One Union Soldier’s Letters Home

In 1972, letters written by 23-year-old John Eliza Tidd, Jr., to his sweetheart Amelia Haskins were discovered in a secret room of a house in Slaterville Springs, southeast of Ithaca. Forty-eight letters, dated September 1862 to October 1865, form the central narrative of Dear Friend Amelia: The Civil War Letters of Private John Tidd. Tompkins County historians Mary Jordan and Joyce Hatch researched John Tidd’s and Amelia Haskell’s lives and families, as well as the background context for the book’s narrative. Dear Friend Amelia has been published this year to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

The text places John’s experiences in the context of the larger conflict. It is lavishly illustrated with black-and-white, sepia and color photographs and illustrations. The visual components are drawn from Civil War sources, Reconstruction-era mass circulation periodicals and books, as well as regional and national historical photographs (among them, Mathew Brady Studio photographs from the collection of the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego). Also included are photographs of 109th New York Volunteers’ Civil War artifacts from a local collection, and several contemporary landscapes and architectural photographs in color by Tompkins Cortland Community College Instructor and Photography Department Chair Harry Littell.

Private Tidd’s letters are primarily declarations of fondness for Amelia and home in Tompkins County, written in a voice that is poetic, strong and affectionate. Most of them carried the salutation “Dear Friend Amelia.” The hand-scripted pages were filled with routine army life details, as well as brutal facts and war observations.

Jordan and Hatch chose to leave the letters in their original form. There are spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, as well as occasional slang expressions and archaic language, which they hope will enhance the authenticity of his missives. They are presented in chronological order.

In keeping with the best traditions of storytelling, the authors do not reveal the outcome of John’s wartime service and his relationship with Amelia until his final letters, and readers are urged to avoid the temptation to page ahead. That there is suspense as the story unfolds is evident in a review written by Martin A. Sweeney, Town of Homer historian: “As the book picks up steam, the reader begins to fear that John Tidd’s odds of survival are diminishing. Will he make it home? Will he make it into the arms of Amelia Haskell?”

In addition to the letters, photographs of John and Amelia were found in the secret room. Sadly, no letters from Amelia are known to have survived. However, the authors were able to unearth 13 additional letters from other sources and readers can trace the personal transformation of an idealistic young man into a worldly, questioning, doubting and occasionally cynical person. Here’s how his story unfolds.

Answering the call for volunteers
On April 12, 1861, as John Tidd made barrels at the Owen and Brothers Cooperage in Rawson Hollow, not far from Slaterville Springs, momentous events were unfolding elsewhere that would profoundly affect his life. Confederate secessionist cannons fired for the first time on Union troops. The Northerners, stationed at Fort Sumter on an island in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor, fired back. The next day, the Fort Sumter garrison, nearly out of food and short on gunpowder, surrendered. The Rebels had fired some 4,000 rounds, and the Union had answered with perhaps 1,000. The U.S. Civil War had begun.

In the spring of 1861, soldiers on both sides tended to think that war would be of short duration, perhaps settled in a single battle. The 75,000 volunteer soldiers President Abraham Lincoln called for to quell the “Great Rebellion” were obliged to serve for a period of between only three months to two years.

Fifteen months later, on July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed an order for 300,000 more volunteer soldiers to serve terms of three years. He realized the North was faced with a long war, having witnessed as many battle disgraces as triumphs.

By the time New York State began its volunteer recruitment drives that summer, many early-war Union recruits had found Army life less than glamorous. They had been leaving the ranks for the past year, their obligations fulfilled. Others were deserting. To replenish the ranks, President Lincoln and his administration underscored the situation’s urgency by threatening a draft if an insufficient number of volunteers enlisted.

During the evening of July 12, 1862, in the Tompkins County community of Speedsville between Ithaca and Binghamton, local organizer Robert Hyde and others spoke to a large crowd about the opportunities for men to serve in the Union Army. The question of slavery was not addressed, just as it was not mentioned at most war meetings across the North. The speakers emphasized that the war was being fought to preserve the Union, the most common reason advanced in contemporary discourse. The evening ended with Hyde calling for volunteers, after reminding them of the $52 bonus (about $1,100 today). Not a single man stepped forward. Many were farmers, either harvesting or planning to harvest their crops for the season, with the coming winter not far from their thoughts.

Although Hyde’s war meetings drew large crowds, he had convinced only 20 men to sign enlistment papers by August 8, 1862. Among them was Tidd, who enlisted on July 31. He was probably motivated by the bonus money, which he would use to support his aged father. The money would not be available to men who waited to be drafted.

Hyde needed 80 more men to form a company.

On August 9, freshly commissioned as a captain, Hyde met with his volunteers and potential recruits near Berkshire. Another 71 men signed their enlistment papers for Company B of the 109th Regiment, New York Volunteers. They returned to their homes with orders to meet two days later in Owego. Additional men volunteered on August 11, filling the 109th Company B roster.

Private Tidd was excited to leave home for the first time on a train departing for Annapolis Junction, Maryland, on August 30. Amelia Haskell watched from the crowd of well-wishers. Amelia worked for George and Janette Williams in Rawson Hollow where John had lived while working at the cooperage, and he was sweet on her.

Describing the realities of war
Initially, Private Tidd viewed war as a great adventure in which he might play the role of hero. Early letters describe euphoric public parades. On September 14, 1862, he wrote, “I have not got home sick yet and do not intend to but would like to see you all very much but I had much rather stay and fight for you and our Countrys liberty then to be at home when our Country is in danger. You need not be afraid of the rebels comeing to Speedsville for you know I promised to keep them back.”

When preparing for what he thought would be his first battle near Beltsville, Maryland, on October 12, 1862, Private Tidd bragged to Amelia, “I will try and kill as many as two or three for you.” The battle never took place.

After the draft was instituted, John describes how his duties changed. Gala, noisy parades were soon replaced by the tedium and misery of guarding railroads, bridges and telegraph lines between Baltimore and Washington.

Beginning in mid-January 1864, he was tasked with escorting new soldiers to their units. Later that spring, the “band box railroad regiment” as the 109th had come to be known, was assimilated into the 9th Corps under General Ambrose Burnside. For the next year, John and his comrades experienced grisly war in many battles, including The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor, followed by constant trench warfare during the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater.

By August 31, 1864, he wrote, “I did’nt go into the battle nor did’nt intend to; it has played out, this fighting. I never will shoot another reb, only to save my own life. I consider it nothing but murder.” On September 21, 1864, he answered Amelia’s question concerning how he got out of the last fight by writing, “Just as easy as could be. When the Brigade advanced, I just stoped & let them go on; easy enough was’nt it?”

He did not see his behavior as cowardice. He had witnessed and participated in his fill of killing and nearly being killed.

Similarly, his views on abolition, leadership and politicians changed during the war. His epistles also reveal how poorly trained, ill-equipped, malnourished and sick the Union soldiers were, which helps explain why fighting the Civil War continued for so long.

Countless bullets, grapeshot, canister shells, cannon balls and other projectiles flew, and swords and bayonets were brandished and bloodied until the Confederates gave up their fight. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On April 12, four years to the day from the war’s opening shot, Lee’s army laid down their arms. An estimated 620,000 soldiers had died, 360,000 of them from the North.

Petersburg, V.A.
June 20, 1864

Dear Friend,
It has been a long, long time since I heard from you last & you cannot imagine how much I want to hear from you. I should have written to you before now even if you did not write to me but I could not learn where you were. I was sick while at Spottsylvania & when they marched from there was left behind to do the best I could. I bought & begged my way through the country for ten days before I reached my company, seven miles of Richmond & for three days through an enemys country, likely to be taken prisoner at any minute. Ten of our men were taken not fifty rods from where I was. I cannot describe to you what I suffered during that ten days! Sick, tired & hungry, it seemed to me as though I should have to give up entirely. I would not have run a step to have got out of the hands of the rebs. While I was away from the Regt the mail came & they thought I was taken prisoner, so they destroyed the letters after opening them & finding no money. One came for me from Speedsville & I did’nt know but what it might have been from you. I will venture at last to write to Speedsville & if you should receive it, answer it imedietly and you will receive my everlasting regards. We have’nt but a few men left in our Regiment. In the battles of the Wilderness & Spotsylvania we lost about 300 men & last Friday the 17th we charged across a corn field about 1 P.M. in the afternoon & when we came out all we could get together was 42 men out of 220 men. The next morning the report was made out & we lost one hundred and two men killed, wounded and missing. Our company had one missing, James Phillips & two wounded. Very lucky to the other companys. Our Capt was wounded so I am in Command of the company & it is commanded by a Corporal. Also, there is’nt but one company in the Regt commanded by a commissioned officer; the most of them are sick. Capt Gorman & [Marshall] Warwick is killed & Sergt Jones and Sergt Barton are killed. Sergt Benedict, Capt Evans, Sergt Chandler are wounded. About 400 men have now been lost in the Regiment. Our company only musters 12 effective men. Co. K lost 32 men in the last charge. The grape and canister shells & bullets that pored into our ranks was awful to behold. No words can express or pen portray the awful scene through which we passed. Men falling dead & dieing all around you. We won the victory but it was dearly won. .… Write soon & I will give you more of the particulars in my next letter. Write a long letter. From your true friend and well wisher.
John Tidd

PS. Please send this, whoever receives it, to the one directed & you will receive my thanks. Direct to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 9th Army Corps. Our battle flag was lost in Spotsylvania and the state flag was shot into in the charge the other day.

A “Dear Friend Amelia” exhibit honoring the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with copies of original letters, envelopes, and other ephemera and artifacts is on display through July at The History Center in Tompkins County. The exhibit recognizes the lives and sacrifices of local people who served in the war, and explores the lives of the families and loved ones left behind.” The centerpiece will be the letters of soldiers, particularly the ones written by Private John Tidd and Major (Doctor) Tarbell of Ithaca.

For more information, contact The History Center at 401 E. State Street, Suite 100, in Ithaca, 607-273-8284. E-mail or visit Copies of Dear Friend Amelia also are available for purchase at The History Center.”

by Ronald E. Ostman and Harry Littell

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