1862-63: William M. Gregg to Ariel Standish Thurston

Judge Ariel Standish Thurston

These letters were written by William M. Gregg (1820-1881), a saddler in Elmira, New York, before the war. In April 1861, William volunteered and was commissioned Major of the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry. He later served as Colonel of the 179th New York Volunteer Infantry. He was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers on April 2, 1865 for “gallant and meritorious services in the assault before Petersburg, Va.”

William wrote both letters to Judge Ariel Standish Thurston (1810-1894). Thurston graduated from Amherst College and came to Elmira in 1830 where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1835. He was a law partner with Benjamin F. Butler in New York City for a time but returned to Elmira in 1836 where he lived the remainder of his life. His sister, Clarissa Thurston (1801-1884), was the proprietor of a female seminary in Elmira which evolved into the Elmira College for Women.  Judge Thurston was a political activist and is rumored to have sheltered runaway slaves in his home in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Major William M. Gregg of the 23rd New York Volunteers


Camp Crane
Headquarters 23rd Regt. N. Y. Vol.
Massaponax Creek, Va.
May 27th 1862

Dear Thurston,

Our regiment (which has been detailed from the brigade since our arrival at Fredericksburg) broke our beautiful camp which was situated upon the southern boundary of the town Sunday afternoon. We took up our line of march in a northerly direction, passing up the principal street of the city. The regiment never made a finer appearance than upon the occasion of shaking the dust of this ungrateful & ungodly city from off our feet. In spite of the mean prejudice of its citizens, they were forced to acknowledge their admiration of the soldierly bearing of our noble boys and openly expressed regrets that we were not detailed to patrol & police their dirty town—while their own citizens (capable of bearing arms) are organized or organizing guerrilla bands for the purpose of way laying and murdering our Union friends & soldiers at every point where an unsuspecting or unarmed man can be found by them. Fine thing this southern chivalry.

We camped for the night upon the plantation of Doctor [John R.] Taylor about 2½ miles north of the city. ¹ We had not got settled before the proprietor called upon and claimed protection to his property—niggers included. The published orders of Gen. McDowell gives all citizens protection in person and property. No soldier has the right to molest or destroy any of their chattels. This order had the effect to make feelings of kindness between the lamb, the turkey, the chicken, and the soldier, before promulgation of this order. I must confess there did appear to be a hardness between the three first and the last but happily they are so reconciled to each other that they not infrequently camp together in peace. Our orders do not require us to leave a place in any better condition than we find it so if a planter loses any property by his own neglect or carelessness, the soldier cannot be justly held to account for it.

Our secesh friend—the doctor—who throwed down the fence something more than a year since and has persisted in keeping it down notwithstanding the repeated commands of our father Abraham, begins to feel the effect of his own rash folly, and would (I have no doubt) if it were not for that Southern gass improperly called pride, go upon his knees and implore protection from Uncle Samuel and the American Union under the Stars and Stripes—the only earthly power which can give it. He thanked Col. [Henry C.] Hoffman for the good behavior if his command and, at the same time, told the Colonel that he was $30,000 loser in slaves by the advance of our troops to this place, a family of eight having evacuated his plantation during the stay (one night) of our regiment. Surely, “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Col. Henry C. Hoffman of the 23rd New York Volunteers

I informed the doctor that upon satisfactory proof to the military government at Washington (Gen. Wadsworth) that he was a loyal citizen of the United States, he could retain his chattels under the Fugitive Slave Law. This did not seem to give him any consolation.

We took an easterly course from this place and camped for the night at Salem Church, about six miles east of Fredericksburg, and today we arrived at this place (by an outside woods road) and joined the balance of….[remainder of letter missing]

Dr. Taylor’s Fall Hill Plantation at upper left.

¹ Dr. John Roberts Taylor’s plantation—named “Fall Hill” was located in Spotsylvania county along the bend of the Rappahanock river northwest of Fredericksburg. One of the slaves who escaped the plantation most likely during the Union occupation in the spring of 1862 was Abraham Tuckson who left behind his wife and children. Abraham later enlisted in the 23rd USCT and lost his life on 30 July 1864 at the Battle of the Crater. [See story, Slaves of Fall Hill: Abraham and Hester Tuckson on Mysteries & Conundrums]


Headquarters 23rd Regt. N. Y. Vols.
Belle Plain, Va.
February 26th 1863

My Dear Judge,

Your letter (or rather sermon) dated the 14th inst. came to hand tonight. It had been sent to the 25th Regiment as your number 23rd was not distinct so it is not my fault that you have not received my heartfelt thanks for your good advice and kind sentiments for myself. I have been indebted to you for similar kindnesses from my early manhood to the present day and now, if at the age of forty I am not competent to control myself, no person but myself will be to blame, and now but myself to suffer. I sometimes think you underrate my ability to govern myself but it may be you do not. “The wise man knows the fool, but the fool knows not the wise man.” I will close this subject by again thanking you, and at the same time say, “be of good cheer, be not afraid, tis I.”

I am very sorry about the blunder in the spelling in the inscription upon Ann’s monument. I hope it can be worked over so as not to spoil the beauty of the stone.

I suppose you have seen the Colonel. He has told you more of the situation of affairs in the Army of the Potomac than I could write. For my part, I fail to see the demoralization which the Democratic papers croak so much about in the army. The truth is the people at the North are demoralized & not the soldiers. The army was never upon a better footing than it is today and the discipline which General Hooker is enforcing has a telling effect for the better daily. And I think I can see signs of returning reason with the people at home. John Van Buren’s ¹ two last speeches give me hope. I wrote him today. I send you a copy of the letter. I have also seen Daniel S. Dickinson‘s speech. He is grand, ain’t he. ²

The snow fell in the late storm to the depth of 18 inches. It has pretty nearly all rained off today and there is no bottom to the roads. Mules and army wagons go out of sight in the mud.

Give my love to Mrs. Thurston and the little ones. Yours, — Gregg

P. S. Will the Post Office be moved? Do you not think Hawkey is in danger?

¹ John Van Buren (1810-1866) was the son of President Martin Van Buren. He was described as a “most effective campaign speaker” and that he was especially effective with urban working-class audiences. In his speeches Van Buren “took Jacksonian antislavery arguments to new rhetorical height, excoriating the slavery conspirators, ridiculing comprising “doughfaces” and “meddlesome Whigs,” and above all, emphasizing the degrading influence of slavery on free labor.”

² Before the Civil War, Daniel S. Dickinson of New York was one of the state’s most prominent proponents of Southern states’ rights. But his love for the Union and his speeches were legendary. In a speech in early 1863, upholding Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he stated that “he was no political abolitionist, but in the exercise of the war power, he was for taking that thing [i.e. slavery] out by the roots.” 

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