1864: Unknown soldier in 51st Illinois to wife

This letter was written by a devout Methodist soldier who served with the 51st Illinois Infantry, Company E. We know that he was married (“from your most affectionate husband”) but he did not sign his name and there is no accompanying envelope to assist us in his identification. His regiment was determined by regimental moves described in the letter as well as mentioning another member of his company (Isaac F. Carpenter of Mason, Effingham County, Illinois — a native of Erie, New York).

The letter was written from Nashville just days before the Battle of Nashville (15 December 1864) that resulted in the destruction of Hood’s Army of Tennessee.


USS Neosho engaging Confederate artillery on the Cumberland River near Nashville on 6 December 1864


[U.S. Christian Commission Stationary]

Nashville, Tennessee
December 6, 1864

My very dear wife,

This forenoon I took a stroll around Nashville and only saw part of the town. Then was at the Cumberland River — saw the black ugly gunboats and numerous other craft. Another very significant place was the Southern Methodist Publishing House. It now looks very desolate. I went to town more particularly for to buy writing material and something to carry it in so calling at the Christian Commission rooms I bought the December No. of Harper’s Monthly for 20 cents and got this sheet of paper and envelope, [and] a copy of the Central Christian Advocate. These last were given me. At another place I bought 24 sheets of paper and 12 buff and 12 white envelopes. These were 50 cents, next was ½ lbs. cheese — 20, a small loaf bread — 15. Then I bought a little blank book for 05 in which to keep my accounts. This I think I ought to do though I don’t keep in diary and still I have a great mind to something after this form — not one for everyday, but note from time to time the most important events and the different moves we make by writing it on a sheet of paper and sending to you through the Post Office. To do this, I shall not have to buy a tuck diary nor be so particular to write each day.

Now, my dear, what do you think to my plan for the year 1865? When you send me paper, send those light, thin sheets — two at a time if you can handy. I think I have done the best I could under the circumstances. The magazine will hold my paper nicely and be good reading at my leisure. I feel so sorry that I have lost my diary and paper but there is no use complaining. I shall not get any gold pen but be content with Gillott’s 909. I can get one in camp for 1.75. I am stop writing for today.

December 9, 1864

I have just received a letter from Menerva and a postscript from you. I am thankful to hear from all. If all would write as often as once a week, I would be more pleased and would answer them but I am glad that it is as often as it is. I am glad to know that you get down home often. I hope to enjoy this privilege with you not many months hence.

The weather here is cold and this forenoon we have had a storm of sleet and rain and I have been very comfortable sheltered from it — besides having through a little industry made myself warm by building a brick fireplace. This was built yesterday so I did not have to be out in the storm or be cold all day long. And another thing to my gratification, I have been reading my Western & the Central Advocates. I intend going to the [Christian] Commission rooms tomorrow and get more papers for to employ my time on Sabbath day and will there probably answer Merva’s letter.

The past week I have enjoyed myself quite well most of the time. There has been some disturbance in the regiment through the effects of bad whiskey. This has made me feel very bad. I spoke of this and other matters in a letter so I need not write of them here. I am quite well today except a little cold.

The day we came in here we brought with us about nine hundred prisoners of war taken at the late Battle of Franklin. At that, we nearly tired out with marching and for the want of sleep. Then followed the whiskey disturbance in the regiment which brought 6 or 8 under guard. We have had a good many Federal prisoners since we left Pulaski [Tennessee] — most of them deserted from the 29th Corps, others for bad behavior. Some of them had furloughs and through the effects of whiskey, got into the dress parade column that was marched through the streets of Indianapolis a month or more ago. ¹ Well these did not stop long with us for they were sent to their divisions. I had command of 34 when they were sent to the 2 divisions of our corps. That morning while on the way to the divisions, Carpenter was with us company with others as guards and Carpenter had one of his evil fits and when so, he can abuse anyone very shamefully. He is a perfect Shelden — Granny Shelden — as to abuse. So he took it into his mind to do so that morning and if any is religious, he is the better subject to work on. Well that annoyed me a good deal and others with [us] were ashamed of his company. Otherwise Isaac Carpenter is a singular, good, dutiful soldier.

There is another pestering fellow in the company that creates many a false lie about me as well as others. He is not worth minding. He has no desire to be good or to do right morally — swears a good deal, the first word on getting up and the last word on going to bed is an oath. I don’t feel as though I was doing my duty without reproving him. This I have done all to purpose apparently and, like “casting pearls before swine,” for I am called the preacher — Old Methodist — besides being accused of doing and saying. I do not even dare do or say I have thought I would not reprove at all, but if I do not, I fear my silence would approve of such conduct so I do not know what to do. To do the will of the Father seems a difficult matter sometimes. It appears to be the bent of some to say nothing but what is vulgar and licentious — just there was nothing else to talk about — just as though there was no good reading ever published. It seems to be first and last in their thoughts. Well, I could get along with it all if these lewd fellows would not class the innocent with the guilty.

And what I have written on the point brings forceably to mind what I read in the Western –the article called Old Snags. That was a sort of relief after the storm. The word of promise has afforded and I know will afford me more comfort if I continue faithful to its teachings and the time is coming when I shall not be daily — hourly — annoyed by those who care not for themselves and would have everyone as bad. I am striving to [be] zealous in the cause of Christ and desirous to live and do good in the world. I can’t bear the thought of living to no purpose. I want to know and see the cause of God advance and by words, thoughts, and actions help on the cause of Christianity. This I believe to be my duty — every Christian’s duty. I feel like praying more than ever. O Lord, revive thy work and this I expect will be done if the people of God will only double their diligence, work more faithfully than heretofore.

From your most affectionate husband


Nashville in 1864

¹ “During the early days of the Civil War the Federal government was disposed to adopt a lenient attitude toward deserters; for the first two years of the war the death penalty was rarely inflicted for their crime. The tendency was to regard known deserters as merely A.W.O.L., and on several occasions when courts-martial had provided the maximum sentence a clement administration intervened to reprieve the condemned. As the war increased in intensity during 1863 this practice lessened. Almost immediately there was a noticeable improvement in morale and a healthy sentiment prevailed throughout the army.

One class of deserters was not affected by this new policy. These were volunteers for bounties or substitutes for drafted men who deserted before getting into the field. The policy of the government toward these men was lax. They were never pursued and punished properly and the tendency to label them “bounty jumpers” rather than “deserters” resulted in the practice being looked upon by many as a shrewd trick rather than a crime.

In Indiana there were many professional bounty jumpers at work. The procedure became so extensive that it was necessary for state authorities to co-operate with the Federal army to suppress it. In January, 1864, the Seventeenth Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps, composed of men who had been wounded and could no longer fight, was organized and stationed at Indianapolis, under the command of Colonel Adoniram J. Warner. Warner’s principal task was to keep close check on the activities of the Sons of Liberty and to ferret out deserters and bounty jumpers. A special prison was constructed at the Old Soldiers’ Home to receive these men. When a sufficient number had been collected, they were manacled together, paraded through the streets of Indianapolis with placards on their backs proclaiming their crime, and then returned to the front under armed guard.” [Source: William Frank Zornow (1953)]


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