Saturday, July 01, 2017

Letters after Gettysburg: 'Your sainted husband fell asleep ...'

The Wheatfield, where 27th Connecticut officer Henry Merwin was mortally wounded July 2, 1863.
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After battles ended, informing loved ones of the deaths of soldiers began. The duty often fell to a commanding officer, another comrade or the chaplain of the regiment. As in the case of Confederate General Paul Jones Semmes -- who suffered a mortal wound at The Wheatfield at Gettysburg -- sometimes a stranger took on the sad task. Some condolence letters were short and matter of fact. Others went into great detail about a soldier's death, even noting the gruesome nature of wounds. Below are three Gettysburg condolence letters. (For all Civil War condolence letters posted on my blog, go here.)


At Gettysburg, Lieutenant colonel Henry Czar Merwin commanded the 75-man 27th Connecticut,   the smallest Union regiment in the battle. Eight companies in the regiment had been captured at Chancellorsville in early May -- Merwin was among them, but he was paroled later that month. On July 2, 1863, the 24-year-old officer was wounded in the chest in The Wheatfield and died hours later. His body was returned to Connecticut, where his funeral was a major event in in his hometown of New Haven. "The people would cherish his name," the New Haven Daily Palladium noted, "and immortalize it with indelible characters on the tablet of Fame." Merwin was buried in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven

On July 12, 1863, 27th Connecticut Lieutenant David S. Thomas wrote this condolence letter to Merwin's brother, Samuel:

S. E. Merwin, Jr.


Henry Merwin "was the man for the boys 
of the regiment," a 27th Connecticut officer wrote.
Enclosed please find $2 -- a small amount advanced me by your brother when we came to this place. Henry also gave me his old blouse and overcoat. The former I wear at present, and both I shall take with me home. The value of these articles is of course little, but should your family wish to retain them for their associations I will leave them with you. In the great loss you have sustained I can but add my sympathy to the general sorrow of the regiment. I am conscious that the deepest condolence fails to rectify events, or that the most sincere sorrow of friends cannot assuage the poignant grief of family affliction, yet a companionship of months forms ties which a soldier serves [indecipherable] in silence, but the memory of which still clings to him through all vestitudes [indecipherable] of life.

A frequent recipient of his kindness myself, I had learned to look upon Col. Merwin as the head of the regiment -- the father to the men and the friend to all. In camp, on the march or on the battle field Col. Merwin was the man for the boys. It was he whose kind words and kinder deeds cheered the sick and encouraged the wayworn -- it was he who inspired us in battle and who looked to our welfare when the battle was over. We had hardly a comfort -- but it was associated with his name, and we never had a sorrow that any exertions on his part could banish. Any proficiency in drill which the regiment may have attained is due in a great measure to his personal attentions, which to him I am directly indebted for what knowledge I have gained of military. Both officers and men will ever cherish the memory of Lieut. Col. H.C. Merwin, as they would cherish the memory of a very dear brother.

Yours, Lieut. D. S. Thomas

SOURCE:, accessed July 1, 2017.

          PANORAMA: Henry Merwin's 75-man regiment was routed in The Wheatfield.
                                       (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)


Confederate General Paul Semmes, a 48-year-old banker and planter from Georgia, was wounded in the thigh during a charge in The Wheatfield on July 2. “Severely wounded. Main danger over," he wrote in a short letter to his wife on July 9, 1863, from Martinsburg, Va. (now West Virginia), where he was treated. "Stay at home. Will write." Semmes died the next day. His remains were returned to his native Georgia, where he was buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus. This condolence letter to Semmes' wife, Emily, from a Martinsburg woman named Mary Oden vividly captures the general's last days. 

Friday July 10th 1863

My Dear Mrs Semmes

I need hardly ask you to pardon me for addressing you in this your season of sore anguish and bereavement, it will be enough to state in apology for so doing, that your sainted husband fell asleep among us; it was a privilege to have his example before us, teaching us that the soldier of Christ has nothing to fear when passing through the dark valley. Dr. [Jacob Milton] Hadley, one of his surgeons, remarked to him that he bore his sufferings with great calmness, his reply was, I am endeavouring to bear them like a Christian philosopher; even when suffering severe pain he seemed to take pleasure in conversing and after he became so ill talked constantly of his family.

Paul Jones Semmes was mortally wounded
in The Wheatfield on July 2, 1863.
The Confederate general was buried
in his native Georgia.
In a conversation with him, he told me that he thought he would write the despatch to be sent to you himself as you would feel less uneasy. I suggested that it might be taxing his strength too far, he wrote but little however; you have I suppose received it, but we thought you would like to have the original, we fortunately obtained it from the operator here, you will find it enclosed with several locks of hair in this letter.

I know by experience how hard it is to resign a friend from whom we have been separated for a long time, whom he had fondly hoped to see again; that they should die far from home and among strangers adds keenly to our grief, but you my dear friend in affliction, will derive infinite comfort from the knowledge that his brother, your nephew and a friend that loved him tenderly, when he breathed his last were with him; he passed away just as Dr. Pryor a Presbyterian minister had opened the Testament to read to him.

To a minister who was with him earlier in the evening he expressed his willingness to die; his only regret was leaving his wife and children. Much very much sympathy is felt for you all; I have thought so much of your daughters, I too am fatherless, yes even worse  han that an orphan indeed, but little more than a year has passed since our dear Mother was numbered with the dead; my dear Father has been dead a number of years and I know what it is to be without that fatherly love and protection which the heart ever yearns for. Excuse me for referring to my own trouble, I only do it in order that you may feel that you have the warmest sympathy of those who know how to sympathize, because they too have trod affliction’s path.

I wish you could see the quantities of beautiful flowers brought here this morning; for fear you may not be able again to look upon the deceased, I will tell you the arrangement, for no particular is trifling concerning those we love; a large bouquet of white flowers and evergreens was placed upon his bosom, white jessamine, clematis, and ivy were placed around the sides of the coffin near his head, on the outside two bouquets similar [inserted: to the first] were placed, one at the foot, the other
below the glass, in the middle his coat and sword have been laid. His remains are laid in the sitting room according to Captain Cody’s request, as it takes some little time to make arrangements, he preferred it to the parlors.

Surgeon Jacob Milton Hadley cared for mortally wounded 
Confederate General Paul Semmes in Martinsburg, Va. 
(now West Virginia). Hadley was captured by the Union army at 
Martinsburg in July 1863, days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Your husband desired Mr. Cleveland to find out each of our names in order to tell you, our family consists of my Aunt Mrs Pendleton, Mr & Mrs Allen, (my brother in law and sister) my sister Kate, my brother and myself; we have a friend Miss Murphy who was with us during his sickness. His friends now make efficient nurses that we could not do much, Kate prepared herself what little he eat while here; he came on Sunday morning July 7th [5th] about eleven o’clock, he rested better he thought that night than usual; the next morning he seemed better; in the evening my sister took him some raspberries and cream which he seemed to enjoy very much, he talked to her sometime about Virginia and Georgia.

Thursday evening between three and four we thought he was dying, a surgeon and minister were both sent for, once he asked what time it was on being told that it was three, he said “by quarter past three I hope to be with Christ."

We told Mr Hanson, that he was far away from Christ that he had not come up to His standard, but he was willing to die and ascribed his conversion to your example. I have been this minute in relating as far as possible all that relates to the departed, for fear that  you may not hear all, for gentlemen sometimes forget little things that transpire, then perhaps Mr Cleveland may not be able to go to you, every word I know is treasured up as a precious memorial in the heart’s casket and a twice told tale is not unwelcome when it concerns our beloved ones. While I write my heart is saddened by the thought that you are unconscious as yet of your irreparable loss. I wish you could be here, but God has ordered it otherwise, and may He give you grace patiently and resignedly to say, “Thy will be done.”

           PANORAMA: The Wheatfield, where General Semmes was mortally wounded.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

In conclusion my dear Mrs. Semmes allow me to say, that what little we could do to conduce to your husband’s comfort has been a great pleasure; we saw him first two weeks before his death passing through with his Brigade, his appearance struck us so forcibly that Captain [George] Cheever, his commissary whom we had known before asked us if we would like to make his acquaintance, we then invited him to tea, his duties prevented his acceptance of the invitation, Captain Cody came with Dr Told & Capt Cheever and though we had not known the General he seemed very far from a stranger when brought among us. He has passed away but his spirit is now enjoying perfect peace; we mourn not [inserted: for] the dead but the living: for those who will grieve sadly that the privilege of ministering to the departed was denied them accept the love and deep sympathy of each member of our family, praying again that God may strengthen you even as he did him.

I remain with much love your sympathizing friend.

Mary Oden

One little circumstance I have forgotten; a few moments before the General died, he asked for his sword, laying it across his arm, he asked again for his Testament he took it and with it in his hands expired, they would have left it so, but that he had asked that you should have it. Oh! if all our warriors might die as he did, death would be robbed of half its sting.

PS -- You will also find a few evergreens, taken from the bouquets laid upon the coffin my sister thought you would value them.


Oden, Mary (1863, July). [Letter to Emily J. Semmes]. The Gilder Lehrman Collection, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, N.Y. Transcript retrieved July 1, 2017, from

(National Archives via


John Rinker, a private in the 108th New York, was mortally wounded on July 3, 1863. Rinker, a German whose first name apparently was anglicized from Johannes, died the next day. He left behind a wife of three years named Johnanette, who was pregnant with the couple's second child. The Rinkers had another son, 2-year-old Lewis. Rinker's final resting place is unknown.

Camp 108th Regt NYV, Aug. 4.

Mrs. Rinker
Dear Madam

Your husband was in the Battle of Gettysburg & it is my painful duty to acquaint you of his wound & consequent death.

He was shot through the bowels & died the next day.

He died in a hospital & was decently buried.

With much respect I am you obt. servant

A. T. Wells
Lt. Company A.

SOURCE: John Rinker's widow's pension file, National Archives & Records Service, Washington, D.C., via

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