In October 1861, William D. Rees (1832-1862), a young 5′ 7″ Welshman from the iron belt of western Pennsylvania (Brady’s Bend), married his fiancée Mary Williams (1840-1918) and went off to enlist in the Civil War. Within a month, he was serving in the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, writing back to his 22-year-old wife about life in camp and preparing for war. In December, he reported that there had been a debate in camp: “there is three of us on a side, the subject is whether the indian or the negro has the most right to complain of the white man!” Mostly, he struggled with uncertainty, boredom, impatience, and affection for his absent wife.
Rees’ letters to Mary cover less than a year of Civil War service, but they reflect the experience of tens of thousands of soldiers who met their fate not at the end of a bayonet, but in the sick room. Well written and informative, the letters paint a picture of Rees’ entire deployment, from mustering in through the hardships of the Peninsular Campaign and finally his death in a Philadelphia hospital.
After spending the winter in Kittaning, PA, the 103rd moved to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg — where Rees was delighted to find other Welchmen in the army, along with some hard cases too — and from there they were sent into the defenses of Washington to prepare for McClellan’s drive on to Richmond. In Washington, Rees soon learned that things would not always be as they appeared. Although the place seemed secure, he reported: “there is some here that has been poisoned by buying cakes and pies from the old Women that is thick around the Camp…”
Rees’ letters from the Peninsular Campaign give a good sense of what it was like for the average soldier in the midst of tens of thousands of others under duress. He maintained his sense of humor, informing his wife that although she had said that if he went to war again she wanted to come along, “I don’t think you will be bothered for I think that if I can clear from this war I shall not want to go again…” His living conditions were typically rough. On April 11, he wrote: “We lie in little huts made of brush with our gum blankets on top. There is three and four in each tent…”
By May, however, Rees was already showing signs of being ill. I have a very bad cold, he wrote on May 12, such a cough that I can hardly write… A developing drama at home between his wife and mother caused him nearly as much distress: “Mother is sorry before this for she is that nature. I would not wonder if you were tired of married life before this but I hope that you will not despair for I am same as I was before notwithstanding what anything that anybody says…” And then of course, there was the war. Rees reported on the Battle at Williamsburg: “We are chasing the rebels for the last ten days. They stood us one battle at Williamsburg they had a strong fort at that place. They fought like tigers. There was 2,500 of our Men killed [and wou]nded… the night came on and the battle stopt the rebel run from the fort morning. We are on our way to Richmond. It is about 45 mile from there… I could hear the bullets whistling and hear our men cheering as they charged on the fort…”
On May 16, Rees seemed optimistic: “We are about 25 mile from Richmond, he wrote, and McClellan says he will finish in 20 days. We have taken a rebel Colonel and Major prisoner here. There is some talk that we will have to go a Provost guard because our brigade has no officers fit for duty. Our general is sick and Col and lieutenant Col and Major are the same. We have no officers.” From there, his fortunes followed the fortunes of his commanding officers. In the last letter in the collection, written July 30 from near the James River, Rees reports that he has been very sick, signing off ominously: “Well my hand begins to Shake and the old pen will not write. I am afraid you cannot read such scribbling as this…” Rees died of Typhoid Fever [another report says chronic diarrhea] in a hospital at the corner of 8th and Pine in Philadelphia, 25 August 1862.
This letter is from the collection documenting the entire Civil War career of a Welsh soldier with a tragic history, widowing his young wife only ten months after they married.
Addressed to Mrs. Mary Rees, Adams P.O., Armstrong County, Pennsylvania
April the 10th 1862
I take my pencil in hand to let you know that I am well and hope these few lines will find you the same. I received your welcome letter ten minutes ago and was very glad to hear from you. I was thinking that [you] had forgotten me because I have been so long absent. You will begin to look for another man. I hope you will be more lucky the next time you have the advantage of me for there is scarcely no woman about here — only negroes and I don’t altogether fancy them.
I do not think you are more wishful to see me that I am to see you but I think that I shall be at home soon for the rebels are surrounded here and this is one of the strongest places in Virginia. There is about two hundred thousand men before us from here to Yorktown. General McClellan is not far from here. He sent a flag of truce to the rebels to give up but they sent back to tell him that they would not give as long as there was a man alive. They are sure of being beaten for they allow it. The talk here now is that our men will attack Richmond and Yorktown at the same time. I think after that, we shall know what the rebels will do.
Our men has taken Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River and took several thousand prisoners and now I do not want you to fret about me but make yourself contented as you can for we are in no danger.
Thomas Davis is not at Fortress Monroe. He has gone forward. I did not see him but I seen a man from his company. He told me that he was well. You will have to excuse me for not sending all the money to you. You must not think that [I] could not trust you with all the money but I thought that father had use for it at present and I do not want you to keep your money but use it for your own purpose for anything that you want for anything.
John is well. He thinks that is pretty hard times. I wrote a letter to you day before yesterday and father. I sent a paper to you too. I have sent a couple of papers lately but I have not heard whether you got them or not. I sent a map too.
And take care of yourself. I am sorry that Sarah is sick but I hope that she will get better. I have sent a letter to Mr. Byers and Harry Henly yesterday.
It is getting late and I must bring my letter to a close for it is very cold. It rained two days without stopping.
There was one of our company found dead night before last in his tent. There was two men sleeping with him but they did not know that he was dead till the morning. His name was Alfred Campbell. He was nineteen years of age. He was buried under a tree by the camp. The company fired three rounds over his grave. ¹
We’ve been learning to shoot all day. No more at present. Write soon. Give my best respects to all your family and to my parents and sister and my truest love to you. So good night for the present. it is after tattoo and time to go to bed. John [C.] Jones sends his best regards to you all. He is like a father to me.
Direct your letters as follows: William Rees, Fortress Monroe, Virginia, via Washington, Co. B, 103d Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Col. T. [Theodore] F. Lehmann
¹ Regimental records simply state that Private Alfred Campbell died 8 April 1862 at Camp Casey, Virginia, and that he was buried in Hampton National Cemetery, Virginia.