This letter was written by Capt. George A. Beck (1832-1927), the son of Johann Adam Beck (1797-1847) and Margaret Jane Gould (1813-1893) who were early settlers of an area near the juncture of Pine Run and the Mahoning River (present day Eddyville) in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Family history reveals that George’s uncle, Daniel Beck was killed in an explosion at a powder mill. George’s father — who went by “Adam” — was wounded in the same explosion and he later died from his wounds in 1847. From this letter, we learn that after his father’s death, his mother married George Weaver (b. 1825). George wrote the letter to his sister, Christiana Catharine (Beck) McHenry (1846-1943) who married Benjamin Franklin McHenry (1836-1922) in May 1862 and resided in Indiana County, Pennsylvania.
Sometime prior to the 1850 Census, George Beck went to reside with James E. Brown (mentioned in this letter) of Kittanning, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. By 1860 he had relocated to Madison, Wisconsin and when the war began, he enlisted as a private in Company H (“Randall Guards”), 2d Wisconsin Infantry. Readers will remember that the 2nd Wisconsin, along with the 24th Michigan, the 19th Indiana, the 7th Wisconsin and the 6th Wisconsin came to be known as the Iron Brigade. But in the early days of the war, the 2nd Wisconsin was brigaded with the 13th, 69th, and 79th New York regiments and placed under the command of Col. William T. Sherman. While serving with the 2d Wisconsin, George was wounded and taken prisoner at the First Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861. In that battle, the 2d Wisconsin contributed to the confusion of that first engagement by wearing gray uniforms. In charging the Confederate position held at Henry Hill, the 2nd Wisconsin took fore from both the front and the rear as union troops mistook them for Confederates. It wasn’t until the fall of 1861 that the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry was issued their distinctive uniforms and tall black hats. [See: Union Soldiers in Gray Uniforms…]
An account by R. K. Bechem of George’s capture by the Confederates at First Bull Run was printed in the 24 August 1861 issue of the Weekly Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, WI):
“Dr. Lewis, first Surgeon of the Wisconsin Second, who was taken prisoner in the late battle of Bull Run, while nobly and unflinchingly doing his duty, in caring for the wounded and suffering regardless of his own safety, returned to our camp a few days since having been dismissed on ‘parole of honor.’ … He brought word of the safety of many of our missing men, some of whom was supposed dead. On the list of prisoners, now in the hands of the rebels, I saw the names of Sergt. C. D. Y. Holdridge, C. Trowbridge, musician, and privates E. R. Reed, E. L. Reed, and G. A. Beck all of Co. H, Randall Guards. The last missing man of our company is now accounted for, and strange to tell, though many of our men were wounded, not one was killed.
“…when I was returning from the battle of the 21st, I found one of my tent-mates, George A. Beck, who had been wounded in the leg, and having thrown away his gun, was hobbling along, supporting himself by a stick in each hand. He told me that he would rather be shot than taken prisoner, for if taken he would surely be murdered. I kept with him and supplied him with water and rendered such other assistance as I could until we crossed the bridge, almost in rifle range of our reserve lines; the rebel batteries there threw shell among us and we got separated; I had not time to search for him in the crowd that surrounded me, but hurried to join our troops who were forming not half a mile distant, expecting the rebels would attack us. From that time until yesterday I heard no word from Beck and supposed that he had been butchered, but I am rejoiced to learn that he is safe, and kindly treated by his captors.”
After serving out his time in the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, George was commissioned captain of Company I, 37th Wisconsin Infantry on 6 May 1864. He was mustered out of the service on 27 July 1865. After the war, he went to Kittanning for several months and then went to Crawford and Chautauqua Counties in Kansas. George had two wives: Olive Sloan (1849-1879), and Florida Ogden (1856-19xx). He died in a Soldier’s Home in Sawtelle, California on 21 June 1927.
George’s brother, William C. Beck (1837-1911) — mentioned in this letter — served as the captain of Company D, 62nd Pennsylvania Infantry. He received his commission in July 1861 and was taken prisoner near Robinson’s Tavern on 5 May 1864 during the Battle of the Wilderness. He was discharged on 28 December 1864.
After the war, William Beck “had quite a colorful and prosperous career. After initially returning to Kittanning to be a bookkeeper at his old bank, he was enticed by his brother George, who had also been a captain in the war, to fight in Mexico against Maximilian. Somehow, however, before reaching Mexico, they decided to purchase cattle in Texas and start a cattle drive to Chicago. While in Kansas, in the midst of the cattle drive, they tried some land speculating and prospecting for coal. Somewhere on his exploits in Kansas, he met a 16 year old Hoosier, Sarah Houston, and married her. After reaching Chicago with his cattle (and new wife?), however, he returned to Pennsylvania. They remained in his home state for a dozen years and had one child before they returned to Kansas in 1883. He had purchased land in what became Pittsburg, Kansas, ten years before it was founded, and returning to the land as the new town was growing, he helped develop the community, prospered with it operating a grist mill, building a coal mining operation, and becoming a bank director.”
An additional account of William Beck is found in J. A. Cline’s memoir of Company K, 155th P. V. Beck left West Point after two and a half years of service “owing to intolerance of Southerners who then were largely in majority and control of the Academy.” Beck put his military training to good use, however. Cline describes being involved with a company of young men who took night lessons drilling in the use of musket and company movements. This company was led by Beck and may very well have been the forerunner to the Finlay Cadets. Cline notes that while traveling by horseback through the countryside in August 1862 to recruit volunteers for his company, one Sunday he met Capt. W. C. Beck, “who had previously drilled a number of us at the court house, and who had about completed the organization of a volunteer company called the “Finley Cadets [sic].” The was the time period between the Battle at Malvern Hill, which was fought in July, and the Second Battle at Bull Run, which was fought at the end of August 1862. Cline seems to be suggesting that Beck was on a recruiting foray, since the 62d had significant casualities at Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill. If so, he doesn’t appear to have been very successful. The only soldier I can find that join in August off 1862 were Asa James Hagerson, whose father was already an officer in the company, and Henry A. Troutman. I have seen no indication that Beck was not present for any battles.
United States General Hospital
Section 1, Ward M, Room 2
September 21st 1864
As you know, I left sister Jeanie’s at noon of the 13th instant, proceeded to Smicksburg [Indiana County, Pennsylvania] on my way to Kittanning. Before I got there, my horse lost a shoe off his right forefoot making him lame. I couldn’t get him shod there so I went to Dayton to get it done and as it was getting late, I concluded to get two miles to cousin Lizzie’s & Susan’s and remain over night. The next day I paid for it by having to ride to Kittanning in a drenching rain. On the 15th I took the cars for Pittsburg at 4 o’clock P. M. At 8:45 I took the cars for Harrisburg, arriving there the next morning at 6 o’clock. A 9 o’clock I took the cars for Baltimore, arriving there at 12 M. and at 4:45 I took the cars for this place, arriving here at 8 o’clock P. M. where I have been assigned wards, or quarters, as the heading of this letter will indicate. I did not intend to stop in this hospital but owing to a difficulty in procuring a pass to enable me to pass through Washington enroute to the army, I thought it prudent at the suggestion of James E. Brown to come to this place to report and procure my proper orders to go forward. Already I have been ordered before two boards for examination to see if I was fit for service. What disposition will be made I am as yet not informed.
There are about three or four hundred officers here of sick, wounded, and convalescent, and two or three thousand enlisted men who are in the same condition. We are occupying the Naval School buildings for a hospital and it makes a magnificent hospital. In the room that my quarters are, there are four of us. We have each a neat cot to sleep on, two stands to write on, our room is lighted by gas, the fireplace has a nice clouded Egyptian marble mantle piece of black color clouded tan and white.
The city is an old dilapidated town of two or three thousand inhabitants with a fair sprinkling of the colored race to keep the white element from “Spilin.” Slavery exists here but we do not see any of its horrors here for the moment the master abuses his slave, he or she runs away.
One of my roommates, Lieutenant Alexander H. Mitchell ¹ of Company A, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers and son of Sharpe Mitchell of Mahoning near Perrysville, says he knows Captain William C. our brother, George Weaver our stepfather, and you. And he tells me furthermore to my astonishment that my sister is going to marry a cousin of his by the name of Neil [Neal]. ² As you live in that vicinity, cannot you tell me the sequel of this report. I have no sister that I ever heard of who answers this description unless —- but I so recently came from there that I thought someone would have told me concerning it. I expect you will tell me when you write me again all about the report, who the parties are, their respective ages, condition in life, personal appearance, health &c. and if the report be true, and it be practicable, the affair be deferred till we learn more concerning the parties. We had thought if there were any truth in the affair that it would not have been remiss to counsel with us and we indulge ourselves with the thought that we are not so unworthy as to be unnoticed in so grave an affair.
I am delighted with my visit home. I found everything so pleasant and agreeable, and I improved so rapidly in health while away up there among those of whilom conversant hills, bordering the limpid waters of Mahoning. Many a stream have I associated with since my wanderings commenced, but the stream of my boyhood days acquaintance always has precedence, be it ever so beautiful, renowned, or historic. At James E. Brown’s and Doctor Finlay’s in Kittanning I was very kindly treated. Indeed, I have been everywhere so well treated that I can go back and endure the privations of the camp with a will, and with the thought upon my mind that it is glorious to die for such a good kindly country — a country rarely blessed, flowing with milk and honey, [where] only a few lecherous beings are permitted to inhabit it, to the hurt of our glorious union. They are styled Copperheads. But I hope they may soon see their folly and do better — yes, support our country in truth — not falsely.
There are quite a number of female nurses here and I have thought some of making application for you and one or two others, but I am uncertain of what their duties are. Perhaps I may learn more concerning it before I quit the place.
You cannot write to me here for I will doubtless leave here before a letter could reach me. This place is situated on the Chesapeake Bay about half way between Baltimore and Washington. The water is quite salt[y].
Make my love to all our friends — especially to our mother, sisters, and receive the same for yourself. As ever your brother, — George A. Beck
¹ Alexander H. Mitchell (1840-1913) was born at Perrysville, Pennsylvania. He earned the Medal of Honor while serving as 1st Lt. of Co. A, 105th Pennsylvania Infantry at Spottsylvania, Virginia on 12 May 1864. The citation for the award states that he captured the flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry “in a personal encounter with the color bearer.”
² This was undoubtedly one of the sons of John B. Neal (1814-1903) and Rachel Marie Blose (1819-1906) of Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Rachel was the younger sister of Sarah Emily Blose (1813-1875) who married Thomas Sharp Mitchell (1813-1883) in 1831. Cant. Alexander H. Mitchell was the son of Thomas and Sarah (Blose) Mitchell.