1861-62: Robert S. Beckwith Letters

Robert S. Beckwith, Co. D, 1st New Jersey Volunteers

With the exception of a couple written by his brother Thomas, these letters were written by Robert S. Beckwith (1834-1862), the son of Thomas Beckwith (1798-1861) and Sally Stanton (1799-1847) of Windham, Windham county, Connecticut.

Robert enlisted on 8 May 1861 as a private in Co. D, 1st New Jersey Infantry. He mustered into the service on 22 May 1861. He died while a prisoner of war from wounds he received in the Second Battle of Manassas. His death date is given as 27 August but was probably 29 August 1862.

John Porter Billings & Mary (Barnes) Billings of S. Easton, PA. CDV courtesy of Kevin Canberg

All of the letters were addressed to John Porter Billings, Jr. (1837-1915) and his wife, Mary C. Barnes (1838-1916) of South Easton, Pennsylvania. John was the son of John P. Billings (1792-1837) and Eva Clater Negel (1800-1880) of South Easton, Northampton county, Pennsylvania.  John P. Billings—to whom Robert wrote these letters—was a cousin of Robert’s sister-in-law, Minerva (Billings) Beckwith, the wife of Chester H. Beckwith (1827-1909). John’s father died when he was an infant and he was raised by Benjamin Kidd with whom his mother remarried.

John served three stints in the Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War. He first served from 20 April to 24 July 1861 in Co. C, 1st Pennsylvania; he next served from 11 September to 24 September 1862 in Co. B, 5th Pennsylvania Militia; and finally he served from 17 February 1864 to 20 July 1865 with Co. D, 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

John P. Billings was married to Mary C. Barnes in 1857. They continued to reside in South Easton where John was employed as a blacksmith and later as a “tin plate maker.”

[Note: The image of Robert Beckwith and this collection of letters are from the collection of Adam Ochs Fleischer and are published by express consent.]

Letter 1

[Note: Letter One was written by Robert’s older brother, Thomas S. Beckwith (1824-1896), of North Windham, Connecticut. Thomas’s second wife, Sarah A. Harris (1839-1912), has also added to Thomas’s letter. Mentioned in the letter is Robert’s brother Chester H. Beckwith (1827-1909), his intellectually handicapped sister Delia, his infant nephew Arthur M. Beckwith (who “liked to have died”), and Luther Cross—a brother of Thomas’s first wife, Betsy M. Cross.  Chester—a carpenter by trade—was married to Minerva H. Billings (1830-1879) in 1850. Minerva was the daughter of Charles Billings (1797-1868) and Hannah Clayton (1802-1873 of Windham. The Beckwith’s and the Billings’ were next door neighbors in Windham at the time of the 1860 Census.]

North Windham, Ct.
May 24th 1861

Dear Brother,

Sir, I received your letter today and sat down to answer it. I received your box the 8th of April but no key with the box and I wrote the next day to New London but received no answer. But I am glad to hear from you and hope you will come home before many days. If you get this, please answer it. We are all very well at present. I have got able to work again. Commenced to build a barn yesterday. I saw [brother] Chester up to North Windham. He is a going to keep [our sister] Delia. Our baby [Arthur] got choked with a ring and like to have died but I got it out of his throat and he has got better again. I don’t think of anything more to write at present. So goodnight.

Yours affectionately, — Thomas S. Beckwith

N. B. [Nota Bene (means “Note well”)] Shall I open the box or not. If I can, I will and you may rest assured it will be safe and taken care of. Yours, — T. S. B.

Dear Brother Robert,

I suppose that Thomas has written all that is necessary but I thought that you might like to hear something from me. We have been having very cold weather but it is growing warmer and the grass begins to look like spring. The children all send their love to Uncle Robert. We are all in good health and spirits as can be expected. Lucius Cross has moved to Michigan and likes [it] very much. The Miss Waldo’s have not been up to see me yet but I think they are all well and as I do not think of anything more to write, I will close. And may God bless you and bring you safe back to us in His own good time is the sincere wish of your friend and sister, — S. A. Beckwith

Hurrah for the Stars and Stripes. Yankee Doodle forever, — S[arah]

[Note: Letter Two was written on the day before the 1st New Jersey was transported from Trenton, New Jersey, to Washington D. C.  They were served refreshments at the Cooper Shop in Philadelphia enroute. The arrived in Washington of 29 June 1861 and went into camp on Capitol Hill.]

Letter 2

Camp Olden ¹
June 27, 1861

Dear Friend Mary [Billings],

I now write to you a few lines for the last time on this ground for we are going away tomorrow morning. That was what news was last night. We are a going to Harpers Ferry, I suppose, by what I can hear. If I do, I shall see John P. Billings. If I do, shan’t I be happy. I shall jump ten feet into the air.

We have got our  uniform. It is a blue overcoat and a blue dress coat, blue pants. Our hat is a black one about ten inches high with the brim turned up on one side with a bugle in front and a big eagle on the side and a black feather on the side—a blue cord goes around it twice with two tassels in front. It looks gay, I tell you. We are to have ten rounds of cartridges. We have got all of our equipments now [and] we are ready to fight.

I have not heard anything Emily yet. I should like to very much but as it is, I shall have to go without it. Give my love to her and tell her that I shall cat howl her when I come home.

I can’t think of much more to write. Give my love to all. I think of sending my clothes home. I don’t know whether I can or not. I will tell you before night. I shall send it to South Easton in care of E. Kline. If I send it, I shall tell you. I am going to stop now.

Now it is afternoon. We have had a Battalion drill. I am going to send my carpetbag up by Major [should be Lieutenant Charles] Sitgreaves. He said that he would take it up for me. I shall put 25 cents in this letter to pay the Express on it. If you get it, let me know in the next letter you write to me.  I expect to see John soon. We start in the morning at 5 o’clock. Tell John if I don’t see him that he may wear the clothes that I send up. I thought that I should sell them but [then] I thought that they would do John more good than the money would me.

I have been downhearted and sick for the last week.

Our equipments is a knapsack, a haversack, a cap box, a cartridge box, a bayonet, scabbard, a canteen, a gun.

I can’t think of anything more to write at present. Be sure and tell Em that she will catch it when I come home. So goodbye from your true friend, — Robert S. Beckwith

¹ Camp Olden was located south of Trenton, New Jersey, near the Delaware and Raritan Canal, opposite the State prison. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd N. Jersey Regiments were all organized there.

[Note: Letter Three was written almost a week prior to the 1st New Jersey being ordered to move into Virginia. They crossed the Long Bridge on 12 July 1861 and marched to Alexandria where they encamped at Roache’s Mills, naming it Camp Trenton. The Brigade (1st, 2nd, and 3rd New Jersey) was assigned to General Theodore Runyan’s command and were designated part of the Fourth Division of the Army of Northeast Virginia under McDowell.]

Letter 3

Camp Monmouth ¹
July 6th 1861

Dear Friend Mary [Billings],

I now am going to write you a few lines to let you know how things is down here. They had a fight a little ways from here yesterday. There was 280 killed and 200 taken prisoners from the Rebels and there is now 10,000 surrounded so that they can’t get away. There was about 56,000 men march over the Long Bridge yesterday and the 28th New York Regiment and the 2nd Rhode Island is now going. They have just broke camp and on the march over there to help, We shall go soon.

I have not seen [your husband] John yet. I don’t know when I will get to see him for the Capt. says that their regiment is in encamped in Pennsylvania yet. I wish you to write and let me know where he is. I wish you to write soon. I have not got much time to write now.

Last night we was alarmed about 12 o’clock by the discharge of 7 guns by the pickets. The whole camp was roused to arms. We formed into 5 Divisions and stationed around the camp. We could not find anybody at all. The picket said that they see two men and fired at them and they run away. ²

I can’t think of much more to write at present. Give my love to all the folks up there. I haven’t heard anything [from] Emela yet. If I don’t, she will catch it when I come home. We are almost starved to death. I am sick but I hope you are well and enjoying good health and feeling happy at home and contented. Don’t get discouraged for John will come home the [  ] of August—not before. So goodbye at present.

Direct your [letters] to Robert S. Beckwith, Washington D. C., care of Capt. [Valentine] Mutchler, Company D, 1st Regiment, 1st Brigade of 3 Years New Jersey Volunteers.

¹ Notes compiled by Major David Hatfield and published with the regimental history tell us that the camp ground (“Camp Monmouth”) “is owned by a slave owner; has some thirty slaves. The house is which he lives is within a stone’s throw of our camp.”

² Major Hatfield’s diary records on July 6th 1861, that “between eleven and twelve P. M. last night, camp was thrown into great excitement by the firing of a number of guns. The long roll was beat upon the drums and the battalion formed in short order. It turned out to be a shot from one of our sentries at a man who refused to answer when hailed. He made off as fast as his legs could carry him. After being out one hour, we returned to quarters to sleep, with one eye open. Such is a soldier’s life.”

[Note: Letter Four was written three weeks after the First Battle of Bull Run. The 1st New Jersey did not participate in the fight but they were ordered to the front to cover the retreat of the Union forces that had been engaged, entering defensive works near Centerville.]

Letter 4

1st [New Jersey Infantry]
August 14th 1861

Dear Friend John and Mary [Billings],

I just received your letter and am a going to answer it. I am well at present and I hope these few lines will find you the same. We have been almost starving to death for the last month but now they give us a plenty and I hope they will continue to do as long as I am in the service. There is a good deal of talk about going home when out three months is up. They say that they can’t keep us after the 27th of August and if they can’t, you will see one fellow up there that looks like Old Bob.

We have been marched all over the whole South and I am about tired of such fun for too much fun is too much. As the old woman said, “Too much rum is too much, but too much cider is just enough.”

We went to Bull Run to that battle but we did not get any fun so we marched back again. We have had two men wounded. Them [was] W. Mutchler and the other was R[alph R.] Slack. Mutchler was shot through the hand and Slack was shot through the arm and it was taken off above his elbow.

Oh how I with that story was true. I’d shout for joy, you had better believe, but I don’t expect that it is true for there is now such good news for the New Jersey 1st Regiment as that it is the meanest regiment in the whole brigade. I should like to see you all very much but I don’t ever expect to.

We have moved more than a dozen times from one camp to another and marched more than 800 miles. I hope that if John ever goes as a soldier again, that he will get shot because if I was clear, I am sure I never would go again for they don’t treat their men good enough. They treat them like dogs more than like men. Don’t ever let me see you down here, John. If I do I shall whip you for I say when you get clear, keep clear. Don’t come back again.

We get 15 dollars a month from the government and 4 from the State. That makes 19 dollars a month. 100 would not keep me if I could get away for I have see the elephant. [unsigned, possibly missing a sheet]

[Note: Letter Five was written from Fairfax Seminary which the 1st New Jersey Regiment had occupied on 7 August 1861.]

Letter 5

Camp Bushes
[October 1861 (?)]

Dear Friends John and Mary [Billings],

I received you letter yesterday and was very glad to hear from you. I thought you had forgot me for I wrote to you so long ago and received no answer, but it has come at last So I know hat you have not forgot me nor never will. I know you never will. You are the only one that I have got to think of as a friend or friends. I know you are my friends.

I have not got much new to write at present but I shall have more time after we get through working on the fort. We are building two forts here about three miles from Alexandria, Va. All the New Jersey troops are here together in the woods. We have to work on trenches 6 hours a day for 40 cents extra. That helps some.

Oh, as you said about coming back again to the war, I can tell you [that] you had better stay at home at present for I think that his war will not last very long so you had better stay at home. There is Rebels coming in every day and giving themselves up to us as prisoners of war. I shall be at home some time. We got paid off today the sum of $23.65. I am going to send $15 to T. S. B. of North Windham, Conn. I shall send some next time we get paid.

I see you rewarded for your kindness towards me when I was there with you. I owe a great deal to you for that. You must excuse me for the shortness of this letter. I must close now so goodbye at present from yours &c. — Robert S. Beckwith

N. B. We are in the Light Battalion now and have got Springfield rifles now. The Battalion is made up from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Regiment; two companies out of each regiment. We are commanded by Lieut. Col. [I. M.] Tucker. Direct your letter to R. S. B., Care of Capt. Mutchler, Co. D, Light Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, Washington

Give my love to all the folks. My respects to Lo Winters of South Easton, Pa. I don’t know when I shall write again so you must not expect me to write very soon for I don’t have much time. So goodbye John & Mary &c.

Letter 6

Headquarters New Jersey Brigade
Camp Seminary
Alexandria, Virginia
October 21 [1861]

Friend Mary [Billings],

I take this opportunity to write to you a few lines to let you know that I am well and hope you are the same. I wrote you a letter a long time ago but have not received any from you. I don’t know what the matter is the reason is that I don’t. I should like to hear from you very much. I have not much to write now. There is no news here to get.

I wish you all well. If John is not gone to war, tell him not to go for it won’t last long. So keep home until I come. No more at present. So goodbye.

From your friend, — Robert S. Beckwith

Direct your letter as before. So goodbye. Give my love to Em.

Letter 7

[Note: Letter Seven was written from Fairfax Seminary where the 1st New Jersey Infantry was encamped in winter quarters. Their quarters consisted of log huts and boards, the roofs made of shelter tents, and fireplaces of stone with barrel chimneys.]

Headquarters New Jersey Brigade
Camp Seminary
Alexandria, Virginia
November 10th 1861

Dear John [P. Billings, S. Easton, PA.],

Sir, I take this opportunity to write to you for the third time since I have received one from you. I should like to [know] the reason why you don’t write to me. James Huff was over here to see me today. He says that you have got the rheumatism so you are not able to work. He is in the 47th Pennsylvania Regiment encamped about 9 miles from here. I am glad to see someone from Easton.

I should like to see you very much but I don’t know when I shall. I don’t think the war will last very much longer. When it’s over, I will come home and see you. Do write and tell me what the matter is that you don’t write. I shall be pleased to hear from you. Write soon and tell me all. Give my love to all. No more at present. So goodbye from your true and affectionate friend, — Robert S. Beckwith of Windham, Ct.

I believe that my friends have left me for no one writes to me but my shipmate George Hooper and his brother and sister, William Hooper and Nellen Hooper. [My brother] Chester has not wrote for a long time. I had one from [brother] Thomas the 8th. I am a poor devil. I suppose they think I don’t care if they do.

Letter 8

Headquarters New Jersey Brigade
Camp Seminary
Alexandria, Va.
December 15th 1861

My friend,

Excuse me for the long interval between my letters. I wrote you 4 letters and received no answer until the other day. I got one from you and wasn’t I glad to hear from youI got a letter from Emily and wrote her one back. i should like to hear from you just as often as you can or will write and I will do the same.

There is not much news here at present but there was an execution here last Friday of a soldier that deserted over into the enemy’s lines and Colonel Taylor of the 3rd New Jersey Regt. put him. The way of it was that the Capt., when he found him, he asked the Colonel if he was a secesh and the fellow said he was and then the fellow told the Colonel all about our army, forts, and told him that there was 3 companies that they could take that night. We was out there camping—Company D, C, & E was out there—and he told all about our army. So the Colonel took him prisoner and brought him into camp and they tried him and sentenced him to be shot dead, and so he was for I seen him fall with 11 balls through him. His name was William H. Johnston [1st New York Artillery] of New Orleans, he says, but can’t say as to that. I can say as much as this—that it was a hard sight to look at, you better believe. I should have like to empty the contents of my musket at him for I think that he did deserve it if anyone ever did. Anyone that preaches secesh to me, I want to empty his blood locker for him.

i had an old friend came to see me the other day and stayed all night with me and I was very much pleased to see him too. I should like to see you all but I don’t expect to do so for a long time, if I ever do. I hope I shall be pleased with a letter from you as soon as you see fit to write to me. you must not think that I have forsaken you for don’t know as I have got a better friend than you. Remember that. From — R. S. B.

I must close my letter for now so goodbye. Write soon. your friend, — Robert Beckwith, U. S. A.

[Note: Letter Nine mentions the Battle of West Point, better known as the Battle of Eltham’s Landing, which took place on 7 May 1862 in New Kent county, Virginia. In this affair, General Franklin’s Union division landed at Elthan’s Landing and was attacked by two Confederate brigades who sought to protect the Confederate trains retreating from Williamsburg. The 1st New Jersey was only lightly engaged, serving as reserves in this fight. This letter was written during the Seven Days Battles and Robert mentions the fighting of the previous day in what was called the Battle of Oak Grove in Henrico county, Virginia.]

Letter 9

Battlefield Fair Oaks
June 26th 1862

Friend Mary & John [Billings],

As I haven’t wrote to you for a long time, I will tell you the reason. I can’t get any stamps & I don’t like to send a letter without a stamp on it but as we are situated, I can’t get them at any price. But you must not wait for me to write. You must write.

I have witnessed some hard fighting. Since I wrote you before, I have been in one fight—the Battle of West Point. Our Division was against 80,000 & held them until we got reinforcements. Then they retreated. I have been sick for some time but am better now.

Yesterday we had a hard fight on the old field. We were in reserve. Them engaged were the 7th Maine, 19th Massachusetts, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th New Jersey, & the Irish Brigade. We drove them 1¼ miles & now we are in sight of Richmond. I can’t write much this time so you must excuse me for so short a letter. But you must write & don’t wait for me for I can’t write as though I was at home.

So excuse me & write soon to your old friend, — R. S. Beckwith, Private in U.S. Army

R. S. Beckwith
Co. D, 1st Regiment, N. J. Volunteers
Gen. Slocum’s Division
Washington D. C.

[Note: Letter Ten was written from the encampment of the 1st New Jersey near Alexandria, Virginia, after returning from the Peninsula Campaign. Robert mentions his being engaged in the Battles of Gaines Mills on 27 June, and the Battle of White Oak Swamp on 30 June 1861 while on the “retreat” to the James River.]

Letter 10

Headquarters 1st Brigade New Jersey Vols.
July 25, 1862

Dear friends Mary & John [Billings],

I am now out on picket about 5 miles from camp. I am on the outpost. There is 3 of us on the post but the Rebels are not very near so we are not much alarmed about them. I have not got much to write today for I am out on picket but I will tell you about the Battle I was in a few days a few days after I wrote you. It was the Battle of Gaines Mills on the 27th of June. We lost a great many of our brave men in that fight. You have heard all about it, I suppose. The papers tell all about the fight so I can’t find much to write about so you must excuse me for so short a letter but I can tell you the balls flew thick that day’s fight.

You must write as often as you can for you can do so better than I can for we have to go out on picket one day & then go in & then we have to go out on trenches twice a day until we got out on picket again. We go on picket every 3 days & I can tell you we have it pretty hard since we made that retreat. The day after the battle, we started on a retreat & was 3 days coming for we had a fight every [day]. I was in the Battle of White Oak Swamp but did not lose any men.

Oh, tell Susanna that I was surprised the day I was sitting in my tent & who should come & look in but Chester. He has been [in] one fight with me but I did not know it at the time. He is in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. They lay about one mile from me. We are to go there 2 or 3 times a week. I expect him over tomorrow—Sunday. He was paid off the other day & sent $40 dollars home to Minerva. Chester said he had written to you the other day.

My love to all—also Uncle Peters. He is with us yet.

Yours &c., — Robert S. Beckwith, U. S. Army

[Note: Letter Eleven was written following Robert’s death. It was written by Robert’s older brother Thomas who had apparently become aware from Robert’s papers that Robert had left a truck of his possessions with John and Mary Billings in South Easton, Pennsylvania. Presumably Robert was living with the Billings family in Easton prior to his enlistment. We learn that Thomas was serving as the administer of Robert’s estate.]

Letter 11

North Windham, Connecticut
November 5th 1862

Mrs. Mary C. Billings,

I see by Robert S. Beckworth’s papers that you have in your possession a trunk of clothing [and] also a watch which I wish you to send by Express to me—Thomas S. Beckwith, Administer on the Estate of R. S. Beckwith. Please send as soon as you receive this and save my coming after it as you are held responsible for them until I receive them, which must be as soon as you can make it convenient.

Yours respectfully, — Thomas S. Beckwith, No. Windham, Ct.


[Note: Letter Twelve was written by Thomas Beckwith’s attorney seeking bills from the Billings family in regard to closing out the estate of Robert Beckwith.]

Letter 12

Millimantic, Ct.
November 28, 1862

John P. Billings, Esq.
Dear Sir,

Will you be good enough to send your bill against the estate of Robert Beckwith, deceased (sworn to) to me and if the same is reasonable, it will be attended to.

Respectfully, — Thomas Beckwith, per E. B. Sumner, Atty.

Direct E. B. Sumner, Willimantic, Conn.



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