burnside and the Battle of the Crater, see the letter from George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman of August 9, 1864. [back]
7. This was Maj. James St. Clair Morton. [back]