Not much time to write an introduction this time. This covers the rest of 1862 and explains how Abiel became separated from his original regiment (dysentery).
It is with much pleasure that I now seat myself to answer your kind letter of the 21st, which came to hand yesterday, just as our company had fell into line to go out on picket. You can judge that the two miles we had to go before we got to our picket lines did not seem short, for I was so impatient to read your letter. You cannot imagine what a bright spot in my life it is to receive a letter from home. All others are but tame in comparison. I waited untill I arived at my post before I opened it, then expecting to divide my attention between the rebels and your letter. But I found it impossible. Not untill I had read and reread the letter did the rebs have a thought.
Our picket line runs on one side of a field about forty rods wide, and the rebel lines are on the other side, almost in speaking distance of each other. However we are in no danger of being shot by the other, for there is an order strictly forbidding picket shooting. So you see, we stand and look in each others face without without the least show of animosity, when we are only waiting for an opportunity of meeting each other with the worst passions of which human nature are capable.
This morning we gave them an opportunity to have a shot at us without breaking the rule of picket shooting. There was some rebel cattle on neutral ground, i.e., the strip of land between the picket lines, which we thought we could drive in. Accordingly, some of us went out around the cattle and the rest of us were to head them off and drive them through the gap into our lines. This program we thought good, but it did not met the approbation of our friends across the field. No sooner had we started for the cattle, than they brought a gun from their fort to bear upon us and sent a shot at us, which flew high over our heads, so we kept on after the cattle. They fired two more shots at us from the cannon. By this time we had got down near their picket lines, and they began to fire at us, which made it highly improper for us to go any farther. So we thought it best to retreat, while we could do so in good order. None of us were hurt.
We had a very cold wel [sic? or perhaps an error for "wet"] disagreeable time on duty. I often thought of the warm, comfortable place at home that I have often filled. It was not with regret that I thought of the joys of home. The memory of them but makes dearer to me the free institutions of my country.
We had a smack of actual service the 27th. Our regiment was called upon to assist the Maine 7th in making a reconnaissance in force. We were marched out to our picket line and placed in ambush, to cover the retreat of the 7th, in case they were forced to retreat. When we were loading, our Colonel said, "Now boys, if you are called upon to fire, I don't want a bullet to fly over an enemy's head now mind." We had to remain in our position an hour. You would have been amused to see our occupation, expecting an attack every moment. Some of them were playing pin, some were playing "mumble de peg", others telling stories making ludicrous remarks about our position, and so on.
The seventh were successful. They drove back the enemy's pickets and penetrated to within a hundred and ten yards of their battery, and then retreated without losing a man. When this news came to our regiment, there was more downcast, disappointed-looking faces than there was before, when we were expecting to be engaged in a bloody strife in a few moments. However it could not be helped, so we were marched back to camp without seeing an enemy.
I wish I could write you some news about the proceedings of the army, but I cannot because I have no means of knowing any of the movements except those made by our own brigade. I have not had a paper in two weeks, don't have anything to read. No news reaches us that we can depend on. There is no papers brought up here to sell, so you can judge of the disagreeably ignorant state, in regard to the news, we are in. I wish you would be so kind as to send me a paper of some kind occasionally. A tribune, an Allegheny paper, an illustrated or literary paper, in fact, anything in the shape of a newspaper.
I thank you for your kind offer to send me more money, if I wanted it, but I shall not avail myself of it. I have a number of postage stamps and some twenty cents in money, I guess. I shall do very well till pay day, as there is no way to spend money here, and pay day will come before long, whether we get any pay or not.
Lester Eaton is at Newport News, sick of the camp dysentery, dangerously sick. The hospital nurse who was up here the other day said he did not think he could live. I have not seen him since we left there, and what is worse, none of us can get a pass to go down and see him. Do not tell his people of this, I beg of you.
Father, I am glad you did not enlist. I fear the old men are those who are sick most, while us young bucks are as tough and hardy as grizzly bears.
Susan, I don't want you to dream about me so much, for you always dream bad dreams and they make you unhappy. I know, and I do not like to have you worrying about me, when I was never in better health in my life.
Dear sister, you wanted to know if we kept up the practice of reading in the Bible every night. I can answer only for myself. I do nearly every night. We no longer have family prayer, for our family is scattered, but I hope that we all engage in silent prayer, which the Lord can hear just as well. I hope that I may be prepared to die, so that if I am to die on the battlefield, that it may not be without hope of meeting you all in heaven.
With this as my desire,
I remain yours as ever A. T. La Forge
[written around the edges of several pages of the previous letter]
We have advanced nearer the enemy's lines, since I wrote to you before. We're now about half way between the York and James rivers, four miles from Yorktown. We are daily expecting a battle at Yorktown. When the guns open on that place, I suppose there will be an advance all along the line between the rivers the[?]. [possibly "there"?] It seems that the rebs will fight here if any where, for they are fighting for their capitol. This may be said to be the door to Richmond.
Besides all this, they have also the advantage in position. Nature has fortified the place for them. If you will look in my atlas at the map of Virginia, you will find our position near the lower right hand part of the state. You will see Yorktown Warwick C[ourt] H[ouse]. We were camped at Warwick courthouse.
Please turn to Page 2 now. [In the atlas, presumably.] We have moved up nearer Yorktown and near Warwick creek. This creek is mostly in the hands of the rebels. In some places, their pickets are on one side and ours are on the other. Imagine a line of fortifications extending from Yorktown to the mouth of the creek and you can tell something of what we have to contend with. Sister, I hate to ask you to do such a thing, but I must I wish you would send me a row or two of pins in a newspaper. I would not ask you to if I could buy them, but I cannot, and I know it will give you pleasure. So goodbye. ATLF.
It is with much pleasure that I seat myself to write to you. Since my last letter I have had some experience in fighting, and I can say that it is not funny. I will tell you particulars. April the 29th our Division was called out to make a reconnaissance in force, that is an examination of the enemy's lines and fortifications. Our Regiment was in the advance. We were formed in line of battle and advanced beyond our pickets, and then began to look out for the rebs. But never a rebel did we see until all at once we herd a volley of rifles. And the balls went whizzing by our heads, cutting off the twigs and thugging into them in such a manner as to one very uncomfortable. We kept advancing toward the enemy without a waver, when suddenly we were brought to a standstill by coming upon a slough which it would be very improper for us to cross. The rebs still continued to fire at us, so our Colonel gave us the order to conceal ourselves behind trees and return the enemy's fire whenever we could see them. The trees were so thick that we could not see them, and judging from the poor shots they made after the first volley, they could not see us very plain.
I looked in vain for a rebel, but could not see one. I think if I had, I could have taken as good aim at one as I could at a target, for though excited, my aim was as steady as ever. After remaining here half an hour, our skirmishers were deployed to protect our retreat, and we came back to camp having nobody hurt in our regiment. One in the 56th New York Volunteers, the regiment Richard belongs in, was mortally wounded.
I have sorrowful news to tell you: Lester Eaton is dead. He died in the hospital at Newport the 26th of April. His disease was fever and dysentery. There has [been] three letters came for him from his folks since he died. Oh, how his father and mother and brothers and sister must feel! But I will say no more on this painful subject. Leander is quite sick, and I have been a little. You can see by this writing that I am somewhat nervous. We have just received two of the four months pay due us. I send you twenty three [and] one half dollars. Joseph: does not that note against Nelson Crandall become due this spring? The new ten cent piece enclosed is for little Mattie. Please give it to her. I believe I have nothing more to write at present. Only please burn this after you have read it, if you can do that. And oblig[?]. A T La Forge
[Note: Obviously the letter was not burned as requested, but it's curious why that request would be made. Abiel's first brush with actual combat would be his last for an extended period for reasons made clear in the next letter.]
It is with pleasure that I seat myself to inform you of my whereabouts, at which you will doubtless be surprised. I am sure that I am.
When the 85th moved toward Williamsburg, when the rebs fell back, I could not go with them. I was just coming down with the Virginia fever. I also had the dysentery. Both of these ailments took hold of me pretty strongly after the regiment moved. I grew light rapidly under their close attention. In the course of three weeks I lost twenty pounds. I was taken to the hospital at Yorktown, and from there was brought North on the Vanderbilt, where were first taken to Washington, but the hospitals there were all full so we were brought around here in the boat.
[Recall that in the last letter, just after Abiel noted the death of a friend from dysentery, he noted that he had been "a little sick" and we can imagine that it was the beginning of this illness. My initial searching hasn't turned up an obvious candidate for "Virginia fever".]
As soon as we were moored to the wharf here, the good people begun to bring on board and give to us all kinds of delicacies, such as we had not tasted since leaving home. Arrangements were soon made, and a hundred and eighty of us were taken to the Adams house hospital, where we receive the best of treatment.
We arrived here the 17th. Visitors are coming in every day, bringing all sorts of nice things for us.
I am quite well now. Entirely well of my fever, but quite weak.
My love to all,
From your son and Brother A T La Forge
It is with much pleasure that I seat myself for the purpose of again communicating with you by the pen. I received your kind letter of April 31st, which gave me much pleasure, for I had been waiting what seemed a long time for a letter from you. Yours did not arrive until we had changed from the Adams House to the McKims Mansion hospital, where you must now direct your letters.
I have entirely recovered from my sickness and am detailed on duty here in the hospital as orderly for the Surgeon in charge, so my cake is dough for going back to the Regiment, for which I am very sorry.
[Note: Given the number of invalids mentioned above, it's curious (and unexplained) why Abiel was not sent back immediately to his regiment if he was truly "entirely recovered" as he repeatedly insists. One wonders whether he may have remained in more fragile health than he was willing to admit in letters. It would be about two entire years before he again saw combat, though at least a little of that toward the end was due to bureaucracy. As will become apparent in the next year, he was given increasing clerical and supervisory responsibilities in the various camps he moved through. And given his later performance, it's possible that someone recognized his competence and decided he'd be more use off the battlefield. I don't remember if he remarks on this explicitly in the 1863 letters.]
Our Regiment has been in a severe battle lately. George Green and I believe Orvill Barney have been wounded and sent North to New York City. I suppose they have written home by this time. If they have, I wish you in your next letter would let me know the extent of their misfortune. I am anxious to hear. Also tell me if any [of] the rest of our boys are wounded or killed.
Crandal is a prisoner in the hands of the rebs, our Major dangerously wounded, and our Lieutenant Colonel slightly wounded, and a good many of the men killed, so they must have fought well.
Strawberries are ripe and have been for a week or two. The ladies bring them in nearly every day. They are exceedingly [kind?] to us, and I am sure I shall never forget them. Still I should much prefer the nursing of my sister's, but I can't expect to have as good nurses as as you are.
We have had pleasant weather most of the time we have been have been here, but for several days in succession we have had rain nearly all of the time. However it was needed, for the ground was very dry.
There are a number of the boys from our regiment at this hospital. I like this place much better than the Adams house, for then we were on one of the principal streets of the [city?] and the rattle of the carts and wagons over the pavements was almost incessant night and day. I found it very difficult to sleep at all. While here we are out of the town and away from noise, with a pleasant rural prospect and much more healthy. My business is very pleasant but rather confining. I have to be here from seven in the morning until six at night every day, yet I have plenty of time to read and study while I am here.
There are two hundred and seventy three patients in this hospital. It is situated on an eminence overlooking the most of town. There are three buildings, two story barracks forming three sides of a square, and the McKims Mansion where the Doctors and lady nurses live, then the laundry, cooking house, and officers' dining room, where the Doctors, Stewards, Ward masters, Clerk, and myself eat. And we live well, I tell you. I can write no [more?] at present. Oh yes, I can too. I wish you would send me a five dolor bill, if you can raise it. I have been sick and spent all my money and I want a pair of boots. You did not write whether you received that twenty three dollars fifty cents which I sent you. We only got two months pay, and I sent you the above amount of that. So fare well at present.
God bless you all, Your Brother, A. T. La Forge
It is with much pleasure that I embrace this opportunity of answering your kind letter of Aug 27, which I have the pleasure of saying found me in good health, for which I am very thankful.
Baltimore is very much excited now, owing to the recent successes of the rebels. The rich rebels who, but a week since were wishing for Jackson, now that there is a prospect of his coming, are trembling for fear of the destruction of their property by the Union soldiers. For it is a pretty sure thing, if the rebels take the city, our troops will shell it from the forts which command it, and which can be held against any force that the rebs can bring to bear on them.
It is very plain to be seen that the destruction of their property would give them more pain than the occupation of the city by the rebs would give them pleasure.
But the poorer classes of rebs are jubilant, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Whenever they can get a soldier out in some unfrequented place, they are sure to pitch into him and almost always sure to get flogged and put into the station house for their pains. Many are the fisticuff fights we have to engage in to uphold the honor of the Union.
You would be surprised, and justly too, at the ignorance we are in [as] regards the number and purposes of the rebels in Maryland. That they are commanded by able generals is very evident, but what there intentions are--whether to march on Pennsylvania or Baltimore or Washington, or to await attack--is more than we are able to conjecture with any feeling of safety.
Father, have you and Susan given up going East this fall? If you go, give my best respects to friends at the dear old place. [Note: "East" in this case is presumably the New Windsor area on the Hudson.] Tell little Josiah he must enlist when he's old enough, but not before. Tell uncle Josiah [Fuller] I wish I was down there to eat grapes with him. Say to Aunt Sophy that I am coming down to see her and the rest of them after a while. Of course that means after the war.
I am glad the crops are good up there. In my opinion, the crops will be better than the prices. I remember the last work I helped Joseph do was to turn over some beans which were damp. Now if you had some more to turn over, and I could be up there and spend one night with you, I should be content to turnover beans all next day to pay for it, and think it a cheap bargain at that. For I judge I should get a pumpkin pie by the operation, and perhaps one or two kisses from very dear friends. What do you think?
How very truly can I say,
Where e'er on earth I am doomed to roam,
My heart is still with friends at home.
[Note: Now here's an interesting puzzle. These two lines definitely sound like Abiel is quoting something. And a Google search on various tweaked versions turns up a set of lyrics entitled "Good News From Home" attributed to one Ethel Holm. The problem is, this source says of the author, "Ethel Holm was born on Saba at Windwardside September 4th, 1901. Daughter of George William Christian Holm and Eldarena Hassell. She was a sister of Captains. Irvin and Ralph Holm." Further investigation indicates that attribution is mistaken and turns up a set of uncredited lyrics published in 1860 (much more reasonable!) in The Red, White, and Blue Monster Song Book (vol 3), edited by J. Diprose.]
Oh, I forgot to say I have reserved a very small share of a very fine, fresh, little girl here, very handsome and of strong union proclivities. She is rather shy and bashful, but she likes me pretty well, but won't let me kiss her unless I steal it. [Note: This flirtation seems to have had no lasting effects.]
Now don't go to to forming any rash ideas, but give my love to all just the same as if I had not told you what I have, and remember me as yours affectionately, A.T. La Forge, Orderly.
To Mr Joseph Potter, Andover, Allegany. Co. NY.
Your kind letter of the 13th has been received. I was very glad to hear from you so good a report of yourselves.
Now Jane, you see that much of my letter is addressed to you and Susan both. Now as Suse is gone, the rest is to you entirely, providing you will give a few messages to the rest. [Note: Evidently Susan is absent for some reason? There seems to be a reference in the next letter to her "going east". This absence isn't explained, but the jokes to Joseph about being "a single man again" also indicate some sort of extended absence.]
The danger to Baltimore has passed. We have no farther apprehension of the rebels taking the city. Mac, has driven them from "My Maryland" and I hope he will follow up his success and drive them down to their capitol, and take that, and thus virtually ending the war before the rainy season commences. How I wish he could.
Joseph, how is your crops this year? Do they turn out well as you expect? I wish you would let me know what grain, cattle, butter, cheese and such like are selling for there. Clothes are very high here. Of course they are the same there.
How do you like sleeping alone, Joseph? You are a single man again. How do you like it? We have confounded work getting our pay. I wish you would send me five dollars as soon as you can. I have lent all the money of last payday which I have not used, and can't get it till we are paid, and I want some money before that.
Well mother, how do you enjoy life now? I hope you are well, for without health nobody can enjoy life, is not that so? Doesn't it do your heart good to see so many patriotic young men coming to their country's call, as there has, from the country about there? I should not think any would have to be drafted from Andover or Independence. Do you think there will be any?
[Three-inch section of the letter has been cut out.]
I am expecting a letter from Susan and father. I have received one [from] O L Barney,
My love to all, Yours truly Abiel T La Forge, Orderly McKims
Company C 85th New York Volunteers, Sick Division McKims
Joseph Potter, Independence
Your kind letter of Sept 27 was received last night and I haste to reply.
I was quite surprised to hear from you so quick. I even doubted your going East at all, but your letter sets me at rest on the subject. Is there any place you have been yet that you recognized? I am sure I did not remember any of the old places around there when I went back, but you were older than I and probably remember more than I did.
I am sorry Uncle William [LaForge?] is in such a bad condition. How I wish I had a weeks furlough to come up there, go around with you, and Father.
You write that you do not know where father is. I suppose he has turned up, since I'll warrant you father enjoys himself hugely. He will try to keep you down there all winter, see if he don't. He knows the country so well about there that he will not see half he wants in a good while.
You have been up on Solomans Baarrack [?] before this time. What a beautiful view there is from there: New Burgh, Poughkeepsie, Mateawan, New Windsor, and all those places we used to know so well. And there is little Pancake and Four corners, where used to live and go to school. How dear the associations of childhood seem when we contemplate them in after life. Do not think by my writing that I begin to feel like an old man. Nothing of that, I assure you. But to think of the old places sometimes makes me feel lonely.
Uncle Josiah is as hale and hearty as ever, I suppose--still drawing two loads of water a day, just as he used to when I was there. God bless him. He has a kind heart. Give him my best love.
I judge, by what you write, age begins to tell on aunt Sophy. How kind she used to be to me! I know I used to think her love was more like a mother's than an aunt's. Therefore give her for me the love of a son.
Ask cousin Sal how she likes married life by this time. I believe she had a baby when I was there. How does the little thing do now? I forget whether it was a girl or boy.
Give my love to all our kind friends, both great and small. I wish I could be there to express it myself. But that I am unable to do so, I must be contented with the pen's dumb eloquence.
Has cousin John Gordon (I believe this is the name of Susan's husband) gone out West as he expected to when I was down there? He had a promise of a position in a copper mine out near lake Superior.
Tell little Jo I shall write to him soon. He is a good writer for a boy of his age, I tell you.
Tell Father, if he visits his old friend in New Burgh, to give my best respects to them.
From your loving Brother, Abiel T La Forge, Orderly
Your kind letter of October 3rd I just this hour received, and enclosed found the $5.00 you was so kind as to send me. The letter was miscarried. It went first to Washington, then to Newport News, and then to Suffolk where our regiment now is. My first lieutenant kindly opened it and, seeing it was of importance to me, forwarded it.
We were paid some time ago. Thirty dollars of my pay I sent to my old friend John Clemence to be invested for me. He wrote he would invest it in the best manner possible at this time.
Cousin Geo[rge] Hall was over to see me week before last. He knew me as soon as he saw me, but I did not have as good a memory. I knew I had seen before, but where I could not tell. We had a good visit. He took dinner with me and then returned. I promised to repay the visit and was going over last Sunday, but I heard the regiment had left, so I did not go.
Well Susey dear, I am about to return to my regiment. I asked Dr. Quick yesterday if he would not send me back and he said he would. I am ashamed to stay here any longer, an enlisted soldier and doing nothing, never seeing an enemy unless a prisoner. I shall probably go back between this and the 20th. I hope you will write soon and send it here as before. If I am not here, they will know where to send it.
I did not know how well I was liked untill I told them I was going back. Everybody now seems trying to make me believe that I am a capital fellow and all that. A young clerk--that I came near fighting a duel with when I first came here--swears, if he could get his pay, he would desert from his regiment and go with me to mine, if he could get his pay. Of course, you will think by my writing this I am very vain, and I guess you will be more than half right.
[Note: As we see later, Abiel seems to inspire this sort of response in people, though it isn't clear at this early date quite why. But presumably the charisma we see later in battle came out in more peaceful interactions as well.]
Give my love to all, and tell me next time if you enjoyed your visit as well as you expected before you went.
Your loving brother, A T La Forge
Why I do not get a letter from you, I do not know. Have you received none from me since I have been here? I wrote you a letter the first week I was here, but the pleasure of an answer from my dear sister I have not had. I believe you must have written to me and the letter has [been] sent astray.
"Wall", I am not back to to the 85th yet and I cannot tell when I shall be. No men have been sent to their regiments from here for some time. The camp is gradually being broken up, and moved to a place about three miles above here, where it will be more sheltered from the wind and therefore warmer. The position of this camp is very beautiful for sumner, but far too bleak for winter.
[Note: I've left Abiel's "Wall" ("well", presumably) as intended to depict a dialect pronunciation, given the scare-quotes. The comment that no one from the hospital is being sent back to their regiments may go some ways to explaining why Abiel still lingers. But his comments in the next paragraphs suggest why he continued to be kept there well into the next year. It may be that competent and responsible clerks were valuable enough to be held on to.]
We have already had some very cold weather, colder than it was any time last winter. The Potomac was nearer frozen over, at two different times, than it was at any time last winter. Still, we are having very agreable weather most of the time.
I am now acting as sergeant of the squad to which I belong. I have to make out the requisitions for rations, give them passes, and am held responsible for their good order, and so on. When I first came here, we had to bring all the wood we had over two [and] 1/2 miles, but now we have all the wood we want to burn issued to us, which is a great deal more pleasant. I can go into town at any time, for I have a general pass from Colonel Belknap, who comands this post.
Last night I was sitting by the fire and wishing that I was either with my regiment or up at Josey's, and I do believe if I could have my "druther," I would be with you in Independence till after New Year, which is now so close at hand, and then back to the army again. In that letter you sent me while at McKim's, father wrote he was going out West again. Has he gone yet? If he has, don't you suppose he will be back again next spring? If he would settle down some place, he might get along quite well. If he is still there, give him my love. And mother: how does she stand the cold weather this winter?
It is getting dark, so I must close, wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Your loving brother, Abiel T La Forge
Acting Sergeant in charge of squad
[written along edge]
I have not the mony to put postage on this letter.
To Mrs Joseph Potter Independence N. Y.
Address Post Hospital Near Alexandria, Va. Co. C. 85th Regt.NYSV