This remarkable letter was written by John (“Jake”) Slater who worked at the Washington D. C. Navy Yard in 1863 but was offered an opportunity to go to Tennessee, all expenses paid courtesy of Uncle Sam, to work on some undisclosed construction project. Upon arrival in Lookout Valley, John found himself an eyewitness to the Battle of Lookout Mountain on 24 November 1863, which he describes in this letter.
The job that Slater discovered he had volunteered for was to build a bridge over the Tennessee River at Chattanooga. The bridge was built near the foot of Market Street under the direction of Union Army Quartermaster, General Montgomery C. Meigs and took almost six months to build. It opened in the late spring or early summer of 1864. It was a wooden bridge containing eleven spans that included a draw bridge. The bridge did not last long, however. It washed away in a flash flood in March 1867.
I’m not certain of the identity of the recipient of this letter but think it could be Rev. William Thomas Dumm (1817-1886) who was resided in the Washington D. C. area throughout the Civil War until early in 1864 when the Methodist Church appointed him to Philadelphia and he married (March 1864) Anna Bates, the daughter of John Bates of Philadelphia.
January 24th 1864
Dear Bro. Dumm,
I suppose when you get this out of the Post Office you will look as well as feel surprised at getting a letter from here, and will be still more so to see that it is from me.
I have felt ever since I have been out here as though I would like to write to you but not knowing your address I thought it likely a letter would not find your address simply to Philadelphia. But having written to the most of my friends and got but few answers, I concluded that I would “cast my bread upon the waters” hoping to get a return before many days. I quit the police the 6th of October and went to work in the Navy Yard where I remained until I got a chance to come out here at three dollars a day; government to pay all expenses here and home, my time going on all the time.
We are building a bridge across the Tennessee [River] at this point. When we left home, we did not know what the work was to be nor how long it would last, but supposed it to be a hurried job that the movement of this army depended on, but find now that it will be a six month job. We left Washington on the morning of Thursday the 13th of November and got to Cincinnati the next evening by way of Harrisburg, Pittsburg, and Columbus. We staid at Cincinnati until Sunday and started down the Ohio on a very slow boat and got to Louisville Monday evening [16 November 1863]. You can hardly imagine how much I enjoyed the trip down the Ohio [River].
We got to Nashville Tuesday evening and staid two nights and a day there. On Thursday, we came to Bridgeport, Alabama, where we remained until Sunday [22 November 1863]. Again we came by steamer to Kelly Ferry about eight miles from here. Monday evening we started and crossed Sand Mountain into Lookout Valley where we stopped, out of provisions, and had to sleep in the woods in the rain.
The next day [24 November 1863] we went along the base of Lookout Mountain about an hour before the battle, not over a mile from, and in full view of the two armies drawn up in battle array. We were obliged, owing to the pontoon [bridge at Brown’s Ferry] being damaged, to stay all that day and night in the valley so I got on a high hill and witnessed the fight. I tell you, Bro. Dumm, it was a glorious sight to see our men and our flag go up that hill and the rebs fly. I was near enough to see everything but could not see men fall or hear the cries of the mournful, but could hear their shouts of triumph. ¹ I was carried away — almost beside myself — and forgot every hardship.
That night we had to sleep in the woods again. About two A.M., I was waked up by the cold and the sight then was grand. The moon was full and just going into an eclipse which proved to be total. ² The air was very pure and our men had camp fires nearly all over Lookout Mountain which — being very high — caused them to twinkle like stars. I would not have missed that night notwithstanding its discomforts for a great deal.
After my arrival here the whole trip seemed to me like a pleasant dream. I had no care, was getting my $3 a day, and all expenses paid, and everything was new to me. What if I did go to bed in the woods hungry sometimes. And I also have great cause for thankfulness to my Heavenly Father for His care over me through a trip of nearly twelve hundred miles. On some of the [rail]roads we came over, accidents happen and lives are lost everyday, but we came through safe.
Give my best respects to Mrs. Bartleson. Kiss Anna, Mary & W. W. for me. Tell Anna, Mary, Uncle Jake is here and the woods are full of rabbits. I think if she would ask him, he would get her that muff he promised. My address is John S. Slater, Care of Meigs, Box 48, Chattanooga. Excuse mistakes and if you can spare the time, give me a letter as soon as you can.
Pray for me. Your brother in Christ, — John
¹ The casualties for the Battle of Lookout Mountain were relatively light by the standards of the Civil War: 408 Union, 1,251 Confederate (including 1,064 captured or missing). Sylvanus Cadwallader, a war reporter accompanying Grant’s army, wrote that it was more like a “magnificent skirmish,” than a major battle.
² Postwar writings of both Union and Confederate veterans refer to a brilliant moon, which slipped into the blackness of a total lunar eclipse, screening the Confederate withdrawal.