Monday, February 20, 2012

Shades of Blue and Gray, Part IV

by Pamela Chase Hain and Robert C. Plumb

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts about the Civil War experience from the perspective of two soldiers, George McClelland from the Union and Thomas Wragg from the Confederacy. Click here to read Part I and Part II and Part III.

What role did letter writing and other forms of communications play during the war to keep families and friends informed?

Blue - George McClelland
Certainly the central method of communicating for George McClelland during his service in the Army of the Potomac was letter writing – letters to and from his family.  Based on his letters, it seems that George was never satisfied with the volume of mail that he received.  “I now write again to you hoping and praying that this will provoke a reply.  It is almost three weeks since I left home and nothing from my friends – everybody else is getting letters and papers and I get – nothing.  It is discouraging, very.”  Battlefield near Sharpsburg, September 20, 1862.

George was not alone in his hunger for communications from home. “We are aroused from our lethargy by the cry: ‘The mail has come.’ We crowd around expectant, waiting for the names to be called.  Some got half a dozen, others more.” Camp near Sharpsburg, September 30, 1862.

Letters weren’t the only form of communications that George relied on for information.  Newspapers – sent by his sisters – were another important medium for him.  “About papers – I have never got any from you [Lizzie].  I think a good many papers are ‘cabbaged’ on their way at the different headquarters from Corps to Regimental.” Falmouth, Virginia, March 19, 1863.

He may have been the exception among his fellow enlisted ranks, but George was a voracious reader of books and magazines in addition to newspapers.  In an April 12, 1864 letter he mentions reading the Atlantic Monthly magazine as well as books. (e.g. The Bible, Hawthorne’s Marble Fawn, and Soundings from the Atlantic by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior.)

In addition to inbound communications, McClelland’s regiment had an “embedded journalist” in George P. Fulton.  Fulton, a quartermaster clerk, sent periodic field reports on the 155th Regiment to the Pittsburgh Chronicle.

Gray - Thomas Wragg
Prior to the Battle of Bull Run in June and July 1861, Thomas Wragg was regularly exchanging letters with his family and expected them to answer promptly. He wrote to his father, his brother, Mac, his sisters, Jesse and Caro, and his brother-in-law.. By July, however, he told his father to send him money in silver to pay for postage, and to send the money to H. M. Brant President Bank of the Valley, Winchester, Virginia or to Col. Bartow since "Johnson Younger and Otey" kept the letters addressed to him for weeks before sending them on, and had lost mail containing money. [July, 1861] In addition to the difficulty of getting stamps, was the scarcity of materials--paper and pens.
Wragg obtained news from home mainly from his father. Concerning the war effort, much of what he heard was rumor, spread by the troops and rarely newspapers. During his Civil War Military service, Wragg never spoke of reading for pleasure or for news of the war.

After Wragg joined the Confederate Navy with the Savannah Squadron and was captured by the Union Weehawken in Savannah Harbor and sent to Fort Warren Prison in Boston Harbor, his letters to and from home became even more a necessity. He wrote his father that it was his only pleasure to receive letters from home [November 17, 1863]. On another occasion he wrote his father that he had not received any letters from anyone in two months [January 21, 1864]. This was the beginning of a slow decline in letters from home. It appears that the family was tiring of writing to him when they could not see him and his incarceration went on and on. He also apologized to his father that there was nothing to write about, and that his letters must be boring.  His girl friend from prior to the war ceased to write although he prodded his sister to persuade her to write him. He told his father he had written to her three times and she had not answered [February 5, 1864] He then complained that his sister Jesse had not written to him in a long time [March 4, 1864]. One person he regularly wrote to, was Capt. A. F. Butler, imprisoned at Fort Johnson. Both men had plenty of time on their hands to do so, and the authorities had no objections to it.

What changes in morale did the Union and Confederate soldiers/sailors experience during the war?

Blue - George McClelland
In commenting about those who served in the Civil War, historian James McPherson has written:  “Victory in battle pumped up their internal morale and gave them a more positive attitude toward the next battle; defeat lowered morale and caused many soldiers to wonder whether it was worthwhile to continue risking their lives.”

For the Army of the Potomac, victories and defeats were a roller coaster ride from 1862 to the close of 1864.  George McClelland would not have used the word “morale” in describing his state of mind, but his reflections following the Battle of Fredericksburg convey a low point in his spirits: “The tide of war rolls from east to west, and the minds of the people are no sooner allayed, when they are again startled by another scene of blood.  When will the carnage cease?” Falmouth, Virginia, January 10, 1863.

Following the Union victory at Gettysburg, the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction for McClelland. “Our successes in every other part of Rebeldom give us heart, nerves us to finish this intestine strife.”  Near Warrenton, Virginia, July 31, 1863.

By spring 1864, the prospect of victory was once again in question for McClelland and this dampened his spirit. “The campaign has opened inauspiciously for us. The news of Bank’s defeat comes like lightning on the fiendish massacre at Fort Pillow.  And I am not very sanguine of the victory here in Virginia.” Warrenton Junction, Virginia, April 23, 1864.

By late summer 1864, McClelland spirit was buoyed by the addition of more men and Grant’s determined, focused assault against the Confederates. “In a very short time you may expect to hear stirring news from this Region.  The reinforcements are only now beginning to come … [T]he men are arriving 1,000 per day and before a month, we assume again the offensive; 100,000 men now would terminate the war in 60 days – Grant has said it.  I am full of confidence that my prophecy will prove correct.”  Near Weldon Rail Road, Virginia, September 4, 1864.

Through the close of 1864 and into the spring of 1865, McClelland maintained a high level of optimism that the Union cause would prevail and victory won. This perception positively affected his spirit.  The underpinning of this attitude was his first-hand observation of Confederate soldiers. “Four deserters came in on my line and they confirmed the status told by others that Lee’s army is in a desperate condition, almost open mutiny, mutterings – not loud, but deep and wide spread – of a hopeless cause … The final crush of the reeling Confederacy is at hand.” Hatcher’s Run, Virginia, March 15, 1865.

Clearly, morale was a dynamic quality that tracked closely with the successes experienced on the battlefield, as James McPherson has stated.  Further influencing George McClelland’s morale was his confidence – or lack thereof – in his commanding general.

Gray - Thomas Wragg
Thomas Wragg began the war in high spirits. His mood slowly declined when the Confederate Army failed to feed or clothe him on a regular basis. Early in the War the Confederate leadership were not prepared to handle the logistics of the War. Yet, after the first battle of Bull Run and the rout of the Federal Forces, spirits were extremely high, both among the troops and with the populous at home, as evidenced by Thomas Wragg's uncle in his letter on July 22 to Wragg's father. In spite of the grief over casualties, the exultant swagger of Dr. William Wragg over their victory in battle, demonstrates their determination to continue the fight. When Wragg was in the hospital in Richmond with dysentery in the spring of 1862, he was eager to re-join his unit [March 4, 1862]. However, he expressed pleasure that his father was going to try to get him a commission. Presumably he had come to the conclusion, that if he remained in the infantry, it would be better as an officer. Yet, when he eventually returned home to Savannah in the Fall of 1862, he visited Laurel Grove Cemetery and revealed a profound grief over the loss of his fellow soldiers who were killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, and an almost death wish. When he saw the grave of a little child he wrote: "Fare the well, little sleeper. I only envy your place."

If Wragg's morale was low when he left the infantry, it would sink even lower as a POW in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor. Although Fort Warren was a prison for officers, it was still austere and stressful. When the officers of the CSS Atlanta first arrived, they were treated kindly and had more freedom. Then in December 1863 a new commandant arrived and tightened the rules: no newspapers, alcohol, roaming the island were allowed. Their rations were strictly measured. In the day, "the prisoners were allowed to take exercise on the pavements in front of their quarters, but after dark they were locked in the casemates and guards were placed in front of their doors." They were given only one blanket for warmth at night, and this was in a fort with stone walls located in the middle of Boston Harbor. This, coupled with the sense that all his friends and family were deserting him and that he might never receive an exchange--resulted in a steep drop in his morale. 


B.B. said...

What was news at the Union home front during that time?

Robert C. Plumb said...

For Union soldier George McClelland, news from the "home front" included news about his family: his oldest sister's teaching profession; his youngest sister's move to Iowa and engagement to a Union officer; and the state of his father's carpentry business. Other home front news that George received regularly were reports from his home town newspaper in Pittsburgh on battle reports from the Eastern and Western theaters. His family also updated him on friends who had enlisted in other PA units besides the 155th.

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