“The Balm of Heaven”: Civil War Letters, by Ann Fox Chandonnet

Ann Fox Chandonnet

A single love letter—brought to national prominence in 1990 by Ken Burns in his celebrated documentary, “The Civil War”—has come to symbolize the haunting nature of letters from that conflict. The letter was written on the eve of battle by Rhode Islander Sullivan Ballou to his wife. Ballou left his law practice, his family and two young sons to take a commission as a major with the Union Army. He served for almost two months before he was fatally wounded at the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run.

Ballou’s passionate, eloquent and fatalistic letter was written the calm summer night of July 14 at Camp Clark—the second letter he had written to his wife Sarah that day. Anticipating his end, Ballou locked the letter into his trunk before marching off to Virginia, and Sarah did not receive it until after his death. Over the years, she shared it with veterans and it was published locally. (1) One sentence from the letter, “I wait for you there, come to me and lead thither my children,” was carved on the memorial obelisk at his grave. Ballou’s story reached the public first in 2006 through Robin Young’s 800-page book, For Love & Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou & His Famous Love Letter.

Now that face-to-face communion is possible through Skype, it is difficult for the American population to consider that just 60 years ago, combatants’ letters were fragile bits of paper that had to be delivered under difficult transportation and battle conditions. Letters home were awaited with bated breath, preserved like holy relics, often bound with ribbon. Telegrams, enclosed in orange envelopes, were feared.

Those facts were doubly true 150 years ago, when news was not yet available via telephone, radio or television. Personal correspondence reached record levels. For instance, the Gilder Lehrman Collection, on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, contains 12,000 letters, most unpublished.

In the first years of the War Between the States, mail was not delivered to homes, so wives, parents and other relatives made daily trips to the post office both to post and to retrieve letters. Some of these letters were written on special stationery with patriotic headings. Printed cards and envelopes with poems surrounded by an artistic border also emphasized the roles of the soldier and the folks at home. J. A. Howells published envelopes and cards bearing poems such as “Wilt Thou Think of Me at Home,” “I Miss Thee So,” “Our Wives,” and “No Letter Yet.” (2) Here are the first lines of a typical poem, “To a Wife”:

Dearest, Like the Breeze of Heaven,
Comes the Solace you impart,
Dropping like the balm of heaven,
On the weary home and heart,
Home with all the joys is present,
When the letters come from thee,
Household faces bright and pleasant,
Look with sassy smiles on me…. (3)

The importance of missives both sent and received is evident in the diaries of combatants. H. G. Otis Perkins of Company K of the 5th Maine Infantry often recorded entries of this sort:

“Sept. 24—Rote [sic] a letter to Augustus
Sept. 27—Received a letter from Augustus Rote a letter to Augustus
Oct. 3—Received a letter from Frank & Helen
Oct. 5—Received a letter from Alura and Augustus
Oct. 6—Rote a letter to Hellen.” (4)

Repeatedly and fervently, Abial Edwards of the 29th Maine Regiment tells his correspondents how valuable their letters are: “Please write soon and often for time moves slowly of late.” (5) “Please write soon and often.” (6) “Be sure and write….” (7) “Your kind letter was received in due season and I was much pleased to hear from you…. Please Write…. Don’t fail to write.” (8) “Don’t fail to write. I wish I could get your letters sooner Dear Anna.” (9)“Darling Anna write often your letters are perfect treasures and are read a great many times over.” (10)

Letters were read over and over again until they began to come apart at their folds. Abial Edwards wrote to his future wife, Anna, “It is indeed a great blessing to us Soldiers to rec’t letters that comes from fiends [friends] & home. Many a time have I read & reread your kind letters when I have felt lonely and it always causes me to feel encouraged to read them.” (11)

In the same mood as Edwards, Theophilus Perry wrote to his wife Harriet in 1863, “Lazarus did not more greedily pick up the crumbs from under the Rich mans table than the soldier does the little items of home news….Your letters are more valuable than gold or silver.” (12)

The separation of North from South put the postal service in a tizzy. For several months after the fall of Fort Sumter, there was very little delivery of mail in the South. However, the Post Office Department of the Confederate States of America had already been established, on February 21, 1861. Soon one hundred post offices in the Confederacy began to issue their own stamps. Union mail service to the South ceased on May 31, 1861. The CSA postmaster streamlined routes, but blockades, burned bridges and northern invaders severely hampered delivery. Federal mail service in the South was gradually restored after November 1865. (13)

With no radio or television access to news, no notion of inventions such as the Internet or Twitter, women and families waiting at home did not know what to believe, as rumors and contradictions flourished. Official correspondents took note of the death of officers, and these were published; but no one was responsible to record the passing of common enlisted men. Margaret Stanley Beckwith, a refugee with her family in Lincolnton, North Carolina, complained to her journal: This suspense will drive me mad. Ten thousand rumors reach us each day after day, but not a bit of reliable news….” (14)

Letters were important at the siege of Petersburg in the summer of 1864—to black as well as to white combatants. In the 4th United States Colored Infantry, “Whether or not facile with the pen, almost everyone kept in touch with loved ones at home through regular correspondence. As Mike Arnold informed the readers of the Anglo-African, even in the midst of siege operations, the ‘Post Office [and] Express Co….are in full operation.’ Perhaps the most successful of Ben Butler’s efforts to maintain the morale of his troops was an army-wide postal service that delivered an average of 50,000 letters per day. [General] Butler also saw to it that the Adams Express Company maintained branches at Fort Monroe, Bermuda Hundred, and other points on the [Union] army’s line of operations. By the winter of 1864-65, the branch at Bermuda Hundred alone was distributing 2,000 parcels a day—mainly gift boxes from loved ones at home to the soldiers at the front.” (15)

A slave who escaped to serve for three years with the Union Navy, Benjamin B. Gould sometimes wrote as many as five letters a day to friends and relatives, recording in his diary all mailings and all receipts of mail. (He exchanged at least 60 letters with the woman he later married, Cornelia Williams Read. She and others sent him reading matter including The Anglo-African, a black abolitionist newspaper published in New York City.) Like all servicemen, Gould hungered for news. Writing January 2, 1864, while in port at New York City aboard the screw-propelled frigate U.S.S. Niagara, he complained, “It is a shame to the country that we laying in the Harbor of New York and have been three days without A mail. Such is the regulation of uncle sam [sic] to his children. Oh for A mail, A mail. A Kingdom for A Mail.” (16)

Still stalled at the Navy Yard eight days later, Gould is depressed: “Indulge all day in thoughts of those far away and sign for A letter. I hope some kind friend will send me one.” (17)

At Antwerp, Belgium, July 24, 1864, Gould complains: “A small Mail from the states but nary [a] letter have I.” (18)

In Cadiz, August 24, 1865, Gould writes: “We received A Mail but not A line did I receive. No one favord me with A remembrance.” (19)

On duty abroad like Gould or on the march, soldiers and sailors could travel for weeks without their mail catching up with them. (20)

In addition, in the field, men were often constrained by lack of paper and stamps, not to mention writing surfaces. Press correspondents who roamed freely among Union camps let their readers know the obvious hardships: “Corresponding under difficulties certainly, with a cartridge box for a table, and forty five drops of ink, all in the country, as the limit of my material, the drum likely to beat at any moment for an advance.” Thus wrote a correspondent for the Providence Journal on July 22, 1861.

Muddy, impassable roads meant that both sides spent several months in camp during the winter. Cutting firewood, smoking pipes, playing cards and washing clothes occupied only so many hours. “Our principal and standard amusement during the long winter months was writing to the girls at home. It was a poor letter-writer that did not have several lady correspondents,” says Union Private Warren Lee Goss. (21)

Artilleryman John Billings seconded Gross’s description of winter social life as playing cards and writing letters. The side of a hard-tack box was often the writing surface of choice, according to Billings. Stamps were sold in envelopes totaling 25 or 50 cents in value. “Many an old soldier can recall his disgust on finding what a mess his stamps were in either from rain, perspiration, or compression, as he attempted, after a hot march, to get one for a letter. If he could split off one from a welded mass of perhaps a hundred or more, he counted himself fortunate….It was later than this that the [Union] postmaster-general issued an order allowing soldiers to send letters without pre-payment….” (22)

Stamps were first issued in the United Kingdom. The first United States stamp was issued in 1847. The war greatly increased the amount of mail in the North; 1,750,000,000 three-cent stamps were issued to keep up with the demand.

While poet Walt Whitman sat with suffering young soldiers in the hospitals of Washington, D.C., he took their dictation of letters to their families. When men died, Whitman often penned long letters of condolence describing their final bravery and composure as well as their thoughts of the Savior. He spent four to five hours a day visiting, making as cleanly and cheerful an appearance as possible. On his limited income, he informally distributed fruit, tobacco, candy, pickles, wine, shirts, socks and underwear.

“[Whitman] soon saw that the best thing he could give the [literate] men was writing supplies…. An inveterate letter writer himself, he knew how important it was to keep in touch with the folks back home.” (23)

Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches records her providing the same kind of service as Whitman. In one instance, she wrote a letter to “mother and Lizzie” for a dying boy named John, a Virginia blacksmith. Their reply arrived after John’s death, but Alcott answered it: “I had cut some brown locks for his mother and taken off the ring to send her, telling how well the talisman had done its work, I kissed this good son for her sake and laid the letter in his hand….” (24)

Alcott’s letter on behalf of John received a reply in just two days. In general, however, mail delivery could be quite sluggish. In July 1863, Harriet Perry speaks of letters taking two months to reach her, although they “frequently come in a few days now.” (25) As train tracks were destroyed, supply trains burned and ships sunk, many letters were lost–as correspondents who took to numbering their letters were able to prove.

Coming or going, the post often took circuitous routes. Theophilus Perry writes to his wife Harriet from Pine Bluff, January 1863, “There are no mails from here to Little Rock. All our letter[s] have to be sent by private conveyance. I have written you letters & then failed to send them on account of having no opportunity.” (26)

In February 1863, Union Lt. Colonel, Alfred McCalmont, described to his brother the slow progress of mail: “The mails here are like everything else, they go by military routine. We are only a mile and a half from the steamboat landing; but our letters go first to Brigade Headquarters, then to Division Headquarters, one mile due west; then to Corps Headquarters, three miles further west; then to Grand Division Headquarters, a little further toward the Rappahannock, and finally to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, stopping, I believe, at each Headquarters about twelve or twenty-four hours. After going through this interesting preliminary transition they are sent down to Falmouth and thence by rail over to the Potomac river from which they started. The system is admirable. One cannot help admiring its order, its regularity and precision; but like all other workings of the same system, it is impossible for a plain man to see how the great and desirable result of getting a letter to its destination is hastened by the process. There is a great deal more of method for the sake of method in the army, than of method for the sake of substance.” (27)

When servicemen received scant news or no news of home, they frequently grew concerned, as exemplified by Theophilus Perry:“You do not write me often. I fear you are unwell. Why do you not write? If you are unwell write me.” Later in the same letter “How are the children? Write me four pages about them alone. You do not write me much. No one write[s] to me but you.” (28)

Trying to cope with the stresses of battle and waiting for battle, men could be quite demanding of their wives. Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island wrote to his wife Sarah on July 10, 1861: “You know I need to be in some fault with your letters—because they were so short and told me too little of your everyday thoughts & feelings—But I find a happy change in your style now; and I know when the mail comes I shall find a missive full of tenderness and affection—and something to tell me how all your domestic affairs go on and how my dear little children get along. Knowing how you must depend entirely on yourself I feel as though I must hear of everything you do in almost every hour of the day.” (29)

Occasionally men were so stressed that they began to doubt their wives’ fidelity, as Henry Foster does in May 1864. On furlough, Henry visited his Massachusetts home with his comrade McIver whom he knows to be a drinker; he suspects that McIver compromised his wife and berates her in a series of highly emotional missives. (30)

When sutlers were not within range, or knapsacks had been left at an abandoned camp, the materials for letter writing were as sought-after by troops as combs and spoons. During a three-week period in May and June, 1865, the Sanitary Commission in Washington, D.C., supplied to troops and hospitals:

84,436 combs
1,710 spoons
312 pounds of soap
108 crutches
396, 305 envelopes
4,855 bottles of ink
453,250 sheets of writing paper
93,385 pens
15,558 pencils (31)

Enclosures in letters were often small photos, which soldiers exchanged and which the home folks mounted in gilt albums. The carte de visite (French for “visiting card” or “calling card”) or CDV was an inexpensive way for soldiers to send portraits home. This small photograph made its American debut in 1860. It looked much like a black and white postcard, about the size of a modern credit card, and was mounted on stiff card as opposed to metal. For $5 a soldier could have a dozen copies made. (32)

The soldier could also send home as a small package a more expensive likeness, the tintype. This was a small image (3×3 or 4×4 inches) processed on metal rather than paper or cardboard. The best tintypes were hand-colored, and encased in an ornate frame, many lined in velvet and with covers that could be clasped shut like small boxes. (33)

More than letters was entrusted to the postal services of the North and South. Soldiers requested photographs of their growing children as well as socks and shirts and delicacies like butter and cake. Women at home responded with care packages ranging from tomato jam to new potatoes. Some were sent by express service, secured in wooden crates. Others were entrusted to relatives who ventured to visit the front.

In the long run, however, it was not cake that the soldier wanted, but news. Civilians serving in the conflict felt the same way.

Cornelia Hancock, a nurse at Gettysburg, wrote on July 8, 1863, to her sister: “I hope you will write. It would be very pleasant to have letters to read in the evening, for I am so tired I cannot write them…. Write everything, how ever [sic] trifling, it is all [of] interest here.” (34)

Of course, letters from the battle front are not only valuable to their recipients but also to historians. The Virginia Historical Society, the Louisiana State Museum and many other repositories all contain files that preserve a single letter from a Civil War combatant. One precious letter or one brief diary entry may suffice to clear up a point of history that is in debate. As historian Douglas Freeman remarked, “Many of the diarists and letter writers were observant..and not infrequently recorded important fact no officer set down in any report.” ( 35)

1 Robin Young, For Love and Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter, xxvii.

2 Steven R. Boyd, Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers, p. 83.

3 Boyd, p. 115.

4 Gary (Butch) Fuller, Editor, “The Civil War Diary of H. G. Otis Perkins, Company K, 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. A soldier from Oxford, Maine,” p. 15.

5 Abial Hall Edwards, “Dear Friend Anna”: The Civil War Letters of a Common Soldier from Maine,” p. 57.

6 Ibid., p. 58.

7 Ibid., p. 59.

8 Ibid., p. 75.

9 Ibid., p. 84.

10 Ibid., p. 57.

11 “Dear Friend Anna,” p. 23.

12 Judith Geisburg, “Widows on the Battlefield: Platforms of Grief,” in Hallowed Ground 10:4, p. 159.

13 “The Post Office Service in the Confederate States,” at http://www.inventors.about.com/library.

14 Marilyn Mayer Culpepper, All things Altered: Women in the Wake of Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 59.

15 Edward G. Longacre, A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866, pp. 102-103.

16 William Gould IV, Editor, Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor, p. 163.

17 Gould, p. 164.

18 Ibid., p. 203.

19 Ibid., p. 266.

20 http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits.

21 Warren Lee Goss, Recollections of a Private: A Story of the Army of the Potomac, p. 260.

22 John D. Billings, Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, p. 63.

23 Roy Morris, The Better Angel: Walt Whitman and the Civil War, p. 107.

24 Henry Steele Commager, Living History: The Civil War (Revised and expanded 2000), p. 569.

25 Theophilus Perry, Widows by the Thousand: The Civil War Letters of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862-1864, p. 157.

26 Widows by the Thousand, p. 89.

27 Margaret E. Warner, The American Civil War: 365 Days, August 2nd entry, not paged.

28 Widows, pp. 148-149.

29 Robin Young, For Love and Liberty, p. 354.

30 Ann Chandonnet and Roberta Pevear, Editors, “Write Quick”: War & a Woman’s Life in letters, 1835-1867, pp. 372-378.

31 Norman Bolotin, Civil War A to Z, A Young Person’s Guide, p. 124.

32 Civil War A to Z, pp. 21-22.

33 Civil War A to Z, p. 137.

34 Commager, Living History, p. 561, p. 563.

35 Living History, p. 27.

Bio: Ann Chandonnet grew up in Massachusetts on a colonial land grant. A non-fiction writer and poet, she spent four years writing “Write Quick”: War & a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 (Bethel Historical Society, Maine). The book is based on letters written to a woman in Massachusetts by her husband and brother, both serving the Union. The book includes several letters by Chandonnet’s great great great grandmother, part of the extended family circle.

4 comments on ““The Balm of Heaven”: Civil War Letters, by Ann Fox Chandonnet

  1. Tony R. says:

    Good story. Makes a very good point that there is real and trustworthy history in such correspondence.

  2. patricia Deaton says:

    I like this article, Ann. Very interesting and informative, and sad!!

  3. Pedro Trejo says:

    good essay it kept me reading and makes very good points

  4. Thomas Evans says:

    i like the way that it explains how soldiers then and now deal with the stress and loneliness of war. it also displays that even the small things can make a serviceman’s spirits be lifted.

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