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Civil War Letters of Alvah Cotton


The Civil War Letters of Alvah Cotton

(Condensed and eloborated on by his wife, Maria Cordelia Webber Cotton on the 34th anniversery of the day that Alvah was wounded in action)

Submitted by Marion Addison MacDonald - Essex Genealogical 1983

Private Alvah Cotton Co. F. 22d Reg't Mass. Vols.

The Weirs
June 26th, 1896

My dear Children,

It is the anniversary of the battle of Gaines Mills, Virginia, and I on thinking of thirty-four years ago this very afternoon since your father recieved those wounds, that cost him so much suffering and so many years of his life.

I can recall distinctly the morning your father came to my side and told me that we had something very important to decide. Then, sitting down together with prayers and tears we concluded it was his duty to answer the President Lincoln's call for volunteers and enlist in the Union Army. It was Monday morning, I think, Oct. 1st, 1861.

He went to Lynnfield on Tuesday afternoon, passed an examination and went into camp as a soldier Thursday morning - a member of Company F. 22nd Regiment Mass. Vol. His COlonel was Henry Wilson. A party of relatives visited the camp Thursday afternoon and Saturday night he was allowed to come home for a few hours.

Monday the regiment left Boston for Washington, passing through Boston and receiving a collation on Boston Common. They reached New York Wednesday morning admist all the confusion of a thousand men board a steamer. Then by rail from New York "with cars crowded and long delays", they passed through Baltimore and continued on to Washington. The first night they camped in a hall - all sleeping on the floor and with a poor breakfast and supper - only dry bread and coffee. Sunday at three o'clock they passed over Long Bridge and after marching eleven miles, they camped. They were part of Gen. McClellan's Div. which consisted of 60,000 men all within sound of his horn.

During the month of November they were in cmap on Hall's Hill. They had a kind of furnace underground to warm the tent with a flue on the outside. Letter writing was difficult because of interruptions - drilling, guard duty, and time for meals - occupied much of their time and the men in the tent were singing, reading aloud, and smoking. Your father wrote that tobacco was an idol that most of the soldiers worshipped.

Thanksgiving passed without anything unusual for the box packed for them (from us at home) was not received until a week later. With an axe, they opened the box. Pies were first tested, doughnuts and plum pudding followed and although supper hour had passed there was plenty of room for these luxeries and many of the men concluded that they should visit Cotton and his wife when the war was over. Six boxes were recieved in their tent about this time; so they had a share of Thanksgiving; for which they were very grateful.

Days passed, each one occupied with about the same duties. The long evenings were sometimes dull, but he described them as quite cosy with the furnace to keep them warm and the candles stuck onto the bayonets for candlesticks. Some palyed cards and checkers, but he was usually writing to friends. Christmas Eve he was somewhat lonely in thinking of home and all the dear ones and wished he was with us. The last day of the old year he writes a review of the days gone by and how much he anticipated in the enjoyment of our own home, but that it was a willing sacrifice for the establishment of good government and a united people.

He writes about some of the punishments used for different offences. One man, stealing a pair of stockings, was sentenced to carry a barrel on his back, marked Thief, for three days. Another for a more serious offence was to labor a month with ball and chain. He mentioned doing his washing in the company with several others. They used a barrel cut in halves and he constructed a wash board himself and in cold water washed two shorts, socks, handkerchiefs and towels. The flannel shirt shrunk so that he had to send home and get flannel to piece them to make them comfortable.

During January our Ladies Aid Society made some sleeping caps and sent them by mail to the boys in the tent; so nine of them were wearing them all alike, made of red, white and blue flannel. They were quite proud and very grateful; for they were warm and comfortable.

It was Monday, March 11th 1862 when they bid goodbye to Hall's Hill, Virginia. The Brigade was called into line with knapsacks packed, canteens filled and sixty rounds of cartridges. He writes "You can imagine that we looked like a caravan, but good health and stout backs did not mind it at first; for we were all glad to leave the lazy life in camp. Before we got into line, many thousands were in advance of us. The first two miles were very tiresome, but as we became used to our burden it did not seem so hard. It commenced raining just as we got started. At twelve o'clock we stacked arms five miles west of Falls Church for dinner and at one o'clock we came in sight of Fairfax Court House. We marched through Main St. to the place where we were camping. The order was to sleep on the ground with our rifles, but we knew we would take a cold in our wet clothes; so we went in pursuit of boughs. We placed our rubber blankets to break the wind and with our blankets and overcoats over us, laid down to sleep under the light of the moon.

March 16th, they receiver marchiing orders for Alexandria. He writes "I think I never saw it rain harder. We were completely drenched. It streamed from our arms, filled our boots, and added much weight to our clothes. We were obliged to march very slowly on account of the water rising in the brooks, and leaving only a narrow passage for the men.

As we came nearer to the city of Alexandria we found that the regiment that had gone forward had left their tents and we occupied D. Sreet belonging to N.Y. 57th." The next thing was to call guard. All of course dreaded this after a hard day's march and the rain. "I had not been detailed for a long time and feeling as well as any one, I volunteered. Those who remained in the tent were but little better off; for only a few could lie down at a time".

On Sunday he writes "It is Sabbath morning but little appearance of it in camp. Men are cleaning their equipment ready to march again. I don't want you to think that I am having a hard time; for of course I cannot expect a soldier's life to be easy. Your letters still reach me. Friday night a man came and tucked one in through a crack in out little shelter tent. I found my little candle and sat up to read it. It was a welcome visitor to your absent husband far away in Dixie Land".

Saturday morning, March 22nd they called early and were ready to march. They went to the wharves where were collected twenty-two steamers. The boats moved into teh middle of the stream and anchored for the night. They were obliged to lie in very close quarters and his place was so small that his legs hung over the side of the steamer. It was raining and they covered themselves with the rubber blankets and laid as still as possible; for whenever there was a hollow in the covering, it would fill with water. Everytime anyone turned over or moved, perhaps a quart of water would run into someone's face or down his neck. But they all had to share teh same fate so they could not complain. Daylight came at last and they were all glad.

(The account of camp life, picket duty and marches which continued throughout April and May and into June is omitted from this account.)

The following is an account of the battle of Gaines Mill. I don't know when it was written, but we know it occurred June 26th, 1862.

"Our company with three others were detailed for picket duty on the morning of teh 26th. We united with the 2nd Maine, and proceeded to the bank of the Chickahominy River. The regiment was then divided into four reliefs. At first everything seemed quiet. Not a single shot was fired although we presented an excellent mark for their cannon that looked boldly from the top of their earthworks. At one o'clock our company fell into line to relive those who guarded the pontoon bridge across the river. We crossed the bridge and took our position on the enemies' side. We were in rifle range of the rebel pickets, but no shots exchanged.

Soon musketry was heard on the right near Mechanicsville. It was the first skirmishing with our pickets and as they were driven in the firing became heavier and soon it was evident that a regular engagement was going on. The batteries got into line, and soon in less than a half hour the thudering was terrific.

Orders came to destroy the pontoon bridge. That in case of retreat, the bridge could not be used for the benefit of the enemy. When we were relieved from guard duty we found no bridge to cross, but made out way as best we could on the timbers that remained. We spread our blankets and layed down for the night and nothing occurred to molest us. We were awake early waiting for orders, which came soon after sunrise to march back to camp. On crossing the main turnpike we found the whole army retreating. The Generals said, "Falling back for a better position". We crossed the bridge and fell back to Gaines' Mill where we halted and took our breakfast. At ten o'clock a line of battle was formed on the edge of a small creek, giving us an advantage over the rebels.

A skirmish took place about noon. The fring was heavy all along the line. Nearly all the artillery was engaged and about 40,000 infantry. Shot and shell were as thick as raindrops upon us. Our breast-work shielded us for a few moments, but son the line in front was broken, and those who remained came jumping over the loges over our heads. We then commenced firing and did so in good earnest to what effect, we could not tell; for the smoke was so think we could not see each other. The distance from the enemy could not have been more then eight rods. The fire was very destructive to our own ranks. All at once they came across and fired upon us. We found our left and right flank had been turned and the enemy was surounding us rapidly. Orders came to retreat and the battle was lost. Everything was disorder and confusion.

I had not gone far when a bullet passed through my groin and another through my left wrist. I did not feel much like moving farther, but if I fell there I knew that I should be taken prisoner and so made my way as fast as I could. But the loss of blood was so great and I was so weak, tha I could not proceed. I came to a log barn and laid down as I supposed to die. The rebels were rushing by, and their shouts of victory almost drowned the roar of the cannon.

The first one that noticed me, rushed at me threatening to bayonet the g----d Yankee. I called for quarter, telling him that I was wounded. Seeing me disabled, he did not execute his threat, but ordered me back to the rear. After some effort, I succeeded in getting on my feet and with a little help marched to the rear".

This closes any communication from your father and what follows is from my own memory and may not be wholly correct; for he did ont very often talk of those dark days. The memory was so unpleasant and I have never dwelt much upon the details for the same reason.

The frist night after the battle he could recall but little. He remembered crawling to the creek to drink and tried to stanch the blood flowing from nine bullet wounds and in the attempt he fell into the water, but a kind-hearted rebel removed him and seeing a knapsack near, he asked for the blanket it contained. In removing the blanket the Bible rolled out and the rebel tossed it to him with a taunt that he might like it. It was the same that we now have. He sent it to me with his watch. The Bible was received but not the watch.

He was among hundreds who had been wounded and left in the hands of the enemy. It was not until late in the afternoon that he received any attention from a surgeon or any food was given him. And then it was rathe rough treatment from rebel surgeons and teh food was flour and water, brought around in large pails. They had to drink it without any salt.

We do not know the detail of the noneteen days passed in this place, but our imagination can make the picture dark enough. And you may imagine what feverent prayers were offered by home friends during those three weeks when all we knew of him ws that his name was in the printed list in the papers as "wounded and missing".

The days were very wearisome and the swarms of flies added greatly to thier discomfort. So they almost dreaded the rising of the sun. In the darkness of the night there would be heard from hundreds of men, some of them dying for thirst, the cry for water in such pieous tones, we cannot imagine it.

As nearly as I can recall the dates, it must ave been the 15th of July that prisoners were exchanged. It was with great difficulty that the officers in charge were persuaded to take your father; for they considered his case too serious to allow them exchange. But we know his persuasive power was strong and he was placed in an ambulance. They were taken by rough hardened drivers over corduroy roads, some miles to savage Station, where they were not kindly received but ill-treated and poorly fed.

Steamers took them to Fortress Munroe, where Hygeia Hotel had become a hospital for U.S. soldiers. It was in this place that Mr. Harlem Goodell was stationed as a clerk under Dr. Bontecue. He knew o your father's having been amoung the wounded and looked him up. He secured the attention of doctors and nurses to his case and also telegraphed to Lowell for me.

I recieved the telegram Monday morning at Bedford and Monday evening, in company with my brother, Marcus, was on my way to New York on the express. The message was only "Alvah Cotton at Fortress Munroe, come quickly". Marcus accompanied me to Baltimore and I had to take the oath of allegiance. In the little dingy office I raised my right hand and over the Bible swore to be a true patriots. Marcus left me here to take the boat and complete my journey alone. I do recall experiencing one fear and that was that the life of the dear one would not be spared until I reached him.

It was a very hot morning and early when the steamer reahed the wharf, but I was so impatient i did not wait for anyone to meet me from the hospital but made my way over the sandy path to the office and inquired of Mr. Goodell. He had been to the boat, but we had missed each other. When I received his greeting I could not ask the question, but he could see my emotion and kindly said "Mr. Cotton was quite comfortable and hoping to see me that day". I found him lying on a little white cot looking so very brown from exposure to the sun and out-of-door air, it hardly seemed possible that it was my husband, but the voice and the eyes assured me. There were many cots in the long room occupied by men with all kinds of wounds. It was a very sad experience to find the dreadful effects of the war so portrayed to me; for I had then known but little outside my pleasant quiet home. We were permitted to pass a few hours together every day, and I could administer a little to his comfort. We were there about eight days when it was thought advisable that the northern men should come farther north on account of the extreme heat.

So we were placed on board the "Daniel Webster" to come to New York. When we reached Philadelphia, it was afternoon and teh soldiers removed, most of them taken off on stretchers. It was a pitiful sight, but the kindness of teh women was marked. They stood upon the wharves in large numbers with baskets of fruits and cooling drinks to give them as they were borne along the ambulances. That eveing there was a heavy thunder shower and I felt that the morning light would never come. It was such a waey time and your father seemed so weak and ill. It was early in the morning when he came into th river and into New York Harbor. An ambulance was our conveyance to the Woman's Hospital, corner of 53d St. and Lexington Ave. I sat beside my poor soldier and bore the wounded arm tenderly as I could over the rough pavements. It was a new sight to see a woman with a soldier, and attracted the attention of the people on teh streets who tried to express their sympathy by exclamations of "poor thing" or "just look at her" etc. which was far from agreeable.

At last we reached the hospital and your father was placed upon a comfortable cot. It was nearly sunset and I literally had not where to lay my head. One woman who was an attendant had invited me to her home, but I did not like her appearance. I was sitting near the entrance when two young ladies dressed in white and almost like angels, inquired where I was to stay, and said at once "don't go woth her, we will find you a better place". In a few moments they introduced me to Mrs. Hazen who had charge of the laundry and I stopped at her house while I was in New York.

Your father was so comfortable that I asked the sureon if I could return to Woburn; for I was fearful that I would be sick. The nervous strain had been so great.

It was Aug. 1st when we came to the hospital and in a few days I went to Bedford with the promise I would be sent for if unfavorable changes took place. It was on the fourteenth that I received a telegram, summoning me to come at once. I arrived early in the morning of the sixteenth in N.Y. I found complications had arisen that made it necessary to amputate the arm. Suppration had commenced and erysipelas; so that it would be impossible to save he arm, and his life would be saved only by amputation. It is not necessary to rehearse our feelings but only to say we did find "God a refuge and strength".

Dr. Mott was head surgeon and he called in another eminent surgeon whose face I can recall but not the name. I left him in their care and only wanted to be alone until it was over. The following days and nights were full of anxiety; for seven nighhts I cared for him all but one. Mother Cotton was with him that night. I went to Mrs. Hazen's and every afternoon I rested awhile and slept. On the eighth day the surgeons pronounced the symptons favorable for recovery, but the prostation was so great, that we hardly dared hope.

It was not until October that your father was able to be taken out-doors. Mr. Haite, a big German, used to take your father in his arms and place him in the cariage and we drove into Central Park. Afterwards we used teh horse-cars for our airings. It was about the middle of October that we began to think about getting his discharge papers. We found that te surgeon in charge did no like to give up his patients for his salary was depended on the number there. So we obliged to seek outside help. There had been established by the Christians Misison a department in New York City for the help of New England soldiers. Col. Frank Howe gave me needed directions and we obtained teh papers, but they required signature of Dr. Mott. It required considerable perserverance - but I made myself like the widow in the parable and by my "continued coming" I wearied them.

It was Nov. 15th when the papers were secured and we were ready to leave hospital life for teh comfort and luxuries of home and friends. We went on board the steamer for Fall River. It was cool and cloudy but our hearts were so light. We reached Boston, we took horse-cars for Arlington and stopped the following day at brother Albert Cotton's home. Then we proceeded to Bedford.

Of course we recieved a warm welcome from our friends. It would be impossible to tell the thankfulness that was in our hearts that through so many sad and bitter experiences we had been brought safely through.

Thus closed this chapter of the life of your father and although it comprised only thirteen months, it was crowded with experiences never to be forotten, and that influenced all the remaining years. He was a more earnest Christian ever after.

Twenty years of companionship was given to us, and a happy home and four dear boys.

Your know very well what was in his prayers for you, and thank God you are able, so far, to fulfill those prayers. May you ever be faithful to the legacy left you and to win the same glorious regard - is the earnest desire of your mother.

Completed July 21, 1896
The Weirs, N.H.

Maria Cordelia Webber Cotton

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