This letter was written by a slender, 19 year-old engineer (surveyor) named George Albert Ellis (1843-1903) while serving as a private in Co. E, 5th Massachusetts Infantry, George mustered into the regiment on 16 September 1862 and was mustered out on 2 July 1863, the 5th Massachusetts being a 9-months Regiment. The letter contains an excellent first-hand account of the mid-December 1862 Goldsboro Expedition in which “Foster’s men began destroying the tracks north toward the Goldsboro Bridge. Clingman’s Confederate brigade delayed the advance, but was unable to prevent the destruction of the bridge. Foster’s troops overpowered the small number of defending Confederate soldiers and successfully burned down the bridge. His mission accomplished, Foster departed to return to their base at New Bern. On their way back, Foster’s men were again attacked by Confederate forces, but they repulsed the assault, taking far fewer casualties than the enemy.” [See Battle of Goldsboro Bridge]
George was the son of William Fuller Ellis (1820-1888) and Adeline P. Thompson (18xx-1854) of Ashland, Middlesex county, Massachusetts. He wrote the letter to his aunt, Mrs. Sarah T. Bullard of West Medway, Mass.
[Note: This letter is not to be confused with another George A. Ellis who served in Co. I of the same regiment.]
Newbern [North Carolina]
January 31st 1863
I received yours of the 11th inst. a few days ago, but owing to one or two others that I received at the same time, I was not able to answer you in season for the return mail.
I have been blessed with the best of health since I last wrote you. When I went to camp, I weighed but 117 pounds, but now I weigh 127, a gain of 10 pounds. So you can see that I am not in a very suffering condition. I see by the Boston papers that there has been a fight at Galveston and some of the 42nd Regiment taken prisoners. I shall be anxious to learn if Albert was taken or not.
You speak of our expedition to Goldsboro. The Boston papers gave a very correct account of the march. All I can differ it, is by my individual adventures. Our regiment was rear guard for the expedition—the entire march but 3 days. Although not so likely to see fighting as nearer the front, it is one of the hardest positions that there is in the line of march, as we are delayed during the day, by the baggage train as wagon after wagon gets stuck, often being a couple of hours in going a mile, while as we must keep up with the main column, we have to march just so much later at night, often marching till midnight, and 2 or 3 times till 2 & 3 o’clock A.M. Owing to our position, we did not engage in the Battle of Kinston.
At Whitehall, we marched along parallel to the river where the Rebs had their position, and although the fight was about over as we came up, the rebel “sharpshooters” favored us with a few stray shots. Some whistled quite near, wounding one man in our company, and making our position seem careless—that is, I felt it to be so for me, yet I don’t know as any of us felt like running.
The next day, we came upon the field of Goldsboro at about noon; the object of the expedition—as you know—being to cut the communication by burning the bridge over the Neuse [River]. As we came in sight of the bridge, we could see the “Rebs” leaving for their line of works near the river. Our regiment were placed on the left of the line of battle in some woods, and out of range of the fight, to meet a company of cavalry that were expected but which did not arrive. In about an hour, the bridge was fired in spite of the enemy’s fire. As soon as this was done, Gen. Foster ordered a regiment upon the railroad to tear up the track, which they did by throwing the whole—rails and ties—down the embankment, and setting the sleepers afire. This operation they went through with for about a mile, when Gen. Foster announced that the object of the expedition had been accomplished and that we would return to Newbern.
Amid enthusiastic cheers, the head of the column started to return. At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when all the troops but our brigade and 2 Batteries had left the field, the enemy—seeing one of the Batteries in an exposed situation—made a sally. Our regiment was ordered up to the right of the battery to support it. The “Rebs” came towards us in a good line, but while they were still at quite a distance—say about 100 rods—our cannon got the range of their colors and let drive with “shell” and “canister.” Half a company seemed to be swept off at once. Such a mowing down I never saw. A few more shots & the regiment broke and fled for the woods in every direction. At the same time, the 3rd regiment—who were stationed behind us—fired over our heads, (we were lying down) and gave them a parting salute. During this time, the enemy had made their main charge on the left—the same position that we had occupied at the first of the fight. But the Battery boys aided by the 27th Regt., sent them back, with the loss of many a man. And again, we started for Newbern.
A little in our rear was a small brook that was, when we first crossed it, only about a foot deep. But while the fight had been going on, the rebs went a little above us (in the woods) and opened a gate to a pond, and let a small flood upon us so that we had to go through three feet of water to get to the main land. The air was freezing and it was slightly cold, but we marched till midnight and then we camped. I made a dish of coffee, dried myself, and slept as soundly as ever I did in my life. The next night, we marched till about one—so late was it that many started the story [rumor] that we were to march all night and so they dropped out and cooked their suppers. All at once, as we came to the top of a hill in a valley beyond, in a cornfield of some 300 acres, was camped our entire forces—baggage, artillery, cavalry and infantry, some 20,000. It was one of the most magnificent sights that I ever saw. It looked like a miniature city, built up as if by enchantment in the wilderness. Nor was the noise, or confusion of a city wanting. The cries of teamsters to their teams, of stragglers in search of their regiments, and the forms of men flitting to and fro, with rails & water. The whole lit up by more than a thousand camp fires, formed a scene that must be seen to be appreciated.
You enquire how the whiskey rations affect our regiment. Given in the small quantity that we have it, I think that it is simply beneficial. You speak of the vices of the camp, and there are surely many of them, but I trust that I shall escape most of them. But, curious as it may seem, I think that one of the worst vices is the inducements to idleness that it begets.
Albert certainly has had quite a rough time of it and I hope that he is not at Galveston. But if he goes on a march, I think that he will find it the hardest work that ever he did. There were 4 days that we lived on three hard bread a day, but we had plenty of coffee, and that was a good part of our living. We had no meat except what we foraged during the entire march—11 days, during which time we traveled about 140 miles. But we are now in camp and as I said at the beginning, we are living nicely.
We have been throwing up breastworks to defend ourselves in case the rebels should take it into their heads to come this way, but then I guess that they won’t.
There has been quite an expedition fitted out from here but where it has gone, I do not know, nor what it is doing; probably not so much as you know at home. But I guess that I have now written as much as will interest you. I will only add that we drill 4 hours per day, that being about the amount of work that we have to do. And I will close. Give my love to Grandma, Uncle, Aunt & cousins.
Your affectionate Nephew, —George A. Ellis
[to] Mrs. Sarah T. Bullard, West Medway, Mass.