Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Letters home: 'Your husband to death'

Many of John Holwell's Civil War letters to his wife are part of the 
Civil War Manuscripts Project
at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Like thousands of other Civil War soldiers, John C. Holwell wrote letters home.

Lots of them.

Often colorful and sometimes eloquent, the letters to his wife and sons back home in Connecticut  mentioned preserving the Union, fishing, life in camps, the pleasure of receiving a family photo and even a pledge to stay away from "Demon Liquor."

"I have not got a drink of rum since I left Hartford or any other kind of spirits," the corporal in Company H of the 11th Connecticut wrote Rebecca Holwell on March 23, 1862, "but I should liked very much to had a good horn the day after battle as we needed it badly."

And, of course, he wrote of fighting the rebels.

Envelope for a letter John Holwell wrote to his wife, Rebecca, back in
Norwich, Conn.  (Connecticut Historical Society)
The 11th Connecticut's first major battle of the Civil War didn't come until March 14, 1862, nearly four months after the regiment was organized in Hartford. Attacking at New Bern, N.C., an important link in the Confederate supply chain, the Union army overwhelmed the outnumbered and ill-equipped  rebels. The 11th Connecticut suffered six killed, including the well-regarded Edwin. R. Lee, a captain of Company D from Barkhamsted.

Holwell, who also served in the Mexican War, evidently was a better soldier than he was at gathering intelligence on the enemy.

"It was a wander we were not cut to pieces as the rebels had three times our number and stood behind giant breast works," he wrote of the New Bern battle in the March 23 letter. "But thank God I have escaped unhurt."

From the manufacturing town of Norwich, Holwell enlisted in the Union army on Nov. 21, 1861 and was mustered into Company H as a private two days later. John, a ropemaker before the war, and Rebecca had two children, Henry and Edward. Listed as 5 years old in the 1860 U.S. census, Eddie apparently was the apple of his father's eye.

His last name misspelled "Howell," John Holwell was listed as a ropemaker in the
1860 U.S. census.
Holwell was married and had two children. (CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

In his letters home during the Civil War, Howell often mentioned his children.

"Kiss Edward and Henry for me and I hope they will be good boys," he wrote in one letter "...I will bring them a handsome present when I come home."

"Your dagerreotype and the children's look very natural and I was very glad to receive them. ..." he wrote in another. "I hope little Eddy will keep on going to school and be smart. The men down here all like his picture and praise it up highly."

TOP: The 11th Connecticut crossed this ground near Burnside Bridge
 in this image taken by Civil War photographer James Gibson after
the Battle of Antietam. (Library of Congress Collection) BOTTOM:
Holwell was among nine men in Company H of the 11th Connecticut
listed as killed in the Hartford Courant on Sept. 26, 1862.
Thankfully, many of  Holwell's letters home have survived, tucked away in a file in a box at the Connecticut Historical Society. I don't have a photo of John Holwell to accompany this post, but I think his letters to his family back in Connecticut, including the snippets below, help paint a picture of a hard-nosed patriot and a family man caught up in the swirl of a terrible war.

March 17, 1862 (from New Bern, N.C.) : "Rebecca, you wrote to know how we were living. We live a soldiers life. It is a hard life but what a soldier should expect. The day of the battle we had nothing at all to eat and had nothing till the next day. But I am pretty tough and can stand it pretty well. We have not received any money since January 1st. I hope you will get along and not want anything. Write and let me know if you need anything. We shall probably be paid in a short time.

"Please write soon and let me know all the children get along. Send Edward to school for I expect he will sometime endure all that I have gone through. Sing the "Red, White and Blue" till all the southern states have laid down their arms and our flag waves over every place in the Union. Do not get discouraged but keep up good courage. I want to come home but not till the whole south has laid down her arms. It will not be very long."

March 23, 1862 (from New Bern, N.C.):  "I want you to send me a small parcel by express. Send me three yards of braid. Blue about about one inch and three yards half-inch wide blue and three yards half-inch wide red. I want it for stripes as I have been promoted to Corporal. Send me some fish hooks and lines. This is a good place to fish if we get to stop here."

June 30, 1862 (from New Bern, N.C.):  "Do not at all be alarmed because we may go in a battle. That is what we came here for. We do not expect to run or shirk any duty."

July 14, 1862 (from Newport News, Va.):  "I am now enjoying first-rate health. I hope you and the children are well. All the things you sent me in the box came in first rate and were acceptable on board the boat when we had nothing else to eat. I have no more to write now. Give my best respects to the neighbors. Tell Eddie to keep on going to school and be a good boy. If we succeed in reaching Richmond I shall soon be home to see him."

Nearly six months after he concluded a letter with "your husband to death," the ropemaker from Norwich was killed during the 11th Connecticut's attack at a small, stone-arch bridge over Antietam Creek.

Corporal John C. Holwell was one of 36 11th Connecticut men who died at the Battle of Antietam.

He was 41 years old.

His final resting place is unknown.

John Holwell concluded his March 23, 1862 letter to his wife with these words. Nearly
six months later, he was killed at the Battle of Antietam. (Connecticut Historical Society)


  1. nice work John.

    But the Photoshopped likeness of your ownself is painful.

  2. Anonymous9:52 PM

    yes, guy, that is one painful photo... JB

  3. John, great job. You're becoming one of my top resources for information on the 11th CT, who I hope to publish an article about for the 150th anniversary of Antietam. Scott Hann

  4. Another great posting about another brave soldier from the town where I currently live.

    I've been to Antietam and to Burnside Bridge and I've got t think that it was a pretty horrible place to march into knowing that you were going to be picked off like fish in a barrel but going forth because you believed in what you were doing and the sanctity of the Union.

    I wonder what happened to little Edward later in life?