In the fall of 1861, some 5,000 troops under Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams, and another 10,000 generally under Gen. Nathaniel Banks, camped near Muddy Branch, a stream that flows into the Potomac River near Pennyfield Lock. Here, troops guarded the Potomac crossings and towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to prevent Confederate raids into Maryland and the destruction of canal locks and boats.
“Muddy Branch” was the site of a significant federal encampment in the fall of 1861, when some 14,000-15,000 soldiers under General Nathaniel Banks were stationed here. Early in the war, Union medical staff reported that the marshy river area was dangerously unhealthy, due to the “peculiar nature” of its “tenacious clay” soil. Despite these dire warnings, the Army of the Potomac continued to station troops here and built a blockhouse at the mouth of the stream to guard against Confederate crossings. As the war moved south into Virginia, only a relatively small force was maintained along the Potomac.
Unfortunately I have not been able to confirm the identity of the author of this Union soldier who was one of the 15,000 troops encamped in the vicinity. He signed his name “J. E. Anderson” — far too common a name for me to nail down his identity without additional clues. The only clue that may be specific to his regiment is that he indicates in his letter that they were paid on October 11, 1861. This might narrow down the search a bit. He addressed the letter to his parents and mentions receiving letters from “George”, “Sarah Bigelow”, as well as “Warren”– all of who were known to his parents.
Camp near Muddy Branch, Maryland
November 10, 1861
I am still anxious to hear from you and as a mail arrived from Washington this morn I thought I should get a letter but I was doomed to disappointment. I feel somewhat anxious about some money which I sent you. The last time we received pay was October 11th. The next day I put a letter in the Office containing two ten dollar notes and as I have written you two or three times since and have received letters from George and one from Sarah Bigelow and not a word about the twenty dollars, I am afraid you have not received it. I wish as soon as you receive this, you would contrive some way to let me know whether you received it or not. The other boys that sent money by the same mail have heard from theirs some time ago.
I do not think of any news to write you for the papers generally publish the news as fast as there is any to publish. We are very comfortable considering the season. We have pretty frosty nights and there seems to be a great many complaining with bowel complaints. The water we have here to make coffee and to drink is very bad and I presume that has something to do with the sickness. The typhoid fever carried off one of our regiment the other day.
There has been something said about our going into winter quarters. I cannot for the life of me see the sense of waiting all summer for cold weather before commencing operations and then go into winter quarters as soon as cold weather comes. I see by the papers that you have in the North a Peace Party. I cannot see the sense of such a party but presume it will be all right in the end. For one, I am tired of the way our leaders are operating. I did hope when McClellan got the reins in his hands he would drive like Jehue but I am afraid he is as slow as [Winfield] Scott. [Nathaniel] Banks’ whole division is encamped around here within a mile or two of the rebels — or many of his regiments are — and all that hinders our troops from walking into the rebels is the River Potomac which separates us. If we are going to fight, why are we lying here idle? Why are we not constructing bridges across the river or doing something besides drilling and showing off our dress parades?
Well, I see I have wrote you what is uppermost in my mind. I do not know as it will interest you but to tell you the truth, I am tired of the way this business is being done.
I received a letter from Warren last week. He was well and also his family. He has given up the idea of enlisting.
I do not think of any more to write now. I hope, Mother, you will get well soon for I wish to read another letter from your hand. Father, could you not write a line or two to let me know about the money. And you may enclose a few stamps. Hoping to hear from you soon, I will sign myself, your son, — J. E. Anderson