The letters and diaries of Lieutenant Philip R. Woodcock
121st Regiment, New York State Infantry
"Upton's Regulars"
September 4, 1862-November 9, 1865

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dear Roby, It's Christmas...

"My Dearest Wife....tomorrow is Christmas..."

I decided to look through Philip's letters that were written around Christmas time.  There was no letter written in 1862 around that time but if you go to my post of July 22 of this year, you will see his last letter of that year.  It's titled "Zip & Whistle on the Battlefield".  I did find one written on Christmas Eve the following year, 1863 and a diary entry on Christmas Day. 

He wrote in his diary on Friday, December 25, 1863:

"Christmas today.  Very cold but pleasant[.]  Had Hard Tack for Breakfast ~ Got up a lot of wood[.]  Commenced making me a Chair[,] Drew soft bread &c ~ Had some Ale issued out to us for Merry Christmas but not much of it[,]  made out Clothing Requisition again also a return of Ordinance Stores"

His letter the day previous was filled with disappointment:

"Camp of 121st NYS Vols.
Near Brandy Station
Dec 24th 1863

My Dearest Wife

Although I have no letter from you to answer yet I will write ~ I am well, although badly dissapointed (sic) ~ They have ceased giving furloughs again[.]  they are played out for the present so there goes all my expectations[.]  I had anticipated a great time but it is all knocked in the head ~ It is pretty hard but it cant be helped ~ I do not know the reasons of the sudden stoppage but I think it is because it has a tendency to stop Re-enlistments or it is because so many Regts that are enlisting over again are agoing home and it would weaken the Army ~ but I dont see why they should be afraid of that..."

He actually complained on and on in this letter--so much so that I will skip some of it but the sentiments were:

"...I am sure if Lee should attack us we could whip him on fair ground..."
"...I hope & think it very probably that they will soon give furloughs again..."
"...I should have been home about the 10th or 12th of January had this order not come..."
" can imagine how dissapointed I was..."
"...I shall have to be content but it seems pretty rough..."

I could feel his disappointment and almost despair that he was trying to cover for his wife.  The letter goes to practical things after that, mostly about her making him a new shirt and ordering new boots.  (I'll detail that letter later.) 

I want to close with his final paragraph in the letter...

"...Tomorrow is Christmas ~ know I wish I was with you.  We shall buy a pie for tomorrow. The Drum Corps has got a lot baked up for 40 cts.  Kiss the Baby for me, one for you, good bye

Yours truly and affectionately

P R Woodcock"

Merry Christmas and A Most Happy New Year from myself and the letters of Philip R. Woodcock to his wife Roby.

Please look for my New Year's Post next...

Hope to see you then!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Change of Plans

"...Our Spirits Soared..."

I am certainly not a military specialist and have a limited knowledge of the actual "strategy" of a war but I do know the extent that which troop movements and days/timing of attacks is extremely important to the success or failure of a battle.  The Generals at the time of the Civil War planned vast campaigns to take back land and moved their troops into and out of various battles, some with great success and others with great loss.  This particular battle that Philip wrote about just after Thanksgiving was one of strategic moving that most certainly saved his life...

The continuation of the letter of December 4, 1863:

"after daylight the Generals all went out to plan the attack & view the ground ~ They see the danger of it & see the thousands that would fall and wisely decided not to storm the position ~ as soon as we learned it wasnt we glad (sic) ~ Lord only knows how thankfull we were[,] our spirits raised & had it not been such freezing weather would have felt good but we were so chilled through & so hungry that we was miserable & we knew we would have to stay untill after dark as if the Enemy knew that we were there they would warm us up with shell (humor?) but fortunately they were as much in the dark as we wanted as soon as it was too dark for them to see us we went out of there in a hurry[.]  I tell you what fires we had that night & what Suppers ~ The next day there were no movements made & the night after we withdrew & marched all night & uncrossed the Rapidan at Germanier Ford & got breakfast & moved in a little farther & lay back for the Teams & Artillery to get out the way here our Rations gave out although we was supposed to have one day on hand but being up so much nights we eat them all up[.]"

I would imagine the stress of the situation, bitter cold and uncertainty had them eating everything they could get their hands on.  He continues:

"I was not so bad off as some as I had been saving but some of our boys went all day without a mouthfull of anything but parched corn & beef ~ There I saw Bruce [,] the 76th marched by us & he stopped to see me I was glad enough to see him he looks as rugged and though as can be we stayed there all day & night and the 3rd marched back in our old Camp[.]  We was hungry & tired enough I tell you too but we got Rations & yesterday it was reported that the Rebs was advancing on us & I had to get up in the night & draw 3 days rations & issue but I guess it was only a small alarm ~ We think we will go into Winter Quarters now as I dont believe anything farther can be done this winter ~ I dont know what we made the advance for but one thing I do know that is the Army of the Potomac done more than ought to have been asked of them ~ it has been a rough time for us & filled up the Hospitals again ~ perhaps I can tell in my next Letter more of what we accomplished ~ I am on this campaign ~ I hope operations are suspended for the present here but I am thankfull to God for sparing my life & we must still hope all things will turn out well ~"  (and now finally a mention of that first Thanksgiving!) "Where did you spend Thanksgiving[?]  did you think of me [?]  that day it was a hard one for us ~ but thank God it was no worse[.]  Give my love to all write soon & Remember me Kiss the Baby for me  I will write again soon & if we stay for the winter maybe I can get furlough till then Good bye my dearest one[.]

Yours &c
Phil R Woodcock"

And on my earlier post of the beginning of this letter I mentioned that this last page also included a long post script--written upside-down
in between the sentences that I've just transcribed to you.  Here is what the rest of his letter said:

"I expect a lot of letters tonight if the mail comes[.]  If we go in winter quarters here we expect a good time as we shall build splendid shanties & get good Living[.]  I wrote a letter to Martha about some shirts that we wanted made & sent to Nubern.  Phil Van Horne & myself ~ I supposed you was out in Warren at the time and so I though would be sure ~ Nubern has written to his Mother about them[.]  What do you think about them would it be best[?]  The cost us here $5.00 apiece & I think that they would be cheaper got (illegible on the crease of the paper here) It [is] considerable warmer now than it was when we was in the Wilderness[.]  The mail has come in and of course I shall have a big one ~ They all send respects to you ~ You will have to get me another Diary for 1864 as this is almost full then I will send it to you[.]  Get me a good large one if you can as this is plenty small enough[.]  Dont forget me[.]  Morning of the 30th November I thought I never should see you again my thoughts were very painful ~ I prayed to God to protect you & Georgie I certainly never expected to get out of it ~ all the Generals concur in saying that 20 men of our Regt could not have got up there but it is over with now & I must forget it ~ There was a good many of our wounded on that campaign that froze to death but I must close so good bye write soon"

The underlining is my own.  His fear and relief are palpable.

So there you have it ~ the conclusion of my great-great grandfather's first Thanksgiving!  

Please join me again for the next sequential letter back in Winter Quarters of early 1863!

Hope to see you then!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The First Official Thanksgiving, 1863

I'm slow to finish up this letter, but never-the-less, want to do it before Christmas.  To backtrack to my previous post, Philip wrote this letter on Dec. 4th, 1863 after surviving a near battle and frozen conditions for several days, one of which was the very first official Thanksgiving holiday in America.  

I'll let Philip continue to describe his "holiday":

"We all laid on our Arms in line of Battle untill one oclock A.M. when we was routed out & marched down toward the Left through the woods & brush about daylight[.]  we joined the Right of the 2nd Corps[,]  The 152nd was there & on the same Line with us that is the 2nd Line of Battle ~ about 7 oclock we started out to find the Rebs[,] it did not take long & we skirmished with them some 3 or 4 miles[,] they falling back slowly near Wilderness Church and Robertson Tavern[.]  They made a stand & they had a splendid position ~ It rained pretty hard about this time and did all day it was mighty very uncomfortable as we got awfull wet ~ we finally formed out Lines and
I guess the Rain was all that stopped the attack that day ~ On the Right of us they was fighting pretty heavy ~ Our Supplies here run short but by a great Effort they got us up our Rations all except Pork we got nothing but Beef all the while ~ I had to get up in the night and draw the Rations ~ On Sunday we laid under Arms expecting to have an Engagement but there was nothing done ~ I think that Gen. Meade will not fight Sunday if it can be postponed ~ The Rebs had got a good position and we could see that it would have to be taken by storm and we knew that it would fall to us to do that and we dreaded it bad ~ It had cleared off very cold & we knew that tomorrow would see the Bloodiest day upon record for it had Leaked out that the 5th & 6th Corps had to storm the Fortifications ~ The next morning at one oclock we was called up & got Coffee & was marched very still a little farther to the Right & through our Picket Line & got in a piece of woods close to the Rebs & there laid down and waited untill daylight[.]  O how cold it was & no fires was allowed..."

His third page of the letter goes on to describe the plan of attack:

"The plan of attack was this:  The 5th & 6th Corps was to charge the Rifle Pits together [,] we formed 4 lines of Battle the best Regiments in each Brigade was selected to form the first line and make the charge ~ Col Upton who commands our Brigade selected our Regt ~ it was a high honor but exceedingly dangerous to us as the first line would not have many left when they got up ~ We had a good many Batteries in position and they was to open & shell them at 8 oclock for one hour and at 9 oclock we was to make the Charge ~ I tell you there was a good many pale sober faces that morning as the time drew near ~ We could see what we had to do & it was worse than we expected[.]  There was a plain field to cross then a piece of woods so filled with underbrush & felled Trees that our Skirmishers could not get through & then a wide ditch that the Rebs had dug out and drove sharp sticks in to annoy us when we crossed[.]  These sticks were so fixed that 1/2 of us would have been impaled on them in crossing & now then it was so cold that day that a wounded man who could not get off the field would die in 3 or 4 hours as the 5th Corps had 4 freeze to death that day after they got asleep.  Now do you wonder we dreaded it [?] "

And then, preparation for death...

~ There was more preparations made that day for death than any other time I ever saw[.]  I could see cards thrown away and men starting off alone in the woods to pray ~ We all settled up our world affairs that is left our money &c in the hands of those who would not get in the fight ~ I tell you the suspense of those 2 or 3 hours was awfull ~ We was suffering extrememly from the severe cold we almost froze & we had to keep in motion constantly ~ It will take a good while before we get over that chill ~"

I'll stop there for today.  Please come back soon and check for the rest of the letter!


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Not Really Thanksgiving

"I am permitted by God's mercy to write you ~"

I had foolishly thought I could get an entry in last week during Thanksgiving, but with family, cooking and work, it was impossible.  I also admit to being a little overwhelmed with this next letter as it is a long 4 page one, not only written on legal sized paper, but in Philip's way...he also wrote upside-down in the margins.  But, not only did he do it in the margins this time, he literally turned the letter around and wrote an entire page in-between each sentence! (I'll include the letter in a separate entry so you can see what it looks like.)

This is also one of his most heartfelt ones and he addressed it to "My Dearest Roby".  A different heading from most of them and it seems a turning point to him as you will see how grateful he is to simply be alive and writing this letter.  

Now--Philip's "Thanksgiving" of December 4th, 1863:

"Camp 121st Regt in NY Vols  December 4th 1863
Near Brandy Station  Va

My Dearest Roby 

Once more I am permitted by Gods mercy to write you ~ We have just returned to our old Camp near [illegible] Ford [or field?] again ~ we have had one of the hardest campaigns although short of the war ~ We have been out only 8 days but the troops have suffered more hardships in that time than we did during the whole of Last Summer ~ I have had no opportunity to write you before and we expect a 9 days mail today.  We are very anxious to receive it too as we all expect letters from those we Love ~"

And with that simple statement of "Love", you will see why as he describes what he's just been through:

"Now I will give you a short account of our doing in the Wilderness below the Rapidan it may interest you ~ We started early Thanksgiving morning to give the Enemy one more trial ~ We then heard of Gen Grants successes in Tennessee[.] That cheered us on of course ~ after we got to Brandy Station our Brigade was detailed as wagon guards which we was very glad of as we knew we would not have to be the first to cross the Rapidan ~ We had not gone but a little ways before the teams was stuck in the mud & we had to help them out and so it was untill 12 oclock that night before we got where we could by dawn[,]  we were then 3 miles from the Rapidan & some of the Troops were across ~ Early the next morning we were routed out to start ~ had only a half an hour to get Coffee & Breakfast in to build fires & get water but we had to put up with it[.]  We went down to the River & crossed on Pontoons at Browns [?]  Ford I believe It is usually called Jacobs Bridge ~ We lay on the south Bank all morning but at 12 oclock we could hear the fighting in Front where the 3rd Corps was engaged ~ The Rebs attacked them & we was then ordered to support them in double quicked it up and got in position ~ We were right in the-centre Little Wilderness & it was one of the wildest places I ever saw[,] soon nothing but Hills Stumps & woods filled with underbrush[.]  It was hard work to get our batteries up & it was hard Telling which would carry the day but as night began to draw on and our reinforcements to come up the fighting became less hard[.]  We all expected to get into it but the  it got dark so quick it saved us and we was not sorry either[.] It was a pretty hard fight and but we held our position and the Rebs evacuated the early part of the night~"

I'll stop there for today.  Please come back tomorrow for more of his letter and description of the battle(s) of Thanksgiving week.

Hope to see you then!