Letters from the Siege

Published 10:35 pm Saturday, April 20, 2013

Part 9: Johnny Reb & Billy Yank

By Kermit Hobbs

Special to the News-Herald

The study of history is sometimes regarded as little more than a memorization of events and the times and dates they occurred.

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Many people enjoy digging deeper, seeking an understanding of why the events occurred and how they are interrelated. But the way to really understand history is to look at the events through the eyes of the people who lived them.

The Civil War is a rich field of study of people and their times because of the many letters and personal accounts the participants left behind. These allow us to “become” those people and truly understand their feelings, fears, and motivations.

Here are excerpts from two letters, one from each side, that give us the opportunity to study these men and compare the mindsets of the two of them.

Frederick W. Hager of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry volunteered for a period of nine months in early 1862 and was present for the entire Union occupation of Suffolk. Here he describes events that followed the appearance of the Confederates in April 1863.

James S. Leonard was a private in the 4th Alabama Infantry during Gen. James Longstreet’s “siege.” He was stationed in Fort Huger when he wrote this letter, which is dated April 18, 1863, the day before the surprise attack that captured the fort. Private Leonard’s company was relieved from the fort at 11 p.m. that same night, so he escaped the capture.

The most noteworthy thing to notice about these two men is that, even though they were from homes a thousand miles apart and they fought for opposite sides, their letters are remarkably similar.

Both men are confident in their circumstances; they are completely devoted to the causes they are fighting for; they both pray to the same God for their success and deliverance. They are intelligent enough to understand their situations and how they fit into the overall mission that they are fighting for. Perhaps the foremost characteristic of both is the great love they have for their homes and families.

In the world of fine arts, the early to mid-nineteenth century is known as the Romantic Era. This was a time when music, art, and literature emphasized idealism, emotion, and virtue. Interestingly, at the time of the Civil War, the notion of romanticism reached even into the conduct of military affairs. Up to this point at least, warfare was regarded as struggle between gentlemen, to be conducted with honor and dignity.

Frederick Hager and James Leonard were just such men.

Hager’s letter

Dear Olive,

We got all ready to get on board the cars last Friday when the order was countermanded and we again put up our tents. Saturday afternoon we were started out by the “long roll” and we immediately came to the rifle pits on the double quick, and we have been here ever since. It was a grand sight to see about 3 miles of Rifle pits all full of men and the forts ready for action. We shall no doubt have a battle here, but we are all behind earthworks and have no doubt we shall give them a big whipping. All the boys are full of fight, and I never was in better spirits in my life.

The rebels are about 35,000 strong. We are about 20,000 on the front that we occupy we can bring about 90 pieces of cannon to bear on the rebs. They have got to come over an open field, about a half mile in the face of them and then they will run against our earthworks every foot of which has a man behind it with a good rifle. If they don’t catch “Hail Columbia” I am greatly mistaken. On the river side of the place we have good fortifications and eleven gun boats in the river, that can throw shells clear over the town into the rebels if it is necessary. We are consistently receiving reinforcements, and shall probably be 30,000 strong by tomorrow night. President Lincoln says we must keep the place at all hazards. We are haveing skirmishes with the enemy night and day, but we have repulsed them every time. Genl. Peck has just issued an order congratulating the troops on their endurance and fortitude for the last three days, and says we will hold the place at all hazards. He has great confidence in all his men.

Our regiment has not lost any men yet although some portion of them have been skirmishing with the enemy all the time. You need not worry about me for I feel confident with the help of God, that I shall do my duty faithfully and come out of the fight all right. I have written to you the plain facts, so that you need not take any notice of the many rumors that you will probably hear. Give Mother my best love and a kiss for the children, and big share of love to yourself.

Do not expect to hear from me again for several days, for all my spare time I need to sleep. We may not have the final fight for a week yet. Continue to send papers and letters to Suffolk. Either let Billy Cade see this or tell him why I do not write. Hoping dear Olive that this will find you will and happy and with much love I remain.

Yours affectionately,

Fred W. Hager

Excuse the writing for I write on my knee.

Leonard’s letter

Breastwork on Nansemond River

Near Suffolk VA
April 18th 1863

My Dear Wife,
We are now lying in a small breastwork on the river, our guns bearing upon the water ready for the first gun boat that tries to pass. We were put in position here night before last but before day had to be very quick in getting in as the Yankees are ever on the lookout and every hill top across the river has guns planted on them. I could look at any time & see their soldiers passing to and fro and the night is made hideous with the rumbling of wagons, artillery carriages & the roar of the guns on their boats. We have got the boats hemmed in (three or four in no.) and every preparation is going on to take them… We have some forty or fifty pieces of artillery along the river bank, some very heavy pieces and this day it is thought the bombardment will commence…

We worked to a late hour on the breastwork to protect ourselves against the enemy’s sharp shooters… We had a man wounded in our entrenchment yesterday, not seriously though. he went out to get a canteen of water and was found by the enemy’s sharpshooters. So you see we have to lie up close all day, get water at night rations also. Sent Charles in the country during the day to get something to eat for us which he brings at night I get very tired of the close confinement. Were it not for the excitement of the rapid continual picket firing I don’t know what I should do. Several of our pickets were wounded yesterday, one killed. It is amusing to hear shouts back across the river at the Yankees who lie close and shoot at anything that stirs. They shot as us frequently yesterday but since we raised our embankment in our front we can defy them. I like the excitement. If it was not for the difficulty of hearing from you, I would prefer being here to our old camp…

The siege upon this place has lasted much longer than I thought and I doubt very much their ambition of taking the place. I can’t but think there is some strategy in the move, a feint to cover a more important one… Major Shoemaker is chief of artillery he seems determined to hit the boats and we are all anxious to cooperate with him.

I have not had a letter from you since Lt. Kenney came back but I know I will get several when the mail comes in. I am very well. John wishes to write to Mary & we have only one pencil so I have to close to give him time to finish before night. I will write a longer letter next time. I hope you are (well). Kiss my little ones for me. Tell John his Pa sees lots of “Wanks” every day… Love to Pa, Sis, Mary & Frank. Remember in your prayers your absent husband who always wishes you Happiness. Goodbye. May heaven bless and protect you.

Your Husband,
Jas. Leonard