Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent home by soldiers to loved ones during the Civil War, most with several common themes: hardships, the weather, the writer’s health, a brief description of a battle, the boredom and routine of drill, and the longing for home. The majority of letters were meant for adults to read, not the youngest whose father or older brother was serving in the Army, so when letters written to children surface, they are quite special.
Three examples of letters written by a father to his children are housed at the Mercer County Historical Society in Mercer, Pennsylvania. It was in Mercer where Company A, 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was raised in the summer of 1862, commanded by a town attorney-turned-soldier, Abraham H. Snyder.
Abraham H. Snyder had a prominent law practice in Mercer, a town of 2,200 residents. The Snyders enjoyed the community and a warm home where they raised three children- Robert (the eldest), Jane and Carl, the youngest of the three. As difficult as it was to leave his growing family, Snyder was duty bound and in the call for volunteers over the summer of 1862, recruited a company of men in Mercer, which became Company A of the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Snyder was favored by the men in his company, who subsequently elected him their captain. Captain Snyder wrote home quite consistently and in mid-July 1863, as the regiment camped in northern Virginia, he took the opportunity to write each of his children an individual letter. The tone and narrative of each was different, dependent upon the age of the child and what they could understand, but all three carried the same theme of his children being good while briefly describing his life as a soldier.
Late on the evening of July 21, 1863, Snyder wrote to the eldest son, Robert:
“It is night. Many of the soldiers have laid themselves down to sleep. I shall myself soon retire for the night. But before doing so I will write you a short letter. I think mother wrote to me recently that you and sister were going to school this summer. I hope you will improve your time well, and thus become a good and intelligent boy.
“It is much easier and more pleasant to go to school than to be a soldier. Soldiers have to carry their clothes, rations, Gums etc., and on those long warm summer days they often get very tired. In times of battle and sometimes (page 2) on marches they get very little rest or sleep for days together. Then their food is not so good or so well prepared as yours is at home when you are going to school. Every way, therefore, you are more comfortable than the men in the Army.”
Early the next morning, Snyder addressed another letter to his daughter Jane:
“Nothing gives me more pleasure than to think of home. I often think of you and long for the time when this war shall be over, when peace shall prevail in our country and I shall again enjoy the comforts of home. In the meantime I am always glad to hear that my dear children are good and kind to their mother in my absence. It is a great comfort to me to know that such is the case. I hope it will always be so. I think the war will be over in another year and if I live I shall be happy to be with you again.”
Of the three, his special letter directed to the youngest is the most descriptive. The captain took great pains to fully describe what he was observing the moment he was placing pen to paper; a wonderful description of how his soldiers lived, worked and risked their lives to serve the Union, which also gives readers today a valuable insight into the daily life and diet of a soldier in 1863:
In Camp, Loudon County
Virginia, July 22nd, 1863
My Dear Carl,
It is six o’clock. The sun is up and shining beautifully. Most of the soldiers are either preparing or eating their breakfast. You would think they had rather a poor breakfast if you were here. They have Coffee and Sugar, Hard Bread, like that I sent you by Mr. Adams last winter, which they call Hardtack, and meat- generally salt pork, sometimes fresh beef. On marches and when not regularly encamped these things form the principal part of the food for the men. In Camp, where we stay for some time at one place, they get in addition to this Beans, Rice and sometimes Potatoes & soft or loaf bread, etc. The Government furnishes rations for the men. They get about enough for 3 days at one time which thy carry in their haversacks. When General Hooker was in command they often had to carry enough for 8 days, which filled their haversacks and knapsacks too. The officers have to buy their rations themselves. Sometimes they get bread and other things but sometimes they have to live just about as the men do. The Commissaries of the different Brigades follow the Army to supply them with rations and they sell such things as they have to the officers. Cattle are driven along and butchered from time to time as needed. Sometimes men get hungry for fresh meat and kill chickens, pigs, sheep, etc. wherever they find them. Still there are not many that do this. Sometimes too they offer to buy things and if people refuse to sell to them they rally and take what they want. This kind of conduct however is reprehensible as it sometimes subjects innocent people to great inconvenience and loss. We have no tables here, but set our breakfast on the ground on a Gum blanket & sit down beside it to eat. You would think it funny to see 10000 soldiers eating this way.
But soldiers have not only their rations to carry. They also carry their guns, their clothes and their ammunition, which altogether makes quite a heavy load. You will see from this that the men in the army often have a good deal of hard labor to perform.
War is itself a terrible calamity and should always be avoided if it can be consistently with the great principles of Justice and right. The present war has had its origin in the attempt of the people of the South (or rather the politicians of some of the Southern States) to subvert and destroy our government by establishing another pretended government within our own. They made war upon the Federal government and we are here in arms to defend ourselves and our country against this usurpation. It has been said all the South wants is to be left alone. But circumstances clearly show that if these traitors had the power they would rest satisfied with nothing short of the subjugation of the Northern States. General Lee has already several times attempted the invasion of Pennsylvania. You have probably heard of the battles at Gettysburg in the beginning of this month. I was present on the 2d. It was a great battle. Many men were killed and wounded. The rebels were driven back to Virginia again. They left thousands of their wounded and dead behind them. I hope that this war may soon be over and that we may never have another.
I hope you are well and still a good boy and that you will continue to be kind and obedient to your mother. And that we all may be spared by our kind Heavenly Father and permitted to see each other again.
Captain Snyder commanded his company through the difficult campaigns in northern Virginia through the fall of 1863. More often than not, he was the acting major or lt. colonel of the regiment due to the absence of other officers. Promoted to the rank of major in January 1863, Snyder proved to be as efficient in his role on the field and staff of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry as he had been as a company commander. In April 1864 while the regiment was in winter quarters near Brandy Station, Virginia, Major Snyder sat with fellow officers of the regiment’s field and staff for the portrait below.
One week after this photograph was taken, Major Snyder was dead, killed in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Despite his most sincere wishes, Snyder never saw his children again. Fortunately, Robert, Jane and Carl were not too young to understand the importance of the letters their father sent them the previous summer and carefully preserved all three for the rest of us to discover Major Snyder’s outstanding description of the life of a soldier during the Civil War as well as the hopes and dreams of a father so far from home.
John S. Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park