There are three letters presented here. The first two letters were written by musician Conrad William (“Will”) Betts (1839-Aft1920), 29th Illinois Infantry from Camp Cairo, Dec. 4, 1861 to his future wife, Ellen M. Sherman. Will mustered into the service on 19 August 1861 and was mustered out of the service on 28 June 1862 at Corinth, Mississippi.
The third letter was written by Ellen “Nellie” Sherman to William on Dec. 22, 1861. Nellie and Will were married in October 1866 in Fulton County, Illinois.
The band of the 29th Illinois was mustered out of the service in June 1862 with all the other regimental bands. “The decision to muster the bands out was a hasty one—and certainly not a unanimous one at the highest reaches of military administration. Quartermaster-General of the Federal army M. C Meigs wrote a few months after the regimental bands were disbanded, ‘A great mistake was made when the bands were abolished. These bands were of value to the soldier in camp, in bivouac, on the march, and they gave a trained, enlisted, disciplined, officered body of men to each regiment, whose duty during and after an action it was to take care of the wounded—a true ambulance corps, regularly enlisted and capable also of doing something else when not engaged with the wounded. From a mistaken notion of economy they were disbanded, and now comes up a cry for a special ambulance corps to be enlisted, officered, and paid to do nothing else but attend to the wounded. This will cost more than the unfortunately discarded bands. And was their ability to make music an objection? Would they be less efficient in action that they had, when not needed to carry stretchers and bear off the wounded, regaled their comrades with sweet sounds?'” [Meigs to Henry I. Bowditch, October 30, 1862, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III, Volume 2, p. 701.]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Addressed to Miss E. M. Sherman, Marietta, Fulton County, Illinois
December 4, 1861
I can only come to you as usual with a few lines. You are aware I intended to go home this week and more than all to see you but I find I’m not my own master. After the Battle of Belmont, the General [U.S.Grant] issued an order that he would grant furloughs to every tenth man in each company until they all went home. Last Friday he countermanded the order. I could not go while the order was out as two of our boys was at home sick. So I must be contented and remain here until there is another opportunity. You can imagine what unwelcome news this was to me when it was received in dress parade. I was angry with everybody — not that I’m dissatisfied or that I wish to get out of the service because I have friends and relatives that are begging me to come home before we are taken farther away. When I bid them goodbye, I felt satisfied I would see them inside of two or three months but have not and God only knows when I can. Believe me, Nell, it’s not a fault of mine. As God is my judge, I would rather see you than any friend or relative I have on earth. I would willingly sacrifice anything that is in my power, but the strictness of a military life no one knows until thy have tried it.
James and Mary said your health was very poor. I was sorry to hear this. I could make no reply. It made me feel sad to think you had not informed me of this. You have no friends or relatives that cares more or thinks more of your welfare than I do or those who are any nearer to you. Still you tell me nothing.
I almost forgot to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 29th for which you will please accept thanks. I was surprised to see it dated at Quincy. My first thought was you had enlisted in the service.
You seem to think I have not exactly complied with your request and my promise. I must own I have been just a little negligent. I was aware of it all the time and I assure you it seemed no longer to you that it did me. Why I done this I will tell you when I see you or perhaps in my next [letter]. Let me say now you will never have a chance to refer me to this again for I will write you often as possible and hope you will do the same.
They are making active preparations here for a move south and if our regiment should accompany the expedition, it will be months before I can go home. If not, I will be home sometime this month — at least I shall keep trying as long as we stay here. There is about fifteen thousand troops here at present and seven gunboats and new ones coming every day or two. It is the supposition we will move south inside of tend days and attack the strongest fortified place on Mississippi River s____ Columbus twenty miles south of here.
Goodbye. Ever your Will
Please write often.
P. S. Direct as usual. Should leave this place next week. I will write you before leaving. Please write often for this is the only comfort I have — reading your letters. Yours are the most welcome and the first in number. Remember your Will. Goodnight.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Addressed to Miss E. M. Sherman, Marietta, Fulton County, IL
December 14th 1861
I promised to write if we left this place within a week but today finds me in the same old tent and no prospects of leaving within three or four days so I come to you with these few lines hoping they will be welcome if not interesting. This has been a long and lonesome day. Still the week has passed away comparatively quick for we have been very busy. We have played for four funerals and yesterday we had Grand Review of all the forces at this point by General Halleck, the commander of the Western Division. This review was to see if the troops lacked equipments for immediate service. It is my opinion our stay in Cairo is short.
Ellen, little do you know how I wish to see you before this move is made south, but cannot. You know my situation. How long it will remain so, I cannot tell. Oh how I wished to go home when I promised to. I had made calculation to spend four or five days with my old friends and eat three or four meals with you, then bid goodbye perhaps for a long time. When I think of this, it makes me sad. Still I have no fears but what I will pass safely through this rebellion. Still our opposition on the field of battle is a dangerous one. This I seldom think of. Would to God I could see you this night. I would be happy indeed.
Ellen, do not think I forget you when I fail to write often. Little do you know what pleasure it is to me to have the privilege of writing you. And oh, when I happen to receive a letter from you, how my heart leaps with joy. I must bid you goodbye. Our camp is all excitement. The long roll has been sounded. Our regiment is under marching orders. I must away.
Goodbye from your, — C. W. B.
O mercy, mercy.
Sunday morning, December 15th
Last night we had a big scare. The picket guard was driven in at Fort Holt and reported a heavy Rebel force marching on the place. Consequently all the forces was ordered to be in marching order immediately. So our regiment was kept standing all night with their guns in their hands and forty rounds of cartridges each but no enemy made their appearance. All is quiet today.
So goodbye. Your Will
Please write often. I’m very lonely since I cannot go home.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Addressed to C. W. Betts, Cairo, Illinois
Care of Col. Rearden, 29th Regiment Illinois Volunteers
Halls’s Brass Band
Postmarked Bushnell, Illinois
Sunday morning, December 22, 1861
Where are you and what are your thoughts this sad, gloomy morning? Are you thinking of home and friends? Let us hope s and that you are well and your thoughts are pleasant.
I called the day gloomy because it is such to me. Perhaps it may not be to you and many others, but you know winter to me is always sad — especially when all earth is covered with a shroud of snow as it is today. Last night the hills were brown and bare, the leafless trees stretched forth their branches against the sky like giant sentinels. Today they are clothed in white, lie a sheeted spectre, ready to clasp you in its cold embrace. I have stood by the window a long time watching the flakes of snow as they fell slowly to the ground and it seemed as though instead they were falling upon my heart and turning it to ice. I have thought of the bright and beautiful days of my childhood, then of the years and friends of the present. Then I turn to pen a few lines to you and would you like to hear me say this (although you were far away, surrounded by every danger, where death is not a stranger, where there is no kindly influence thrown around you, nothing but the demoralizing influences of camp life, where God and respect for his Holy day is alike forgotten) again would you that should say notwithstanding all this. I was happy as a lark generally, only sometimes a little lonely to be sure.
Once you told me, William, that had it not been for me, your situation would have been far different, that you would not have sat by a campfire tonight. Perhaps this knowledge lays lightly on my heart this day, perhaps I had not rather a thousand times we had never met than that I should have been the cause of one pang of sorrow to you or your friends. But I cannot now recall the past. If I could, God knows how willingly I would if in my ignorance of the future I have wronged you and deprived others of the pleasure of your society. I also have suffered a little. You said you did not mean to blame me nor do I think you did. You said that I had said that I would have to have ____ for us both. I know I said that once, but not because I did not think that you were braver, stronger, and firmer than I was. But because you did not see the necessity of the step we were afraid to take as I did. Perhaps you may have thought I had forgotten all this from my long silence, but not so. Every word you have written me is before my heart this day as though I had but this moment read them. You have asked me if I ever went to the place where we spent the last few hours together [and] if I went there that Sabbath that I promised to go. No, I did not go there that day because I could not, but I have been there (I don’t say more times than you have thought of it). I have been there when while yet the summer verdure was on the trees, once many times after the frost had touched the leaves so that the whole woods looked as though it wore a crown of glory, and also when the snow lay white and still upon the place where we sat and the calm, pale moon & the bright, beautiful stars looked lovingly down upon the solitary woods as though to keep me company.I have not written you very often, I know, but you have not missed my letter much — perhaps not as much as you try to make yourself think — is it not so? Please acknowledge ad let me be your father confessor.
Will, you said once in your letter that the ring I placed upon your finger with a wish remained there as I placed it, and that it never should be removed until —– I thank you for remembering it. I think of the strong & wild wish I made as that ring encircled your finger. Now please, Will, let me ask you one little question — but O how much involved. Have, O have you kept that one promise you made so sacredly to me. Tell, tell me truly and deny what I heard said of you last night. You wrote me once I need have no fear although the tempter was laid before you. I believed you then, as I will now, unless you tell me I need not. Now Will, do not be offended with me, but let me say that although I do not doubt but what your sister, mother & friends was very sorry at parting with you. Yet had you been my brother, I had rather have parted with you with the expectation of never meeting you again on this earth. Yes, I know I had rather have seen you laid in a coffin before me than to have you remain where you were & in the same employment surrounded by the horrible influence of such a place as that. But enough. I will not — I cannot — give it a name that could express my thoughts & feelings. It is enough for me to say that should expect the curse of God to rest upon all my undertakings if I earned my livelihood by holding the poisoned cup to others. Though I (because I had more strength of mind) turned from in horror, I have often wondered how you & I could differ so much on this subject. And again forgive me for saying then I am surprised that you do not use your influence with your brother & remove him from the ___ you sanctioned with your presence too long. I was sorry when I saw him there although he and you too might laugh, my fears to scorn now, time proves all things. But excuse me. I have forgotten myself. Perhaps you will excuse it as it comes from me.
I received yours of the 14th last Wednesday. With what feelings I watched the return of the messenger I had sent to the office that day, you can never know. I had received a letter from you two weeks before — so also had James. Then I cannot say it was so much the wish to learn that you were well & happy as it was the thought that perhaps you had neglected me that disturbed my morbid imagination. Strange facies will creep into my heart sometimes and with all my will, I cannot put them away from me. You told me in your letter before this last that you would explain to me the reason you neglected to write so long before, but the explanation was missing. Now I remember the request. I read of you in my first letter, remember it too well, and would have given anything had it never been made. Why will people do and say things then they forever afterward regret. I hope you will forget that request and never, never write to me only when it is a pleasure in the place of a duty. You owe to your pledged word. Remember this is my request now.
I suppose you have removed from Cairo before this. I am sorry you were disappointed about coming home, but you say you are contented & happy & of that I should be glad. I knew you weren’t coming before I received your letter. As I was sitting one Friday evening thinking that surely tomorrow would bring yours, a late paper was handed me, & as I turned it over, the first paragraph I read was under (New from Cairo) the few lines I read there, sufficed to show me that my pleasant thoughts had suddenly took wing, as no enlisted soldier would be allowed to leave Cairo after the 26th of November as they were making preparations for a severe battle. I laid the paper aside and went alone with my disappointment, and afterwards as James handed me the paper, pointing to the words (from Cairo), I read it aloud to the family without the disappointed surprise in my tone they expected. They were all sorry you were not coming & Mary said she told you better than to go.
Now for a little home news. Eugenia has been here thus far this winter, but we expected Moses after her today as she expects to spend the remainder of the winter at Ellisville. But the storm today has kept him indoors, I suppose, as he has not come. I suppose you have learned that Moses is to be married soon. You must not think lightly of him because of what I wrote you about his showing those letters. He thinks differently of some things than I do. I should not have said anything about it had I not been a little angry — a bad boiling ____ which I am willing to confess.
Roxy Cromblet was married a little over a week ago to a Mr. E. Smith — quite a surprise to her family and will be more to when he hears of it, I guess. James & Mary are going to Bernadette’s to live in a few weeks. James goes to prepare their home tomorrow. Then I shall be left wholly alone. Please think whether I will be lonesome or not. Will, I would send you those papers oftener if I received them regular. I sent you the last ones I received until last week I received three. Some of the numbers do not come.
Christmas & New Years will soon be here and you will not be with us — not James either. Mary says she is as mad as she ever was. I should have gone to Quincy to spend the holidays had it not been for leaving Mary alone. Now Will, excuse the length of this. Write to me of you wish. Write often as you must know I am lonely (there, I had forgotten I was not to ask you to write.)
But now goodbye. Remember when you are sad & lonely (if you ever are) that there is one heart that ever thinks of thee & to which you are dearer than all the world beside. And now, wishing you a Merry Christmas & a happy new year, and that one of these days you will think not once of your Nellie.
P. S. Mary says tell you that when she gets to keeping house, she wants you to come & stay two or three days with them. — Ellen
P. S. For Mercy’s sake, excuse this letter. By the way, how is Mr. Ogden by this time? Has his wife been to see him? I heard she had gone. –E