A Hard Road to Travel- Two Perspectives, Part 1

While the three day battle of Gettysburg is certainly the most figurative event in the eastern theater of war during the summer of 1863, the month-long campaign to reach that fateful encounter lasted from early June through mid-July, filled with numerous skirmishes and battles, hardships and heartaches. Arguably, the campaign extended through mid-August as both armies maneuvered through northern Virginia before taking up positions along the Rapidan River.  The campaign that saw the High Water Mark of the Confederacy was an experience the survivors would tell and re-tell through hundreds of letters sent to family and friends; stories, hopes and speculation expressed on paper give the reader insight into the daily routine of soldier life and what they endured on those long lost dusty roads north to the Potomac River and beyond. Here are two of thousands of examples of letters written before and after the battle of Gettysburg, which give us some insight on what these soldiers, North and South, hoped to achieve that summer and their reaction to the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Lt. Colonel Selden Connor, 7th Maine Infantry

Selden Connor- Maine at War

Colonel Selden Connor , 1863 (Maine Historical Society)

Selden Connor was born into a family of means in Fairfield, Maine on January 25, 1839. He attended Tufts College (now university) in Medford, Massachusetts. After graduation in 1859, Connor resided in Vermont where he pursued the study of law. The outbreak of the Civil War abruptly changed his plans, and he volunteered for service as a private in the 1st Vermont Infantry (three-month service) though a chronic sinus condition plagued his brief time with the regiment. Upon hearing that his home state was raising three years’ regiment, he applied to Governor Washburn, Jr. for an officer’s position and was given the rank of lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Organized at Augusta, the 7th Maine mustered into service August 21, 1861, and left the state two days later, bound for Baltimore, Maryland where it was attached to General Dix’s Division for guard and defensive duties. After six months of army re-organization and administrative adjustments, the 7th was finally assigned to the Third Brigade, Second Division, Sixth Army Corps, and its service under the Greek Cross began.  Colonel Connor excelled during this period, the regiment’s drill and inspections were top notch and the men developed a grudging respect for their commander. By the summer of 1863, the experience of war, its victories and defeats, intensity and tedium had hardened Connor and his regiment to the realities of campaigning and what lay ahead, expressed in his letters to family members throughout June:

Camp of the 7th Me Vols.
Near Fairfax Station Va.
June 17, 1863

My dear sister,

          We are after the “rebs”. Old “Strategy” is abroad. Last night was our first real rest since Friday. We left the Rappahannock last Saturday night and we’ve been traveling ever since as if the “devil” himself had kicked us hardly stopping to eat or sleep. It was the hardest march yet, worse than the retreat from Richmond. Men fell out by scores “played out” by the heat, dust and exertion. Some died in the road by sunstroke. This morning the boys (page 2) are as gay as larks; they have rested and washed themselves and soldierlike in the east of the present moment they forget all past hardships. They are anxious too to get at “Johnny Reb”. I am hearty and tough. The “7th” is “few” but neither “faint” or “fearful”. I heard the boys sing last night on the march-

“Then clear the track you rebs,
“Here comes the Seventh Maine;
“Our Colonel is a fighting man,
“His boys are all the same, etc.”

Complimentary, wasn’t it? Our Corps and the 2d are here; we rest here to day. We shall probably be on the move tomorrow. I hope mother is better with you; you must be (page 3) careful not to let her tire herself handling the “new baby”. Give my love to “John Henry Brooks”*. I think I will send him a pair of brass knuckles to enable him to fight his way through this vale of tears. Tell Katie that Uncle Sel loves her best because he didn’t know the boy. Love to mother and Linda. Let me hear from you often.

 As ever,
Sell[1]

[1] Selden Connor Papers, Brown University

(* recently born son of Connor’s sister)

1st Lt. John T. Gay, 4th Georgia Infantry

K, 4th Georgia

Company K, 4th Georgia Infantry, 1861. The LaGrange Light Guards were similarly uniformed and armed. (Library of Congress)

LaGrange, Georgia. Over its thirty-three year history, the seat of Troup County had blossomed into west Georgia’s finest and richest city, a center of commerce, host to several academies and colleges, fine homes and stores, surrounded by sprawling cotton plantations from which members of the “LaGrange Light Guards” were recruited. Monthly drills were a social affair, typically wrapped up with refreshments and social discourse on local events. The Guards’ last drill in LaGrange that warm day in April 1861 was marked by tearful goodbyes as the men boarded a train bound for Augusta where they were destined to be mustered into service as Company B of the 4th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, commanded by the dashing Colonel George Doles. By June 1863, Doles commanded the brigade as it trod northward and across the Potomac River, the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Among the regiment’s junior officers was John T. Gay, who began service as a private in the “LaGrange Light Guards”. Elected 2nd lieutenant in June 1862, Gay was wounded and captured at Sharpsburg that September. Paroled and exchanged in December, Gay recovered in a Petersburg hospital and after a brief furlough returned to the regiment the following winter as a newly minted 1st lieutenant.

The march into Maryland and Pennsylvania was a refreshing relief for Lt. Gay, who had seen so much devastation in Virginia. His letters home, written on scrounged paper and captured envelopes, reflect the same enthusiasm expressed by Colonel Connor, though certainly for different reasons:

Greencastle, Penn
June 23d, 1863

Dear Prudie,

            I have just learned that there would (be) an opportunity of sending a letter to the rear tomorrow, with a probability of getting it mailed; and not withstanding it is almost night, yet I cannot resist the temptation of writing a few lines just to let you know that, although, I have gone back into the Union again, I am alive & well. We have had a long, long tramp and now find ourselves in the dutch settlements lower Pennsylvania. We move forward tomorrow to Chambersburg- cant say (page 2) how much farther we will proceed. We are on a regular raid, gathering up horses, cattle and army stores- have already captured a great many of each, besides over a hundred negroes. All are sent back as soon as captured except such articles as are necessary for the army. The people here are nearly frightened to death. They think we will kill & take & burn every thing as we go. They are, however, happily disappointed in this one thing, as we only appropriate such things as are necessary for the comfort & benefit of the army. The soldiers are not permitted to commit any depredations of any kind. The citizens here are so badly frightened, that they (page 3) stand at their gates, as we pass along the road, with large pails & tubs of water- men & women- and give to the soldiers as they pass along. They even excell our own Southern ladies in waiting upon the soldiers. Anything they have, if you ask for it, you can get. Confederate money is perfectly good with many of them. All this though is done to obtain favor and prevent us from destroying their property. Really they hate us as bitterly as it is possible for mankind to hate. I have no idea how the expedition will turn out or when will return to Va. Before we proceed much further we will probably (page 4) have to meet a tremendous force of Pennsylvania militia. Our officers & men are confident and in high spirits. Our men hold up under the march splendidly. The boys of our company are quite willing. I have just been detailed to act as Quartermaster of the regt. I think I should well like the position most especially as I will have a horse to ride. This, however, is only temporary and I may be sent back to the co. in a few days. Our Quartermaster is with our main wagon train, in the rear & I will act until he comes up again. I haven’t had a letter from you since I left Williamsport. Perhaps I will not have another opportunity to write while I am in this state. (top of page 1) Prudie, I would give anything on earth to be at home to night.  I want to see you very much. I hope you remember me in your prayers. It is night. Love & a kiss to all & may God bless my dear little wife. . J.T.G.[2]

[2] Mary Barnard Nix Collection, University of Georgia

 Coming up in part 2, Connor’s and Gay’s letters home on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

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This entry was posted in 4th Georgia Infantry, 6th Army Corps, 7th Maine Infantry, Civilians, Soldier Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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