1864: James Henry Estes to Rhoda (Merrill) Estes


James Henry Estes (1870s)

This interesting letter was written by Pvt. James Henry Estes (1842-1921) of Co. C, 118th New York Infantry. He enlisted at age 19 in August 1862 at Keene, New York. He was wounded in the neck at Cold Harbor in June 1864, and mustered out with the company in June 1865 at Richmond, Virginia. His company enlistment papers record that he had black eyes, brown hair, a light complexion, and stood 5 ft. 11 inches tall. He gave “farmer” as his occupation at the time of enlistment.

James H. Estes was the son of Otis Estes (1814-1892) and Rhoda Ann Merrill (1817-1888) of Keene Valley, Essex County, New York. James returned to Keene after the war and in 1876 married Elizabeth B. Lee (b. 1852).

This letter was written by Estes from the encampment of the 118th New York infantry seven miles from the landing at Bermuda Hundred where the regiment was held in reserve after suffering severe losses at the Battle of Drury’s Bluff a few days earlier. Estes mentions the wounding of Capt. Livingston (shoulder, leg and foot severely) of Company F in the battle.

James’ description of his symptoms (periodic “shakes”) suggests he was suffering from malaria.

See also:

Estes family. Papers, 1856-1916.
Primarily consists of Civil War letters of James Henry Estes concerning his health, weather, local men in the Regiment, prices, camp life, the hanging of Dr. Wright of Norfolk, battles, and marches, 1862-1865, and the Civil War letters of Shubael Merrill discussing his health, hospital stays, and other camp news. Other items include family letters, 1856-1916, and the marriage certificate of James Henry Estes and Elizabeth B. Lee, 1876.
2 cubic ft.
Located at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh. Feinberg Library, Special Collections, Plattsburgh, NY.


Camp Burnham, Second Brigade, First Division, 18th Army Corps
Near Appomattox River
May 23rd 1864

Dear Mother,

Once more am I permitted to write a few lines to you. I came to the regiment the 19th of this month. I mentioned in my other letter my arrival at Bermuda Hundred the 17th. I stayed in the Distribution camp until the 19th. I found the regiment about 7 miles from the landing.


Capt. Robert Wilson Livingston

You have undoubtedly read e’re this of our forces retreating and of the loss our regiment had [in the Battle of Drury’s Bluff on the 16th of May]. I was very sorry to hear of so many noble fellows going from the 118th all at once. There is 181 killed, wounded and missing and Captain [Robert Wilson] Livingston is severely wounded. There wasn’t much loss in our company [compared] to what there was in some — two killed and six wounded besides the captain and one of the killed was killed [by] a shot from one of the recruits in the company who was fooling with his gun. The same shot wounded another man. Zopher [C.] Rich received a slight wound in the head.¹

I have not got a gun yet since I came to the regiment and there is not much need of my having one until my health is better. I have been having the shakes again since I left the hospital. I am getting over them now. Yesterday was my day to shake but I missed the shake and hope I shall not have anymore while I am a soldier.

There has been some noise here since I came to the regiment. The rebs attacked our pickets twice during the first night I was here. There was pretty sharp firing for awhile both times. The regiment were ordered out both times but soon were dismissed for the firing did not last long either time. I took another man’s gun and straps and fell in with the rest. Though if there was any fighting going on, that I would be with the company.

We are getting a strong line of breastworks built up now and are strengthening it everyday. Troops are camped all along in rear of these works. Our brigade is a little further in the rear than the others, it being a reserve of the brigade for the present. The rebels attack our lines once in awhile as though they were coming right over us but somehow they don’t get over us yet.

There was a good deal of fighting going on here the 20th. The 118th [Regiment] were sent out to protect a working party who were building a fort. I was out with them until noon when I came into camp. They were not where there was any danger from the rebs, although we were where we could see the whole performance. I tell you, it looked rather cruel to see the men standing out there in the open field with the shells bursting around them and every few minutes some of them falling — either killed or wounded. It made me feel as though I did not care to be in their places. Our folks drove the rebels and then up pretty badly.²

There was no firing to speak of the 21st and our folks mistrusted there would be something up before the next morning so they made preparations accordingly and sure enough, about midnight they made a furious attack. Our troops were ready for them and gave them a warm reception and drove them back in about half an hour without much loss on our side. The report is though that the rebs were terribly cut up. ³

It has been pretty quiet here since. It is believed that the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond is repaired so they can run cars on it for we can hear them whistle every little while in that direction.

My sheet is full and I will close for tonight.

— James H. Estes

¹ The battle casualties sustained by the 118th New York Infantry at Drury’s Bluff on 16 May 1864 are listed in the book, “Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment: 118th New York Volunteers Infantry” by John Lovell Cunningham. In Company C, the killed were Eli F. Arnold and Erastus W. Leavitt. The wounded were Norman H. Arnold, slight; John S. Owens, breast; Sergeant Artemas W. Fay, slight; George H. Kent, severely’ Zopher C. Rich, slight; Joseph LaMay, shoulder. Missing: Captain James H. Pierce. Company records do not indicate which of the two soldiers killed were actually shot by the recruit; both are listed as “killed in action.”

² In Cunningham’s book, he states that the fighting on 20 May 1864 occurred on General Ames’ front and a part of General Terry’s where the advance rifle pits were captured in the morning and a “sharp fight ensued to regain them” — unsuccessfully on Ames’ front. On Terry’s front the works were regained but with a severe loss on both sides.

³ Estes’ account of the fighting on Sunday, May 22, differs from that recorded in the regimental history by Cunningham. Estes says the rebels attacked just after midnight on the 22nd and that the fighting lasted only a half hour. Cunningham states that the “morning service” was disrupted (10 o’clock) .



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