These letters were written by Mary F. (Atwood) Alexander, the daughter of Thomas Atwood (1805-1880) and Hannah Rogers Bartlett (1807-1874). Mary was the wife of Capt. William Bemis Alexander (1832-1900), the son of Samuel T. Alexander (1780-1871) and Deborah Paty (1785-1853).
Both Mary and William were born and raised in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were married there in September 1853. The Alexanders lived in Boston where William worked as a carpenter before enlisting with the Union Army as a second lieutenant in Co. B, 3rd Massachusetts, in April 1861. He mustered out in July 1861, but returned to service in December of that same year as the captain of Co. E, 23rd Massachusetts. On 8 February 1862, the 23rd participated in the Battle of Roanoke Island (N. C.), which ended in a Union victory. In a letter written nearly one month later, Alexander mentioned a cheek wound that he incurred in the battle. A regimental history claims that during the battle, a shell burst over the men of Co. E, wounding Captain Alexander in the face and tearing through the clothes of Sergeant Terry and two privates. Shortly thereafter, Capt. Alexander was more seriously wounded in the left arm while engaged in the Union capture of New Bern, N. C., 14 March 1862. On 28 December 1862, he resigned his commission and returned home to his wife, Mary F. Alexander, and his daughter, Ida Frances Alexander (b. 1855), in Boston. By 1890, the family had returned to Plymouth.
The University of North Carolina has a collection of four letters written by Alexander to his wife. The first two letters were composed in early March 1862 on the gunboat U.S.S. Hussar, anchored at Roanoke Island, N. C. In them, Alexander bemoaned the lack of provisions on the island and expressed hope that news of a recent, unspecified victory meant that the war was soon to end. Other topics include his participation in the seizure of a Confederate schooner and confusion over the fate of an ailing soldier who had been transferred out of Alexander’s unit. The last two letters, 25 March and 2 May 1862, were written in New Bern, N. C. — newly occupied by the Union Army. Alexander, wounded during the battle for the town, 14 March 1862, noted the return of New Bern’s residents to their homes and shops; began planning his departure from the Army; and related the story of one Union soldier killed and three taken prisoner in a surprise encounter with Confederate soldiers. [Source: The University of North Carolina: William B. Alexander Letters.]
Addressed to Capt. William B. Alexander, Co. E, 23d Massachusetts Regiment
May 13, 1862
To my Dearly Beloved husband,
My last letter was written in Plymouth but by the commencement of this you will see that I have got back again once more. I went to Plymouth the 7th & returned to Boston the 13th. I came up to Abington in the first train of cars & stopped there until the last train into Boston. Mr. H. B. Paine was down to the depot with a buggy chaise to carry me up to his house or wherever I wanted to go. He was looking so much better than when I last saw him with you. I do think that he is a lovely man. I don’t wonder that you loved him & thought so much of him. He seemed to think considerable of you as I do think that all of your men set a good deal by you.
I saw M. Sewell, John Sewell’s brother, & Mr. Pratt Mr. Towel’s wife I did not see. Mrs. Pearson’s … people all seemed very much pleased to see me. They wanted me to stay longer but I could not. I found a letter here from you, my darling husband. It was a very short one — only about 8 or ten lines. Now dear William, I do not want to find fault with you but I do want longer letters from you than what you have sent lately. You do not get any short ones from me.
When I was in Plymouth, I called to see Mrs. Churchill, ¹ the mother of [Joseph Lothrop Churchill –] the one [from Co. E] that was killed at the Battle of New Berne. Poor woman. She feels so bad without her poor boy. It is a shame she cannot have his body where she can have it buried where she can go & visit his grave. I should have thought that the people of Plymouth should have got together & sent out some caskets out there. I told Mrs. Churchill that you would have them sent home just as soon as you could. I knew that you would. And now, dear William, there is a casket on the way for Corp. John [Milton] Sewall. ² I do hope you will detail some good responsible man to come on with his body & with all the rest of them. Mr. John Sewall’s wife is a going to have a babe soon. Poor woman. How bad I do feel for her to be left with a large family of children & one infant in her arms. May God raise her up soon by good friends is the prayer of my heart. I should have gone to see her today if she had not lived in North Bridgewater. If Mr. [John] Sewall, Mr. [Joseph L.] Churchill, & Mr. [Edward B.] Braley ³ are brought home, I think I shall go to their funerals if it is a possible thing.
I have got very sore eyes & cannot write anymore tonight. I will close by wishing you, darling husband, all the happiness this world can give. God only knows my feelings for you since Thomas has come home & told me all you have been through. Now dear William, you have done wrong not to have told me everything about you. Now for the future, tell me everything just how you feel, how you’re s___ is, and all about your ____ & your bodily health. Remember you have an anxious, loving wife at home that feels deeply for you & is ever thinking of you & hoping soon to see you. Never could wife love love a husband better than I do you. God spare our lives to meet again is the prayer of my heart.
Write me so that I can have two or three letters every boat from you and try … affectionate wife, one that loves her husband tenderly & truly & devotedly, & from one that is always praying for you that God would pour out his spirit upon you to make you a child of his. From your own loving & affectionate wife, — Mrs. A.
¹ Betsy (Ellis) Churchill (b. 1805) was the mother of Joseph Lothrop Churchill (1842-1862). Joseph was an apprentice shoemaker when he enlisted in Co. E, 23rd Massachusetts.
² Corp. John Milton Sewall died of typhoid fever on 10 April 1862 in the regimental hospital at New Bern, North Carolina. He was 34 years old and was from Abington, Massachusetts.
³ Edward B. Braley died on 29 April 1862 and is buried in Plot 2765 at the New Bern National Cemetery.
South Reading, [Massachusetts]
August 28th 1862
My Dear Husband,
I have written to you every day this week so you will see that I do not neglect to write to you. Neglect you? Do you think I could be capable if such a thing? No, oh no, dearest. You are in my thoughts all the time by day & by night. And then there is no one on earth that I love besides you except it is our darling little Ida. Perhaps if some of the Plymouth people were in South Reading now, they would say she does not care anything about her husband because I happened to speak to some other man or walk on the street with Mr. Mansfield. But God knows my heart & you know pretty well by this time what I am. You know how well I love you & how truly & devotedly. Oh, how I long for the time to come when I can once more walk on the street with my own darling husband.
Yesterday afternoon, we all hands went to ride again. Rode about 12 miles. It was excellent. This morning it is rather stormy.
There is great excitement in Boston this week. The stores are all closed & there is great processions. Yesterday there was one man shot during the excitement. He was a Union man & was hoisting the stars and stripes when a secessionist fired at him. It did not kill him. What they will do with him, I do not know but I hope they will hang him.
The news in last night’s paper was that Gen. [Franz] Sigel had shot Gen. McDowell through the head for being a traitor. Oh what are we coming into? It is more than I can tell about this war being over. William, it looks darker today than it ever has & as for Boston, there is traitors any quantity of them there. They had ought to be lynched—every one of them. Boston has not got her first quota & when she gets the second, it will be by drafting & not before.
Give my love to my dearest brother Tim. Tell him to write to me if he would. Ask him if he knows how to direct a letter to George. They have moved from Harrison Landing & where they are now is more than I can tell. I do hope you will stop in Newbern till this wicked war is over. I hope you will not go from there. Give my love to H. B. Pierce & to Lieut. Drew & Rogers. And now, dearest, take good care of yourself, won’t you. Be careful about drinking ice water & be careful of your health, won’t you dearest?
I like South Reading much. I wish I could see you this morning. It [would] do me so much good. But I must close. Write often. From your dearest friend & your own dear wife—one that loves you truly & affectionately, — Mary F. Alexander
Take a large share of love to yourself.
South Reading [Massachusetts]
August 30, 1862
This will be five letters I have written to you since Tuesday. Whether you will get them or not is more than I can tell. Oh William, how dark everything looks here to the North. Oh, if you were here, you would think the was has just commenced & that the rebels were a going to beat. I tell you things look dark. The rebels have got Bull Run & Memphis again & are coming towards Washington just as fast as they can come. The North are asleep. They are not awake yet & they will not be till Washington is taken by the rebels. And if they go on as they have been going for a week past, they will have it before another month goes by. Sometimes I get discouraged.
Hon. John Morrisey of Plymouth has been elected Captain of the Standish Guards. What do you think of that? That don’t sound like Capt. Atwood, does it? Who are going [as] Lieutenants, I do not know, in this company. They go into camp in Lakeville next week. If I were in the city, I in all probability might know of more news to write you. There was a big time there yesterday—-[the] reception of Col. Corcoran, now General. All the stores were closed at eleven o’clock in the morning & a grand turnout by all the military & citizens. But I preferred being in South Reading out of all excitement.
I enjoyed riding round in the country better that I should being in there in the crowd. After dinner yesterday, Horace took team & his mother & myself & we went to Stoneham & to Woburn & had a splendid ride. I have ridden more since I have been out here than I have in three years before. It is quite cool here this morning. Oh my darling, it is almost 10 months since you left your dear wife & child, & now this cruel, wicked war is no nearer to an end than it was them. God only knows when I shall see you again. I do not. Sometimes I think to myself never than I [will] go to Jesus with it & [I] try to be reconciled to His will & ask his protecting care of you that He will speedily return you to my embrace again once more.
As I am writing to you, your picture lies before me & I gaze upon it and think Ohm if the original was only here by my side, what would I not give. I would give anything in this world if I only had it to give. But I do hope I may soon see you again once more but I cannot tell. God only knows. I do not.
I expect to get a letter from you soon—certainly by Monday. So good morning, darling. I am going into Boston tonight. I shall write again tomorrow. This is from your own true, loving, & affectionate wife, — Mary F. Alexander
September 19th 1862
To my own dear husband,
I received a letter from you yesterday that you sent by Mr. Damon. You spoke of [our] having busy times in Tremont Temple. ¹ Well, I guess we did have for one week at any rate. You seem to feel afraid I will make myself sick but, dearest, you need not worry about that for I shall try to keep my health. People tell me that it agrees with me to have you away from me but I don’t think so, do you? I’ll bet it don’t agree with you so well, does it?
You seem to think that the rebels will get a big licking. Well, I hope they will. Gen. Reno is buried today from Trinity Church. We have lost 10,000 thousand in killed & wounded i this battle [at Antietam]. Oh, what a horrid war this is. The fighting is still going on & if we do not whip the rebels completely this time, we had better never try again. But oh, the aching hearts this war has made so far, letting alone the lives that will yet be sacrificed. Oh my Heavenly Father, when will this unholy rebellion be crushed & peace once more be found in our borders?
The Rev. Mr. Gowin called to see me yesterday afternoon. He is our pastor for the present. Daniel Smith called. He is one of our church members. He has enlisted [and] been in camp some three weeks. Tim knows him. Please tell Tim of it, won’t you? I have not heard anything more from George yet but am expecting to everyday. I should not be surprised to hear that he could never get well again.
You say kiss Ida for you. I would if I could get hold of her but they have got her down to Plymouth & mean to keep here there & not let anyone hear from her. She has been gone 5 weeks next Monday & I have never heard from her but once & I think I shall go down after her this week coming if I do not hear from her before Saturday night. I am quite smart now excepting a lame back. I can hardly walk in that account. I think I have taken some cold & it has settled in my back. Hope it will be better in a few days.
I have been looking for Lydia & Frank to stop with me a few days but they have not got along yet. There does not seem to be much news to write were I to write everyday as I have for the last 4 weeks. Oh, how I do wish I could throw my arms around your neck & call you by some of those dear names I used to call you by and feel your warm kiss upon my cheek. But I am denied the privilege & probably shall be for some time to come. But if things continue on as they have been for the last week, this war will end soon & you will be returned to my embrace again for God only knows how well I love you & it grows stronger everyday that I live. I am in hopes to live with you again soon for I must confess that it would seem rather queer to get into bed with a man again—almost one year since I slept with my dear husband. But dearest, good morning. Write often every mail.
From your own dear wife, — M. F. Alexander
¹ Period newspapers reported that Boston churches called for “bandages, lint, and hospital stores” to be made up and collected in anticipation of the fighting in Maryland. “Tremont Temple has been opened every day, and well filled with ladies mostly occupied in sewing together bandages and rolling them for use.”
November 20, 1862
My own dearly beloved husband,
I have not received a letter from you for a week & I see by the papers that the [mail] steamer Cossins has arrived but I have not got a letter from my own sweet husband. I do not know what you think of me but I have tried every honorable way that a person can try to get to see my own dear husband but have failed thus far. But dearest, keep up good courage & perhaps something will turn up that we may yet see each other this winter. God grant that we may for sometimes I feel as though I must fly to your embrace. When I get to thinking [of it], I have to jump right up & go away somewhere or else go to doing something to drive it off.
Thomas was here yesterday to dinner & I asked him what he meant by telling that you had written home about him & he said he was not prepared to say. I told him that you had never said one word about him excepting that you thought he was foolish in coming home when he might have stayed there and earned his hundred & five dollars a month much easier than he did at home. Some time ago he sent a letter to Father & I read the letter & in that letter he stated that if they had another battle, he hoped that Co. E would give a better account of themselves & that the Captain would not go to the rear with wounded men. Now William, what does that mean? I want to know for in my opinion it is speaking rather slightly of you. The company to which everyone that I have seen give a good account of you & it rather touched my dander a little I can tell you for if anyone says anything about my husband, he says it about me. That is so every time.
I am going to write Sylvia Savery a letter that she will not forget very soon for I think it is high time she learned to mind her own business & let mine & yours alone. If she has not learned, I will learn her. Perhaps you think that I shall do wrong but dearest, I cannot help [it]. I am going to speak my mind to her in full & if she does not like it, she can lump it.
As for her trampling me under her feet any longer, she is not a going to do it. Thomas has been here again today & George has gone to Plymouth to work with him. So you see I have got clear of him—for a spell, at any rate. I hope so for I think he is able to work & I pity him for he has not got a cent to his name & he is just as uneasy as can be, & I think it is enough for me to have Mother with me without having the whole family to support for I think that the money comes out of you to feed them & I like to have folks feel a little thankful sometimes. But never mind. I don’t expect Mother will stay here a great while longer & if she stays here this winter, she will pay her board.
But dearest, it is getting late & I must close by bidding you good afternoon. Always remember that I am thinking of you all of the time & am loving you with that true & devoted love which only a wife can feel for a darling husband. My prayers ascend to the throne of grace daily for you that you may become a child of God. Write every mail and I will do the same.
From your own true & devoted wife, — Mary F. Alexander