When Marcia Pollock Wysocky, a historian and author from Winneconne, Wisc. was given 13 handwritten letters by her mother's neighbor, Gayle Baylor of Friendship, Wisc., she was quick to notify the …
When Marcia Pollock Wysocky, a historian and author from Winneconne, Wisc. was given 13 handwritten letters by her mother's neighbor, Gayle Baylor of Friendship, Wisc., she was quick to notify the president of the Warwick and Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Commissions, Pegee Malcolm. The letters had been written by a 22-year-old man from Warwick, Albert Fenner Waite, who was serving in the Civil War. The recipient of those letters had been Baylor’s great-grandmother, 18-year-old Clara Francis Carpenter, possibly an object of Waite’s affection.
As a member of the 15th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Company G, Waite penned a letter to Clara on Aug. 4, 1861. It read, in part; “Probably this letter will find you sick with the galloping consumption as you said your turn to be sick would come next… If we do not get shot, we will be starved to death. I could tell you many hard things but I will let it pass now… I suppose this will be the last letter I can write on northern soil. We had 113 horses come and 25 Army wagons. If you could see what a load we have to carry on our backs, you would pity us poor sinners… I expect next Tuesday will be the day we start for Baltimore or Harper’s Ferry. I don’t know which… When I read of the slaughter the RI boys met with, I scarcely spoke for the next day. Not because I felt in the least discouraged, but to think so many brave sons of RI should get killed when fighting so nobly for freedom… I feel proud of RI and would give everything if I could go under the gallant Gov. Sprague to the field of battle. When I read in the paper, all I look for is something concerning little Rhody. When I fight, it will be for R. Island and Mass. can go to the old Harry. There is no place like home I tell you… I don’t want you to tell my folks but I think my chances are rather slim for coming back alive… I sometimes think what shall become of me if I get killed… Tell my mother I am well and hope she is the same. I am sorry to think she takes so little comfort. It would not surprise me to hear she was dead within six months. When she is gone, I have lost my best friend… I must bring my letter to a close as I have got to pack my clothes in my knapsack and get ready for tomorrow.”
On Aug. 13, 1861 Albert wrote to Clara from Camp Kalorama, Washington DC; “My Dear Dolly Dartton, We marched 6 miles with 70 lbs. on our backs. I must confess, as far as show is concerned, we looked splendid. Our band played excellent and, in the excitement of the hour, I forgot what our destiny might be in a short time… We took a ferry boat which was waiting and crossed the Delaware River a short distance above where Washington and his army crossed… I never suffered so much as when marching from Baltimore to take the cars for Washington. About a dozen fainted on the way. After reaching the depot, the boys was so dry that they drank the water which was given them by the people. The consequences was that they poisoned about ½ dozen of us, but they all recovered… You are not safe anywhere if you are known to be a Union man. ”
Albert told of how they were camped out at an old plantation and using the house as a hospital. He described the discomfort of riding and sleeping in cattle cars during the journey and how he heard the 2nd RI was fighting the direction of Fairfax Courthouse. “This is where Col. Ellsworth was shot and can be seen from here as it is only 5 miles off… We have more reports about fighting in the vicinity of Fairfax Courthouse and have been ordered to be ready for a moment’s warning… Tell everybody that I am well at present but may have to sew up bullet holes before you get this letter… I need not tell you every time I should like to see you. You must take it for granted. The first night I slept in the Capitol, I had a dream about you.”
On Aug. 27, 1861, Albert wrote from Poolesville, Maryland. The boyish excitement roused by thoughts of adventure have given way to a grown man’s realistic fears. His sense of humor temped down by scenes of suffering and death, is replaced by an understanding of how quickly an existence is extinguished. “I shall have to call you Dear Clara this time as I can’t think of any more good names. Last Sunday we had orders to be ready to march at 5 p.m…. None of the men knew where we was going… I shant attempt to tell you how much I have suffered… I went ¾ of a mile through a corn field when I came to a log house. Went up to the door, asked the woman if she would sell me something to eat. I succeeded in getting 3 eggs, qt. milk and hoe cakes. While I was eating, the lady asked me more questions than you did. She said I was too young to come out there and get killed and told me to get away and run home. I told her it would be death. She asked me if I was married. I told her no. She said that was good thing, for I was going within 4 miles of the enemy, which I find is true, and that a great many of our men had been killed there. She then asked me if I expected to get killed. I told her I had thought for some days that I should never see my home again. She then asked me if I was prepared to die… We are only 4 miles from the Potomac River and can see the rebels drilling on the other side with a spy glass… While I am writing they say we have to go ten miles to some other place… In all probability, this regiment will be in the next battle… Gov. Sprague’s 2nd Battery of Artillery is just passing here… we can see smoke from the rebel guns in the distance.”
On Oct. 4, 1861, Albert wrote to Clara from Camp Foster in Maryland concerning the lack of food and a diet which sometimes consisted of meat, beans, rice and hominy but mostly only hard crackers and coffee. He wrote that there were 700 of his men guarding the river while 300 others guarded the camp. “I had crawled into my nest of straw covered with branches of trees, for we are not allowed tents here because the enemy could see them through the trees they are so white… Two of our men have died of this place and were buried here. It is quite a sad duty to lay a fellow soldier away in his long home and not a friend to drop a tear over his honored grave… There is some 25 in the hospital. Some of them will die before long…. I pity the sick ones. I have seen them so they didn’t want to live they was in such pain…I think the next time you hear from me, it will be from Old Virginia shore. Some of us must get killed before it is done… The col. gave the order to fire and spare no grey coats. They did not discover the mistake until 27 was killed… This makes twice our men have fired at each other… I hear the col. was drunk, which caused the mistake.”
From Camp Winfield Scott, near Yorktown, Virginia., Albert wrote to Clara on April 24, 1862. “We are camped in what I should call the Dismal Swamp… we are aroused twice in the night by the discharge of musketry. We jump from a sound seep when we hear the words ‘fall in boys, fall in, the rebels have drove in their pickets’… I am frequently awoke in the night by the thunders of artillery… All eyes are now turned upon Yorktown where a bloody battle is expected to take place daily… When our artillery opens, it will be the grandest music we ever heard. The roar will be heard for miles and the ground will tremble with the awful concussion. I had rather be in Providence about this time. For many of us will be in our long home before many days. It is no pleasant thought to contemplate death in such heartrending forms. We try to shake off the conviction by various ways. But the pale cheek tells the thoughts of the mind, and the quivering lip speak plainer than words.”
Albert died six months later, on Oct. 12, 1862 at the U.S. Hospital in Baltimore. He had been transported to the hospital in a dying condition from the effects of typhoid fever eighteen days earlier. On Oct. 13, he was buried there in Louden Park Cemetery, a burial ground established that year with the interments of many deceased from Baltimore hospitals. A memorial stands to him in the Nichols-Waite lot in Warwick, bearing an engraved banner which reads “Our Albert” and the inscription “Rest weary soldier.”
Clara married William Crapen Mason during the winter of 1864, the family tree eventually descending to Baylor, who brought the letters forth 162 years after a brave young man’s pen was put to paper. They will now be preserved at the Warwick Historical Society. “I want everybody to experience how much has been sacrificed,” Wysocky said.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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