1862-3: William Dennis Letters

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The Excelsior Brigade on Drill in 1861

These four letters were written by William Dennis (1831-1863) who enlisted as a private at age 30 on 21 July 1863 at New York City to serve three years in Co E, 74th New York Infantry (previously known as the 5th New York Excelsior Brigade). The four regiments raised by Sickles that comprised the first Excelsior Brigade were the 70th, 72nd, 73rd and 74th New York Infantry.

William was promoted to corporal but as we learn from these letters, he was reduced to private after the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the 4th letter, written on 10 January 1863, William tells his brother, “We have not heard our sentence as yet.” This suggests that he was being disciplined and most likely already informed that he was found guilty. In fact, regimental records indicate that he died on 13 April 1863 while at Fort Jefferson, Florida — a prison for military convicts guilty of desertion or other crimes warranting a court martial. His individual file confirms his death as falling on 13 April 1863 “at Fort Jefferson, Fla. cause not stated.” Further, under remarks, it reads: “Absent stoppage of pay for one year and sent to Rip Raps by sentence of general Court Martial.” Rip Raps was the name of the shoal at the mouth of Hampton Roads near Fortress Monroe. Presumably detainees were held at Fort Wool on the Rip Raps until they could be transported to Fort Jefferson in Florida.

The 74th, the 5th regiment of the Excelsior brigade was recruited at Pittsburg, New York City, Cambridgeport, Mass., Tidioute, Pa., and Long island and mustered into the U. S. service at Camp Scott, L. I., June 30 to Oct. 6, 1861, for a three years’ term. It left New York Aug. 20, for Washington; was attached to Sickles’ Excelsior brigade and stationed along the Lower Potomac in Maryland during the first winter; embarked in April, 1862, for the Peninsula with the brigade, as part of the 2nd division, 3d corps; shared in the siege operations before Yorktown; took a prominent part in the battle of Williamsburg, for which the brigade won the highest praises, the loss of the regiment in this battle being 143 killed, wounded or missing, and in the ensuing engagements of Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’ battles it was constantly in action. Upon its withdrawal from the Peninsula in August, the regiment was sent to the support of Gen. Pope at Manassas, after which it retired to the defenses of Washington. In November it marched to Falmouth; participated in the battle of Fredericksburg; returned to its camp at Falmouth for the winter.

These four letters were written from camps near Yorktown — one before and one after the fall of the city, from near Richmond just prior to the Seven Days Battle, and from Falmouth, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

It should be noted that the New York State Library claims to have a “group” of letters written by William Dennis, also sent to his brother. These letters are purported to “comment on the Peninsular Campaign and the Seven Days Battle. They also offer an interesting perspective on the attitudes and morale of Irish-American soldiers.” See: Dennis, William. 74th New York Infantry, Co. E.; Letters (1861-1863). 1 box (0.25 cu. ft.). Collection Call Number: SC14151.

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TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Addressed to Mr. John Dennis, Bedford, Westchester County, New York

Camp Winfield Scott near Yorktown, Virginia
April 29th 1862

Dear Brother John,

I now take the favorable opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping them to find you and family in good health as these few lines leave me at present. Thank God for it and for all his mercies to me.

Dear brother John, it is useless for me to mention anything in this letter as I am sending it. Dear brother, I have received no word from you since the 18th. I am expecting word from you every mail.

Dear brother John, I must finish for the present for I am in a hurry to go to work. The mill is still running and it keeps me busy all the time.

There is nothing strange from Yorktown as yet but we are losing men every night. Our regiment lost none while on picket. There has been firing with the pickets all day today. I cannot say what is the loss is as yet for the present. I must conclude hoping to hear from you by return of post.

I remain till death. Your affectionate brother, — William Dennis

Company E, 14th New York
Late the 5 Excelsior Brigade
Camp Winfield Scott near Yorktown, Virginia


 

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TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Addressed to Mr. John Dennis, Bedford, Westchester County, New York

Camp  Winfield Scott near Yorktown, Virginia
May 7th 1862

Dear Brother John,

As I have a few leisure moments to spare, I will improve them by writing you a few lines to let you know that I am alive and in the enjoyment of good health at present and I trust these few lines will find you enjoying the same great blessing.

Iriish-Brigade

The “Green Flag” of the Gallant 69th New York

I have glorious news for you this time. Yorktown is evacuated. All day yesterday and last night the Rebels were leaving and today the Right Wing of the Army is in possession of the place. Not a drum has been heard in our camp since we have been encamped here and today the drums are beating all over the camp. The regiment that I belong to was one of the first to enter Yorktown. The Irish Brigade that was in the rebel army at Yorktown ¹ had revolted and they took an oath never to fire on the Green Flag that was carried by our Gallant 69th and I do not think they will ever break their oath. Quite a large number came over to our lines this morning and some of them was in irons as they were kept in close confinement by the Rebels.

We have received orders to cook two days rations and to get everything in readiness to march at the shortest notice but the evacuation of Yorktown will make this war last much longer than it would have done had they maintained their position here for I think we would have defeated them. As it is, we have only got to follow them up and defeat them elsewhere — probably at Richmond or anywhere they conclude to make a stand.

But I must begin to think of closing my letter as I shall be hard to work for the remainder of the day and perhaps a good deal of the night. Almost all of our regiment has gone out to work in the trenches but I think they will soon return as the working on the fortifications around here is played out for awhile.

You must write as soon as you receive this letter and send me all the news. Direct your letters as usual. Remember me to all enquiring friends and accept a brother’s love for yourself. No more at present but I remain your brother and sincere friend, — William Dennis

¹ I believe that Pvt. Dennis is referring to the 8th Alabama Infantry which was composed mostly of Irish-born soldiers. They were called “The Emerald Guard” and were posted at Yorktown during the first eleven months of service.


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TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Addressed to Mr. John Dennis, Bedford, Westchester County, New York

Camped near Richmond, Virginia
June 11th 1862

Dear Brother John,

I have received your kind letter of the 6th of June on the 11th inst. in which I am happy to hear you are all well as this leaves me at present. Thank God for it and all his mercies to me.

Dear Brother, I am glad you have received the money — I mean the ten dollars I sent. The three stamps I also received that you sent to me. They came just in time for I received a letter from my intended with yours in which I am pressed for my likeness. That is impossible for me to send for there is no such thing done here now as we are so near to the enemy. We are only half a mile from them now.

Dear brother, the only thing I can do is for you to get it taken from the one you have — if it’s possible for it to be done. I will send you five dollars in this to get me a pair of gold earrings to send to a friend at home. Let them be a neat pair for they’re for a young woman. Dear brother, if it’s possible to get the likeness taken from the one you have, get it done for me and I will be obliged to you. I am asked for it in every letter I receive from home. I want to send the earrings home as soon as they come to me. Let your wife pick them. She will know what will please a young woman better than you.

Dear brother, you must not think this hard of me for asking so much and putting you to so much trouble but this will be the only trouble I will put you to for some time. I will be satisfied when I get those things to her.

Dear brother, there is nothing going on here particular except we are putting up breastworks in all directions around where we are camped. We can hear the enemy working in their camp plain. We are still on the advance of our Corps.

Dear brother, for the present I must conclude with bidding you all goodbye for the present and hoping to hear from you by return of post. Believe me your ever well-wishing and loving brother, — William Dennis

Co. E, 5th Regiment Excelsior Brigade


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TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
Addressed to Mr. John Dennis, 303 Monroe Street, New York City

Camped Near Fredericksburg, Virginia
January 10th 1863

Dear Brother John,

I have this day received your kind and welcome letter of the 3rd inst. for the first since the Battle of Fredericksburg. I was very uneasy on account of getting no word from you in that time but I am satisfied now when I know you and family are well.

You mentioned in yours of not liking the uniform but we are not particular here what we wear half of the time. We wear what we can get best. However, do what you think best of. It was the best I could get at the time. I may get a better one after we get paid but at the present, I cannot. There is no signs of us getting paid. I think the Yankees is gone up.

You can tell Margret when you see here that I have not received a letter from her in over a month, I have written at least a half dozen to her but no answer to any of them. I cannot account for the delay as the mail comes regular to the camp.

I have written a few lines to Sister Maryann a few days since with a paper. I hope she will receive it safe for I would like to hear from herself.

Dear brother, since I wrote to you last we have shifted our camp about two miles further in the woods for the sake of getting into where there was plenty of wood. We have been very busy since we got in to our new camp building winter quarters. Whether we get leave to remain in them or not, I cannot say but I think we will stay for awhile. George [Dwyer], me, and another is in the one house. We are as comfortable as can be expected under the present circumstances.

You wished me to tell you the reason I lost the two stripes. It was my own wish to give them up for they were more trouble than they was worth for there is nothing extra for it. Had there been anything for them, I should have kept them.

Dear brother, I thought I would be in New York before this time but I was disappointed by the near arrival of the paymaster. But I don’t give it up yet. Nine months pay is too much to leave behind. It was earned too hard to let it go with them. It will be a hard task but never venture, never win. I will leave when I get paid.

Dear brother, for the present I will conclude with my love to you all and I hope to be with you in a few weeks — that is, if I can. Write when you receive this and let me know all particulars. George Dwyer ¹ sends his best respects to you. We have not heard our sentence as yet.

Goodbye. Believe me your affectionate brother, — William Dennis

Write, write, write.

P. S. I will send you sister’s letter in this. It will be safer with you than with me. — Wm. Dennis

¹ George Dwyer —Age, 20 years. Enlisted, June 22, 1861, at New York city, to serve three years; mustered in as private, Co. E, July 10, 1861; mustered out, August 19, 1864, at New York City.

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