A SINGLE LETTER
By Ann Chandonnet
Students sometimes find history or poetry too abstract to lodge in their minds. And the teacher can’t import Plymouth Rock or the Alamo to make a point. I’ve been known to dress up in a Pilgrim outfit as Thanksgiving approaches or to bake scones for the entire class when reading Robert Burns. Students are impressed by such things. Sometimes something as simple as a letter can have a similar impact.
Whenever I was teaching “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” or “The Gettysburg Address,” I would bring to class a letter written by my grandmother’s foster father, who served in the Civil War. John Bodwell was a tailor who served in the infantry for the state of New Hampshire. His health was so affected by his service that though he stood six feet, he never again weighed more than a hundred pounds. Up in the attic, my grandmother stored his cap, jacket, and powder horn. The shoulders of the jacket were so narrow that I could not fit into it when I was thirteen.
Bodwell must have written other letters, but this was the only one that had survived to the mid-1960s when I began my teaching career. The letter is addressed to Bodwell’s sister, Esther, explaining why he decided to enlist. Teens are naturally so skeptical that there was always at least one member of the class who said this faded document was “a fake.” It couldn’t be real. But others believed–and learned as a result.
If your attic lacks such letters, they can often be found through a little googling or binging on line.
The Bodwell letter follows. Spelling, capitalization, and underlining kept as they are in the original.
Chichester, August 27, 1861
My Dear Esther:
I suppose you will be surprised to know that I am stopping at this place instead of C. [Concord, New Hampshire] and you may want to know what I am doing. Well you know there are 5 companies of heavy artillery to be raised and to raise them there must be some one to recruit the men. Last Wednesday I got papers from the Adgt. General of N.H. [Charles Dodd] appointing me a recruiting officer for the 5th company. And yesterday I came out here. I think there is a good prospect of my getting some men here.
O Esther you will not blame me for going into this company without letting you know any thing
about it. For you know you thought I was going the last time you saw me. I expect we shall go into camp at Concord. I shall go there the first of next week and I want to see you there. You said you would come home if I went into the Navy and you will come now, won’t you! I left home before the mail got in. But I expect to get your letter here to day [sic]. O I want to see you as soon as possible. You will be home as soon as you can [,] won’t you. It was hard for mother to give her concent [sic]. But she thought I had better go, than to stand the draft. I called on your mother Thursday eve. She was quite surprised to know I was really going.
For Esther I have been examined again [physically] and been accepted so Esther, I am sure to go. Though I have enlisted I hold my own papers and if the business is not done fair I can destroy them and then I cannot be holden [sic]. So you see I have an advantage over any one who enlists at the office. But any man who enlists under me will find every thing as I represent it, or I shall not give up their papers but destroy them. Renselear has enlisted again. and Mr. Fastis [?] of our S.S. [Sunday school] class is recruiting for the 8th company. Rens. enlisted in that company but as one of their officers were under some obligations to Mr. R. S. Davis the chief officer for this company he will get him transferred to this company so you see we shall go together.
You will be sure and come home early in the week wont you for we shall be organized sometime in the week. and I want to see you once more before I get on “my suit of blue.”
You will not think hard of me for enlisting, will you Esther without letting you know. For I know how you felt before. and think you will feel the same now. The Postmaster is making out the mail. So I think I cannot have time to write much more.
If you write to me again before you come, please direct to [Camp Jackson at] Concord. So Esther I may get some of those long letters after all.
In haste–yours very
The call of July 1861 was for 300,000 Union volunteers. The state of New Hampshire committed to organizing several regiments; the officers and men who enlisted in the Fifth totaled 1010.
John Bodwell ended up in the infantry, so perhaps his papers escaped his grasp at some point. After his service, he lived in Tyngsboro, New Hampshire. He ran a prosperous tailor’s shop and was the owner of one of the first dry cleaning establishments in the area.
After the war, many of the Civil War’s regiments formed veterans’ associations, held regular reunions and appointed a historian. The Fifth New Hampshire’s historian was William Child, MD, Major and surgeon. His history was published in 1893, and includes a complete roster of men, reminiscences, and a detailed report of marches, camps and battles (including South Mountain and Antietam).
Neither Renselear [by any spelling] nor Bodwell is listed in the roster, which is not surprising, as I have found many errors (and duplications) in rosters that are said to be “complete.” There is the possibility that his physical debility necessitated an early leaving of Union service, and his discharge was unknown to Child. A copy of Child’s history is stored at the library of the University of New Hampshire, and may be downloaded.
Note: Bodwell’s Testimonial of Service certificate, dated Feb. 22, 1867, has been donated to the Dracut Historical Society, as have his blue cap, wool jacket and powder horn. Some of the scenes from the large, engraved certificate have been reproduced on the cover of “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 by Ann Chandonnet and her third cousin Roberta Gibson Pevear.