1861: Charles Robinson French to Friend Nelly

Though he only signed his name “Charlie,” I feel reasonably confident this letter was written by Charles Robinson French of Co E, 44th New York Infantry. I searched in vain for a soldier named Charlie from Victory, Saratoga County, New York in Company C, which is what I originally thought his unit designation read, but as I studied it more closely, I concluded it must be Company E instead. This led me to Charlie French who was the son of Zachariah French and Eunice B. Robinson. The French family had moved from Rhode Island to the rural village of Victory in Saratoga County in the late 1850s. Charlie was 20 years old when he enlisted in September 1861. While serving with the 44th New York Infantry, he was wounded in action at the Battle of Malvern Hill in July 1862, bur recovered in time to transfer to Battery K of the 1st Regiment of Artillery of the famed U.S. Horse Artillery Brigade before the Battle of Antietam in which they were engaged. He died from complications of an amputated limb on 13 July 1863, presumably from a wound received during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Uniform of the 44th New York Infantry

Uniform of the 44th New York Infantry

The 44th New York Infantry — known as “Ellsworth Avengers” — was mustered into the United States service on the 24th day of September, 1861, for three years, or during the war. While in the barracks, the entire time was spent in drill and discipline. On the 24th day of October, 1861, the regiment left the barracks for the front, 1,061 strong. The men were attired in neat Zouave uniforms, and drill and discipline had added to their military appearance. As a whole the appearance of the regiment was imposing and soldierly.

On reaching New York, the regiment marched down Broadway in column, by company. The reception by the people of New York was inspiring and hearty. After remaining there one night, the regiment proceeded by cars to Washington. The transportation was not all first class. The first night in the National Capital was spent upon door steps and sidewalks. On the ensuing morning a march was made down Pennsylvania Avenue, and by the White House, President Lincoln reviewing the regiment as it passed. A halt of a day or two was made at Kalorama Heights, where the first camp was pitched. Then came a grand, fatiguing review, after which a march was made across Long Bridge to Hall’s Hill, Va. The Eighty-third Pennsylvania gave the regiment a supper on its arrival. It was most acceptable, and an act of hospitality that was never forgotten.

The next morning it was learned that the regiment had been assigned to Butterfield’s Brigade, of Porter’s Division. The regiments of this brigade and their commanders were as follows: Seventeenth New York, Colonel Lansing. Sixteenth Michigan, Colonel Stockton. Eighty-third Pennsylvania, Colonel McLane. Forty-fourth New York, Colonel Stryker.

The regiment wore an americanized zouave uniform which consisted of a dark blue zouave jacket with red piping on the cuffs, dark blue trousers with a red stripe, a red zouave shirt, a dark blue forage cap, and a pair of leather gaiters. The jacket had buttons down the front of it which was not part of the original French zouave uniform.

TRANSCRIPTION

Camp Leslie [Hall’s Hill, Virginia]
October 31, 1861

Dearest Nelly,

As this is the first opportunity I have had, I thought I would drop a few lines and let you know that I am well and hope this will find you the same. I have got quite accustomed to camp life now and have some pleasant times once in awhile, but not such times as you and I used to have in the victory. Have you heard from Daniel and where he is? Write and let me know where he is. All the boys from Victory and Schuylerville are within two miles of where I am at present.

I have had some hard times since I left Albany. I have been up four or five nights running. When I got to our present camp, I was used up so that I could not get along without help from the boys. We got here after dark and had to put up our tents and worked till we were tired out. Then went to bed without any supper. When we got up the next morning, I was so still and sore I had to stay in bed most all the next day.

We are about five miles of the enemy’s lines. There was a party went out on a forage scout and got ten loads of hay, three chickens, a dog, a pailful of eggs, and got chased by the rebels for two miles on a double quick and caught a prisoner which they sent back to camp. Then he was sent on to Washington.

The regiment is a part of General [Fitz John] Porter’s Division. There is three regiments besides ours in it. You can look out of our tent and see the campfires of two hundred and fifty thousand men all around. Some are in the woods and some have camps in the clearings.

Fairfax Court House, Virginia

Fairfax Court House, Virginia

Fairfax Court House is in plain sight of us. We are one mile and a half from Bailey’s Crossroad. You can go up on a hill where the Massachusetts 18th [Regiment] are encamped and see the enemy’s campfires very plainly in clear weather. ¹ We were expecting to have a night march last night as we received orders to sleep on our arms, but we had a good sleep all night. We must expect such things, you know, for such is a solder’s life. His life is not his, you know, and he must do as the officers says [even] if it is to face a loaded cannon and not flinch from duty.

But this is most full and I must draw this to a close. So goodbye till next time and believe me yours truly in love, — Charlie

Direct to the 44th Regiment N.Y.S.V., Company E, Washington D.C.


¹ The 18th Massachusetts Infantry was encamped near Hall’s Hill, the outpost of the Army of the Potomac in late October 1861.

Service Record of Charles R. French

Service Record of Charles R. French

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