As William Pickering and his family did some spring cleaning in April 1917, they made a startling discovery in their home at 901 East Dewart Street in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. As one of the children worked, he lifted a loose floorboard and discovered a letter written 55 years earlier on the Antietam battlefield.
The Mount Carmel Item described the letter as being “in an excellent state of preservation, the writing being plainly legible despite the half century that has passed since it was written.”
Addressed simply to Luther, the letter’s author was Private Sylvester Hower of Company A, 6th Pennsylvania Reserves.
“The letter… will bring back vivid recollections to those grizzled war heroes who participated in the stirring scenes of ’61 to ’65,” wrote the Item, “and will prove especially interesting at this time, when the country is on the verge of a titanic conflict with Germany.”
Hower’s unit fought across the northern end of the battlefield at Antietam on September 17, 1862 in an area that later became known simply as “The Cornfield.” On that section of the field, more than 8,500 men fell killed or wounded in the early morning hours of the 17th. Private Hower refers to the carnage in his letter, which is copied in full below:
Camp near Sharpsburg,
September 30, 1862
I take this pleasant opportunity to answer your kind letter, which I received today. It found me in good health and I hope this will find you the same.
We had a rather hard battle at this place on September 17, and on Sunday we had a battle on South Mountain. I have been in four battles since I wrote you last. Joseph Raup is killed. He was killed September 17, 1862. The battle was the hardest that has been fought since the war. More troops were engaged than ever were engaged before. I tell you, you ought to have seen the battlefield the next day. The ground was covered with the dead. There were many killed on both sides. The rebels are at Winchester at present.
I tell you the old cannon balls flew around my head worse than the devil and the musket balls went zip zip around my ears. I thought they would take me, but they all missed me.
The battle of Bull Run was damn hard. We had nothing to eat for three days and three night, and half the time no water to drink.
Well I must bring my scribbling to a close for I must cook my supper. We have nothing to cook in but our tin cups. You ought to see how we cook here in camp. It would make you laugh.
Well Luther you must write soon for I like to hear from there. I have seen hard times this summer. The nights are getting very col and we have no covers, but I think we will soon get some.
Goodnight Luther. Write soon. Direct as before.
Private Sylvester Hower mustered out of the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves in 1864. He died on February 28, 1917, only a few weeks before his Antietam letter was rediscovered in a Shamokin attic.
The letter and the story of its discovery was published in the Mount Carmel Item on April 4, 1917, two days before Congress approved President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a Declaration of War against Germany.
Featured Image: Sketch from Harper’s Weekly showing the battlefield at Antietam where the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves went into battle; published October 4, 1862.