December 11, 2011

Compelling and Worth Retelling: Letters from the 45th PA and Other Regiments

Location: Hilton Head Island, SC, USA
Scene on Otter Island, South Carolina, where Companies B and K, 45th Pennsylvania, were stationed beginning in December 1861. (New York Illustrated News, May 17, 1862)

In my reading of Lancaster County newspapers from 150 years ago, I recently decided to take a glance at two digitized weekly newspapers, the Columbia Spy and the Mariettian, and have been absolutely amazed at the soldiers' letters they contain!  In late 1861 and early 1862, they seem to average about five per month (a little over one per edition) and cover a variety of units:
  1. Co. K, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves
  2. Battery G, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery
  3. Co. E, 107th Pennsylvania Infantry
  4. Co. I, 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry ("Birney Zouaves")
But, most of all, they cover the wartime experiences of Companies B and K, 45th Pennsylvania Infantry, which were recruited in Marietta and Columbia, respectively, which were probably Lancaster County's two "bloodiest" companies in terms of casualties, and the regiment ranks in the Top 20 for men killed in battle for all Union regiments.  They also had the most unique travelogue of Lancaster companies, which included
  • Spending several months on Hilton Head, South Carolina, where they were on the front line of the Union's emancipation policy and regularly interacted with runaway slaves (Wikipedia page about operations there)
  • Fighting at South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862
  • Being transferred to fight at Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Fighting in East Tennessee on their way back east
  • Going through miserable fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor
  • Participating in the Siege of Petersburg and operations through the end of the war
Sgt. (later Capt.) John F. Trout
Company B, 45th Pa.
(From recent Ebay auction)

I've barely begun reading these letters, but their content is usually fascinating both from a human interest standpoint and from the perspective of historical analysis.  Several different correspondents contributed, including Columbians George H. Stape ("45," I believe, in the Spy) and Lewis Martin (in the Mariettian).  The first letter from the 45th Pennsylvania in South Carolina, though, was written on December 13, 1861, by a soldier who signed his name "Hempfield."  (Based on circumstantial evidence, I'll nominate Sergt. John F. Trout of Landisville as a possible author.)  <Click here> for a link to the letter in the December 28, 1861, edition of the Columbia Spy, which is part of the Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Project.  Here's an excerpt:
Behold us then on the super-sacred soil of South Carolina, and nary bloody hand has welcomed us to ary hospitable grave thus far.  We were all upside down for a little while, but the Colonel [Thomas Welsh of Columbia] soon reduced us to order.  The boys generally went into bathing and oyster hunting, collecting curiosities, &c.  At night the contraband (who arrived simultaneously with the northern invaders) afforded amusement by their grotesque dances, &c.
Otter Island, on which we are stationed is some three miles in length by a width of two and a half miles.  It seems never to have been cultivated, but commands a very prominent point on St. Helena Sound.  Hutchinson Island, opposite, is highly cultivated, and grows cotton abundantly, but the crops have either been removed or burned.  
Col. Thomas Welsh
Unfortunately, I mostly won't be posting on these letters, as telling the story of the 79th Pennsylvania fully consumes my blogging time capacity, but I just wanted to point out their existence and online availability for anyone who might be interested.  I'm compiling a list of the letters for my own use as a go through the newspapers, and I might polish it at some point and publish it online.

I hope that the resurrection of some of these stories as for entertainment, inspiration, and analysis becomes a hallmark of the Civil War sesquicentennial, as we begin to care not just what was going through the mind of Generals Grant and Lee but also, for instance, what was going through the mind of some corporal from Columbia who found himself building quarters on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for some of the first slaves liberated by Union armies. 

Other References:
  • Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers Project (includes Lancaster Intelligencer, Columbia Spy, and the Weekly Mariettian), which you can search and browse by paper.
  • Bates' regimental history and roster of the 45th Pennsylvania
  •  Albert, Allen D. (Editor) History of the Forty-Fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 1912.
  •  Biography of Col. Thomas Welsh (later Brig. Gen)
  • Don’t forget it the Civil War military correspondence of Private John W. Bookman, 45th regiment, Pennsylvania volunteer infantry (at Lancaster County Historical Society)
  • First Sergeant John Hipple, Co. B 45th Pennsylvania / by Donald L. Rhoads, Jr. (LCHS Journal, 2000)
  • Also providing commentary from South Carolina was Franklin and Marshall College Class of 1861 Valedictorian Adam Cyrus Reinoehl, who wrote back to the Daily Evening Express throughout the war under the name, "Demas." 


  1. Very interesting article, and I couldn't agree more with your conclusion. Insights into the mind and experiences of the common soldier really contribute as much to our understanding of the war as the words of famous (and infamous) people. Since you informed me about the on-line newspaper project, I've been reading many letters from the Pa. Reserves. They truly provide a glimpse into the lives of everyday Pennsylvania soldiers who spent the winter of 61-62 in Northern Virginia. I've been sharing some of them over on my blog. Thanks again for letting me, and others, know about this resource.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ron. I know others have noted how these "public" letters written to newspapers tend to have denser content than private letters, and I agree. Plus, I'm guessing these newspaper letters played a huge role in the home front-war front relationship and were eagerly consumed at home, and it must have been a unique pressure on the correspondents to write on behalf of a 100 or 1000 men from your hometown.

    By the way, for the Columbia Spy, there are Camp Pierpont letters on 12/14,12/21,12/28,1/4 which I think came out of Company K, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves. Also check the Weekly Mariettian for letters from Battery G, 1st PA Light Artillery, appearing on 1/11 and 1/25.

    There's some good Pennsylvania Reserves material appearing in the Lancaster Daily Evening Express (the source for most of the stuff I post on this site), but that's unfortunately not digitized.

  3. I have been reposting ALL of these newspaper report and the link/letter contained EACH week via Facebook! Please take a look! This is part of my research of the Forty-Fifth Regiment Company K and our Reenactors Assoc..

    best regards
    1st Sgt. Bleacher
    45th P.V. Company K

    1. Excellent! I'm glad to see others are noticing and enjoying the letters. I'll look you up on Facebook.

  4. Greetings,
    I have acquired from the "Special Collections" area of G-Burg College, copies of correspondence and daily reports/orders of Col. Welsh while leading Co. F 2nd Militia in April-Oct. 1861. I also post WEEKLY all news pertaining the 45th and Columbia via the 'Columbia Spy', if interested it can be found here & here: & our reg. website (needs updating)
    Thank you for your interest in the 45th and her Companies.
    best regards,
    45th PVI Co'y K Reenactors Assoc.
    1st.Sgt. Bleacher/VP

  5. Very interesting, I am working on publishing the diary of Pvt John Meyers, Hospital Steward 45th PA, Co B.

  6. Hi Michelle: Your project sounds very exciting! Please contact me at if you want me to connect you with someone who has twenty or so photographs of soldiers from Companies B & K, 45th PA, or if I can publish an excerpt to promote it on my blog. Good luck!

  7. Dos Anyone have any pics of Private John Bookman mentioned above?

  8. Would anyone have any pictures or writings from Oswald McLaughlin from the 45th regiment, Company K who fought in Cold Harbor, Vs
    I can be reached at

    Thank you
    Kevin McLaughlin
    2nd Great Grandson