“With great sorrow I address you” – A heartbreaking letter to the father of a fallen Civil War soldier

In the spring of 1864, the pages of Schuylkill County’s most important newspaper was filled with information of exciting events from America’s increasingly bloody civil war. But amid the news of battlefield drama also came the sorrowful news of local soldiers cut to pieces during hellish combat in the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.

An artist’s rendition of the horrific combat at Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864 (Wikimedia)

On June 18, 1864, the Benjamin Bannan’s Miners’ Journal of Pottsville gave readers casualty lists for several units originating in Schuylkill County. They included a dispatch from the county’s most famous unit, the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, that detailed the 240 soldiers who had become casualties since fighting began on May 5.

A correspondent also including a story about the impressive funeral arrangements made for an officer of the 48th Pennsylvania who had been wounded in fighting near Cold Harbor on May 31, 1864 and died several days later in a Washington hospital. The funeral for Major Joseph A. Gilmour included “one of the largest [funeral corteges] ever seen here, while both sides of the streets through which it passed were crowded with persons.” Platitudes for the fallen officer were given in great numbers and the correspondent concluded with a highly personal plea: “Poor Joe! May the turf lie lightly on his manly breast.”

Major Joseph Gilmour, 48th Pennsylvania (48th Pennsylvania Blog)
The funeral cortege for Major Gilmour, June 1864

In contrast with the moving ceremonies conducted for Major Gilmour in his native Pottsville, the funeral for a young soldier of the 48th Pennsylvania was a tiny, bitter affair. The Miners’ Journal of this week also included a letter from a Washington hospital to the father of Private Anthony Wade. The note details the circumstances of Private Wade’s untimely demise near Cold Harbor on June 9, the intense pain he suffered before his death, and the deep mourning suffered by those comrades he left behind in the ranks of Company E.

Messrs. Editors. – You will please publish the following for the information of the numerous friends of the deceased:

Mount Pleasant Hospital,

Washington, June 16, 1864.

Mr. Henry Wade

Dear Sir:

It is with great sorrow I address you and inform you of the accident which resulted in the death of your noble son, Anthony Wade. We had advanced our lines about one mile and were all lying down resting, after having had our supper, when a gun in the hands of a new recruit, who had been with the company but two days, was accidentally discharged, the ball first passing through the fleshy part of my left arm, above the elbow, then struck Anthony on the wrist and entered his left groin, passing through the bladder. He was wounded on the 8th inst., at 5 o’clock and survived until next day at 2:30, when with his head resting on my right arm he passed away as quietly as a child going to sleep.

The pain he suffered was intense, until about an hour and a half before he died, and I flattered myself he was getting better, but alas, poor boy, death had too surely made him his victim. Michael Sandy came to see him about ten minutes after he died, and together we saw him properly buried in a grove of pines. We placed a board at the head of his grave with his name, company, and regiment, on it. I trust the Lord has taken him to His bosom.

He was a good boy, and as brave a soldier as ever went into the field. He seemed to know no fear, and was always to be found where the bullets flew thicket, and was the pride of our company, every man in it feeling his loss as much as if they had lost a brother. He was so kind, obedient and civil to everyone, and it is to be regretted that through carelessness, we lost our most esteemed companion.

I would have written the day he died, but could not sufficiently compose my feelings to do so.

Mr. Wade, I hope the Lord will comfort you in your sorrow, and trust your noble boy is resting with Him.

Truly your friend,

R. Penman.

Anthony Wade was born in Branchdale, Schuylkill County, and enlisted in March last in Co. E, 48th Regt., P.V.V. and, was in the 17th year of age.

Private Penman’s letter to the father of his friend and comrade evokes intense emotion, even for those reading it more than a century and half after it was written. It speaks to the sorrow caused by the campaigns occurring in the spring of 1864, as the Civil War entered its fourth and bloodiest year. Across Schuylkill County, dozens of families would receive similar notes detailing the deaths of husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. Others would never learn the fates of their missing loved ones or later discovered they had been taken to notorious Southern prison camps.

Find A Grave

Private Anthony Wade’s remains were eventually moved to Cold Harbor National Cemetery adjacent to the haunting woods and trenches of Cold Harbor National Battlefield.

Featured Image: Soldiers’ Graveyard…, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated History of the Civil War

Interested in the 48th Pennsylvania? Check out historian John Hoptak’s incredible blog about this famous unit from the Coal Region. 

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