Few collections of letters better encapsulate the life of a Civil War soldier from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields quite like those of Curtis Clay Pollock of the 48th Pennsylvania.
Historian John Hoptak has organized these letters into “Dear Ma – The Civil War Letters of Curtis Clay Pollock: First Defender and First Lieutenant, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry,” published by Sunbury Press in November 2017.
Curtis Clay Pollock came from a politically connected family in Pottsville. His uncle James Pollock served as the Governor of Pennsylvania from 1855 to 1858. When the Civil War came, the younger Pollock was working as a clerk at his father’s lumberyard in the Schuylkill County seat. He went off to war with the “First Defenders” in April 1861 and later joined the 48th Pennsylvania.
The letters that Curtis Pollock sent home to his parents detail his life in the Union Army, his shift from a civilian to a soldier, and his dogged pursuit of promotion. These are quite common in letters from Civil War volunteer soldiers navigating their way through their moment in history. The reader also becomes privy to the Pollock’s battlefield experiences – the first shock of combat at Second Manassas, the hot all day fight at Antietam, and the cold days of furious battle at Fredericksburg. These, too, are regularly discussed by other soldiers writing home to loved ones on the home front.
What differentiates the Pollock letters from the rest, especially for one interested in the history and culture of the Coal Region, is the writer’s consistent commenting upon events at home in Schuylkill County. His continuous correspondence with his mother Emily provides a window into social life in Pottsville and in the surrounding communities. The letters detail romances, dating, relationships, and weddings, but also the sickness, disease, death, and desolation that consumed the North during the conflict. The lively writing of Lieutenant Pollock hints at these topics, while simultaneously revealing his own remarkable life at war.
What I found most interesting in this excellent collection are the few letters that survive from Emily Pollock. These letters illustrate the complicated landscape of the Coal Region during the war, hinting at the war’s unpopularity in some areas on the northern home front. Her writing also points to the emotional torment that gripped her and millions of other mothers with sons at war: she wanted her son to be safe, but she also wanted him to do what was right. Even if that meant he may not survive.
And that is ultimately what happened to Lieutenant Curtis Pollock of the 48th Pennsylvania. Struck down by a Confederate bullet at Petersburg, Virginia on June 17, 1864, he lingered before succumbing to his injuries six days later. Pollock was only 21-years-old.
Hoptak has done a stunning job of weaving these letters together with the story of the 48th Pennsylvania. Between blocks of letters, Hoptak fills the reader in about the people and events Pollock details in his correspondence. These asides are brilliantly written and provide insights into the wider experiences of those around Pollock.
All told, “Dear Ma” was a great addition to my own library of Civil War books. But it has also proved an improvement to my knowledge of the people and places of the Coal Region, and the events that shaped them.
Featured Image: Cover of Dear Ma – The Civil War Letters of Curtis Clay Pollock: First Defender and First Lieutenant, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry