1861: Charles Robinson Johnson to Ellen (Albree) Johnson


Carte de visite by Whipple of Boston, Mass. The Medford Historical Society Photograph Collection, the Medford Historical Society & Museum

These two letters were written by Capt. Charles Robinson Johnson of Co. F, 16th Massachusetts Volunteers from Camp Hamilton near Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Charles was a 25 year-old Boston merchant when he received his commission in July 1861. He was wounded at Chancellorsville on 3 May 1863 and again on 2 July 1863 at Gettysburg.

“Exactly where Capt. Charles Robinson Johnson received his wounds at Gettysburg remains a mystery. But the circumstances are all too well known. His regiment, the 16th Massachusetts Infantry, was part of Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ ill-timed advance of his Third Corps on the afternoon of July 2. The 16th was positioned along the Emmitsburg Road with other exposed federals when the Confederate onslaught struck.

At some point during the chaos and confusion, Johnson was wounded in the head and knocked out. He regained consciousness moments later, and found himself in a precarious position between dueling batteries firing grape and canister. As he raised himself to get away, a bullet struck him in the thigh, and he again fell to the ground. He tied a handkerchief around the wound and began to limp away from the scene, when he encountered a passing artilleryman. Johnson asked if he could be laid on the limber of the cannon, but the anxious gunner refused. Still trapped in the line of fire, Johnson successfully waved off other Union artillerymen who had targeted his position.

Johnson limped three-quarters of a mile to the rear, and passed an agonizing night on damp, dew-covered ground without care. He was discovered the next morning and carried to a makeshift field hospital, where his wounds were dressed. He spent the next three days lying on a straw spread over ankle deep mud, subsisting on hard tack and bathing his wounds in a current of water that streamed near the fly tent he occupied.

He made it out of the hospital, and, on July 10, arrived home in Boston to his wife, Nellie, and son. Johnson had three good days before his condition suddenly turned worse. He succumbed to his wounds after four days of intense suffering. He was 27.” [Faces of Gettysburg]

Both letters were addressed to Charles’ wife, Ellen (“Nellie”) Shepard Albree (1838-1906)—the mother of his young boy, Charles Berkley (“Berk”) Johnson (1859-1925) who is mentioned at the end of the second letter.


Camp Hamilton
November 17, 1861

Dear Nellie,

In looking to see if I had many letters to answer of yours, I was surprised to find a letter from me directed to you which I supposed sent. I think I may have put in one of your old letters and sent it back by mistake. I endeavor to be particular to be correct and cannot see how the mistake was made. The only letter I have received from Mother lately is dated October 27 and I will make time to write both mothers. I received a letter from Austin and one from Mr. Toule and letters of Nov. 12th & 14th from you.

My company was detailed for scouting the other day and we went out with seventy men about seven miles from the pickets but saw nothing of the enemy. We went to Phillips farm on the mouth of the Harrison’s Creek. We could look down back river into the Chesapeake from a point of land near it. I will send you a map roughly drawn of the route I took. I expect to go with my company on picket tomorrow and I shall  have to bid farewell to sleep that night as no one is permitted to sleep nights on picket duty.

They say we have Slidell & Mason at the fort. I have strong reasons to believe it true. A company from the 20th [New York] Regiment were out scouting yesterday and it was rumored that they discovered a large force of 2,000 men marching as they supposed on Newport News at present. We have received no orders or heard any firing in that direction so I conclude they have altered their course.

Last day and night have been quite cold but my company have in each tent a brick furnace, most of which work well, keeping their tents warm through the night. Mice are getting to be quite thick and troublesome. They completely—I almost thought so—spoiled my best coat eating two great holes in the back. One of the holes was three inches long by two wide but a tailor in my company succeeded in getting cloth enough inside of my coat to piece it and it will not show much now.

I have sent by C___ Charley May’s servant some stockings which need mending, two shirts, and some towels which I do not want. Give my regards to all. Tell mother I have not forgotten her but she don’t write as often as she thinks. Received from her today a Watchman directed by Austin, I should think; also a Journal from you. Hope you can make this out. I remain yours, — Charles

I have received a letter and a bundle of paper. The keg of pickles have arrived and are dealt to the men every day.


Camp Hamilton
November 24, 1861

Dear Nellie,

We are enjoying a delightful day—weather mild. There has been within the last week a great addition to our numbers and troops are continually arriving. We shall have in a fortnight a large army if reports are true. We don’t know whether they are intended for a naval expedition or to make an approach from here which if we do, we shall have the support of the Navy. Four gunboats night before last shelled a Virginia regiment lately encamped causing them to evacuate.

Your pudding is appreciated by everybody that tastes of it and we shall soon make way with it. I have sent to father $200 to your credit. Have father pay for my vest out of it. You tell Mr. Toule that his pipe was accidentally broke to pieces. One side was quite thin. Lieut. [Payson E.] Tucker sent me a wooden pipe and since I have received it, I have become quite a smoker and find it a great companion. I wish you would buy me a small meerschaum pipe and cover it with buckskin. Ask Steven Winchester about it if you want any information. I can buy the pipe here but thought it would please you to buy one for me. You can get Steven to buy one for you, limiting him as to the price which should not be over five dollars. You may consider it my Christmas present.

Found a flag in the bottom of the firkin that mother sent me. Don’t know whether she sent it or [if it] was placed there by somebody here as we did not see it until today. It has only seven stars which won’t do. None of the bottles broke in mother’s firkin. There were two broken plates which was all that were damaged. The firkin was five days coming. Owing to press of business, it did not arrive until Thanksgiving morning but we had a good dinner late in the afternoon.

There may and I think probable be some disposition of our regiment in a week or two where we may see active service. I have really no reason for thinking so except the increase of our force in this locality. We should object to go under the command of General Butler. General [J. K. F.] Mansfield who has had command of this post has given up his command to Colonel Max Weber. Where he is ordered to, I don’t know. ¹ Give my regards to all. Hope Berk is well.

I am yours affectionately, — Charles

Wednesday. Sarah Maria Butler was not expected to live last night through. Very little hope of her recovery.

¹ Gen. Mansfield was ordered to Newport News to relieve Brig. Gen. J. W. Phelps.

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