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Letters from Soldier in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry

[This letter was written by a soldier (Thomas Whetstone) in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, to his parents. Whetstone was born in Ohio and his paents still lived in Gallia County. He was later twice promoted, first to Sergeant and then to Captain. The Battle of Fair Oaks was fought on May 31 & June 1 and the letter is dated one week later. There were 5,000 Union casualties and 6,100 for the rebels. Up to this point in the war only the Battle of Shiloh in western Tennessee had produced more casualties.
N. Elvick

ARMY OF THE POTOMAC. We have been favored with the following letter by Mr. M. T. Whetstone, written by his son, who was in the recent battle before Richmond. It will be interesting to the numerous friends of the young soldier to hear from him:

Camp on Fair Oaks Field, June 8th, 1862

Dear Father and Mother:
     I embrace the present to write to you. I am well at this time, save fatigue and Thomas Whetstoneloss of sleep. The duties have been very hard, but are getting easier on us, as many more troops have come in since the battle. This is a lonely day, and they are scarce here. It has rained every day since the battle of last Saturday and Sunday. I have not been able to find out our loss accurately as yet, but it is not more than 2,500 in killed, wounded and missing, and not more than 600 or 700 killed and mortally wounded. The enemy's loss is more than double that. I have seen nearly 1,300 of their dead alone. It was a terrible fight. The forces met hand to hand. The bayonet was in constant use. Our Brigade charged them through a piece of swampy woods, and drove them half a mile across a wheat field. The Brigade lost 325 in killed and wounded. Some 60 killed; many of the wounded are slightly. In this regiment we had but two killed.—We here hid in a field of wheat till the enemy came within 50 yards of us, and then we poured one of the most deadly fires into them. They wavered, came back; we gave them another volley, when they ran in confusion. The 2nd New York charged them—they fled in all directions—rallied—came back and were charged again, and so it was kept up until it was so dark you could not see a man [at] twenty paces.
     In the morning, it was renewed, they being reinforced from Richmond, and we from the other side of the Chickahominy. The battle raged with desperation till a little after 11 o'clock, when the rebels broke all along the line, and the heavens were then filled with the cheers and shouts of the victorious Federalists. I tell you it was a proud day for the Union soldiers. Gen. McClellan rode along the line and thanked us for the bravery displayed.
     The rebel loss is not less than 5,000 to 7,000—the field presented a scene that if I should live a hundred years, I never would forget. The dead lay in heaps and all matter of shapes and positions. One poor fellow lay mortally wounded. In his hand he held a testament, looking at some text, that was marked by some loving mother perhaps. He seemed to look upon us as barbarians or heathens, and was carried to the hospital defying the Yankees. He said the Confederates would whip us yet—they were right and must conquer. He died that night. Some of the wounded were sorry that they had ever been in the war; some rejoiced in it; some think the rebellion played out, and others that the right must win.—Our advance was only four miles from Richmond on our right yesterday. We shoved our pickets ahead three-fourths of a mile, and drove the Secesh back yesterday.
     Our company lost one man three nights ago on picket. He was shot in the head. He was a fine fellow, and liked by all the company. His name was Henry Armsdorf. There will be a battle soon if the enemy does not leave; great preparations for it are being made. There is fighting all along the picket lines now as I write. One of their rifle pits was taken last night, and they are endeavoring to shell our men out of it, but they will not succeed.
     Your affectionate son,

The Gallipolis Journal
July 3, 1862

Camp on James River, Va., July 5th, 1862

     I am as well as could be expected, after one of the hardest trips on record. The army has fallen back some twenty miles to this place. We have fought the enemy for the last eight days, and they succeeded in turning our right flank, and we had to change front. It took us four days to fall back here. We fought them four hard battles and whipped them each time. Our regiment lost over 100 men in killed and wounded. There is something about this I don't understand—why it is we had to retreat and still able to whip them. It is all for the best I believe. The destruction of commissaries and munitions of war has been great, and so has the loss of life. Such carnage I never saw, nor do I ever wish to again, but you will see it all in the papers. Both sides fought with desperation. Our colors were shot down and the color-bearer killed, but were raised immediately. Secesh and Union men lay indiscriminately over the field. Great God, but war has horrors to make a savage's blood run cold, when it is seen in calm moments. I was over the field at White Oak Swamp after the battle at Savage's Station on the railroad. I lost one of my best friends.—He fell shot through the breast. He leaves a wife and two children in Minnesota.—I carried him off and received his dying words to his wife. It will be sad news to her.
     We are now some twenty miles from Richmond. The enemy have been largely reinforced on our front lately. It is reported that Beauregard and Jackson are here, and it is generally believed. It is our intention to stay here and rest for a while. There are several gun-boats here in the river, and secesh will not come this far, be he ever so strong.

July 7, 1862

     I wrote you two days since, but I was so tired I could hardly set [sic] up. This army had a hard time in changing front. Our division marched and fought four days and nights, and Porter's and McCall's for six days and nights, and you can form some idea how used up we were, but at every point we drove them back with great slaughter. Our loss has been great, some estimate it at 20,000, and none estimate below 10,000. McClellan says it is 12 or 15,000, and the Richmond papers own to a loss of 24,000 the first two days' fighting. Oh, it has been fearfully bloody. Never has such fighting been done on this continent before. Our regiment lost 95 men out of less than 600 all told. Our greatest loss was at Savage's Station, on the Richmond and York River railroad. It is reported that Stonewall Jackson is killed and Magruder a prisoner. I hope it is so, but I don't credit it. We lost Maj. Gen. McCall. He was wounded at White Oak and none know what became of him. His loss will be felt here as he was one of our most able generals. We are now on James river, some 20 miles from Richmond. The enemy are here in front of us, but we are ready for him: let him come. McClellan says let him come, and he told us that this army shall go to Richmond, let it cost what it may in treasure or blood. We are being reinforced here. Gen. Shields is here, and I heard last night that the 2d, 3d, and 7th Virginia regiments and two or three Ohio and Illinois regiments were here, and Pope is coming down on the other side and Burnside coming up on the south, so you see all looks well for Richmond yet. I believe sixty days will end this war and crush this foul rebellion to the dust, and then I want to see free use made of hemp, such use as would put in the shade Salem in her palmiest days of witchcraft and superstition.

[This is technically not a letter to the editor, but is included here as a matter of interest.]

     We were shown a beautifully carved pipe, made and sent home by Thomas N. Whetstone, member of the 1st Minnesota Regiment, in the Army of the Potomac. It is carved from the root of a laurel tree, which was torn up by a rebel shell at the battle of Antietam, and contains in nicely carved letters the names of the various battles in which Mr. Whetstone participated, as follows:—Bull Run, Ball's Bluff, Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Savage's Station, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Mr. W.'s parents reside in Gallia county. He was twenty-nine years of age on the [number hidden by fold]-th inst., is unmarried, and so far has not been sick an hour since he has been in the service. He thus far has passed unscathed through the iron hail, and we hope he will be as fortunate in the future. He is truly a hero, and worthy of the hand of a princess.

The Gallipolis Journal
January 15, 1863

Transcribed by Eva Swain Hughes

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