A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment: Selections from the Tilton C. Reynolds Papers documents the Civil War experience of Tilton C. Reynolds, a member of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Included in the letters are descriptions of Civil War battles, the day to day experiences of Civil War soldiers, and the activities of President Lincoln during this time. Readers may also learn about Reynolds' family and how they dealt with his capture and his absence during the war years.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
Related Collections and Exhibits
- Band Music from the Civil War Era
- Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society
- Civil War Maps
- Selected Civil War Photographs
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
- Words and Deeds in American History
- Walt Whitman Notebooks
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment: Selections from the Tilton C. Reynolds Papers documents the Civil War experience of Private, and later Captain, Tilton C. Reynolds, a member of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, nicknamed the “Wild Cat Regiment” because most of the soldiers in the unit were from a region known for early “wild cat” oil exploration. The online collection includes 164 documents, primarily letters written between 1861 and 1865. The collection also features several photographs.
A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment provides a personal look into the lives of a young Union soldier and his family during the Civil War. The letters describe the daily drudgery of life in military camps, details of the regiment’s movements, experiences as a prisoner of war, soldiers’ view of politics, and feelings of homesickness and familial love. The letters include candid appraisals of the war effort from officers and enlisted men during various stages of the Civil War, as well as reflections on the presidential campaign of 1864. Some letters in the collection may contain derogatory language and racial slurs, and teachers should prepare students to grapple with this language reflecting the times in which the documents were created.
Tilton Reynolds wrote the majority of the letters in the collection to his mother, Juliana Smith Reynolds. The collection includes approximately 100 letters to his mother and five to his father, Thomas Reynolds. Some of Tilton’s letters to his father cajole him to respond. Letters to Juliana from her brother, brother-in-law, and various relatives and family friends are also included. The majority of these letters are handwritten; however, 46 have been transcribed.
The full text of the 46 transcribed letters can be searched by keyword; for the documents available only as facsimiles, the full-text search is not available, but the descriptive information can be searched by keyword. Title and Subject indexes are also useful finding aids.
Two Special Presentations provide useful context for examining the documents in the collection. Students can examine the “Timeline: History of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865” which provides an overview of the activities of young Reynolds’ regiment, to try to identify specific events referenced in the letters. “The Reynolds Family” explains the relationships among the various letter writers and recipients and fills in some detail on other members of the Reynolds family. Understanding the family relationships can be helpful in interpreting the letters in the collection.
The first engagement of the Civil War occurred April 12-13, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Just three days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 militiamen to volunteer for three months of military service. The 105th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers answered the call in September 1861. Among their ranks when they marched for Washington, D.C., was seventeen-year-old Tilton Reynolds.
On October 6, 1861, Tilton's letter to his mother from Camp Franklin near Washington, D.C., described his visit to the place where Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the famed Zouave Company was shot. Ellsworth was one of the first casualties of the war; shot as he lowered a Confederate flag from a hotel in Alexandria. Tilton mentioned seeing President and Mrs. Lincoln when they visited the camp. He also reported that Captain Tracy put him in the "guard house for 24 hours"—as revenge, Tilton believed, for not voting for Tracy as one of the regiment's officers. The letter concluded with a boyish glee over the forthcoming issuance of uniforms, rifles, and saber bayonets.
After the regiment moved to Camp Jameson on George Mason's estate near Mount Vernon, Tilton wrote of a colonel who was hated by everyone in camp and described punishment the colonel had administered.
. . . There is one thing I have been going to tell you for a long time that is concerning our Col. I never Seen a man So Universaly hated as he is. There is not a man in the Regt that like him. He is hard on his men puts them on a Ring (ie) (a circle for them to walk round in with a guard in the middle with his Bayonet to make them travel) for every little thing they do. I don't want you to circulate this or let any one know from what Source you got it But it is a fact. . .
In a letter written in December 1861, Tilton complained about his feet: "My feet is all that troubles me any. They have begun their old business. Burning & Smarting all the time they bother me considerable."
- What do these letters home reveal about camp life and military discipline?
- What problems did the members of the regiment encounter?
- How would you predict that a seventeen-year-old soldier would react to military life with its attendant problems? Did Tilton seem to respond in the way you would expect? Explain your answer.
In a November 13, 1861, letter to his mother, Tilton mentioned that the unit marched to the front and had a skirmish with rebels. He concluded the letter with a brief description of soldiers destroying fine furnishings of a grand house they came upon.
Read several other letters written to Juliana Smith Reynolds in the first months after her son left home with the 105th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (late 1861). Put yourself in Juliana's position. What worries would you have about your son?
Early in 1862, several of the Pennsylvania volunteers wrote to Juliana about Tilton. Her cousin, Hiram Sprague, wrote in February 1862 that some young men often got into mischief in camp:
Playing Cards and Cursing and Swaring is the principal trait of Some in and Tilton is often in here and has never to my knowledege engaged in a game. He has lost all of his frivouslessness and Conducts himself as a gentleman.
Dr. David Ramsey Crawford wrote to his aunt Juliana Reynolds in reply to her request that he look after Tilton if he became ill. Juliana apparently wrote similar appeals to other members of the extended family, imploring them to look after her son. Concerned that Juliana was being too critical of her son, Orlando Gray gave his sister-in-law some advice regarding letters she had written castigating Tilton.
In my last wrote that I thought that you were over anxious about Tilton and I think so still your explanations to the Contrary notwithstanding. Now he has been a good and useful man ever since he has been in the Service and his conduct would compare favorably with almost any man in Camp and I want you to write a few kind letters to him. Praise him a little along with your Catesizeing ["spelled wrong"-- author's notation above word] and I think it would have a Salutary effect on him.
- What inferences can be drawn from Orlando Gray's letter regarding the contents of prior letters concerning Tilton?
- Did the letters from Crawford and Sprague support Gray or Juliana Reynolds? Explain your answer.
- How effectively did Gray convey his advice to his sister-in-law?
A number of Tilton's letters mentioned pay, and often he wrote about the military being in arrears with their pay schedule. In a number of letters to his mother, he wrote of enclosing money for her and, at times, for purchasing candy for his siblings.
Read the letters Tilton wrote his mother on January 19 and August 5, 1863, describing the branding of a soldier for desertion and the probability of execution of another by firing squad.
- How would you imagine Mrs. Reynolds would respond to these letters from her son?
- Why do you think Tilton would mention punishments for desertion in a letter home? Do you think this is an appropriate subject to be mentioned in a letter to the mother of a soldier in combat?
- What do the letters reveal about military discipline? About troop morale two years into the war?
Prisoner of War
Tilton Reynolds fought in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) along the Chickahominy River in Virginia, May 31-June 1, 1862, and was taken prisoner. Doctor Crawford wrote his aunt Juliana on June 14, 1862, following the defeat. He began the letter mourning the loss of life, including the death of Juliana's cousin, H. P. Sprague. He continued with what little news he had been able to piece together regarding Tilton.
I search the field over and over again to find Tilton and I was with the first that went on the field and the last time I heard from Tilton he was lying behind a log. Joe Dickey was wounded and was making his way of[f] the field and saw him and told him had better retreat as the rebels were surrounding us. He told him he could not move as the balls were coming from front and both side of him then. This is the last was heard of him and all the Regt knows him and I had every one look to find him. There was four men of the Regt taken prisoner. I know this will be a hard shock on you and Uncle Thomas and his brothers and sisters and you have my heart felt sympathy and I think he will turn up all right yet.
Tilton had, in fact, been taken prisoner. He was held at the Libby and Belle Isle prisons in Virginia and the Salisbury prison in North Carolina. An agreement on the exchange of prisoners of war was negotiated and Tilton was released in early fall. Within months, Tilton returned to service with the Wild Cat Regiment.
A family friend held prisoner near Richmond wrote Mrs. Reynolds on August 6, 1863, from Camp Parole. The letter included a description of the diet in the prison camp at Richmond:
…Do you know how much one gets to eat at Richmond, if you don't I can tell you. As long as we was there we got just half a pound of bread, one ounce of poor meat and a pint of slop called by them, bean soup. It was made of a poor quality of beans. (Some called them locust beans, they were small & very dark looking) and muddy water out of the river James. …The cooks would take a pail and scoop it up half sand & half water and in that delightful condition went in the kettles…
Read McCracken's letter, as well as Tilton's letter from the parole camp written in October 1862. What can you learn about being a prisoner of war from these letters? Conduct additional research to find out more about life in both Confederate and Union prison camps. How did the treatment of prisoners change over the course of the war?
Read letters in the collection with news about the battles of Chickahominy and Fair Oaks during General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862. Research McClellan's strategy during the Peninsula Campaign. What was McClellan's plan? How did General Robert E. Lee counter McClellan's troops? Many historians say that, had McClellan's plan succeeded, the course of U.S. history might have been significantly altered. In what ways might this have been true? For example, consider that the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863.
Following the Union's failure to take Richmond in the summer of 1862, the Confederate army launched an invasion of Maryland. In September 1862, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union forces under McClellan fought a bloody battle with thousands of casualties on both sides. The Confederate force withdrew from Maryland; McClellan was slow to pursue, however, and was relieved of his command. Shortly after the battle of Antietam, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, followed the Confederates to Fredericksburg. Read the letter John Smith wrote to his sister on November 25, after the Union loss at Antietam but before the confrontation at Fredericksburg.
- What battle or battles do you think Smith was referring to when he talked about soldiers being "slaughtered upon the battle field"? According to Smith, what other problems added to the "uncertainty" of camp life?
- What did Smith predict would happen if Union forces failed to take Richmond in their next attempt? What would have been the significance of such a development?
Mrs. Reynolds received a letter addressed to "Dear Friend" and dated January 11, 1863, a month after the Army of the Potomac suffered a major defeat at Fredericksburg in western Virginia:
Well we have had the anticipated battle of Fredricksburg and it proved like many others have done a perfect failure, with a terrible loss of life. And now we are having the scene re-enacted in the Southwest but with what affect we are not positively certain, but I hope and pray the result will be favourable to our arms, but I have almost come to the conclusion that the Southern Confederacy is an established thing, it seems that Heaven Itself is against us for we have never had an expedition start out yet that didn't encounter a terrific storm attended with some unlooked for casualty, but perhaps when we are sufficiently scourged we shall come out victorious.
Read the letter from John Smith to his sister dated February 7, 1863, for a discussion of the course of the war and the change in command of the Army of the Potomac, including the problems General Ambrose Burnside faced making a crossing of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Smith expressed a sense of extreme disillusionment about the war, remarking
…Our prospects now are not as good as they were one year ago and it looks to me as though our case was hopeless. I believe the result of this cruel and bloody war will be a division of the Union but still I may be mistaken matters must assume a different aspect before I can think we will be successful.
- How did the authors of these two letters evaluate the chances of a Union victory in the war?
- What was the basis for their disillusionment with the war effort?
- To what extent were the views expressed in these letters shared by others?
- Why did John Smith believe that General McClellan should have retained command of the army? What was the basis of his criticism of General Burnside and of General Joseph Hooker, who was given command of the army after Fredericksburg?
Tilton Reynolds wrote his mother several letters from a camp near Richmond, providing sketchy details of battles around Petersburg during the Army of the Potomac's campaign in 1864. General Ulysses Grant was relentless in his campaign outside Richmond, winning the reputation among Confederates as "Old Universal Slaughter." Use the Keyword full text search to find letters about the battles at Petersburg and Grant's reputation.
- How are Tilton's letters written in June 1864, during the battles around Petersburg, different from other letters you have read? What do you think accounts for the difference?
- What can you learn about the morale of Confederate troops from Tilton's letter of September 21, 1864? How had his attitude toward the enemy changed since his letter of June 20, when he reported firing 40 to 50 rounds at the Confederate pickets? What circumstances may have contributed to the apparent camaraderie among combatants?
In the closing month of the war, Tilton wrote his mother, mentioning the victories of Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan.
- How would you describe Tilton's attitude toward the Confederacy after three and a half years in the Union army?
- Tilton was made an officer—a captain—in late 1864. What evidence do you find in the March 1865 letter of any new duties as an officer?
- What evidence do you find in the letter that Tilton believed victory was near?
Election of 1864
Tilton wrote a rather humorous letter to his younger brother on March 29, 1864, telling of a brawl he and three of his colleagues had in a bar over George McClellan's candidacy in the election of 1864:
…we had intended to take the 11 O clock train and go to Camp but the train was behind time and we got tired of waiting and So we went to the Frement house to have a little Sport. After being in there a Short time there was a Citizen came in and McClellans picture being Stuck up in the Room I thought I would ask him what he thought of it. He told me he thought him a Damnd good man and he would vote for him for the next president. That made me mad and I went up to him deliberately and knocked him down. After he got up he started out and as near as I can find out he got about 14 Bullys and came in there with them and they all piled on us 4. …They used Sling Shots and Billeys on us to perfection. I got knocked down the first one. I was talking to one fellow when I was struck with a Sling Shot at the But of the ear and down went Mr. Reynolds. I got up again but was soon felled again. I got up two or three times but was knocked down as fast as I could raise. Jones and Sharp was Served in like manner. To tell the truth we was all Badly whipped. I had one eye Banged shut and my Ears cut up nasty. I was kicked in the ribs until I vomited a quart of Clotted Blood. But they could not make us Sing Enoug any how. The Col Commanding Camp Copeland Said he would have the men arrested if he could find them.
From "Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Smith Reynolds, March 29, 1864" (the letter is actually to his brother but is cataloged as being to his mother)
- What does the letter reveal about the fractious nature of politics in the presidential campaign of 1864?
- Why do you think Tilton wrote of the brawl to his brother rather than describing it in one of his frequent letters to his mother?
As the election approached, President Lincoln expected defeat at the polls if news from the war fronts did not improve. The Democratic Party nominated McClellan who, prior to the nomination, was considered a "War Democrat." Facing a split in the convention between the war and peace factions of the party, McClellan softened his position on the war. His running mate was an ally of the Copperheads—an anti-war faction—and the party platform called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
The following letters provided commentary on the election or events leading up to it:
- Letter, September 15, 1864
- Letter from W.B. Sprague to Juliana Smith Reynolds, September 12, 1864
- Letter from John Conser to Juliana Smith Reynolds, September 5, 1864
- Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Smith Reynolds, September 6, 1864
Read the letters and then answer the questions that follow:
- What planks of the Democratic platform did W.B. Sprague ridicule in his letter?
- According to John Conser, why were the Confederate soldiers interested in the Democratic convention?
- What accounted for McClellan's popularity?
- What series of events in the war contributed to the belief that President Lincoln would be defeated in his bid for a second term? What turned the tide, allowing him to win reelection?
Life on the Home Front
Since most of the letters in the collection were written by soldiers to loved ones at home, the reader can learn a great deal about life in the military camps and in battle. However, one can also learn something of family relationships and happenings on the home front.
For example, in January 1863, Tilton received a letter that caused him to write the following to his mother:
. . . my last letter to you was in answer to the one containing the news which has ever since caused me to feel verry badly. I hardly knew what I was doing for a day or two after I got it and it is as much as a bargain that I do now. I was working on a copy of a monthly report when I got the letters and I could do nothing at them that day or the next day. I lay awake at night thinking of it and the next night when I did get to Sleep I dreamed of it. I know it is useless to fret over it but I can not help it. I thought a great deal of Clara and I am afraid this will bring trouble on her as well as all the rest of us for she is So young that I fear she does not realize what she is doing. It may though be all for the best but time alone can tell that.
What news do you think caused such a reaction from Tilton? Check your answer by reading his letter of January 19, 1863. Was your hypothesis correct? How did Tilton's isolation from the family's normal activities add to his concern about the event?
While Tilton's letters to his mother are most numerous, he also wrote to his father, sometimes beseeching his father to write back:
It Seems folly for me to write to you for you never answer any of my letters but I can at least have the pleasure of writing to you. If I never do have the pleasure of getting any letters from you Pap I think If you would consider a little about what pleasure it would give me to get a letter from you that you would write to me but If It is not your will to write I need not urge it for I know you too well to think that you would do a thing that you did not want to.
Try to determine whether Tilton's "Pap" ever wrote back to him. What picture of Thomas Reynolds do you get from reading Tilton's letters?
In March 1864, Tilton was concerned about happenings at home. Read his letter of March 18, 1864. What problems troubled Tilton? Can you imagine a soldier today being concerned about similar problems? What does the letter suggest about continuity and change in history?
Chronological Thinking: Interpreting Timelines
The collection includes a timeline of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers as a "Special Presentation." Examine the time line and the letters highlighting specific events. Use the military campaigns and battles included on the time line to plot the movement of the Wild Cat Regiment on a map.
- In what major engagements did soldiers of the 105th Pennsylvania participate?
- From the timeline, what inferences can be drawn about the effectiveness of Union strategy during different stages of the war?
- What major conflicts preceded each of these letters?
- What do these letters reveal about the Union efforts to win the war?
- How do the letters reflect the writers' fears? Do you think their fears and pessimism were well-founded? Explain your answer.
- How do the letters express the humanity of the writers? How, if at all, does considering a historical figure's humanity influence your view of the events in which that person was involved?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing Different Views about a Historical Figure or Event
Different people's accounts or assessments of events and historical figures can be very different—even though they may have shared experiences with the events and/or people. A wide range of factors can influence how people respond to an event or another person. For example, age or position in life can influence perceptions; think about how you and your parents respond to some of the experiences you share. Sorting through these differences is one of the challenges of interpreting historical documents.
Orlando Gray wrote to his sister-in-law, Juliana Reynolds, from his unit in Virginia on March 4, 1862. In this letter, Gray says, "I was not much of an Abolition when I left home but I tell you I am a very strong one now and every other man that has been among the people enough to see the evils effect of Slavry here in Virginia." In January of the following year, Tilton wrote his mother from Camp Pitcher near Falmouth, Virginia. Although the letter made no specific reference to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Tilton wrote that "The men are all getting dissatisfied and swear they wont fight no more that the union is on no account that Niggers is what we are fighting for and they say that they did not come out for that." Read these two letters and answer the following questions:
- According to Orlando Gray, what was the attitude of soldiers towards slavery after having spent time in Virginia?
- According to Tilton, what was the attitude of soldiers in the Pennsylvania Wild Cat Regiment to the Emancipation Proclamation?
- What might account for the differences in the two men's perceptions? Consider when the letters were written, events that occurred shortly before each letter, and known characteristics of the two men.
Tilton and his uncle had earlier disagreed about the Colonel in charge of the regiment. In a letter to his mother written November 24, 1861, Tilton said of the colonel that he had "never Seen a man So Universaly hated as he is. There is not a man in the Regt that likes him." In a letter written just a few days later, Orlando Gray defended the Colonel. Read the two letters.
- What might account for the differences in the two men's views of the Colonel? How can you judge which assessment of the Colonel is more accurate?
- What insights can you gain about evaluating primary sources from this experience?
Historical Research Formulating Questions and Marshalling Information about The Fort Pillow Massacre
With the recruitment of African American soldiers in the Union army after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy threatened to give no quarter to captured black soldiers or their officers. Following the battle of Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864, on the banks of the Mississippi River in western Tennessee, a massacre occurred. That massacre has been the subject of numerous historical interpretations.
Based on the information above, what questions do you have about the Fort Pillow Massacre? Develop at least three questions that you would like to have answered. For example, one question might be: Who was killed in the Fort Pillow massacre? Use print or Internet resources to answer your questions and identify different perspectives on the massacre. Write a brief synopsis of the information you gathered.
Read Tilton's letter to his mother written from Brandy Station, Virginia, on April 23, within two weeks of the Fort Pillow massacre.
…We expect to move one day [?] and when we go we will do Something you can bet high on that—what think you of the Fort Pillow Slaughter & was that not awful—it makes my blood curdle to think of it. My God why do not the north raise up and crush those miserable hirelings at once. My opinion is that we should show no quarter whatever in time of action but Masacre every Bloody Traitor as fast as an opportunity presented itself…
Re-examine Tilton's negative comments regarding African Americans in his January 1863 letter to his mother.
- How rapidly did news of the Fort Pillow massacre circulate in the Union ranks?
- To what extent do you think the slaughter of African American troops effected a change in attitude from Tilton's January 1863 remarks on emancipation?
- What evidence can be found in researching Fort Pillow that Northern sentiment regarding the enlistment of African American troops shifted following the massacre?
Marshalling Information about Bounties Paid to Soldiers
Unless the reader is an expert on the historical event, era, or figure covered in a particular document, the document may raise many questions. For example, in a letter to his mother written on March 21, 1864, Tilton wrote, "I sent you my Certificate the other day so you could get the Local Bounty if they are paying any and I heard they were. If they aint do not give up the Certificate but let them draft a man in my place."
Does this quote raise any questions? For example, do you know what a Certificate and Local Bounty are? Research the use of state, county, and municipal bounties paid to volunteers and re-enlistees in the North during the Civil War.
- Why did state and local communities offer bounties for enlistment?
- What was the federal government's policy toward bounties?
- Are bounties used today in recruiting for soldiers? Are there any techniques that you would consider similar to bounties?
Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Analyzing the Interests and Points of View of Civil War Soldiers
In writing home during wartime, soldiers sometimes reflected on momentous decisions made by their officers, the country’s leaders, or the enemy. Soldiers also reflected on the everyday decisions they had to make. While some of these decisions were quite mundane, they were important to the individual soldiers.
Read the following letter from Tilton to his mother, written early in his service:
I have been on a Study whether to send you Some money By letter or By Express and I have concluded I will Send you $10.00 By express. If there is any chance at all Uncle Orlando is going to Alexandria tomorrow and I guess I will go along and he talks of Sending Some to Aunt Emiline if he does we can send it together. I got $27.30cts But I owed Orlando 2.75 and I owe D Reynolds $2.00 & Several other little dribs and I want to get Some thing to make myself comfortable this winter but I can sent you ten Dollars as easy as not. I Should Send you more But I do not want to run out and have to Depend on my friends for funds. It will help you to Buy little things that you need. You need not let any one know that you have got it. But I Suppose you will know Best how to use it yourself. Now if I can not get a chance to send it By Express I will try it By mail though I will take It to the office my Self for It might Be that our Postmaster would not be verry particular about putting It in the office.
- What did Tilton mean when he said he was "on a Study"? Do you think this is a good term for the process of making a decision?
- What was the decision Tilton was trying to make? Why do you think this decision required a "study"?
- How did Tilton explain his decision to his mother? Why do you think he took the time to explain his thinking rather than simply telling his mother what he did?
- Can you think of a similar everyday decision you have made that required you to think carefully and explain your decision to someone else?
- What behavior did Tilton admit to in the letters? How did Tilton justify his decision to act this way to his mother?
- What inference can you draw about the tone of Mrs. Reynolds’ letters from reading Tilton’s responses? Why do you think Tilton’s mother decided to write to him in this manner? Do you think her view was changed by Tilton’s explanations? (For a hint, see Tilton’s letter of April 18, 1864.)
- How does thinking about the impact of everyday decisions on relationships influence your thinking about the importance of such decisions?
Arts & Humanities
Correspondence: Purpose, Form, and Style
Different kinds of correspondence (i.e., letters) have different purposes. Because of the different purposes letters have, they may take different forms and have different styles. Form refers not only to the way a letter looks but also to expected components. For example, a thank you letter has different purposes than a job application letter and thus would have a different form and a different style. Of course, the circumstances under which a letter is written and the personality and background of the letter writer also affect its form and style. We would not expect a letter written on a nineteenth-century battleground to look or sound like a letter written in a twentieth-century office. Similarly, a letter written by a well-educated doctor in his 40s would differ from a letter written by a teenager who has dropped out of school.
What are the general purposes of letters written by soldiers to loved ones at home? Jot down your ideas. For each purpose, write down a component that you would expect to find in a letter from a soldier to a loved one at home.
Examine the following letters:
- Letter from John S. Smith to Juliana Reynolds, April 20, 1862
- Letter from Orlando Gray to Juliana Smith Reynolds, November 29, 1861
- Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Reynolds, March 9, 1865
- Letter from W.B. Sprague to Juliana Reynolds, September 12, 1864
What common elements do you find in at least two of the letters? What insights does identifying these common elements give you as to the purpose of the letters? How closely do the common elements resemble the list of components you wrote before looking at the letters? Based on your thinking about the purposes of letters from the war and your analysis of the letters, write a brief set of directions for soldiers writing letters home.
Some of the letters in the collection were written in haste while others appear to be more reflective. Letters from youthful soldiers often were rambling accounts of events and somewhat incoherent while those from older relatives and friends were more reflective. Select early letters from Tilton Reynolds or Joseph Green (both teenagers when they joined the Pennsylvania Volunteers) and compare them to letters written by David Crawford, Hiram Sprague, or John Smith (who were older):
- How do the letters differ in style and content?
- What do the letters reveal about the interests and values of their authors?
- To what extent do you think the differences in the letters are attributable to the age of the writers? Explain your answer.
Description is an element of every type of writing. Strong descriptive writing provides details that appeal to all five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Powerful verbs, adjectives, and adverbs evoke an emotional response from the reader.
Letters often describe events and places that the writer has experienced and wishes to share with the letter recipient. Hiram Sprague’s lengthy letters to his cousin, Juliana Reynolds, provide examples of such descriptive writing. In a letter dated May 24, 1862, just days before he was killed in battle, Sprague described Virginia’s farms and its rich soil along with the "marks of the Desolating influences of War" as the regiment marched toward Richmond:
The Country here is the most beautiful that I have Saw in VA. The farms here where they are Cultivated are rich the Soil is of a Sandy Nature and Can be by Cultivation be made to produce the most abundant Crops yet. . . .
The country here as in other parts we have passed through bears the marks of the Desolating influences of War. The rebels have burned all of the fences along the Course of their incampments in their Comeing to Yorktown and their retreat from that place leaving Exposed Some of the most beautiful grain fields to the [pu[b]lick?] but these fields afford very good pastureage for our horses and beef Cattle. Some of these fields that are less Exposed to roads then others is now Shooting in head and looks beautiful. . . .
There is Some very nice houses in this County bu[i]lt on the old Va Stile Chimneys on the out Side. There is but very few brick houses and where you See one it is painted or plastered over with a kind of white Cement and Chimeys left the natural Colour of the bricks which gives them all the Same ap[p]ea[ra]nce.
- What descriptive words or phrases did Sprague use to convey information about the Virginia landscape? Which words or phrases evoke a response from you as the reader?
- To what sense did Sprague primarily appeal? What details help you to visualize the landscape he described?
- Think about the scene that Sprague described. Imagine what your other senses would be experiencing at the scene. Write several descriptive phrases that appeal to different senses.
In writing, mood is the emotional quality or tone that pervades a passage. Mood can be cheerful, angry, sad, hopeful, purposeful, hopeful, resigned, or despairing. Mood can be conveyed directly ("he was happy") or indirectly through evocative language ("it was a dark and stormy night").
In June 1862, Tilton Reynolds was missing following the Battle of Fair Oaks (Virginia). Joseph Green, a friend of the Reynolds family, searched the battlefield for Tilton after the Union defeat. On June 21, he wrote to Tilton's mother:
Juliana do be as contented as you posibly can a bout Tilton for I think he is as Safe as can be. I am Shure he was not killed for we was all over the battle field where he was See[n] last and wher[e] our compiny fought and not a Sign of him could we find. And if he had of been wounded they would not of took him for they did not take any of our wounded for they had a nough to do to get there own a way. There was an orderly Surgant in compiny E Wounded and there was a young fellow by the name of Larimer was taking care of him and the Rebbles came and took Larimer and Stuck up a Shelter tent over the wounded man and left him there. This Larimer was a guide the Same as Tilton was. Him and Tilton both Staid in one tent when was as head Quarters So Tilton will not be a lone if he is a prisner. There was 3 more out of our Co. prisoners John Osburn [Osborn] for one.
What mood did Green try to evoke? How did he convey the mood?
Read the remainder of the letter. How do you think Green really felt about the situation? Write a diary entry for Joseph Green, evoking the mood you think a soldier might feel after a defeat in battle, with a family friend missing and many comrades injured or ill. In your diary entry, underline the words you think are most effective in conveying the mood.
Transcribing handwritten historic correspondence makes the letters more accessible and easier for researchers to use. Creating transcriptions can be a challenging task, however. Read the "Transcriptions" section of "About the Collection."
- What changes have the transcribers made to adhere to "modern conventions"?
- In what ways have the transcribers maintained the "author's usage and style"?
- What did the transcribers do when they couldn't read a word or words?
With a partner, choose a letter from the collection that has not been transcribed. Tilton's letter to his mother on September 6, 1864, is one possibility. Working individually, transcribe all or part of the letter you selected. Then compare your transcription with your partner's. Discuss any differences you note with your partner and make any changes you think are merited. Then reflect on the following questions:
- What was most difficult about the transcription process?
- What skills did you need in order to do the transcription well?
- How does this process make you better understand the document? The work of a historian? The way writing and use of language changes over time?
A Soldier's View on Journal Writing
On August 6, 1863, family friend J.B. McCracken wrote the following to Juliana Reynolds:
And as to writing a journal of what I've seen I'm afraid I'd make but a poor stagger at it. Imagineation is to no great extent required, as long as facts are the subject. But it requires a better knack of connecting subjects without getting them too much mixed than your humble servt possesses to make one worth perusal, if not altogether tiresome.
- What had Mrs. Reynolds suggested that McCracken do?
- Do you agree with McCracken that, when writing a journal, imagination is not necessary as long as you stick to the facts? Why or why not?
- McCracken said that in order for a journal to be worth reading and not be boring, the writer must have the "knack of connecting subjects without getting them too much mixed." To what other kinds of writing could you apply this description? Find examples of writing that you think violate and adhere to McCracken’s description.
Graphic Arts in Wartime
Drawings can be an effective way to convey ideas. Throughout history, soldiers have drawn and sketched their surroundings and their thoughts about their experiences. Examine the drawing below, which is found in the Tilton Reynolds papers but is not dated or signed.
- What is the drawing's title? What does this suggest about the author?
- What symbols are included in the sketch?
- What is happening in the drawing?
- What was the artist portraying in the sketch? What idea was the artist conveying? How effectively does the drawing convey that idea?
- What would you hypothesize about the artist who drew this sketch?
Examine the graphic image "Running the Blockade" that appeared on camp stationery Tilton used to write his mother on January 30, 1862.
- How did the artist ridicule Southern blockade-runners?
- What was the point of providing stationery imprinted with caricatures of the opposition? Do you think this was an effective way to use art in wartime?
Choose an event in one of the letters listed below and create a drawing depicting those events. Decide first whether you will draw from the Northern, Southern, or a neutral perspective. Based on the chosen perspective, decide what idea you want the drawing to convey. When you have completed your drawing, show it to a classmate. Does your classmate understand the events depicted and the idea you tried to convey?
- The story of Colonel Corbet straying into the enemy lines from the "Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Smith Reynolds, April 16, 1862"
The conversation among the pickets from the "Letter from John S. Smith to Juliana Reynolds, April 20, 1862"
The story of the deserters from the "Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Smith Reynolds, March 21, 1864"