1862-63: Moses M. Ordway to Francis M. Ordway

This letter was written by 19 year-old Moses M. Ordway Jr. (1843-1892), the son of Moses M. Ordway (1812-1893) and Irena B. Nelson (1817-1884. He wrote the letter to his older brother, Francis M. Ordway, a carriage trimmer.

Moses enlisted in Co. I, 40th Massachusetts Infantry, on 31 August 1862.  The various companies comprising the 40th Massachusetts were mustered in on various dates from August 22 to September 5. Major Burr Porter, U. S. A., who had won distinction while serving on the staff of Gen. John C. Fremont, was commissioned colonel, but did not join the regiment until after its arrival in Washington, Sept. 11, 1862. The 40th Mass. occupied Fort Ethan Allen — an earthwork built upon an eminence overlooking the Potomac River near the Chain Bridge — and during the fall and winter did guard and picket duty near Miner’s Hill, Mills’ Cross Roads, and Hunter’s Chapel.

Shortly after his enlistment, Moses was made a sergeant. He was promoted to Sergeant Major in January 1865 and was mustered out of the service with his regiment in June 1865.

Prior to his enlistment, Moses was employed as a “carriage trimmer.” After the war, he was employed as a “huckster.”

[For another letter from the 40th Massachusetts, see — 1863: Robert B. Foster to Brother]


Addressed to Mr. Francis M. Ordway, Lawrence, Massachusetts

Fort Ethan Allen
September 25th 1862

Dear Brother,

I received your letter last night and I was very glad to hear from you, it being the first I have received since I left Boxford. We have been out on picket duty for the last five days — grand sport, I tell you. We were placed on the very outposts about 2 miles from the fort. We lived high while we were out. We confiscated everything we could by our hands upon. We had all the apples, peaches, green corn, and sweet potatoes we could eat. Of course it was our duty to milk all of the cows near by.

The pickets are stationed on the hills in squads of four or five [bottom of page folded & unreadable]…other two watch — rather shaky business I tell you. The officers come round at night and told us to take every man after nine o’clock that did not have the countersign alive if we could — if we could not, shoot him.

This is the roughest country around here you ever saw. There is some splendid [views] nearby here. The Potomac River runs just below us. Its waters are very clear and of a greenish tinge. The Potomac itself is not more than 15 yards wide at this point. There is some negro log huts round here with log chimneys on the outside half as large as the house itself.

We have some big times here. Occasionally we go off into the surrounding country and have some good times. We are put through a straight course here. We are routed out at daybreak, breakfast at half past six, drill from 7½ till 8½, rest one hour, drill from 9½ till 11½, dinner at 12. Drill from 3 till 5 and dress parade at sunset. They say here that we are going to move soon. Where, we don’t know, but it won’t make any difference where we are. Direct your letters to Washington and they will reach me.

September 25

We have just been out target shooting our rifles. Shoot pretty well. It is reported here that we are placed under [Samuel P.] Heitzelman. He was at Harpers ferry at the last fight.

How do you like the President’s [Emancipation] Proclamation. I like it tip top freeing the slaves. They have kicked up fuss enough. I guess the Rebels will begin to think the North is not much disposed to compromise with them. We’ll give them some one of these days all the fighting at all events.

September 27

We went out wood chopping yesterday. There is a long strip of woods about a mile from the fort which we are cutting down to stop Rebel artillery and cavalry from coming through. That is the kind of work that takes the muscle. There was three or four hundred of us — some from other regiments went out with us. Only one captain went out with us and when we got tired, we just laid down under the shade. Did not work hard enough to hurt us, I assure you, but I must close. Write soon.

From your affectionate brother, — M. Ordway


Addressed to Mr. Francis M. Ordway, West Amesbury, Massachusetts

Vienna Station, Fairfax County, Virginia ¹
April 2nd 1863

Dear Brother,

I received your letter last night but I will commence and give you a description of how we came here. Monday our company went on fatigue and got terrible tired out. As soon as roll call was over, I turned in and just got settled when Lieutenant Manning put his head into our tent [and] told us not to turn in till further orders. But as I was already in, I thought I would not turn out till further orders. I had just got asleep when the order came to pack knapsacks and take three days rations and if you see a boy turn out with a bad grace, it was me. However, military is military and in less than half an hour we were on the march.

We soon struck the turnpike where it was good traveling. We soon found we were on the way to Vienna, 16 miles distant. We bounced along about two hours when it began to rain. Very soon it began to snow, and soon the air was full of thick, heavy flakes. In a short time the men looked like moving snow balls. At every halt the men would strap on their backs in the snow and mud and in three minutes would be fast asleep. We got along very well till we left the turnpike. Then we had to take it rough. Such mud I never saw before. I had on some boots that came above my knees and after I went in to the tops on. We went struggling through the mud, sometimes crossing a deep creek single file on a log. Sometimes we left the road and took to the fields, snowing all the time.

After we had gone six or eight miles, some of the men began to fall out. Going through the woods, they would fall out and crawl in under the cedar trees. The boughs were thick and the snow would lodge in the tree, would roll over on their backs and go to sleep. The regiment struggled like thunder. I guess they struggled nearly two miles at one time. I could not find a man that I knew. After we had gone about ten miles, I was pretty devilish tired. I was following in the track the rest had made ad I began to think that if I could find a barn, I would turn in and wait for daylight but as I did not see one I concluded that would keep a going rather than lie down in the mud.

About four o’clock in the morning, I caught up with the right of the regiment just as they had halted at this place. I found them scattered round an old hotel. After awhile I found Frank Nichols and we went round to the barn but found no chance to get any rest. Some went round back of the house and knocked in a basement window and crawled into the cellar and were spreading our blankets. We heard someone crying to get in. Nichols imitated the barking of a dog and frightened them off till we struck  a match and got the best place picked out and then we did not care a damn. But the 40th [Mass.] boys are not the boys to turn out in a pelting storm and soon the house was full from cellar to garret.

As soon as I was rolled up in my blanket, I was dead as a log and did not move till 8 o’clock. We are now quartered round in different parts of the town. About 24 of us are quarter in the attic of a barn little larger than Fathers only not so good as most all of one end is knocked out and you can run your hand through the cracks. This is the place where the Rebs fired upon the cars. They had a battery planted upon a hill near here commanding a curve in the road and as soon as the cars came round at the curve with Gen. Schink on board, they let have it. At the same time they broke open a man’s house and took his safe out, stove it in, and took about fifteen thousand dollars, so the folks here say. Yesterday we picked up an old safe and converted it into a fireplace and they tell us it is the same identical one but I can’t swear to the truth of this.

I forgot to tell you when we turned out the next morning after we got here, we found some eggs. I sucked some which made a tip top breakfast. They were big.

Yesterday up to Dranesville, six miles from here, all the cavalry here went up and if they got drove, we were to go too. So we lay here all day expecting to hear the bugle to form the regiment but it did not come. Troops are at work day and night throwing up rifle pits and I should think by appearances that we stand a pretty good chance to have a little brush here, but may not. I hope so. I am anxious to get a chance at them. We have been called out so many times on false alarms that I wish we could get a chance at them. I suppose we shall go back to Hunter’s Chapel when we get through here. I suppose you will hear some damn bug bear story before you get this. There was a story going back to camp that we had been fighting and had lost 3 hundred men. That is all nonsense.The sick ones we left in camp, I suppose, have written home any quantity of stuff, but I will keep you posted and you need not believe anything till you get it from me.

Do not tell Father that there is a chance for fighting. Mother tells me that he has not had any of those spells for a good while. I am glad of it. I am glad Lizzie Hunt did not get a photograph. I answered her letter the other day — the only time I have ever written to her. I would not write so much to anybody else but you. I thought it might interest you. Write soon.

Your brother, — M. M. Ordway

P. S. I will write again soon.

¹ The march made by the 40th Massachusetts from Hunter’s Chapel to Vienna, Virginia was also described in a letter written by Edwin A. Lane of Company H:

Vienna, April 9th, 1863
Dear Aunt,

I received your kind letter last night and was glad to hear from you. We have moved at last and are drawing near the enemy every time. We are situated in a very fine little village in Va., and it is a pretty place. It is on the Washington and Leesburg railroad and it was a flourishing little place. There is about 10 houses around in the place, and if this war had not broken out there would [have] been as many as 50 houses here now, as they would have been about 500 inhabitants. The man who kept the tavern was taken prisoner and was in a prison in Richmond about 8 months, and was robbed of all of his money which was about 1,000 thousand in gold and silver and all of his personal property was all destroyed and while we was there he came there and said that he was glad to see the union troops in his house but when we was ordered out and to go in shelter tents he said that if their was ever anything that would make us comfortable to take it, and we took some of his boards and made a floor so it makes us more comfortable than to go and take them without leave. We have the poorest tents now that we ever had, we have hardly chance to sit up in them, but by getting right in the middle of the tent we have a chance.

We made about as quick a march as we ever made when we came here. We was ordered out about 10 o’clock, Monday night and marched about 15 miles and got their at 4 o’clock the next morning, and we had to go in a snow storm and when we got there, the snow was about 6 inches deep, and the mud was up to our knees and we brought nothing in our knapsacks but our blanket and shelter tent, as we have go no change of clothing with us; we had to go out on picket the next day and took two rebels prisoner and they was the dirtest looking that I have seen since I came into the army. We captured the rebel mail carrier yesterday and he had about 70 letters with him and now he has got stop his fun on that. It is probable that he will be hung. He was about 25 years old.

I should think but you could not tell how old any of these Virginians are without asking them. And our cavalry captured the whole of Mosby gurilers [guerillas] which numbered about 80 but my sheet is getting small. We have not been paid off for about 3 months now and the government owes us 5 months pay and we don’t know when we shall get any of it pretty soon. Our sutler says that the paymaster has been in camp but I don’t think we shall get any until May. Now, I think that I have received every paper that has been sent to me. I meant to tell when I received a paper but sometimes I forget it.

This is from your friend — Edwin A. Lane


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