I decided that the end of 1864 was a good point at which to go back and cover the earlier material. When I decided to start creating this edited and annotated version of the material, I was in the middle of processing the 1864 entries, so it made sense to start from where I was and go forward. But since it's time to start setting up the fixed version of the material on my other website, I want to go back and fill that gap.
Abiel enlisted in Company C of the 85th New York Volunteers in October 1861, so his first letter below is only a couple months after his elistment. This first year is only letters. He didn't start keeping his "mems" (memorandums) until later. As that later parallel material shows, his daily diary entries had a somewhat different flavor from the letters he wrote for family consumption, even though the diaries were also being sent back to his sister Susan and he must have assumed she would read them.
This set of letters will also explain how it was Abiel was separated from the 85th NYV and what landed him in "Camp Convalescent" where we saw him in the previous material on this blog. Contemplate that he contracted dysentery in mid 1862 and didn't return to active duty until two years later (although it feels like part of that was due to the slow machinery of military bureaucracy).
Those who have been following along may be startled at how much less sophisticated the opening of Abiel's first letter sounds, but he seems to settle into his style rapidly.
Dear father, Sister, and friends,
It is with pleasure that I improve the leisure furnished by a rainy day to inform you of the reception of your kind letter [of] the 16th, which I was rejoiced to receve. It found me well and waiting most impatiently for a letter from you. You cannot imagine how delightedly I read it now! Don't wait so long again. I will try to write as often as once a week and I hope you will do the same.
I could not help laughing at the news you had received of two of our men being shot while out on picket duty. There has not been a man shot. There is not any danger in standing on picket duty while on this side of the river. Over on the other side, they have some fun with the rebels sometimes. I was sent out as picket last Sunday. I had to take my blanket, a canteen of water, and one day's provisions in my haversack. It's fun to be off in the woods with two or three jolly companions. I like it.
In the first sheet of my letter I was extoling the fine weather. Yesterday there was a change in the prospect. It commenced raining about dark and rained all night. All of today, so far, and some snow fell also. But as I was saying, about dark it commenced raining, and before midnight we were drowned out. Yes, fairly drowned out. The water came in under our tent, wetting our bedding, which caused us to get up quicker than ever we did for roll call.
We at once procured a lantern and spade and went to work, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the water retire from the tent into the ditch we had made. If it had been the retreat of a body of rebels it could not have given us more satisfaction! We then went into the tent and built up a good fire, without which we would have been very uncomfortable the next day. Today we put a brick floor in our tent, which will protect us against any future incursion of water enemies.
Our tent is wedge shaped and about eight feet square. Five of us occupy one of them. We have bought a little stove which, with furniture, cost us five dollars and which comes very handy to cook, warm our tents, etc. The canvas of which our tents are made is thick enough to prevent the rain from penetrating by falling on it, but it will come under, of course, if not properly protected by a ditch.
I hope it will soon clear off, for sunshiny weather is much more agreeable than stormy in camp. I thought we had got here too late for any of the southern fruit, but we are just in time for persimmons. They are a rich lucious fruit about as large as a good-sized green gage. I wish you could have some; They would suit you.
I understood that somebody had sent you [inserted above the line] meaning the people there [end of insertion] word that our regiment was dying off at the rate of ten a day. It is not so. There has [been] not one died since we came here that I know of. You tell the people so.
Write all the particulars, for they are what I like. Yours with love dear friend.
[The following letter was probably actually written in January of 1862, although it was filed with letters from December of 1862. The reference to New Years being past and the fact that it was written from Camp Warren are the basis for my assumption.]
It is with great pleasure that I now seat myself for the purpose of writing to you and informing you of my excellent health and spirits, and also of the receipts of your kind letter, for which accept my thanks.
It was with was with wonder and gratitude that I received your letter so soon after writing to you. I was greatly amused to read the account in your letter of the reports which had reached you of a party of our men, of which Studer was one, being attacked at a bridge which they went to guard. Nothing of the kind has happened. None of us have had a chance to try our spunk with the rebels yet, but our Colonel has promised us that we shall have a chance before long to try our mettle.
We have had the promise of some reconnaissance duty. If we do, we shall probably have a sight of the enemy, which we have not had as yet. We are just as much out of the danger of the enemy here as at Elmira, but we shall have a chance before long.
You seem to have formed a wrong idea of our manner of living. We don't have beds; we sleep on the ground on straw. We each have two blankets and most of us have quilts from home. First, on the straw we place our India rubber blankets, then on this we put our quilts. Our blankets we spread over us.
Since I wrote my last letter, we have been moved into large round tents, eighteen feet in diameter. In this there are fifteen men. We sleep in a half circle around the tent, our feet to the center. We have a stove in our tent and everything handy. All the boys from our place [Note: presumably "our place" being his home town] with the exception of Ira Crandall live in here.
We have potatoes part of the time. We expect our pay to the fifteenth of this month, but cannot tell as yet. I do not know the fare from Andover [to] here, but I believe it about ten dollars, but I don't know. Tell Willie to enquire at the depot. Lieutenant Green is some sick at present, not bad, however all the rest of our boys are well. Lester Eaton is over the river at present, visiting the second Wisconsin and some other Regiments over the Potomac.
But would you not be pleased to see fifteen men In a tent only eighteen feet in diameter? I tell you, we soon learn to accommodate ourselves to all most anything now. I suppose you think we cannot live with any comfort, but we do live with comfort too. The money you sent me I bought an India rubber blanket. I have not bought a pistol yet.
I bought wages with the rest when pay day comes I have my my pay when pay day comes. [Note: I've set off this line due to the difficulty of interpreting it. I'm guessing there may be a transcription issue for the duplication in the second half of the line, but I don't know what it would mean to say "I bought wages with the rest [of my money?]" I guessing this should be emended something like: "I bought wages(?) with the rest. When pay day comes I'll have my pay."]
I hope It will not be much longer before we shall make an advance on the Potomac. With as large an army as we have at present, we might make an advance on. [Note: possibly he intended to repeat "on the Potomac" then realized he was repeating the phrase?] I hope It will not be so much longer so.
We have had considerable cold weather since New Year. It has snowed about an inch, but It has been warm enough in our tents for anybody.
Last week I was corporal of the pickets of this regiment. We had a piece of woods to guard, which was on a hill commanding a fine view of the city of Washington. At night I had just taken on the men--ten in number--of which I had command, and I had just given them their places to guard, when I saw a strong light toward the city. I at once got in a place where I could see the fire, for such it was. Oh how bright! It was the government stables on fire. There were some fifteen hundred horses in them, of which one hundred fifty were burned to death. It was dreadful. All of the horses were turned out that they could. It was bad enough, I tell you. I suppose you read of it in the papers.
We got that butter, and a more thankful set of fellows than we were you seldom see. It is enough to make a fellow homesick. Some of the boys here are wishing themselves home with their mothers, but I have not seen the time yet when I wished myself out of this. I came here with the expectation of of much worse fare than we had here, and so I was pleasantly disappointed. Our bread is baked for us, and many other things which I did not expect.
Father, I shall be glad to go up West with you when I get through with this war, but it will be a good while first, and I hope by that time I shall get to be a man and able to do some work. But I am afraid that I shall be very lazy at first.
Last night, we agreed to have readings in the Bible and prayer every night. Last night we did so, and I don't think we shall drop it. We have the praise of being the most quiet and orderly tent in the company. Still, we have plenty of fun, but have it in a quiet way.
We have had news today from the colonel that we shall go down the Potomac to Mathias Point where the rebels are blockading the Potomac. They are collecting in great numbers. It will take a large force of ours to dislodge them, so it wont be long before we have a chance to to try our mettle. I have no doubt you think because we sleep on the ground we sleep uncomfortable, but I tell you I never slept better in my life, or with less dreams.
But my dear friends, I can write no more at present. Give my love to all,
A T La Forge
Pleas excuse my many mistakes. You know that we don't have a table to write on.
I am happy to say that I received your kind letter of January 18, which I should have answered before, but I expected another letter from you. I sent one when I sent the money. I understand the money arrived at Andover safe, whether the letter did or not.
Your letter found me well, but deep in the mud, however the going is better now. Night before last, I was on guard and it snowed nearly all night. The snow fell to the depth of several inches (about three). Still, there is no sleighing. Three inches of snow is not apt to make sleighing where the mud is a foot deep. You would probably never have heard from me again if we had not moved our camp. The mud was getting so deep there that we must have inevitably stuck fast before long. We have moved about one hundred rods. We are camped on a side hill, where it is sandy, dry, and nice, in full view of the city of Washington. I like our present camp ground first rate.
I was very sorry to hear that mother was hurt. I hope she is well by this time. How I should like to see her! I can imagine how she sits by the stove, enjoying her pipe. I can imagine what you are all at, but none of you can guess anything about what I am at, because you never saw anything of the kind.
You must never think we are suffering with cold because we never do. Our tents are full as warm as board shanties, then it is never very cold here. The coldest is only 20° below zero, and that only once [in a] while. Some times it seems almost like summer does there. And another thing which adds to our comfort is there is but thirteen of us in a tent now. And when we moved, we managed to cabbage enough fence boards to make a floor to our tent. Then again, we sold our little stoves and bought a larger one with an oven. The advantage can readily be seen by any woman. [Note: I'm wondering if "cabbage" is some sort of rhyming slang for "scavenge". Or perhaps Abiel was unfamiliar with the word and misheard it? The sense is clear from context.]
The water is mostly bad. I know of but one good spring anywhere about. George Green has been sick and in the hospital for some time, but is well and out around at present. One of the hospitals on this hill is the large Columbian College. Another is the residence of old Commodore C. Porter, of whom we read in the war of 1812-14. The commodore's son is now an officer in the rebel army. The house was once a beautiful residence and is splendidly situated just back of our camp. The house is badly used and is going to decay as fast as the material of which it is built (brick) will allow it to.
Now here is something which will be interesting for father. The grave of old Lorenzo Dow is within a half mile of here. The tombstone is common brown stone. It is raised on pillars above the grave two feet, and with this inscription on it:
Who was born in Coventry Conn.
Oct. 18th 17.77
Died Feb 2nd 18.34 aged .56. Years.
And also a couple of his quotation, of which I am sorry I failed to copy.
[Note: I've left the memorial inscription as is.]
I had to leave my unfinished letter yesterday, on account of an order which I received to go out target shooting. Our company made first rate shots. The target was about forty-five rods off. We have changed our guns since I wrote last. We now have the Austrian rifle. The gun is not as handsome as the Enfield, which we had before, but it is more serviceable. I think we made a good trade.
Last week I went down to the city and visited the patent office. It is a large marble building filled with all the machinery in the United States, and there also is the coat, pants, sword, money safe, and some of the tea set of General George Washington, and many other relics of great value to the people of the nation.
My love to all, Father, Mother, Brothers, and Sisters from your loving friend.
A T La Forge
To Mr Joseph Potter
Direct to Company C, 85th Regiment New York State Volunteers, Camp Warren, D.C.
[Note: There are a number of later references to going to see the Patent Office while on leave in Washington, but I think this suggests the clearest picture that it served as something of museum, as well as a government office.]
It is with pleasure that I seat myself in great haste to write you a few lines to inform you of the reception of your kind letter, for which receive my thanks. You will doubtless see the haste in which I write by the writing. Tonight our company fell in as usual for dress parade, when the Captain came down and told us that our company need not go on dress parade, for the reason that companies A, B, C, and H were to be sent across the Potomac tonight, about 12 miles from here. They are expecting to have a battle over there very soon, and by our earnest solicitation we were permitted to go over. [Note: I think it's important to read Abiel's letters always alert for his very dry sense of humor.]
We are not going to stay over there. We take four days' rations, and probably shall not have to stop over there longer than four days. Whether we shall have a fight or not, we cannot tell. [inserted] We do not take our tents with us. [end of insertion] After I wrote that, the order not to take our tent was countermanded and we took them. We shall not have any to sleep in. We shall have to bunk down on the ground while we are gone. [Note: Disentangling the contraditions, I suspect that Abiel first wrote that they wouldn't be taking their tents and would have to sleep on the ground, but that this order was then countermanded. It would make more sense, though if the sentence beginning "After I wrote that..." was the one that had been inserted.]
But I must bid you good bye for the present my love to father and all the f [torn corner] Your brother, A T LaForge
[letter continued on]
It is with mortification that I finish this letter. We have not realized the fond anticipations which we had on starting the night of February 27. We were then in fond hope that we should be in an engagement before we got back again, when we started at last with this expectation.
We did not get started until after dark that night. We were accompanied by the band for a short distance. They finally turned, and we cheered them and kept on our journey. We had not gone more than 1/4 of a mile before we had to halt and send back for a couple of lanterns. The roads are so muddy. We marched through Georgetown and about 2-1/2 miles beyond when we halted, and the Major who commanded went to the headquarters of the Brigade with which we were to go for orders.
He was gone about an hour, and we built fires by the road and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. When he returned, he said that we were to return to our old camp. That the order for an advance had been countermanded. That he had telegraphed back to headquarters for instructions, and he should have to go back to Camp Warren.
He then gave the order of "about face" and "forward march", and back we marched through the mud to our old camp, where we arrived about two o'clock AM. A tired set of men! We had only marched about ten miles, but owing to the state of the roads it was worse than a twenty miles' march. As soon as the wagons came, we picked our tents--not being over particular--bunked down, and was soon fast asleep.
We did not get up until the sun was an hour high. Just as Orvill Barney and me (who slept together) got up, Leander Liveson, Lester Eaton, and Albert Heseltine came in. They had slept in a covered baggage wagon about a mile back all night. We had a good laugh [about] our adventure and then went to work and pitched our tents in proper shape, laid our floor again, and got things arranged as we had them before.
And we were inspected for pay today, but the prospect is that we shall not get our pay until the first of April. If we do not get it until then, I shall be out of money and therefore I wish you would send me one dollar. [Note: A number of these early letters show fascinating evidence of the micro-finance life of Abiel's community. Here he borrows--or perhaps "withdraws" from money previously sent home--in the next line he lends. It feels like money rarely sat still.]
Joseph, I wish you would use that money that I sent you. Or if you do not want to use it yourself, put it out until the first of Sept 1862, so that it may be increasing slowly.
You were right in supposing that I was wishing that the war was over and I was home. That is perfectly natural. But I never have wished that I was home unless this war was over.
You wrote Jane [Mary Jane Potter, Susan's sister-in-law] was sick with the sore throat. I am glad she does not have the treatment which we do in such a case: we have our throat burned out with an acid. You were safe in guessing that I do not gain in flesh as fast as I did at Elmira. If I had gained all the time as fast as I did when I first went there, I should now be the heaviest man in the army. The other day, there was such a heavy wind that a steeple 200 ft high was blown down. Heavy metallic roofs were blown off, chimneys were blown off, and lots of damage done in the city. This is a specimen of our North West wind.
I believe I have nothing more to write at present, only my love to father and all the rest of my friends.
Yours Truly A. T. La Forge
[letter on same paper]
Dear Sister & Friends,
It is with pleasure that I once more seat myself for the purpose of again improving this opportunity of writing to you. I received your kind letter of February 22, for which receive my thanks. Your letter found me well, and glad to hear from you.
The weather has been quite pleasant here for some time. An old contraband told me that this kind of weather will last until the last of March. It will rain every two or three days, and then clear up with a cold North West wind, which will last about a day. Then it will be pleasant a day or two, then rain again, and so on. However the mud is drying up and a change is much better than to have it rain all the time. Today we have had the heaviest fall of snow that we have had here this winter. For a short time the snow fell--about two inches deep in two hours. Still it is very warm, just snow enough to make good snowballing, and i tell you the boys have improved the opportunity They snowballed one other until they got tired of that, and then they picked on the commissioned officers whenever one made his appearance. The Colonel and nearly all the Captains and Lieutenants had their share. [Note: Evidently snowball weather suspended normal military order! I'm trying to imagine enlisted men throwing snowballs at officers with impunity.]
The day before yesterday I received a letter telling me that Sam Van Gordon and two of his brothers were in the 56th Regiment New York State Volunteers. Now I must tell you they were old acquaintances of mine, therefore you must know that the reception of this news gave me a considerable pleasure, for the 56th is encamped not more than an hundred rods from our camp. As it was Sunday today, and I had plenty of extra time, I accordingly went over to the 56th, found my old friends, and in course of conversation asked if any of the New Burgh boys was in the Regiment. They told me yes. I asked them if they knew of a fellow by the name of Richard Swort. [Richard Swart was his stepbrother, the son of his father's second wife] They told me yes, he was in the company. I soon found him out, and I tell you we had a good time talking over old times. He hardly knew me. He is to return the visit this week sometime. The Colonel of that Regiment is Van Wyk, congressman from New York. He resigned his position in congress to take command [of] the Regiment. [unsigned -- perhaps a page is missing]