Friday, March 12, 2021

'My precious Lyman': Returned to sender, a letter to a soldier

A letter addressed to Lyman Smith of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery in May 1864.
(Blogger's collection)

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The soul-crushing anxiety of a family with a loved one at the front seeps from a four-page letter nearly 160 years after it was written.

“Pray to God for your safe keeping” appears in neat, cursive writing on Page 1; on page 2, “the ear of Jesus is always open to our faintest cry.”

On pages 3 and 4, in another writer’s less-legible hand, appear the words “anxiety for your safety is doubled now,” “these dreadful battles cast gloom on us all,” and “May God bless.”

"My precious Lyman," his mother Julia started the letter to her son.

A tattered, three-cent cancelled stamp with a bust of George Washington remains affixed in the upper right corner of the letter's envelope. Near the left corner, a postal clerk stamped “Litchfield, Conn.” – the letter’s place of origin – and the date, “May 25, 1864.” In late spring in Virginia, Grant’s Army of the Potomac traded vicious blows with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and North Anna River – obscure places the letter writers surely had never heard of before the war. 

The letter was addressed to a 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery soldier in Washington, the Heavies' base for months. But in spring 1864, Grant yanked the Connecticut boys from defenses of the nation’s capital for deployment in his bloody Overland Campaign battles. 

Lyman Smith of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery
was from Litchfield, Conn. (Photo courtesy of
Smith descendant)
Someone crossed out the original address on the envelope, replacing it with “Litchfield, Conn.” The envelope is cleanly sliced open, perhaps with scissors or a razor. But by whom, who knows?

Nearly all the soldiers in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery hailed from small towns in Litchfield County, in western Connecticut. Many lived in the county seat of Litchfield, where citizens often gathered around the telegraph office in 1864, awaiting news of the fate of loved ones at the front. "You have no idea," one of them recalled, "of the intense anxiety in Litchfield in the days following [the Battle of] Cold Harbor."

I know Litchfield well, having visited the antebellum Congregational Church, where at least one soldier's funeral was held in 1864; examined the town's impressive Civil War memorial and stared at these markers in  West Cemetery: 

George Booth, killed at Antietam.

Edward Wadhams, killed Fort Darling.

Henry Wadhams, killed North Anna River.

Luman Wadhams, mortally wounded at Cold Harbor.

The letter, which sits on my office shelf, was written by Lyman Smith's mother, Julia, and sister, Mary. Lyman never read their loving words. The letter was returned to sender. 

Only 22, Private Smith was killed at Cold Harbor, Va., on June 1, 1864. He, too, has a marker in West Cemetery. 


"We shall wait with great anxiety," wrote Lyman Smith's sister, Mary.

My precious Lyman, 

Your letter from Fredericksburg containing twenty dollars came last evening. We had received one from you a day or two before from Ft. Craig with ten dollars in it—all of which we will keep for you safely.

Dear child, you are now in reality in the midst of war and you don’t know what anxious hearts gather around our table three times a day now [and] how fervently your sisters and myself pray to God for your safe keeping. Let your aspirations also go forth and mingle with ours before the mercy seat of Christ.

We ere not heard for our much speaking and you can lift up your heart even amidst the din and carnage of battle, and the ear of Jesus is always open to our faintest cry, and we never call upon Him in vain. He is able to keep you if you ask Him for He has said that He has “all power in Heaven and on Earth.” 

At Cold Harbor, Va., a marker explains action in which
2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery was engaged on June 1, 1864.
In the background, a monument to the regiment. 

We shall wait with great anxiety to hear from you. Write just as often as you can, if it not more than a line or two. Don’t let a week pass if it is possible for you to write. We are all well. I will make this letter short that I may get it into the Office this morning. I pray for you without ceasing, my dear Lyman. Pray for yourself and your loving Mother.

Wednesday morning.

My dear Lyman, I have only time for a few words this morning. Our anxiety for your safety is doubled now that you are at the front and we can only wait from day to day and hope for the best. May God guard you safely through it all and bring you to trust in Him instead of your own strength. These dreadful battles cast their gloom on us all—there is hardly a family but is sobered and saddened.

Edward Wadhams was shot through the heart a week from last Monday and left behind the rebel entrenchments at Fort Darling. It is feared that his body will never be found. Mrs. Luman Wadhams is with Mrs. Wadhams for the present. I shall call on her as soon as possible. 

Pa and [your brother] Ed are very busy with their farming. Pa is bushing peas today and Ed planting corn. I wish you were safely home. Write if only a word every time you can have a chance to mail a letter. 

We shall write to you often, although you may not get the letter. May God bless and keep you in safety, my dear brother. 

Your loving sister, — Mary

[Your sister] Nealie send love and will write in a day or two.

The complete letter from Lyman Smith's mother and sister, dated May 25, 1864.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

-- Letter transcription hat tip to William "Griff" Griffing of Spared & Shared. (Read about Griff, subject of my Civil War Times magazine column.)


  1. Anonymous8:46 AM

    I'm constantly amazed at both the beautiful prose and handwriting skills from that era . Those folks obviously took their time preparing their thoughts and writing them down .

  2. Having lived in Goshen, I know some of the Wadhams family that still live in the town, and the stories from the 2d Heavy. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Anonymous9:31 AM

    The same Jesus is alive today, whether in life or death. Many times we suffer loss ( I have a daughter who died young), but knowing God's promises ( as did Julia Smith in May 1864) gives us peace and hope for eternity. Life here on earth is short compared to eternity. ✝️