1864: Samuel John Vail to Benjamin Card Vail

This letter was written by a soldier in Co. F, 109th New York. Without a signature and envelope, it is impossible to know with certainty who wrote the letter though there are a couple of clues hidden in the letter. All of the soldiers mentioned appear to be from the village of Dryden in Tompkins County so I feel confident the author came from that village as well. He also mentions that he was slightly wounded in the assault on the Confederate breastworks at Spotsylvania on 12 May 1864 and was sent to Fredericksburg, presumably for medical treatment, rather than to continue on with his regiment to Cold Harbor. We also know that his father was still living in 1864 since the letter is addressed to him.

This narrows down the names of the soldiers who might have authored this letter to Ambrose S. Bull, George P. Rulison, or Samuel John Vail — all wounded at “Spotylvania Court House” (and not the Nye River), but able eventually to return to their regiment. As Ambrose had a brother, James C. Bull, who served in the company with him and fails to mention him in the letter, I’m going to rule out Ambrose which leaves George and Samuel. George survived the war and had a family; Samuel did not. He died of disease in October 1864. My hunch is that the letter was written by Samuel as the family probably valued his letters all the more and preserved them as mementoes. Samuel was also the only son of Benjamin Card Vail (1800-1876) and Ann Eliza Van Mortulick (1811-Aft1900). As such, I’ve decided to assign the letter to the Vail family though I may be mistaken.

The author names four enlisted men who were killed in this letter. Actually only one of the four — J. Wesley White — was killed at Spotsylvania Court House. The other three men were captured in action on 12 May 1864 and sent to Confederate prison camps; two survived (Benjamin H. Hyde and Tunis Tallman), one did not (Bazaleel F. Griswold died at Andersonville). Lt. Daniel Burton was killed.


Fredericksburg [Virginia]
May 16, 1864

Dear Father,

It is with pleasure that I sit down to write you a few lines to let you know that I am among the living and hope this will find you all in good health and spirits.

I have been here here three days — came here the next day after we had a fight in the wilderness (or near Spotsylvania Court House) where I got a hole through my cap and a scratch on the head about an inch from that purple spot on my forehead. Just as I left the regiment, they got orders to march. It was then 2 o’clock. We had been in the last, or 5th line of battle all the forenoon laying on the ground. The regiment went up and charged on the rebs breastworks and got pretty badly cut to pieces. Wes White, Ben Hyde, Corp. Griswold, and Tunis Tallman got killed and I don’t know how many got wounded. Lieut. [Daniel W.] Barton and some others are missing.

The boys all stood to their work well — better than I expected. We have had some hard marching since we left Alexandria but don’t mind it in a cool day. The second day after we crossed the Rapidan [River] we were in a fight [Parker’s Store Road on 7 May] and gave the rebs all they wanted. We made a charge and took some Johnnies. They said they never saw such men. They said they had never been drove before. We lost 11 killed in the regiment; none from Co. F, but had two wounded.

Well, I shall have to draw my letter to a close and will write again the next chance I get. It won’t do any good for you to write for I can’t get it.

Goodbye for the present.

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