These letters were written by George Bender (1837-1898), a private in the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B. He served from June 1861 to June 1864. He was the son of David Bender (1811-1894) and Mary Rhodes (1810-1868) of North Beaver, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. George’s siblings included Ephraim (b. 1835), Elizabeth (b. 1839), Jefferson (b. 1841), Jackson (b. 1845) and Dallas (b. 1847).
When George Bender enlisted on June 28, 1861 as a Private in Battery B, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, he had no idea how rough army life would be. He almost died of typhoid fever. Then he was severely wounded at Second Bull Run, nearly losing a leg. While recovering in hospital, he was accidentally poisoned by hospital staff and nearly died.
Despite being partially deafened from the poison and having a bad leg, he refused assignment to the Invalid Corps, and in June 1863 walked alone across Maryland and western Virginia to rejoin his regiment.
Bender arrived just in time for Gettysburg, where the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery saw heavy fighting at Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Hill, and repulsing Pickett’s Charge. He went on to serve in most of the major actions of the Army of the Potomac, until being discharged shortly after Cold Harbor at the end of his term of service.
He re-enlisted in February 1865 in the 2nd Veteran Volunteer Infantry, serving in the Shenandoah Valley for the rest of the war. He was discharged the second time in February 1866.
These letters are only two of forty-three letters written by Bender from an archive that recently sold on the internet, with the remaining seven from his cousins in the same company, addressed to Bender’s family. Notable entries include a letter from the hospital in Washington D.C. on April 26, 1863, where he relates the story that the hospital staff now consider him un-killable: There is a nurse, he says “Bender, they can’t kill you… they knock your leg most off and you come all right again, then you take enough poison to kill ten men and you come all right again. They can’t kill you.”
On August 10, 1863, he alludes to Gettysburg in his letter home: “I must tell you that we halve [sic] had some hard times since I got back to the Company and some very hard fighting to do and we done it well… On October 31, he recalls visiting the nearby battleground at Manassas and standing on the spot where he was wounded and the other three men of the crew were killed: I was on the very spot that I was wounded at Bull Run. The place looked very natural. There was three kild [sic] at the same place. They was buried at the same place they fell.”
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Addressed to Mr. Jackson Bender, Mahoningtown, Crosscut P. O., Lawrence County, Pa.
August 25th 1861
My dear brother,
I take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at present and I hope these few lines will find you all enjoying the same state of health. Now I must tell you where we are and what we are doing. We are about five miles northwest of Washington City. We are encamped right in the woods. It is a very pleasant place but it has been very wet here and it gets pretty damn muddy here but this Sunday and it is a very nice day. We are drilling here every day twice. We have only four guns and about fifty or sixty horses. I have got two little bay horses — one I call Bill and the other Dick.
I was out on the road the other day and what do you think I seen there. I seen Old Pete. I knew it was him as soon [as I saw] him for he just looks like he used to. He was in a four-horse wagon hauling hay to the army. He is used very well. The one half of our company is going to the Big Falls on the Potomac river tomorrow morning on guard. It is about fourteen miles from here.
We are expecting to have [to fight] every day but we don’t know when it will be but they will have some trouble to ride over us all for there is a good many of us when we are all together. We was out on drill the other day and there was about ten or fifteen thousand soldiers in the field and old Abe Lincoln ¹ was there and he went all around the field and we all had a good chance to see him and after he was around, we all gave him three cheers and it made a good deal of noise, I assure you.
There is about one hundred and ninety thousand soldiers handy around here so they say. I han’t seen them all yet but I have seen an awful sight of them. We have some big times here but we are kept mighty close here. We have to go on guard about every third night and drill every day and it goes pretty hard and not very good grub at that. No potatoes, no butter, no molasses, but what we buy by ourselves. We get fresh beef twice a week and salted pork the balance of the time. There are a corn field by hear and I know that the corn ain’t all in it now that was when we came here. I always did like roasting ears pretty darn well.
Now when you write to me, tell me how the colt is getting along and whether you got my fiddle or not. If you han’t got it yet, why I want you to get it and take good care of it. Keep the colt till I come back and ride it when it gets big enough and don’t spoil it. I hain’t got nothing more to say but give my respects to all of the folks. Tell Aunt Margaret I am well and I would write to you all but I han’t time to write hardly any.
I han’t got nothing more to write but you must excuse all mistakes and bad writing. I want you all to write soon and don’t forget. Nothing more at present, but remain your old brother, — George Bender
[to] Jackson Bender
Direct your letters to George Bender in care of Capt. J. H. Cooper, Company B, Lieut. Col. Campbell, 1st Pa. Reg. Artillery, Washington D. C.
¹ Historian William C. Davis wrote that General George B. McClellan invited President Lincoln to attend a three-day review of Union troops in August 1861: “The first review came on August 21, with eight regiments of infantry and several companies of cavalry and artillery, what a Pennsylvania soldier that evening described as ‘the finest sight I believe I ever seen.’ McClellan reviewed them first, riding along in front of and behind each line of the soldiers at attention. Then, to their surprise, they saw a carriage approach. As the vehicle passed the lines, Lincoln stood up and acknowledged their salute while the soldiers gave him three cheers. He joined McClellan as the men marched past in review, each taking the opportunity to have a quick look at the president.” One “private never forgot how he and his comrades felt at that moment, ‘each one feeling proud of his Chief.’” [Lincoln’s Men, by William C. Davis, pp. 53-54]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Addressed to Mr. Jackson Bender, Mahoningtown, Crosscut P. O., Lawrence County, Pa.
Great Falls [Montgomery County, Maryland]
October the 2, 1861
I take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at present and I hope these few lines may find you all enjoying the same state of health. We are at the same place that we was when I last wrote home and hain’t done much yet.
Yesterday morning the Rebels fired on us but did not kill any of us. We fired on them but we don’t know whether we killed any or not, but the cannon balls was flying pretty thick around our heads and cutting off the little trees all around. It looked pretty scaly for awhile. There is three or four houses down at the foot of the hill and it would make you laugh to see folks run up the hill — women and children. There was four or five balls went through the house. The women and children came running up where I was and I told them to stay here — that there was no danger. They did so and after the battle was over they went to their home again but things looked pretty scaly about the house. The balls had shattered pretty bad. We can’t tell when they will commence again for they are over the river in the wood and we can’t see them. Where we are is a poor place to fight. It is about as far across as it is from our house to that clear field over on Sheep Hill and that is a good piece. But the cannon balls go across there pretty quick and cut off pretty big trees. They don’t stop for trifles. ¹
I suppose you would like to know what we have to eat here. Well Jack, we hain’t got so much to eat here as you have at home. We have pork and beans, rice, coffee, some fresh beef, and dry bread, and sheet iron crackers — pretty hard living — but I feel well on it. we hain’t got no butter, no potatoes, no pound cakes, no chickens, no turkeys. Butter is 25 cts a pound. Potatoes is one $1.00 per bushel and scarce at that. But we get along the best way we can and don’t growl. And another thing is scarce here and that is the gals is mighty scarce here. But if they was plenty here it would not do us any good anyhow for we have other fish to fry. We could not do here as we did in Lawrence County — sit up with the gals all night and sleep all the next day — for here we have to keep both eyes open.
This is a very poor country. The wood is growed up very thick with little pine trees. They are as thick as the hair on a dog’s back. It is a very wooden country. This is in the State of Maryland, Montgomery County.
I guess I have told you all the particulars the that has been sick is getting better. Abe and Sam Mayne was sick but they are well again. I myself hain’t been sick since we started — only when I had the measles and that wasn’t much. They kind of made a feller feel bad but that is all. I must tell you that I hain’t see Ephraim yet but I hear from him pretty often. He was well the last time I heard from him. I would like to see him to see how he likes it. I don’t think he will like it very well for there is no fun in it but I will have to bring my letter to a close. You will have to excuse all mistakes and bad writing. If you are going to school now, I want you to give my love to all the scholars and the mistress. I send my love to you all. — George Bender
¹ Under the heading “Cannon Duel Across the Potomac,” the New York Daily Tribune issue of 1 October 1861 described this exchange between federal and rebel artillery across the potomac river near Great Falls, Maryland. It reads: “A duel with cannon was fought today across the Potomac at Great Falls. This morning the Rebels approached that point with eight regiments of infantry and six cannon. Reinforcements from Gen. McCall’s Brigade went up instantly, when the enemy divided and withdrew, half northward and half southward. What movement this feint covered was a subject of speculation, until the division which went down the river reappeared and getting their guns in to position commenced firing upon the Pennsylvanians on this side. Gen. McCall’s artillery replied and soon the Rebel infantry were hurrying into the woods to avoid his shot.”