I take up my pen: Letters from the Civil War

This online exhibition of Civil War soldiers’ letters is adapted from a 2008 exhibition at the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park. The letters are drawn from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, which contains more than 12,000 Civil War soldiers’ letters, most of them never before seen by the public. Complete transcripts of all these letters are available as pdf’s and a booklet of selected letters is available at the Gilder Lehrman History Shop.

Union soldiers writing letters home from Camp Essex, Maryland, in 1861. Courtesy

Nearly three million men served in the Union and Confederate armies from 1861 to 1865; writing letters was their principal connection to the homes and families they left behind. Before the letter censorship of later wars, Civil War soldiers wrote about everything that was on their minds—the battles, politics, slavery, food, camp life, the weather, their leaders, their brothers in arms, the places they visited, their health, and all the things they were missing from home. They wrote on the back of knapsacks, in the midst of battle, during a break from the march—and often with the barest writing essentials. They produced a volume of personal correspondence that no other American conflict has seen before or since, helping us to better understand the letter writers themselves, the conflict in which they were engaged, and the defining era of our nation.

A drummer boy is depicted writing and receiving letters from home in Thomas Nast’s "The Drummer Boy of Our Regiment," published in Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863. The Gilder Lehrman Collection

Long separations from home were hard on soldiers and on their families. Letters were the only form of communication, and the soldiers’ most tangible connection to the civilian lives they left behind. Mail from home could raise morale or, at the other extreme, instigate desertion.

The first page of A. D. Clifton’s four-page letter to his family in Mississippi,

For most soldiers, the war was their first extended absence from home, and the separation from their families was felt more keenly as the war went on with no end in sight. On June 23, 1864, Confederate officer A. D. Clifton of the 6th Mississippi Cavalry wrote of his love for his family and longing for the day he would return home. Clifton was killed three weeks after this letter was written, at the battle of Harrisburg, Mississippi.

The first page of a letter from Maxine Jones in Cornersville, Tennessee, to her

Since most campaigns and battles took place on Southern soil, Confederate soldiers often worried about their families’ safety. Alfred Jones, a surgeon with the 17th Tennessee Infantry, was present at the battle of Stones River in Tennessee, December 31, 1862, through January 2, 1863. The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. After the battle, the Confederate Army of Tennessee retreated, yielding important ground to the Union. While immersed in treating the wounded, Dr. Jones received the following letter from his wife, written from their home in Cornersville, Tennessee, where she could hear the battle. One can only image his state of mind learning of her anxiety while surrounded himself by the dead and dying.

A letter from Georgiana Tillotson to her father, George, serving in the 89th New

In June 1862 George Tillotson, a corporal and later a sergeant in the 89th New York Infantry, received news that both his daughters, Lucy, 3, and Georgiana, 6, were seriously ill. Lucy died of her illness. Georgiana (also called "Dollie") survived and two years later it was she worrying for her father in this letter of July 31, 1864.

He did return home safely in 1864, and lived on his farm in Greenville, N.Y., until his death in 1918.

Elizabeth Tillotson with Georgiana (standing) and Lucy in 1862. Son Leon is on t

Many men joined the army with strongly formed opinions on what the war was about. For others, who joined for the adventure, the war shaped opinions. In diaries and letters home, soldiers discussed their motivations for fighting, their morale, and the politics of the day—including the emotional issues of slavery, secession, and reunification. As the images and letters that follow illustrate, individual soldiers’ ideas about "the cause" could vary from soldier to soldier, and with any given soldier, could change over time.

'Dividing the National Map,' a campaign poster from the presidential election of

This print of 1860 dramatizes the sense of the nation being torn apart by the presidential campaign in progress. The Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln (at far left), and the Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas are shown tearing at the West, and John Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat, has ripped away the southeast, while John Bell, of the Constitutional Union Party, is trying to repair the northeast with a supply of Spalding ’s glue. Abraham Lincoln was elected to the surprise of many with forty percent of the popular vote and sixty percent of the electoral vote, and the prophetic image of a divided country came true.

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The November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln convinced Southern states that the federal government would initiate judicial and legal action against slavery. This broadside was printed in Charleston, S.C., on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina voted to repeal the Constitution of the United States and seceded from the Union. The Constitution of the new Confederacy would sanction the unrestricted right to hold slaves

General Orders No. 1, issued January 2, 1863, conveyed the Emancipation Proclama

In September 1862, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect on January 1, 1863. By this act, slaves in the Confederate states were freed. This document shows the means by which ordinary soldiers received the official announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which the War Department distributed as General Orders No. 1 on January 2, 1863. Henceforth, the soldiers knew that the objective of the war had been expanded to include the freeing of slaves and the end of the "peculiar institution."

Virginian Christian Epperly describes his despair about the Southern cause in th

Men of both armies harkened back to the American Revolution to explain their cause. Union soldiers wrote of preserving the nation their forefathers had created, while Confederates expressed that they were fighting for the liberty to manage their own affairs. William Clegg, a soldier from Louisiana, writing in his diary on July 4, 1861, gives his opinion: "This is the first 4th dawning on our glorious Confederacy," and mourns that the "best of all human governments is a failure & was but an experiment."

Christian Epperly, a private in the 54th Virginia Infantry, had lost faith in the Confederate cause by late summer of 1863. In his letter of August 19, 1863, he declared "the south first started on a just corse but our o[w]n wickedness and disobedians has brought us to what wee ar: . . . wee aught to submit to any thing to have this awwful war ended."

The second page of a letter from Union officer John P. Jones to his wife in Illi

Initially, the strongest motivation for Northern soldiers was the preservation of the Union. Later, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation dramatically changed the war’s political objectives, arousing a variety of responses from Union soldiers. Some soldiers lamented Lincoln’s new policy, feeling it would give Confederates more motivation to fight on.

Other Union soldiers, however, immediately celebrated the news as a turning point in the war and in American history. John P. Jones, a lieutenant in the 45th Illinois Infantry, whose letter is reprinted here, rejoiced that "a new era has dawned, the car of liberty and civilization is rolling on. . . . We now know what we are fighting for."

A broadside recruiting African American soldiers for the Union Army. Note Freder

Acceptance of African American soldiers in the military was one result of the Emancipation Proclamation. The right to bear arms for the Union was one that African American leaders like Frederick Douglass had advocated since the beginning of the war. African Americans were finally allowed to serve in 1863 with the founding of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and other black regiments in the Union army.

Here the men of Co. E, 4th United States Colored Infantry are photographed in th

By the end of the Civil War, some 200,000 African Americans—such as the men in the 4th U.S. Colored Troops pictured here—had joined the Union forces.

Despite initial skepticism on the part of many Union soldiers, the performance of black troops earned them the respect of their white compatriots. Charles Morey, a corporal in the 2nd Vermont Infantry, wrote on June 19, 1864, about the siege of Petersburg, Virginia: "The negro troops were engaged yesterday and did splendid service they are just as good soldiers. . . . they are well desciplined . . . and command the respect of the white soldiers."

Routines of camp come to life in this watercolor by a Union soldier, Private Hen

Civil War soldiers spent most of their time in camp or on the march. Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, recalled that “war was an organized bore.” Camp life could be dull, but it was heaven compared to the miseries and horrors of combat.

Men and officers of the 114th Pennsylvania enjoy a card game in August 1865. The

While many men reported playing cards and gambling, others, like Christian Epperly, were dismayed by the "cursing and swiring and card playing Sonday and every day. . . . it cant be possible that I can stay with such a crowd of men; but I stil put my trus in god hoping he will soon deliver me."

The first page of a letter from Confederate soldier John P. Nugent to his mother

Once the soldiers broke camp to march and fight, physical hardship replaced boredom and the temptations of camp life. Long marches with full equipment, heat, sun, dust, insects, cold, rain, mud, short rations, equipment failure, and other miseries all took their toll.

A Texas Cavalry officer, Gustave Cook, reported home in February 1863 that "the weather was most intensely cold . . . and more suffering I never saw . . . one man was frozen to death and many were frostbitten. Among the rest your sweetheart has a pair of frostbitten feet and a finger."

Another southerner, John P. Nugent, a private in the 16th Louisiana Volunteers, gave a fuller account of the privations he endured during the Perryville Campaign through Kentucky and Tennessee in the fall of 1862.

The first page of a letter from Union soldier George Tillotson to his wife in Ne

Patriotic fervor weakened when men were confronted by the realities of military camp life. Besides the routine of constant drill and other duties, they also dealt with poor food, sickness, restlessness, and what many perceived as the character flaws of their fellow soldiers. Men in both armies complained often about the food. Rations were monotonous and sometimes stale or bug-infested. Here, after advising his wife on some irksome home matters, George Tillotson of New York reported in great detail what he was eating in June 1862, as well as what some men did to get out of fighting and working.

Henry Berckhoff of New York evocatively illustrated the battle of Cross Keys, Vi

Soldier slang referred to battle as "seeing the elephant." For the survivors, combat was unforgettable, yet difficult to describe to those at home. And the aftermath of battle could be even more shocking. In their writing to loved ones, soldiers attempted to come to grips with the experience.

Nearly everyone attempted to describe their first experience in letters home. Edward K. Ward, a Confederate officer in the Shelby Grays, a company of the 4th Tennessee Infantry, provides a soldier’s perspective on the battle of Stones Ridge, Tennessee, December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863.

The second page of a letter from Edward K. Ward, a Confederate officer, to his s

Nearly everyone attempted to describe their first experience in letters home. Edward K. Ward, a Confederate officer in the Shelby Grays, a company of the 4th Tennessee Infantry, provides a soldier’s perspective on the battle of Stones Ridge, Tennessee, December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863.

The first page of a letter from David Smith, a Union soldier, to his family in N

A week after the battle of Gettysburg, a Union soldier, David Smith of the 12th New Jersey Infantry, wrote a vivid description of facing the waves of Confederate soldiers who made up the famous "Pickett's Charge" in that fateful battle.

The fourth page of a letter from Joseph Jones, a Union soldier, to his wife in I

A veteran of numerous battles, Joseph Jones, of the 79th Illinois Infantry, thought Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863), in Georgia, the worst battle he experienced.

The drummer boy, visibly hardened from his battle experience, returns home to hi

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