“The sad duty” – A letter from the battlefield of Cold Harbor

In the aftermath of Civil War battles, a solemn duty fell upon the survivors of the engagement. Officers and enlisted men provided notification to the families and loved ones on the home front of those who were lost. These letters are often heart-breaking to read, opening our eyes to swirl of grief and emotion felt by both writer and recipient.

One such letter was published in the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville, Pennsylvania in June 1864 in the aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia.

Adjutant Sidney Muzzly of the 184th Pennsylvania wrote to David Williams in Pottsville to inform him of the mortal wounding of Lieutenant William D. Williams during combat on June 3, 1864.

The 184th Pennsylvania participated in an infamous charge against Confederate earthworks that led to more than 3,000 casualties in less than an hour’s time.  During that fighting, a Confederate musket ball shattered one of Lt. Williams’s legs, inflicting a mortal wound that claimed his life six days later.

Williams was 34-years-old and had been working as a bartender in Pottsville before the outbreak of the conflict.

Adjutant Muzzly’s letter found its way to the editors of the Miners’ Journal and was published on July 9, 1864.

Battlefield Cold Harbor,

June 11th, 1864

Mr. David Williams.

Dear Sir: The sad duty devolves upon me of acquainting you with the death of your brother. On Friday, June 3rd, about 9 AM, we met the enemy in terrible conflict.

Your brother fell wounded very severely in the thigh by a rifle ball. The bone was badly broken. He was sent to the rear and yesterday information was received of his death. I would not ask you to hope the report might be false, for from the nature of his wound the surgeon feared he could not recover. The news of his death has saddened the hearts of us all, for never did an officer fight braver.

His Captain, H.R. Ritter, and 2nd Lieutenant Brahm, were also severely wounded.

The company, most of whom I judge from the tone of your letter, you are acquainted with, suffered very much. The loss of our Regiment during a charge of two hours, was about 180 killed and wounded.

By addressing the Chief Surgeon of 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, you can learn what disposition was made of his effects and what were his dying words to the loved ones who will mourn fro him and who look for his coming safe home again. May God comfort you in your hour of your great sorrow.


Sidney S. Muffly,

Adjutant 184, P.V.

The body of Lieutenant Williams eventually made its way back home to Schuylkill County and is buried in Tremont.

Thousands of letters like the one that notified the Williams family of their loss remain as a testament to the suffering and grief that existed on the home front during the Civil War.

Featured Image: Fighting in Virginia in June 1864 (Harper’s Weekly)

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