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Title pageAbout the Letters

Dick, Thomas William.


Unpublished, 1861-1864.

This collection of letters from a Pennsylvania volunteer infantryman to his family validates the collective observations of historians on the attitudes and character of the Union soldier of the American Civil War. Thomas Dick, writing to various family members in Armagh, Pennsylvania, illustrates reactions to camp life and battle, the fluctuating feelings of confidence and despair among the literate and patriotic volunteers, opinions of the enlisted soldiers toward their leaders, and even discussions of wider ramifications of the conflict.

Thomas Dick was twenty-one years old when he enlisted in Indiana County on July 24, 1861 in a group that was to be mustered into the Union Army as Company H, 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, 41st Pennsylvania Volunteers. Private Dick wrote to his parents, siblings, and friends, and this collection includes thirty-one letters written between May 1861 and May 1864. The quality of the handwriting varies, seemingly dependent upon the time and opportunity Dick had to write, and the writing paper ranged from simple folded sheets to ornate patriotic and regimental letterhead. Letters were written both from camp and the field, and they span a period in which the 41st Pennsylvania engaged in some of the most intense fighting of the war, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness.

Many of the early letters describe camp life, as the nervous yet motivated soldiers waited for their first experience of battle. In August 1861 the 41st joined the defense of Washington, D.C. at Camp Tennally. We see in some detail how the armies trained, rested, and wintered in camp; Dick writes of augmenting his quarters with pine log floors, stoves, and furniture. He considers his own health and comfort to be excellent, does not complain in the least about the food, and once, while writing, describes the shouts of the men outside “engaged in a game of ball.” Camp life also enhanced the optimism and patriotism among the inexperienced men. Dick wrote his father that he would certainly be happy to be home, but that he was “contented” in camp and “could cheerfully offer up my life that rebellion might be crushed out from our midst” (Sep. 15, 1861).

As a part of the Third Brigade under Brigadier General E. O. C. Ord, the 41st took part in the morale-raising, but insignificant, victory in the two-hour battle at Dranesville on December 20, 1861. Dick described his first experience of being under musket fire as a “queer sensation.” Following the battle, he observes enemy dead closely for the first time, and is disgusted at some of his fellow soldiers' looting the bodies. With Washington, D.C. safe for the winter, and a few other small Union advances in the early spring, the men in camp are encouraged. Dick has the time and willingness to discuss with his family broader ramifications of the war, commenting on the fallout from the Trent Affair that saw Britain protesting the seizure of Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell from a British mail packet in the Caribbean Sea. Dick worries that Britain will side actively with the Confederates and muses that “this little family struggle” might result in a divided Europe, a world war, and “terminate in the revolution of the entire world.” Dick supports Lincoln’s melioration of the issue, further stating to a friend that, with the rebellion dealt with, the Union could “defy the world” (Dec. 24, 1861).

The heavy fighting during the following spring began truly to test the men of the 41st Pennsylvania. They were part of McDowell’s march on Falmouth, and later were engaged in the battle of the Seven Days near Richmond, Gaines Mill, and Malvern Hill. Thomas Dick apologized for the gap between his letters due to the fighting marches. (This collection includes no letters written during the entire month of July 1862.) He does relate the interesting story of four comrades whom guerillas had captured early in the campaign and who were, in late July, exchanged and returned to their units. They told of the kindness of the ladies of Richmond but reported very poor conditions at their camp at Belle Isle near the city (Aug. 1, 1862).

The summer and autumn saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and at Gainesville, Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg the 41st lost heavily. Worse for Dick and his comrades was the sense that lives were being lost in vain. Dick had been open earlier in both his praise and disdain for his generals, in July calling his brigade commander Truman Seymour “cool and brave as Napoleon” and his divisional commander George McCall “dull and stupid as ever.” (Jul 6, 1862) After the demoralizing setback at Fredericksburg, Dick was unrestrained in his commentary on the Union leadership. In a long letter to his parents in January 1863, he gives a detailed description of the battle, saying of the pivotal attack on the heights above the town that “any person of common sense with no military ability would know it was impossible to take that position.” The despairing young soldier goes on to write, “no wonder our army is discouraged, we have been slaughtered for nothing” and “I never felt so lonely in my life as I did after the battle [with] the last of my messmates gone.” (Jan. 8, 1863) Later he wrote to his brother and demonstrated the continuing popularity of the replaced Army of the Potomac commander by saying bitterly that the Army had done nothing “since little Mac was taken away from us and in my opinion never will.” According to Dick, McClellan was the only Union leader who could match the Confederate generals (Feb. 2, 1863).

Promoted to sergeant, Thomas Dick spent some time in Pennsylvania attempting to fill the ranks of what he called the “miserable remnant of the gay old division” (Feb. 2, 1863) He did not demonstrate much enthusiasm to return to the front, and much of the talk in the regiment by then was in regard to the date that they would be discharged from their three-year service. He was in Harrisburg for the second inauguration of Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin, and then returned to camp in March 1863. There is a significant gap in the letters during the period of the Gettysburg Campaign, though the 41st was heavily involved in the battle on Round Top. The letters recommence with Dick again recruiting in Pennsylvania in late July. He is able to travel to Gettysburg in November to the dedication of the national cemetery where he met “Father Abraham.” Interestingly, Dick confirms the observations of many historians in that he does not mention Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, but he does remark that Edward Everett “made a fine speech” (Dec. 3, 1863).

Dick and the 41st were back in action in the Rapidan Campaign in May 1864, including fierce fighting in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battles. The Pennsylvania troops, many nearing the end of their enlistment, suffered heavy casualties. Dick writes to his sister that he is well, but fails to mention that he had been slightly wounded at Spotsylvania two weeks before. This communication is the last in the collection.

Thomas Dick declined re-enlistment feeling that his family did not wish it. He may also have been disappointed that he had not received a commission. He mustered out with the regiment on June 11, 1864 and returned to Armagh to enjoy a long and productive life.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.

Page created: August 11, 2004                                            close window