This letter was written by 20 year-old Luther Emerson Stewart (1842-1914), the son of James B. Stewart (b. 1809) and Emmeline A. Whitcomb (b. 1813) of Clinton, Worchester County, Massachusetts. Luther was a private in Company G, 21st Massachusetts Infantry.
After garrison duty at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the regiment served with the Coast Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. The Coast Division was deployed in January 1862 for operations on the coast of North Carolina, and participated in the Battle of Roanoke Island and the Battle of New Bern among other engagements. Burnside’s division was recalled to Virginia in July 1862. The 21st Massachusetts was then attached to the Army of the Potomac and participated in several of the largest battles of the Civil War, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. The most devastating engagement of the war for the 21st was the Battle of Chantilly, fought on September 1, 1862, during which the unit suffered 35 percent casualties. From March 1863 to January 1864, the 21st served with Burnside in the Department of the Ohio, seeing action in Kentucky and eastern Tennessee. In May 1864, the regiment rejoined the Army of the Potomac, participating in Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. The regiment was a favorite of Clara Barton, the famed battlefield nurse, who was also from Worcester County, Massachusetts.
By the end of its three years of service, the 21st Massachusetts had been reduced from 1,000 men to fewer than 100. Of these losses, 152 were killed in action or died from wounds received in action, approximately 400 were discharged due to wounds, 69 were taken prisoner, and approximately 300 were discharged due to disease, resignation, or desertion. Those of the 21st who chose to re-enlist at the end of their initial three-year commitment were eventually consolidated with the 36th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on October 21, 1864.
Luther’s letter was written on 20 January 1863, the same day that Gen. Burnside launched his ill-fated “Mud March.” During the night of the 20th, the rain began, and by the morning of the 21st, the earth was soaked and the banks of the Rappahannock River had the appearance of a quagmire. Already, fifteen pontoons were on the river, nearly spanning it, and five more were amply sufficient. Burnside began at once to bring up his artillery, which had the effect of making a perfect mortar bed. For a considerable area around the ford all day the men worked in the rain but to little purpose. Quite a number of cannon were advanced near the ford, but the 22nd only added to the storm, and the artillery, caissons and even wagons were swamped in the mud.
Camp near Fredericksburg, [Virginia]
January 20th 1863
With pleasure I sit down to answer your letter. I am well but hope this will find you so. I should indeed like to have been with you Christmas. Hope I shall be next [year] though before that time I shall probably see many stirring events.
We are now under marching orders and the pontoon bridges have gone to the river as also have some of the troops so probably we shall have a battle before this reaches you. As I believe in the justice of our cause, I can say God grant it may be a victory and be sure whatever be the result it will not be for the want of courage in our men. I hope and think I shall come out of this fight safe but still I know that many will fall and if it is my lot, know that it will be while doing my duty. It has always been the lot of the 21st to participate in the battles when near them and I do not think this will be an exception, but place them in what position the Gen. sees fit, he will find them not wanting in courage though these but few.
Our 1st Lieutenant was promoted last week as Captain of the company. His name is [Asahel] Wheeler and is a first rate officer and the best looking one in the regiment. You was rather hard on me for not writing before but I was in the Convalescent Camp and hardly had a chance to write. It was such a miserable place, I did not write but once to mother. We have not had a very hard winter so far out here but it is pretty cool now and I dread leaving camp for then we shall have no shelter from the chilly winds of January. However, we must make the best.
I have had a letter from Aunt Mary. She writes that mother is to get her share of the back pay, bounty, and so on that fall to Emily. ² I am glad if it is so. Give my love to her. Ask Silas if he has got his pay.
From your brother with love, — Luther
¹ Asahel Wheeler enlisted in Company G of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry as a sergeant and steadily rose through the ranks until his promotion to Captain on 14 January 1863. He resigned his commission in the 21st Massachusetts to accept another as Captain in the 61st Massachusetts Infantry in September 1864. He was mustered out of the service in June 1865.
² This was Emily M. Rogers whom I believe was Luther’s niece. Emily was born on 25 February 1853. Her father was Abraham Foster Rogers (1825-1862). Her mother’s name was Eliza and she died on 17 January 1860. I believe she may have been Luther’s older sister. Abraham was a member of Co. A, 30th Massachusetts Infantry and he died of battle wounds in a Baton Rouge hospital in 4 August 1862 leaving Emily and her younger brother Charles W. Rogers (b. 12 April 1858) as orphans. Emily was taken in and raised by Luther’s mother which entitled her to receive the widow & orphan’s pension for Abraham’s service.