HARPER'S WEEKLY - NOVEMBER 1, 1862
"WHY not write Dead Soldiers' Letters at once?" says a voice at my elbow.
Only out of respect to the old logical rule requiring the perfect definition of a class to embrace all the individuals composing it. It is a sad truth that too many of these missives that have been wandering about in the mail-bags are the letters, and the last letters—the last written expression of thought or wish—of men who have dared to die for their country. Many of these rough-looking, soiled, and torn envelopes now lying in the Dead-letter Office, after a fruitless journey in search of friends to read their contents, are filled with strange tales of blood and battle, or breathe sentiments that should stir the very soul of patriotism, and fire the heart and nerve the arm of every man who perils his life in the cause of his country's honor. Outside, it is a shapeless and uninviting mass of worn and crumpled envelopes, soiled with the dust and smoke of every camp and battle-field on the continent; within, are the thoughts, wishes, last words, and dying prayers of those who have offered their own lives to save the life of the nation.
Up to the last of August soldiers' letters, written from camps or head-quarters, and containing no valuable inclosure [sic], when returned from the local post-offices to the Dead-letter Office because they were "not called for," have been destroyed, because they could not, like ordinary letters, be returned to the writers. Armies are always upon the move, and the ten or twelve weeks that must expire between the date of a soldier's letter in camp and its return to Washington as a "dead-letter" render any attempt to place it again in the hands of the writer as impossible as it is useless. The Department having once sent the letter to its place of destination, and advertised it there, has no legal authority to incur further trouble or expense in the matter. Hence the practice that obtained in the opening-room of the Dead-letter Office, of throwing into the waste-basket all "dead-letters" containing no valuable inclosure, which had been written by soldiers from camps or head-quarters. As the war progressed and great battles were fought, consecrating in history such names as Pea Ridge, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Fair Oaks, and Malvern Hill, and marking the boundaries of each field of bloody strife with the tumuli of buried heroes, it came to be noticed that many of the soldiers' letters, written upon the eve or at the close of these fierce struggles for a nation's life, contained matter of the gravest interest to the friends and relatives at home. Some of these lost missives, containing the words of father, brother, son, or husband, who had gone down in the storm of battle, or survived to tell the fate of other martyrs in the holy cause, and which had failed in the first effort to place them in the hands of the persons addressed, were rightly conceived to be of as much importance to the soldiers' friends as the letter inclosing a part of his pay to the wife and little ones at home.
The subject having attracted the attention of Mr. Zevely, the Third Assistant Postmaster-General, who has charge of the Dead-letter Office, and whose hand is as open as his heart is warm in the cause of aiding the soldier in the field and his family at home, he at once determined to have this class of dead-letters examined by a competent clerk, and all that were likely to be of interest or importance again forwarded to the post-offices originally addressed. As the law authorized no additional expense for such an enterprise, one of the clerks volunteered to perform the work out of office-hours; and so a second effort is being made to get these soldiers' letters into the hands of their friends.
An interview with the clerk who spends his evenings and mornings in this work brought me to a knowledge of the enterprise, and I write this sketch with the purpose of bringing the matter to public notice, and thus to aid in getting these lost letters into the hands of those for whom they were intended. I learn from the gentleman who has charge of the work that four or five hundred letters a day of this class come into the Dead-letter Office. As they are opened, all soldiers' letters containing no valuable inclosure are placed in his hands, and after office-hours he proceeds to examine them, and select such as can be again sent to the local post-offices with some prospect of reaching the parties addressed. Each letter thus re-sent is entered upon a blank form addressed to the postmaster, and charging him to use "all diligence to secure its delivery." This form contains not only the name of the person addressed on the envelope, but the name of the writer and of the place where the letter was dated. This schedule, or catalogue of letters, is to be conspicuously posted for one month, and any letters upon it that are not delivered in that time are to be returned to the Dead-letter Office at Washington, to be destroyed. The whole thing is a work of grace on the part of the Postmaster-General, there being no charge made for the second transportation of the letters or their delivery at the local post-offices. This being the case, it is proper to add, for the benefit of the Department, and to save people from unnecessary trouble, that it is quite useless to address inquiries to anyone in the General Post-office respecting letters of this description. No record is kept of them, and those not re-sent are immediately destroyed. Anyone looking for such a letter, known to have been advertised at a local post-office and returned as "dead" to Washington, should watch the posted catalogue of "Soldiers' Letters," which, for the smaller offices, is forwarded at the close of each month, and once a week or fortnight to the large city offices.
With a proper care not to violate the confidence and privacy peculiarly strict in this office, I have been allowed to notice the character of some of these letters. Here is one written by T. F. H., Lieutenant-Colonel Fifth Ohio Cavalry, and very fully and carefully directed, yet it has failed to reach its destination; and lest a second effort should prove as fruitless as the first, I am permitted to make an extract, in the hope that it may reach the eyes of the bereaved parents. The letter is written from Zanesville, Ohio, under date of May 27th, and addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, Baleyville, near Minneapolis, Minnesota, and reads thus:
FRIENDS,—On the evening of Monday, April 7, 1862, about five o'clock, after my regiment had been halted in its pursuit of the fleeing hordes of rebels, I rode slowly around the field, meditating on the result of that bloody action [Shiloh], and observing the effect of the "bolts of war" on the dead bodies which covered the ground. Various were the attitudes and expressions of the fallen heroes; yet as I rode along one smooth-faced lad, whose features were lit up by a smile, so attracted and riveted my attention as to cause me to dismount and examine him. His uniform was neat as an old soldier's, his buttons polished, his person clean, his hair well combed, lying squarely on his back, his face toward the enemy, his wounds in front, from which the last life-drops were slowly ebbing, his hands crossed on his breast, and a peaceful, heavenly smile resting on his marble features. I almost envied his fate as I thought,
“How sleep the brave who sink to rest”
By all their country's wishes blest!
By fairy hands their knell is rung,
By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
Lo! Honor comes, a pilgrim gray,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay,
And Freedom shall a while repair
To dwell a weeping hermit there!"
I asked the by-standers who that lad was. No one could tell. Hoping to find some mark on his clothing by which I could distinguish him, I unbuttoned his roundabout, and in the breast pocket found a Bible, on the fly-leaf of which was an inscription by his mother to "John Elliott." In the same pocket was a letter from his mother, and one he had written to his uncle, both dabbled with blood. Pleased with getting these data from which to trace his family, I determined to preserve the Bible and letters and send them to you. I have since regretted that I did not examine all his pockets and save whatever may have been in them; but my time was short, and I felt that the Bible he had so faithfully carried would be treasure enough for you, and in the hurry of the moment I did not think to look for anything else. His remains received decent sepulture that night, and he now sleeps in a soldier's grave.
And now, my dear friends, I would have written to you weeks ago, but was long sick in camp, was sent to Ohio low with fever, and am but just able to begin to sit up. You have doubtless wept over your dead boy. No human sympathy could assuage your grief. Yet He who guides and governs the universe of man and matter, I doubt not, has thrown around you "everlasting arms," and supported your faint, bereft, and bleeding hearts.
After a while, when time shall have healed the wounds that war has inflicted, it will be a heritage of glory for you to reflect that your boy died in the cause of human rights and to save the life of a great nation; and you can with righteous pride boast that he fell in the thickest of the fight, with dead rebels all around him, his face to the foe, and in the "very forefront of the battle."
He died a young hero and martyr in the holy cause of freedom, and Elijah riding up the heavens in a chariot of fire had not a prouder entrance to the Celestial City than your boy. Let your hearts rejoice that there is one more waiting to welcome you back to the "shining shore."
Here is a brief extract from the letter of a surgeon on the Peninsula to a friend at home:
Almost the first one I came to was our poor little friend Dick, the bright-eyed but pale-faced drummer boy, who broke from the warm embrace of his mother and rushed into the wild storm of war at the first call to arms. He was still alive, and able to speak in a low voice. I raised his head and gave him some water. He smiled his thanks, and said, "Doctor, tell mother I wasn't afraid to die. Tell brother Jimmy he can have my pony; and Sis can have all my books; and they mustn't cry about me, for I think I have done right. And take the drum to them; and bury this little flag with me—and that's all!" And that was all; and a moment afterward the spirit of the young hero went up to heaven.
Here is a letter from a wife to her husband in the Peninsular army. It arrived too late, and is on its way back to the writer, with the simple indorsement on the envelope, by an officer of his regiment: "Was killed yesterday in the battle of Malvern Hill."
These are a few examples of what may be found in the "Soldiers' Dead-letters;" and if local post-masters will manifest the same disposition exhibited in the action of the Department at Washington, thousands of these lost epistles will find their way to the rightful owners, and serve to comfort and console many a bereaved and breaking heart.