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LaForge Civil War Diaries and Correspondence: October - December 1863

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - 07:00

When Abiel suggests to the folks back home that they will need to get out the atlas to follow along with his adventure, he isn't kidding. I had the benefit of Google Maps. I really do want to put together some maps to accompany these entries--I want to do so many things. This sort of "micro history" is so great for having an understanding of the past, and it makes it all the more of a crime that the histories of many groups of people have been suppressed, erased, or deliberately destroyed. Reading about troop movements is one thing. It's another thing to read about the emotional reactions of camp inhabitants to the reinstatement of a popular, charismatic commander who they believe is being jerked around for political reasons. That makes you understand why one commander can get his men to go all out for him, while another fails because his men have no confidence in him.

This finishes the "catch up" entries from circling back to the start of the diaries. If you've lost track, the original blog entries starting in January 1863 are here, because after this I'm going to jump ahead and pick up again in January 1865. And it's probably time to start getting these visible on the website at as well.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

October - December 1863

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved


1863 Contents

  • January 11, 1863
  • January 26, 1863
  • February 15, 1863 - The Wonderful "Care Package"
  • March 2, 1863
  • March 20, 1863
  • April 30, 1863
  • May 27, 1863
  • June 26, 1863
  • August 3, 1863
  • August 25, 1863
  • September 24, 1863 - A Night at Ford's Theater
  • October 20, 1863
  • October 30, 1863
  • December 10, 1863 - Transporting Prisoners to Washington and Some Sightseeing


[Note: The official form of the flag on this date should have had 35 stars, with the addition of the most recent on July 4, 1863 in honor of West Virginia.]

Head Quarters, Convalescent Camp October 20th 1863

Dear Friends,

I write to let you know I am coming off with flying colors, as you can see above. Some style about that flag ain't there? True "Union"!

I was over to Washington today, having a most splendid dinner at the "Lutz Hotel" on the european style, three bottles of wine to "finish up" with. You must not think by that that any of us were tight, for that kind of table wine does not inebriate. We returned before sundown all sober, if not honest--

We have had one or two Virginia rains, just to show us winter was at hand. I cannot help remarking how very fast this ground dries after the most protracted rain. As soon as it clears up, and the sun shows his smiling face, the earth is charmed into such good nature that it is unable to remain muddy and disagreeable if it would. So a virtue is made of a necessity and all marks of a storm are smothed away as soon as possible.

We are talking some of building barracks for four thousand more men. I hope we shall, for they do not cost as much as tents, and for a permanent camp like this are much better. A barrack can be built to accomodate 108 men for less than three hundred dollars. And "Sibley tents" for the same number would cost more than four hundred dollars. Besides, the buildings will last twice as long.

Oh! Sister, I was highly complimented by one of General Hentzelman's staff officers the other day. Major Willard, former proprietor of "Willards Hotel" was to take 374 men from this camp to Fort Monroe Virginia. [Note: I don't know from context and an initial search whether this is the famous Willard's Hotel in Washington, or something more modest named in allusion to it. "Former proprietor" and the use of scare-quotes suggest the possibility of the latter.] We were to send the men. He would meet them there with a boat at precisely 8 O.C. A.M. He is one of those fussy old fellows and was very much afraid they would not be there on time. Captain Crawford (then in charge) pledged him his word they would, and then told me he would leave the fullfilment of his word to me, and said he wanted the old major pleased once.

So I got the men nearly ready the night before, and was up at four the next morning and finished. And getting a horse, started with them early. I marched down to the dock (four miles) and had them drawn up in line and all arranged to march on board ten minutes before the boat came. As soon as she did come and rounded to at the wharf, I put the men in motion and went right aboard. I could see at once the major was satisfied. When all were aboard, he took me into the cabin and asked me what my name was. I told him Sergeant LaForge. (I am an acting sergeant now.) He put it down in his book and said he must write a letter about that. Then just as they were starting off, he came to the side of the boat, before I got on my horse, and bade me tell Captain Crawford that nothing could be more prompt than I was with the men. I galloped back to camp feeling as big as,- as,- (not ass) a hundred and thirty pounds of humanity could well feel.

I get no more pay for acting as sergeant. I merely wear the pants stripe, so that the sergeant who may be in a squad which I have charge of will not be able to rank me and object to obeying my orders.

I sent $15 dollars by express. Have you got it yet? Perry will give you a note for it Susan, and when he does, I wish you would send me copies of them all. I mean a copy of each seperate, not signed, but all the rest same as the originals. [Note: I'm always fascinated by the details of everyday finance in these lives. Small loans are constantly going back and forth, secured by nothing but pieces of paper, good will, and community reputation.]

How is Charley? Give him my love. Tell mother, if I was up there I would kiss her, and then we would set down in the corner and have a good old time smoking. My best wishes to Joseph and Perry. I would like to help them dig potatoes this fall. [Note: Interesting implication that Mrs. Potter ("mother") smokes. I'm fairly certain that this woudn't be acceptable in high society, and it makes me wonder about other differences in gendered behavior between town and country.]

I am glad Janey can give so good a report of her enjoyment on her visit. Mrs. P[otter] must leave you a place to write on every time, and if it is not filled up you will get awfully talked to when I get home. My kind regards to Mrs. S.A.Potter. Kiss Mattie for me and cut up all the other tricks you are a mind to, only remember to love your soldier brother.

A. T. LaForge

P.S. The letter you enclosed to me was from W. M. Hibbard, Company Y, 82nd New York, a discharged soldier now. He is an old friend of mine.


Head Quarters Convalescent Camp, Virginia October 30th 1863

Dear Sister,

I have succeeded in getting a furlough for Perry Wells, and take advantage of it to send you some things to preserve for me. I wish when he returns you would send me two good pair of woolen stockings, and a long letter. Also my "French Dictionary." And if you could, I should like to have you send me a heap of love also. It is so much better to have someone say it to you, than to have it written. We are sending about a thousand men home to vote, however Perry would not have been one of them if it had not been for me. And I assure you nothing could give me more pleasure than it does to send an old friend like him home to see his friends. I have lots of work tonight, so I can write but a short letter, but it contains much love from,

Your brother

A. T. LaForge

[Note: This is another interesting facet of everyday economics. It was certainly possible to send packages by freight--as we've seen before with the food packages--but there are other references to things going missing in transit. How common might it have been to ship incidentals under the care of a traveler instead?]


Head Quarters Convalescent Camp December 10th 1863

Dear Sister,

I this moment received yours of Dec. 7th, and as you may see by this, only waited to read its threatening contents before I hasten to answer it.

None of your surmises prove to be correct. I have not been sick, nor have I forgotten my obligations to my friends way up in Andover, but I have a story to write. Since my last to you, I have been quite an extensive traveler. [Note: It is perhaps worth rememberin in the following description that Convalescent Camp housed recovering soldiers from a vast number of different units. When Abiel escorts groups of men from the camp, in some cases it appears to be a new assignment, as in "hey, we need X number of men in location Y," but in this case it appears to be a matter of returning a large number of men to an assortment of original units. Hence dropping off a few here and a few there along the way.]

November 23rd I was ordered to take charge of a squad of 60 (sixty) men and proceed with them to the respective destinations which were given in my written instructions. So early in the morning I went over to Washington to get my transportation. The men were brought over to me in the afternoon by one of the orderlies. I started at 6 O.C. P.M. on the cars for Baltimore. I had to stay all night in Baltimore and left three men there to go to Fort McHenry. Also 5 men to go to Carlisle Barracks Pennsylvania. The rest I took on the cars with me to Philadelphia. At Philadelphia we had to change cars and all of us reached from one end of the city to the other in the street cars. [Note: Several times in this letter, Abiel uses "cars" by itself in a context that suggests "railroad cars." E.g., talking about "taking the cars" where we might expect "taking the train." But elsewhere as here he either states or implies streetcars. I haven't tried to clarify, but generally the sense can be gotten from context. Of course, the one thing he can't possibly mean is "automobiles," so there's a bit of whiplash for the modern reader.]

We arrived at New York City about eleven O.C. I took my men to the State Soldiers home on Howard Street and stayed all night. (By the way, before you read any farther you had better get my "Atlas" and follow me. [Note: I'm often tempted to do this myself!]) Next morning they gave me the big ambulance that belongs to the Home (it will hold 20 men) to take my men that were to be left at New York down to the Quartermasters on State Street. Here I took the boat and went over to Brooklyn then, taking the Street cars, went down to Fort Hamilton 7 mils distant. I stayed down at the Fort about an hour. It is a very pretty place there, I assure you.

Then went back to New York. Sent 5 of my men down to Fort Columbus, Governors Island, New York Harbor. Got transportation for the rest of us and took the boat for New London, Connecticut.

Left 14 men there at Fort Trumbull, and then took the cars on the Norwich and Worcester line for Boston. We went to the Sanitary Rooms on Beech Street, and a fine place it is, I assure you. They give each soldier a ticket to go into a first class saloon and call for whatever he wants to eat, without cost to himself.

It was Thanksgiving day and they would not do any work at the government offices, so I had to stay all day. How I wished I was up with you to dinner! I went up to the top of Bunker Hill Monument. I haven't room for description or I would try to give you some idea of the grandeur of the view from this elevated spot. It certainly was as pretty as any person has ever described it. The most distant object that can be seen is the White Mountains, distant 90 miles.

I also went to the Boston Common, which is a fine park in this heart of the city. Almost in the afternoon I went down to Fort Independence on Castle Island. I went by the Government boat. It is a mile from the city.

Next day I took the boat about sundown for Portland, Maine, and when I woke up next morning I found myself in the city. I had to take 3 men over to Fort Preble, about a mile from the city and across the Kennebeck. When I went back, I found the boat did not go back to Boston until Monday night. I felt disappointed, but of course must make the best of it.

As I had no men to bother me until I got back to New York again, I could run about as I pleased, so I went all through the town in about 6 hours. To the "jail" where a girl came to the window and called me a "pretty soldier," to the Lookout Tower from where you can see the whole city, harbor, and country around for miles, to the "Navy Yard," and finally to the Boston and Maine Depot. And, finding a train would soon leave for the former place and the fare would be $2.60, I determined to buy a ticket, as my board would cost me as much if I stayed.

So Sunday morning found me in Boston again, where I stayed all day and went up to the reservoir and "Dorchester Heights" where Washington planted the guns that drove the British fleet from the harbor. Part of it is now a park.

Monday I took the cars for New London again, and that evening [took the] New London and New York Boat for the latter place. We were were coming through the narrowest part of the "Narrows" near "Hurlgate" when we run into a schooner. The channel was so narrow she could not get out of the way without running on the rocks, and with us it was the same. Her boom ran into the steamers side making an ugly hole but well [above the?]

[the rest of this letter is written at right angles to and on top of the previous text]

water mark. We finally got loose, with very severe loss on either side. [Note: It doesn't feel like Abiel means "loss of life" so I'm assuming this is a reference to damage, or perhaps property loss?]

I stayed all day in New York. I intended to go up and see Barney, but finding it was farther up than I should have time to go, I did the next best thing. Went to Barnum's to see the big Show. And a big show it is. Every thing from an elephant to a flea, and every stage complete. [Note: I believe this would be Barnum's American Museum, as Barnum did not enter the circus business until 1870. The Museum, alas, burned down a year and a half later.]

I still had to go out to Detroit, Michigan with some official papers and one man. [Note: This is the point when we start to seriously forgive Abiel for the lateness of his letter!] I found I should not be able to stop at Andover, so I made up my mind I would go 200 miles out of my way rather than see home and not be able to stop. So I took the Hudson River cars to Albany then the New York Central to Buffalo, where I stopped a few hours. Enough to see the city. Then down to Dunkirk, and by the Ohio Shore to Cleveland, Ohio, then to Toledo.

I made another stop here of three hours, then took the cars to Detroit. I took my man and government papers out to Fort Niagara, about 2 miles from the depot. I took breakfast at the fort then came away.

It was now I commenced to enjoy myself. I had no more responsibility here, and papers were all delivered, and in the language of Shakespeare "Richard was himself again." [Note: Tracking down this quote turns up the interesting fact that it isn't originally Shakespeare at all, but was added to a performance of Richard III by English actor Colley Cibber in 1699, and evidently "stuck." See footnote 1 in this article. In a random "all history is connected somehow" fashion, Colley Cibber was the father of famous cross-dressing (and by modern standards gender-queer and possibly even trans) actress Charlotte Charke.]

I run about through the city all day and then did not see half of it. In one place was a park with three little tame deer in it. They came to me and licked my hands and ate some cake out of them. I went to the Pork packing establishment where every thing is done by steam: killing, cleaning, cutting, and packing--all but salting. [Note: Although it's amusing to think of a pork packing plant as a tourist entertainment, I keep wondering how much of this sort of thing is a normal attitude toward sight-seeing at the time, and how much reflects Abiel's deep curiosity of everything around him that stood him in good stead, career-wise.]

Finally I came by the way of Toledo to Cleveland, Ohio, where I stopped 6 hours. Went up to the Navy yard. Also to the park where the celebrated statue of Commodore Perry is. Then down to the new breakwater they are building in the lake. About 2 O.C. I started for Pittsburg by the Pittsburg and Cleveland Railroad. I did not stop at Pittsburg, but came on by the way of [the] Pennsylvania Railroad to Harrisburg. Then by the Northern Central to Baltimore. Then by the B&O Railroad to Washington, and finally over here I was [at?] last, making just thirteen days since I started.

I was rather tired, notwithstanding the old course of things. Not quite into the old course either, for Colonel McKelvy was my command when I went away and General Abercrombie when I came back. Colonel McKelvy was meanly relieved, and the general has been commanding about ten days. We began to think there was no help for it when lo! Last night Colonel McKelvy comes over from Washington with an order from the Secretary of War putting him in command again. [Note: If you recall, there were previous grumblings about command politics, such as someone pumping Abiel to try to get dirt or complaints about McKelvy.]

When he got here it was after dark, and nobody around, but how the news got through camp that he had came back to take the old place, and the camp was wild with excitement! The officers flocked around him to welcome him back. He did not want anybody to know he was in charge again, but it was known somehow, and the men could not be restrained. It was hurrah for "Mac," Glory hallelujah man, and the like. Now we are all contented again.

I hope you accept my excuse for not writing as good, do you not sister? I could not well write when traveling. I should have written before I started, but I then thought I might get a chance to see you. But such was against me. I could not.

Dear sister, don't you think I ought to feel flattered when I have the chance of taking men for a trip, that any officer of the command would have given $100 dollars for this privilege of going on such a trip? I was allowed to go because I have the name of being so sober and honest. I would not tell any but the reason. But God bless you, you are my sister and I can tell you anything my vanity may suggest.

But I must close. I don't believe you can read this. I think I must do what I should like to, which is to beg you to excuse poor writing. My nerves are not very steady. A ride of 1500 miles in the cars will make anybody shake for a while.

Give my love to Janey. Kiss mother for me and believe me ever,

Your loving brother

A.T. La Forge

Chief Orderly

P.S. I enclose a copy of my warrant promoting me to a Lance Sergeant. My pay is not increased by it; it is merely a reward of merit. Like a brevet commission. Yours, A.T. LaF.

I have not time to read this over to correct mistakes. Will you kindly overlook it? LaF.

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