Saturday, May 03, 2014

Cold Harbor: 'Pray for me ... am not in fit state of mind'

Cold Harbor witness: Chaplain Winthrop Phelps with his horse, Ned.
 (Photo: Litchfield Historical Society)
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Without a change of clothes for weeks, a filthy and sheel-shocked Chaplain Winthrop Phelps of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery jotted down a few lines in a two-page note to his wife from hot and dusty rural Virginia. The date was June 1, 1864, and earlier that day the regiment, recently pulled from Washington's defenses by Ulysses Grant and re-deployed as infantry, had faced its first major fighting of the Civil War. The result was horrific: 85 killed, 212 wounded and 19 missing during a futile charge on the well-entrenched Rebels at the Battle of Cold Harbor, 10 miles northeast of Richmond. Many of the wounded would die later in field hospitals.

Colonel Elisha Kellogg was shot through
the head and killed at Cold Harbor
 on June 1, 1864.
(Litchfield Historical Society)
"Throughout the battle, the shells flew all about to my terror," the 46-year-old chaplain wrote to his wife, Lucy. "You cannot conceive the horror and awfulness of a battle. I never wish to hear another, much less see it." (Read complete letter below.)

And later, he chillingly wrote: "Pray for me. I cannot write — am not in a fit state of mind."

Most of the casualties for the "Heavies" were young men from towns in Litchfield County — Litchfield, Kent, Washington, Torrington, Goshen and New Milford and elsewhere. Among the dead was the regiment's 39-year-old colonel, Elisha Kellogg, a well-regarded, tough-talking man who was shot in the head. "In the eyes of civilians, Colonel Kellogg was nothing but a horrid, strutting, shaggy monster," Dudley Landon Vaill wrote decades after the war. "But request any one of the survivors of the Nineteenth Infantry or the Second Artillery to name the most perfect soldier he ever saw, and this will surely be the man."

Another casualty was 29-year-old Lieutenant Luman Wadhams of Company A, who had been wounded through the abdomen and would die two days later. He was the third son from the Litchfield family to die during the war. Mourners crowded Litchfield's Congregational Church "to its utmost capacity" and "large numbers of strangers from out of town came to pay their respects to the lamented deceased." He was buried in West Cemetery, not far from the center of town.

The terrible toll of  the battle that Phelps described in the letter to his wife can be seen today on memorials and in cemeteries throughout Litchfield County. Here are snapshots:


Cheered on by thousands, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery assembled on the town green and marched off to war in mid-September 1862. Fourteen years later, a memorial was placed on that same green to honor the men in the regiment and others from Litchfield who didn't survive the war. A close-up of the Roll of Honor etched on the west side reveals a grim total: 14 soldiers in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery who were killed or mortally wounded at Cold Harbor. ...


... Shot in the head and killed instantly at Cold Harbor, Lyman Smith, a 22-year-old private in Company A, was one of them. Comrades recovered his remains for burial in Litchfield's West Cemetery. "Break the sad news to Lyman's mother and father," Private Lewis Bissell wrote about his cousin on June 2, 1864. "I have not seen his body but some of the boys have and attached his name. Robert Watt lies near him. Tell his mother that I have his Bible. I shall send it home if possible. If not, will keep it until I can." Smith's Company A suffered 27 killed or mortally wounded at Cold Harbor. ...


... Wounded in the side by a gunshot on June 1, 1864, Apollos Morse, a 20-year-old corporal in Company A, was taken to a 1st Division, 6th Corps hospital, where he died a day later. His body was returned to Litchfield County, where the middle child of Jane and Lewis Morse was buried in Northfield Cemetery. Apollos' death especially rocked his mother, who before the war depended on the labor of her son and during the war received part of his bounty money as support. Compounding her misery, Mrs. Morse husband, a farmer, had apparently abandoned the family shortly before the war. By 1867, the family farm was "not productive" and in "bad condition," according to an affidavit submitted in support of her "widow's" pension claim. ...


... Ten days after he was wounded in the leg and arm at Cold Harbor, Charles Adams Jr, a 19-year-old corporal in Company A, died aboard a steamer on the Potomac, near Washington. The son of  Charles and Julia Adams regularly wrote letters to his parents and sisters during the war, offering thoughts on generals McClellan, Burnside and Grant and on President Lincoln. The teenager, promoted to corporal a little more than three months before his death, is buried in Litchfield's East Cemetery ...

.. The remains of  Corporal Joseph E Camp, a 22-year-old son of a doctor, were never recovered, the sad fate of thousands of soldiers during the Civil War. Camp's name is still plainly visible (above) on the Northfield Civil War memorial that was dedicated in 1866, making it one of the oldest the country. On a cenotaph nearby in the Northfield cemetery are these words: "He sleeps in secret, but his grave unknown to man, is marked by God."

                        WINTHROP PHELPS' LETTER TO HIS WIFE

"You cannot conceive the horror and awfulness of a battle," Winthrop Phelps wrote to his wife. 
(Letter in Litchfield Historical Society collection)

Cold Harbor, Va., June 1, 64
Dear Lucy

About 12:50 last night, after hearing Col. & Staff concluded from order given to that we could sleep one night straight through unless the "Johnies" disturbed us, we were aroused by the order prepare to move at once. So up we got & in about two hours were off. Here I was arrested by a move of the Regt. for only a short distance to prepare for battle, which came in terrible form, killing probably 100. The killed, wounded and missing is about 300. I am safe. Throughout the battle, the shells flew all about to my terror. You cannot conceive the horror and awfulness of a battle. I never wish to hear another, much less see it. I went out to see this & found myself in such danger I soon fled. Just a moment after I left my place to see the awful work, a shell burst then & wounded one with me, who has since died. Col. K [Kellogg] was killed early in the battle. Lieut. ...

"I am an object to behold -- dirty and ragged," Phelps wrote. 

... Wadhams of Co. A was mortally wounded but is not yet dead. Pray for me. I cannot write -- am not in fit state of mind. I send this by the only source. Some of the wounded being taken to White House [Va.] to be sent to Washington, I suppose. Do not expect more than a word at any time. How I would like to hear from you. We have no mail.

Yours affec.

Go over to see Mrs. K. [Kellogg] I have not had clothes off a single night since starting, nor have they been changed. I am an object to behold -- dirty and ragged. Now & then find a brook in which to wash. It is hot and very dusty. A large number of troops came today, the fighting is not much. We drove them in morning.


  • Bissell, Lewis, The Civil War Letters of Lewis Bissell: A History and Literature Curriculum, Page 267
  • The Litchfield Times, June 1864
  • Winthrop Phelps letter to Lucy Phelps, Litchfield History Society collection
  • Vaill, Dudley Landon, The County Regiment, Litchfield, Conn., Litchfield County University Club, 1908


  1. John, great post! I'll be sending you a photo of Robert Watt mentioned in the post.

  2. John, great post! I'll be sending you a photo of Robert Watt mentioned in the post.

  3. Lester: Fabulous! Need a photo of him for a talk I am going to give soon.

  4. Lester: Fabulous! Need a photo of him for a talk I am going to give soon.

  5. Your blog is so well done.

  6. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Nice article, you capture the sentiment of the soldiers so well.