1862: John W. Morse to Friends & Relatives

These letters were written by Pvt. John W. Morse (1843-18xx) of Co. A, 29th Massachusetts Infantry. John was a bootmaker when he enlisted at age 18 on 18 April 1861 in the 1st Battalion Massachusetts Infantry. At Newport News, Virginia, the original seven companies were combined with three new Companies (“F,” “G” and “H”) in December 1861. They were attached to the Department of Virginia  at Newport News until May, 1862.

In 1855, 12 year-old John W. Morse was enumerated in the household of bootmaker George W. May (1814-18xx) and his wife Hanna in Stoughton, Norfolk county, Massachusetts. It appears he was apprenticed to George May learning the bootmaker’s trade. That census gives John W. Morse’s birthplace as Pumbrook [Pembroke?], Massachusetts.


Camp Butler
Newport News, Virginia
January 20th 1862

Dear Friends and Cousin,

It is now nine o’clock. The drums have beat the taps for the extinguishing of lights but as I am on guard, I thought I would come in to my house and write a letter. It is a very bad time to be on guard. We have had a very bad thunder shower. It is raining now. We have had bad weather for the last two weeks. We were paid off about a week ago. I have got a very small amount of news to write this time. We expect to attack a place not far from here soon. I was out scouting yesterday but saw no rebels. I think they are getting pretty frightened. They keep at a safe distance. I have been expecting a letter from you for nearly a fortnight but received none.

I see Tom Mullen tonight and he wanted me to tell Frank that he had kept his pledge. He said he should like to see Frank and go to the Division with him. Tom wants you to write to him.

We have got ten company’s in our regiment now. The company that I belong to has the praise of being the best drilled company on the field — that is Capt. [Thomas William] Clarke’s Company. I send you enclosed ten dollars. I want you to take some of the money and send me out a small box. I want you to send me a bottle of blue ink and a bottle of black. We cannot get any here & I want you to send me some plain writing paper and good envelopes. Send me some very small writing paper and envelopes to match. Send me some pens too. And if you take a notion, send me two dime novels of the latest you can find. I want you to answer this letter right off for I have not received a letter from you for a long time.

But it is getting late and I must close. My love to you all. From your best friend, — John W. Morse

Camp Butler, Va.


Newport News, Va.
February 16, 1862

Dear Friends,

Today is Sunday. I now seat myself to write. I received my box Friday and was pleased with the contents. The book entitled, “Soldier’s Guide,” that you sent me is a first rate book for a recruit to have but I have been in the service so long that I know every order in the book and can do them. I wish, Frank, you could see us on brigade drill forming squares & divisions doubling column at half distance deploying column — getting into all sorts of shapes. It would puzzle you to keep the run of us. We are getting well drilled now. The Colonel [Ebenezer W. Pierce] told us we was the best drilled company in the regiment.

We had a very bad accident here the other day.  They were firing a Sawyer Rifle Cannon when it bursted, killing two men outright and wounding several others. One died today of his wounds. I was standing side of the cannon when it bursted. There was a piece thrown into the air seventy feet. It struck the ground, knocking one man over, breaking his skull [and] killing him instantly. One of the men that was killed had his head jammed to a jelly. His brains were spilt on the ground. It was the awfullest sight I ever saw. The piece that was thrown into the air so far weighed over a thousand pounds. ¹

There was a man drowned last night. He fell off of the wharf.

I can’t think of much to write today. We was out a scouting last Wednesday and Thursday but did not see any rebels. They are getting rather frightened, I guess. They seem to be getting the worst of it now-a-days. I suppose you have heard of the taking of Roanoke Island, General Burnside captured it. Elizabeth City is also taken. There is a lot of the prisoners at the Fort. There was two thousand five hundred captured at Roanoke Island. Ex-Governor [Henry Alexander] Wise was taken with the rest. There was a lot of cannon captured and all the gunboats but one — eight in number.

We are having rather stormy weather here now but it is warm as summer. You spoke about my getting a furlough. I had thought some of getting one but there is no more to be given out now. I suppose they think we shall all go in a little while. You wanted to know what I meant when I said the tattoo had sounded. I will tell you. Every night at eight and a half o’clock, the drum beats what we call the tattoo when every man has to turn out and the roll is called. Then he goes into his tent and gets ready to go to bed at nine o’clock. There is three taps given given on the drum which is the signal to put every light out and go to bed and sleep until daybreak the next morning when the reveille is beat and the roll is called again.

You wanted to know in your last letter if I wrote to the girls in Stoughton — ha, ha. Frank, you had ought to be ashamed to think I would be guilty of such a thing. Ha, ha.

I had a letter yesterday from James Daniels — the man I worked with when I lived in Stoughton. But I have wrote about all I can think of at present so I must bid you goodbye for awhile. Please write soon from your friend and brother, — John W. Morse

(P. S. — them pies Aunt sent me was first rate.)

¹ The regimental history places this incident on 11 February 1862. The department had two cannons that were ” ‘the invention of a man named [Sylvanus] Sawyer. His system consisted of cutting in the bore of the gun six radial twisted grooves half an inch deep and rather more than an inch wide from the muzzle to breech. The twist was uniform, but the grooves were perhaps a trifle deeper near the breech than at the muzzle.’ The shot was a cast-iron projectile, cylindro-conoidal in shape, and plated with lead. Both this gun and the one at the Rip-Rap had been frequently fired during the summer and autumn, and were found to possess great range and power. On the day referred to, a very distinguished party were visiting from Newport News, consisting, among others, of the Secretary of War, Hon. Simon Cameron, Senator Henry Wilson, and Secretary Seward. For the entertainment of the visitors, the Sawyer gun, of which so much had been said, must of course be fired. It was the last time, however, and the shot was to be a test one for extraordinary range. The gun was given an extreme elevation of 30°. This almost nullified the recoil, and caused the greatest possible strain on the walls of the gun….the explosion was terrific. A portion of the breech, weighing several hundred pounds, was sent high in the air, but so slowly as to be visible in the ascent; and still another piece, weighing nearly three hundred and fifty pounds, which, in falling, struck Private James W. Sheppard of Co. B, who but the day before had returned from his wedding furlough, and crushed him to the earth, killing him instantly. Smaller fragments of the gun struck and severely wounded Lt. Smith of Co. I, and privates John F. Hall and Seth W. Paty of Co. E. Private Charles E. Jones of Co. D, who was one of the gunners, was also instantly killed. Others still were injured by the concussion caused by the explosion, and made temporarily deaf…”

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Newport News, Virginia
March 1, 1862

Well, old hunter, here’s in for it. I received your letter yesterday and was much pleased with its contents. Was glad to hear that you was all well and tuff. I am tuff as an old bear.

I have not much news to write this time. I heard last night that they were fighting at Manassas. General McClellan with one hundred & forty thousand attacked that place and were fighting at the last accounts. There is an expedition fitting out here. Troops are landing here every day. I think we shall attack Yorktown. We expect to go with the troops. It will be a rough old time, I guess, if we do go. Some say we are going to Ship Island and join Butler’s Expedition but there is no knowing. We must be going somewhere to fight for they are getting ambulance wagons to carry the wounded and we are getting canteens and haversacks to carry our water and provisions.

We was out scouting day before yesterday but did not see anything. The secesh have drawn their forces further off.

We were mustered in for pay yesterday and shall get the money in about ten days. Ira May has drawn fifteen dollars from the town of Stoughton. They gave it to all volunteers from that place. There is a place around here where I can get my miniature taken & when I get paid off, I will get it taken and send it to you so you can see how the old soldier looks.

It is pretty cold today. I can’t think of much more to write this time. I have got to clean my gun so as to be ready for inspection tomorrow. We have to be inspected every Sunday with our knapsacks and guns. We have to march around and the Colonel reviews us. Then we take our knapsacks off and he looks at the contents of them. We have to pack them up nice. We are going to have a new kind of dress cap to wear soon and I shall send my hat home, I guess. But I have wrote about all I can think of now, so farewell for the present.

From your brother, — John W. Morse

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