Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"I hope that this will end better than the last."

During the American Civil War soldiers and civilians alike experienced the myriad of national past-times of which we all partake today.  Four years worth of holidays provided an opportunity for both hope and reflection to all those forcibly enduring the uncertainty of the terrible conflict at hand.  Indeed it was also at the holidays that many families, both North and South, most felt the terrible emptiness of the chairs left vacant around the table.

Private John Campbell 
For one family in Fitchburg, Massachusetts there was still much to be hopeful about as 1861 passed into 1862.  Twenty-two years earlier in Poughkeepsie, New York, David and Ann Campbell gave birth to a son whom they named John.  Not unlike many youths of his time, John's parents made sure he was well mannered and they taught him the importance of hard work early on.  Little information survives about John's childhood and young adult life.  At some point though, John moved to the hills of north-central Massachusetts along the banks of the North Nashua River.  Fitchburg became his home, and shoemaker his trade. 1 

1861 was a momentous year, not just in John's life, but in the story of the nation.  After the firing on Fort Sumter, John enlisted in Company B of the 15th Massachusetts on July 12, 1861.  They were known as the "Fitchburg Fusiliers."  Less than one month later he took another large step on the ladder of life.  He married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Morton, also of Fitchburg.  The newly-weds had little time to celebrate their new union though.  John and his unit were called to move towards the mighty Potomac River only five days after the wedding. 2

Ball's Bluff Today. 
On the morning of October 21, 1861, the 15th Massachusetts was ordered across the Potomac River near Leesburg, Virginia as part of a reconnaissance in force led by Brigadier General Charles Stone.  Private Campbell and the rest of the regiment were across the river and moving shortly after 8:00 AM.  Soon federal pickets bumped into mixed Confederate cavalry and infantry.  Shortly before 11:00 AM, John Campbell and the rest of Company B were ordered to the front as skirmishers.  It was not long before the bullets started flying and the baptism of fire ensued for John and his mates.  Fighting hard against troops from Virginia and Mississippi until nearly dusk, the 15th Massachusetts and a number of other commands were gobbled up in the entrapment along the steep banks of the river...Ball's Bluff.  The regiment lost over 300 men, of whom 44 were killed or mortally wounded in the debacle.  General Stone took the fall for the catastrophe and in consequence was imprisoned for nearly six months without receiving a trial.  He never held a significant front-line command again. 3

Private John Campbell was lucky to have escaped his unit's initial bout unscathed, but the experiences of that day deeply embedded within his subconscious.  Regrouping, the 15th Massachusetts was sent to Poolesville, Maryland to quarter for the winter, only a few miles from where so many of their former comrades had perished.  Although mixed emotions surely touched John Campbell's mind and body that winter, he had survived a difficult first exposure to war.  On January 1, 1862 he penned a letter to his father and mother that was inspirited with hopes of better days ahead. 4

"My health is good

Headquarters Camp Foster Poolesville. M.d.
15 Reg’t Mass Volunteers, Comp B
Jan 1st, 1862
Pages 1 & 4 of the letter with a very unique header
Dear Father & Mother
                I received your kind letter last night and was glad to here from you and the rest of the folks. I received seven letters from different persons last night the first that I have had in three weeks and it made me feel good.  I was on guard last night and I had a chance to watch the old year out and the new one in.  I hope that this will end better than the last.  

There was four nigers come over the river one day this week and gave themselves up to our pickets.  They had four good horses with them.  They ar in our camp and I have had a chance to talk with them.  They say that the rebels have four regts in Leesburg and they ar all from mississippie.  He sayes that the rebels lost more men in the fight at balls bluf that we dide.  There is a good deal of sickness in camp at the present time.  There is three of ours boys sick with the measles and some sick with the jaundice and it makes the duty hard for the well ones but I am willing to do all that I can when I am well.  There has a good many gon home on furloughs.  We have to go on guard about four times a week and that is the hardest duty we do.  We have about one hundred new recruits and it will not be so hard for us after they get use to dutys of a soldier.   We hade our monthly inspection yesterday noon.  I will tell you what that is for.  It is to see that we have everything that we need and to answer to our name when the rool is called so that we can get our money when pay day comes.   I do not think we shall get paid befour the middle of this month.  What do you think of the officers in the union army?  Do you think they ar the men for the places they hold.  I think we have some traitors left and the sooner we get them cleaned out we will be better off.  I suppose you heard of the trick that Gen Stone played about three weeks ago when the fight was.  There was four slaves crosed the river and staid with us some time one Saturday.

Pages 2 & 3 of the letter
He took them and went to the Ferey and sent them acrost but the Rebel pickets would not let them land and I for one am glad of it.  Do you call such a man as that true to the union?  It will not do for me to say anymore at present but you know what I think of such men.  We have got some new tents and they are good big ones.  There is 17 of us in one and we enjoy ourselfs in good shape.  I received a letter from Uncle Laws last night.  He is at Annapolis.  He says the talk is that they are going in the expidition.  I wished that the 15th Regt was going for I want to see the south before this is settled.  I had a letter from Cousin Ellen and four from Lizzie so you must excuse me for not writing more to you.  Give my love to the folks.  Write often.  Accept this from your affectionate sone
GoodBy                                                                                                                John Campbell " 

Clearly for young John Campbell, the war had already been transformed into a conflict based on the principle of freedom.  The cause was Union and the abolition of slavery.  The necessary evisceration of the nation as a means to that end seemed worthy of the sacrifice.  Of course with that in mind, the heart of a soldier always returns to those he's left behind.  "Lizzie" (Elizabeth) was the priority, even over mother and father.  She had been his bride for less than five months, but the war surely made it seem so much longer.

An end to the prolongated struggle of war must have ranked high on the list among the fighting men for a national New Year's resolution.  Unfortunately for John Campbell, his wife, his parents, and millions of people in the Confederacy and United States, that was not to be... at least not yet.  The fighting 15th Massachusetts had a lot of fighting left to do.

January Flowers in the West Woods
In just a few short months John Campbell participated with his unit in the bloody struggles on the Virginia Peninsula at Fair Oaks and in the Seven Days' Battles.  They then moved back to the banks of Bull Run and participated in the Second Bull Run campaign.  At the beginning of September, after the federal's resounding defeat on the plains of Manassas, Robert E. Lee invaded south-central Maryland.  The marching drum led the 15th Massachusetts to the banks of another modest stream known as Antietam Creek.

On September 17, 1862, Private John Campbell and the 15th Massachusetts were marching across Farmer Miller's cornfield to the southwest, towards a seemingly insignificant woodlot known as the "West Woods."  Careening awkwardly astray between 9 and 10 AM, the regiment ended up on the left end of the brigade line.  As they turned downward into the shallow hollow protected by the canopy of the West Woods, a blistering volley of catastrophic proportions brought the regiment to it's knees.  Many of the men in the 15th tried to return fire, but within minutes seemingly shorter than seconds, it appeared as if Lee's entire army had surrounded them. 6

Although briefly stunted, the regiment was still viable and the division's second line arrived in their rear for what the officers of the 15th Massachusetts thought was their much needed support.  The 59th New York came up in the rear of the Bay Staters and suddenly struck fear into every man in the ranks.  Mistaking the 15th Massachusetts as the enemy, the New Yorkers fired straight through the left end of the 15th Massachusetts, dropping many more men out of the ranks.  According to Lt. Colonel Kimball of the 15th, an effort was made to communicate the error to no avail.  Finally the Second Corps commander, General Sumner, arrived on the scene and extricated his massacred units. 7

For their part at Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, the 15th Massachusetts made the greatest sacrifice of any regiment north or south that participated in the terrifying ordeal on that bloody, bloody Wednesday.  Somewhere in that brief window so full of melee, Private John Campbell had lost his dream of a better year.  At age twenty-three, the young Private who had expressed so much hope only nine months before, had made the final sacrifice...the ultimate sacrifice.  He was one of a total of 104 men in the 15th Massachusetts that had answered the final role call. 8

Christmas of 1862 and New Year's Day of 1863 came and went, with many more vacant chairs across the country than anyone on either side could have imagined.  One of those vacant chairs rested quietly just as it had been left, in the home of the Campbell's of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.  

The 15th Massachusetts Monument at Antietam.  The plaque on the reverse side bears the name of John Campbell.
1. Harnwell, Susan. The Roster and Genealogy Project of the 15th Massachusetts online, "Roster and Genealogies of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry." Accessed January 1, 2014.  This is by far the most comprehensive roster detailing the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry.
2. Ibid.
3. Morgan III, James A. A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball's Bluff & Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2011.
4. Campbell, John. "John Campbell to Mother and Father."Britt Isenberg Collection. Ed. Britt Isenberg1 Jan 1862. Print.  "FIFTEENTH REGIMENT MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEER INFANTRY THREE YEARS." n.pag. Civil War Database. Web. 1 Jan 2014. <>.
5. Ibid.
6. Armstrong, Marion V. Disaster in the West Woods. Western Maryland Interpretative Asociation. Theodore P. Savas, 2002. 22-25. Print.
7. United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series 1, Volume 19, Part I, p. 312-314
8. Ford, Andrew E. The Story of the Fifteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War 1861 - 1864. 1st Ed. Clinton Press of W.J. Coulter Courant Office, 1898. 210. eBook. 

Photo Credit:  Private John Campbell From 15th MA Roster and Genealogies Page, , Photo courtesy Leon Basile

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