Charles M. Smith of the 11th Massachusetts

Centreville, Va. Stone church

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

This blog post originally appreared on the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society’s Duxbury in the Civil War blog.  It is such a great letter, I thought I would share it here as well.

July 21st marked 150th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Manassas). On the field that day, in the ranks of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, commonly called the Boston Volunteers, was a carpenter’s son from Charlestown named Charles M. Smith. “Charlie” enlisted on June 13, 1861 shortly after Abraham Lincoln made his plea for troops. Two days after Bull Run Charlie sat down next to a wounded comrade and dutifully recounted all that he experienced in a letter to his mother so she “would not feel worried.” The following is hair raising letter Mrs. Harriet Smith received:
July 23 [1861]

Shooters Hill, V.A.

Dear Mother and all,
We are again at Shooter’s Hill, we started from here a week ago at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and marched till 3 o’clock the next morning and then started at sunrise and marched till sunset where we camped overnight and took some prisoners. All the houses are empty and some of them we set on fire. If we get hungry we kill hens, ducks and cattle and pigs and every thing we want to eat. We started the next morning with the intentions of cutting off the retreat [of] a rebel regiment which started from Fairfax but we was 2 hours to late. They burnt bridges and cut down big trees to stop us all they could but we pushed on as far as Centerville. There was about 8 regiments in all that went with us but when we got to Centerville there was 20 or 30 other regiments encamped there. We stopped here two days then we started for Manassas where we fought an awfull battle. Men that have been in other battles say that it was the most murderous battle they ever saw for so short a time. It only lasted 6 hours. I haven’t heard how many men we had to take the place, some say there was 40,000 but there wasn’t one half took part in it. The battle twas either sold or it was a great blunder. They had over 100,000 men and had batteries in the woods and batteries that reached 1 ½ miles. They heard we were coming and was reinforced 30,000 the very day we got there. I will give you a little description of it but I suppose you will read about it in the papers. When we got within about 1 mile of the place we heard cannon and saw the smoke they then made us urn double quick to the field where we threw off every thing that encumbered us. The shells were flying every direction and the first man I saw killed was one of our own Company. A shell struck within six feet of us killing one and knocking down two or three more. A piece tore my pants a little and that was all. We was ordered on to the hill where I saw sights that was enough to make a man grow mad. There was men laying dead and wounded and the artillery men had been killed and the horses were all dead piled together by the Cannon. The bullets were flying thick. The enemy wasn’t more than a stones throw from us. The glorious eleventh gave one fire and fell back leaving behind them many dead and wounded. A ball struck my gun but that was nothing. We loaded again but that was the last fire we gave together for the other regiments that went up after us got cut to pieces so they broke, breaking us and everything was confusion. Some of our captains got killed. Then there was so much noise we could not hear our Colonels and every man was for himself. I went again on the hill and fired but the bullets and grape fell so thick we fell back again leaving hundreds behind. Besides a lot of Ellsworth Zouves lost 3 or 400 of their men. I went down into the woods with about 100 others where we could fire into them without their seeing us and here I came the nearest to getting killed. There was some of us went deep into the woods. I saw a company of men in there and thought they were our men but when they see us they fired into us and the way the leaves and splinters flew off o the trees it made me think of home. I rushed out of the woods and our Cavelry were coming down the hill to charge into them but they had hardly got into the woods when I should think a whole regiment fired upon them. They turned their horses and fled and there was as many as 30 horses came out without a rider. I jumped into a little hole to keep clear of the bullets and there was 4 or 5 soldiers in there. I asked them some questions but I found they was all dead. Every one was leaving for the hill. I went up there where I shot about a dozen shots when I see they was retreating. I was one of the very last ones. When our Cavelry rode by us on the gallop told us to run for some woods ahead as quick as we could for their Cavelry was coming. I looked back and saw the dust and only saw about 20 behind me when I threw away my grub bag and gun and run for life if I ever did. They did not follow but a little ways and went back. I picked up another gun that was loaded and discharged it at them. Every body was going towards Centreville on a run. There was men wounded on the way crying for help but every man seemed to look out for himself. All the houses and barns were filled with the wounded but we had to leave them and I suppose they were all killed. There was 12 of our company missing this morning. The Cavelry charged on our rear when we got about 2 miles off taking some prisoners. They also fired shells into us when we got within 4 miles of Centreville killing only a few. One of them struck a rail fence about 10 feet from me and wounding 2 or 3. I was very lucky during the whole of the battle. There was men each side of me got shot dead while I wouldn’t get touched. There was hundreds of men walked to the camp at Centreville that were badly wounded about the head and body. There was only 2 of our Company that was wounded that came here with us the rest we had to leave. One is now sitting in front of me, a ball passed right into his mouth and out of his cheek taking several teeth with it. We shall stay here until we get a big enough force to take the place. Nearly all their whole army are there and you can’t see them but when you go up to fire they can pour right into us. I thought I would write to you so you would not feel worried. They told me today that we could not have any letters go but if you get this you write quick and let me know so I can write more. I don’t feel much like writing today. Give my love to all the folks. I have received two letters from you and want to get some more but good bye till I get home.
Charlie

Charles M. Smith was mustered out of the 11th Massachusetts, Company I on June 24, 1864 and promptly reenlisted six month later in the 1st Massachusetts Calvary Battalion. He finally left the Army for good at the end of the War in June, 1865. Charlie settled in Humbolt, Kansas where he married and raised a family. The Drew Archival Library of Duxbury Rural & Historical Society has 8 of his Civil War Letters all of which are as well written and detail laden as the above.

Photo above: Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0001

Charlotte Bradford vs. Louisa May Alcott

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1890)

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

During the Civil War Charlotte Bradford of Duxbury traveled to the South to become a nurse.  She worked for a time aboard the Transport Ships (“Floating Hospitals”) organized by the United States Sanitary Commission and later worked in Washington, D.C. area hospitals under Dorothea Dix.  During her tenure as a nurse she kept a daily journal and wrote numerous letters home.

One of her most interesting letters is to the Editors of The Commonwealth (c. 1863), a Massachusetts newspaper.  In it she describes her feelings toward Louisa May Alcott’s recently published serial, “Hospital Sketches.”  Charlotte was none too pleased with Alcott’s description of life in a Union Hospital.

What is particularly interesting about this critique is the fact that Charlotte most probably knew Miss Alcott, or at least of her.  One of Charlotte’s cousins was the Transcendentalist, George Partridge Bradford, who was a great friend of Broson Alcott.  Her other cousin was Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, the owner of the Old Manse in Concord and Alcott neighbor.  Perhaps Charlotte did not know that Tribulation Periwinkle, Louisa’s pseudonym in Hospital Sketches, was actually Alcott.

The copy of the letter in the Drew Archival Library is incomplete.  There is at least one page missing.  I have not verified if the letter was actually sent or whether the Editor’s chose to publish it.  Charlotte’s description her hospital work, soldiers and diet is a bit different from what we read in her diary.  Although she claims to have a good appetite in her letter, it was, in fact, not very good.  She was a vegetarian and dispised the Army rations she was forced to eat.  She also came up against surgeons on more than one occassion and was dismissed from the Armory Square Hospital for insubordination.  Her time in Washington was difficult and often times far from the rosy description she gives to the Editors. Despite her own tribulations, however, Charlotte obviously did not like anyone anyone speaking ill of the conditions publicly.

The following is Charlotte’s copy or rough draft of her letter to The Commonwealth.

Mr. Editor,

Your paper of the 19th was handed me today and it is so seldom that I see one from Mass. that I greeted it as a friend from home.  “Hospital Sketches” on the first page caught my eye, but I read it with no little pain and was tempted to give you a sum of my own experiences, it has been so different from the feeling expressed there.  I have been a nurse in hospitals in and near Washington for nearly a year and have heard much said about self denial and sacrifice, but I have had no sympathy with that at all.  My motives for coming and here were not, I am sorry to say, of the self denying sort.  I had no great idea of the good that I could do for I have no doubt there is many a woman at the North who would be glad of the privildge of coming who could do more and better than I can.  I came simply from the love of taking care of the sick and my interest in the war and so perhaps was better prepared to offer [?].  I must say that I cannot recall a year of my life that I have passed more pleasantly.  It is not, I think, that I have ben favored in the choice of hospitals for I have served in six different ones, including some of the worst as well as the best.  I have eaten off tin plates nothing but army rations and sometimes without a knife or fork but what of that?  I fared the same as the soldier and preferred that to partaking of the nicer victuals from the surgeon’s and stewards tables.  But I am blessed with a good appetite and it was rather and amusement and difficult to realize that I was sitting in the cellar of the Capital eating off an unwashed table or eating in this primitive style in its magnificent rooms above stairs.  Let no one criticize even that hospital too severely.  It was a temporary one in a building entirely unsuited to the purpose excepting in its fine and spacious rooms for the beds, but when it comes to perparing food for 1000 men best no one find fault untill he has been behind the scenes and seen what it invovles.  A hospital is a vast machine that requires a great many springs to be put in motion before it works evenly and smoothly.  In Armory Square Hospital which Miss seems to consider a model I have not a year since had the better part of many a meal from not going a the first sound of the bugle. I have eaten after the surgeons as well as before an found how essential it was to my comfort that they should be punctual at their meals.  A word in regard to the bread.  I know that the aeratated bread is used somewhat and that, when a day or two old is certainly much like sawdust but the army bread that we get in Washington is certainly excellent and superior to most homemade bread.  But what are such petty annoyances to one who has the priviledge of going into a ward in the morning and meeting the smile of welcome that greets her.  I have always heard it said that men did not know how to be sick, had no patience, but I was soon convinced of the fallacy of that doctrine.  I never saw such patience and fortitude as shown by our soldiers indeed the cheerfulness and even fine spirits of the soldier is almost proverbial.  I have in my mind’s eye a young man who had lost altogether the use of his lower limbs, could not even sit up in bed, but as he lay on his back or leaned on his elbow, his face was radiant with smiles.  I at first thought he must have heard some pleasant news.  I shall never see him again but if ever I am sick and inclined to be impatient I believe that face will be a lesson to me.  Then how pleasant to go round with the dressing tray and as one after another receives the refreshment of clean water and bandage to watch from day to day the gradual healing of the wound and listen to their kindly, pleasant talk for they are all your friends.  The sorrow is  that of the hundreds that I have watched and tended I shall probably never see ten again but I have met some curious instances showing that the smallest act of kindess is appreciated.  A young man came one day and spoke to me whom I did not recognize “you may perhaps remember” said he “I am the one whom you gave 2 soda crackers one day ’cause I could not eat my dinner.”  And let me say that though I do not doubt there is a great profanity in the Army yet in hospital I have rarely, except in delirium, heard a soldier utter an oath and in these few instances it was always followed by “I beg your pardon I did not know you were there” showing the respect of our people for women.  I must not forget the pleasant though sadder task of administering to the wants of the sick.  To bathe the aching head and moisten the fevered lips or even to speak a kind word are trifles but they are a solace to the weary, worn out soldier.  I have seen the tears glisten in more than on manly eye…

Charlotte Bradford’s diaries and letters are part of the Bradford Family Collection.  She lived her entire life, other than her three years in Washington, DC, in her family’s home on Tremont Street (The Gershom Bradord House).

Small Collections are coming!

Over 25 small collections, and we do mean small, have recently been processed. Some collections are no more than one item, most are no more than one folder. They range in topic from the 1742 Indenture papers of young Elizabeth Hedge, to the Civil War letters of John Southworth, to the construction documents of the Duxbury Alms House.  

Finding Aids for these smaller collections will be online soon.