Getting to know Will Davis, Letters home from a Soldier
Will wrote home often. He describes camp life. He describes visiting Arlington, and the White House. He describes the first batlle of Manassas (Bull Run). He moonlighted as a cook to earn extra money to send home to his parents. Some of his letters were included in Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Briugade CSA and the Iron Brigade, USA by Jeffery D. Wert, 1999, Simon & Schuster.
Will's older brother Henry and his younger brother John lived in Maine but were in the South when the Civil War started. Many letters expressed his concern about their safety. Eventually he discovered that they had enlisted to fight for the South. Like Will, John and Henry were color bearers. They chose to fight for Alabama. Henry was mortally wounded in a skirmish in Alabama about a week after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. John was wounded in the shoulder. After the war John returned home to Maine and married. It is our belief that Henry was one of the last to die carrying the Confederate Battle Flag into battle.
The letters have faded with time. Much of the original spelling has been kept. Below are selected excerpts from the letters and pdf files of all the letters.
July 4th, 1861
Arlington Heights Virginia
I am getting discouraged about the boys I am afraid they are in the hands of the Enemy, or else we should hear from them.
July 16th, 1861
Arlington, Heights, Virginia
I got a pass from the Col for myself and Conrad to go a visiting. We first went to the encampment of the 8thNY Regt which is the bodyguard of General McDowell quartered on the plantation of and occupying the residence of General Lee of the Rebel Army. This the hansomst and best located place I ever saw for a private residents the grounds are splendid situated as they are on the banks of the old patomac about a mile above the long Bridge with a full view of the Cities of Washington & George town with a Telegraph line across for his own use terminating at his residence and with about fifty smart looking Slaves and every thing that a lord could wish for at his reach and call. What could incline a man to turn traitor to his own country and leave a home like this is more than I can guess.
We went up to the white house and visited all the public rooms thare and that is where we found some nice furniture came to go and sit down on a chair and a sofa by Gerry mighty you almost would go oui of sight in the cushions there other ones you would pop up again as if you were in a baby jumper why tell you the truth I can barely believe my own eyes nor my own ears when they told me I was in the President’s house and I could look it all over if I wanted. On the whole it is a splendid place.
July 23, 1861
A great battle has been faught and we have been badly whipped. Sunday morning at 2 AM we left ur Camp three miles this side of Bull Run and marched for the Battlefield about five miles at Manassas Garp, there was faught the worst Battle ever faught in the U States. I cannot tell the loss nor the victory our loss is great tis said the Enemie loss was far greater yet their number was five to one they occupy a hill which is full of masked batterys prisenors taken by us say we have not yet got a taste of what they have. Our Rgt losted about three hundred dead and wounded.
We have retreated to Arlington about 30 miles this we were obliged to do with out rest after fighting about 6 hours our men are jest alive those that did get back. I cannot give any pictures now I can hardly stand alone so hard did I fight and after the retreat began, carring the wounded off the field, I thought not of myself only of my comrads. I was not harmed at all. I was struck down by the Sun only. I feel very bad in the head. I will write again soon Good by
July 27 1861
As I have somewhat recovered from the fatigue of our long journey I will send you a few more lines as you have proberly heared before this of the battle of the 21stand the cause of our defeat it will be useless for me to write more abot it. Old President Abe came over to see us Thursday in company with Seward. They got up in their carriage and gave us a few words of encouragement telling us that although we lost the meeting, it was no fault of ours they lay it all to bad generalship.
Fort Corcoran 2d Wis Co E, August 4, 1861
You requested me to tell you of the Brave & daring needs of men on the field of battle…..
Father there was that day bravery shown amongst Privates that would cause a man’s heart to burst within him had he been obliged to stand back and not go to there aid. The first dying man I saw lay upon the road sick with two comrads by him giving him water and holding his head when finally he rouse up and with a strong clear voice said "My brave comrads onward tis for our Country, God and Country onward and the day shall be ours", then with a jesture to his comrads he said "leave me now and away to the contest, don’t mine me here." His breath failed him and he fell over and died.
When about half way between the run and Centerville whare the calvery charged on us the Regimental Flag was in the field at the left unprotected so badly was the Regt scattered at that time thare I was alone in the road. I saw the danger of the Flag and once threw away my blankets and two day rations which I had just picked up …and made what I expected to be my last rally for I was bound to die rather than see that flag taken. By urging a few along as I went we got about twenty around the staff and there we swore to die to sustain the flag….the horses began jumping the fence after us when a part of one of our batterys a little in advance gave them a round of grape which took 20 out of their saddles.
Arlington Heights, Fort Corcoran Virginia, Aug 9th, 1861
This is dreadful indeed this horrid horrid war would to god that peace was once more restored throughout the Union so we could return to our homes and see a little more comfort before we die. Little did we know how to appreciate the glouriusness of a happy quiet Union until we were so suddenly plunged in the midst of Rebellion and war. God can only tell how and when this bloody contest shall end. The latest news give account of Rebels at sea, trouble amongst the Indians, Old Brigham Young declaring himself independent. All these troubles coming upon us at once will give us a hard time. Reports today say that foreign powers are going to interfere now, if so the Union must all be lost forever. But enough of this disparing, come what will we will ever stand by the Union, stand by the Flag, the homes of our forefathers we will protest with the last of our blood.
Arlington Heights Virginia, Aug 26th1861
Dear Mother as for my opinion of the fate of the boys it is not worth but little. If they were at Pennsicola last spring and were there pressed into the service it is probable they are there yet. If they had got away we would of heard from them. If they undertook it and failed they would only be taken back and punished not killed. That they have never done to any of their deserters. Their men are too scarce. They have not had any engagements there that would endanger lives and there is no Rgt from Florida in the service here on the frontier. Their position in the war is at present and had been safe. It is the service they are in that makes it horrible, not the position.
I wish they were at home or either here in the service of their country. It would be a pleasure to know they died in defense of their country rather than be held against their wills by those cursed traiters.
Camp Tillinghast, VA Dec 4th1861
Dear kind Friends,
It is now seven oclock I the Eve. I am just done my work for the day and now sit down to pen a few lines to you hoping they may find you all well as they this evening leave me and my comrads. I am now cooking for the company. They all got sick of their old cooks and all picked me to do the cooking.
…the company numbering eightysix in all pays me fifty cents each month amd I pay my helper out of that…We cook each five days one barrel of Pork, forty four lbs rice, three hundred and thirty lbs fresh beef, then we have what they term diissecced vegtables whith which we make soup two days out of the five. The other three days we cook beans. Sixty-six lbs being our ration for the five days. We have coffee or tea twice a day, our bread we draw each night.
Arlington, VA , March 6, 1862
…PS give my respects to Nelly and tell her that I think of her often would like to see her much and the children also. Tell her to hope on and not dispare men are each day returning from the south, those that have been reported dead and morned for as such this week crossed our lines and report many more on their way every day. I espect to hear from or see my brothers, your sons and her husband.
Germantown VA, March 11th1862
The old flag is today flying on the field where so many of my noble comrads fell on the 21st. July last and now we are anxious to march on Richmond, Peace will soon
Crown all and soon to our friends return. God bless you all . Ever your son W.G.Davis.
Camp Opperait, Fredericksburg, VA, May 18th1862, Sunday Afternoon
I will send you a few lines today as I cannot better spend my time, than by letting you know that not a day passes by but thoughts of you and the pleasures of home is fresh upon my mind and I hope soon to be allowed to return and greet not only you my dear Parents but also those dear absent brothers. The way is fast opening to their imprisonment and god grant them a safe exit form the bands that have so long held them captive.
Oppersit Fredericksburg, VA June 11th1862
…I only hope that it may soon all be over. I want to get out of the army and home. I think you need one like me to help you now and I am anxious to be the one. Much love to you my dear Father and Mother. God Bless you . Ever Will
Camp Oppersit, Fredericksburg, July 10th1862
…My dear Parents, Would I were with you once again. I want to see you so much for you know I am a great home boy. But I could not be content at home now, there is too much at stake. Oh that my dear brothers were at home safe there with you all it would be well. Or if they were only on the side of their country in this great struggle it then would be a pleasure if they fell to know that the cause in which they died was good. God grant they will yet get home safe.
Camp of te 2ndWis Vol, Aug 14th1862 [Last letter from Will before his death]
I am well. We are on the march, we have been on forced march for three weeks, going here and there and every where, making little dashes in and out all of little or no account. We are now camped withn a half mile of the battleground of the 9thnear Culpepper, where Banks got whipped the third time. We got here on the 12thyesterday I was on the field and the dead are yet quite numerous, unburied. Our loss in killed is here called 600. A rebel D. left in a hospital on the field with some rebel wounded told me their loss in killed was 1,000.. Many yet unburied and those that wee poorly many feet arms and heads are to be seen above ground. The general depth or earth over the bodies is about six inches. They have left and we expect to put after them. We expect to go at any hour. Goody by Will