These letters are a poignant reminder of the nearness of death. The letters were written by John B. Sayles (1830-1864), a corporal in Co. H [later Co. L], 9th New York Heavy Artillery, to his wife on stationery engraved with the words to a song entitled, “Who Will Care for Mother Now?” He penned the letter on 7 February 1864 and one month later—to the very day—he died of pneumonia while recovering from the measles in a military hospital in Washington D. C.
John B. Sayles was the son of Charles and Mary Sayles of Cayuga county, New York. About 1859, he married Margaret Weeks (1838-1912) and the couple had a son named Herbert John Sayles (1862-1931) who was born prior to John’s enlistment at Skaneateles in December 1863 to serve three years in the 9th New York Artillery.
The first stanza of the song sheet reads:
Why am I so weak and weary?
See how faint my heated breath;
All around to me seems darkness;
Tell me, comrades, is this death?
Ah! how well I know your answer,
To my fate I meekly bow,
If you’ll only tell me truly
Who will care for mother now.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Camp near Fort Mansfield
February 7, 1864
I bought this little song and there being a place to write, I thought I’d fill it with something. I have not heard from you yet. You can little imagine how I would like to hear from you. We left Elmira about the time I should have had a letter. I left a directed envelope with a friend there to have it sent to me here but it has not arrived yet. Tell Henry I could not get an opportunity to express that money but shall do so as soon as I can from here. He can get it as I wrote to him from Elmira. Direct J. B. Sayles, 9th Artillery, Co. H, N. Y. V., Washington D. C.
This is the right directions. Ever yours, — J. B. Sayles
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
My dear, dear wife,
I am in the hospital but let me tell you before going farther that I have passed the crisis and I can see many favorable symptoms myself now. I must tell you my diseases. Measles first. Inflammation of the lungs came after. I was taken with the measles last Sunday at night. I sent for the doctor 2 or 3 different times but he would not come. I got up, rolled myself in my blanket, started for the old hospital. They had no measles on the men with the attendance of my bunk mate. He has stuck to me like a brother.
Oh my wife, how I felt when I got your letter—the first news of any I had had but long, very long did it take me to make it out, My eyes were so full of measles and tears together. I am so glad [my son] Burly and all of you are well. I received Emma’s letter—also Henry’s—but you must take off my hand some of the time. I wrote to Lib the same time I wrote to Emma. Some of you said Ike’s folks did not like it because I had not written to them but little. Can you tell you what John’s been through since he’s been in hospital?
The first measle hospital kept me from Sunday till Thursday. Our room got so cold that some of the boys actually froze their toes. I done everything I could to prevent taking cold. How could I help it. Just as I was getting along so finely with the measles and feeling so well satisfied to think I had had them, but alas, I was elected. I had been so extremely careful not to take cold on my own part but the men that built the shanty or the doctor that would put a patient into it what cared they. But I meant never to stay in that shanty again. I was deranged crazy and a mad man. I swore that I would pull down their old shanty. This has rested since yesterday. Now I am feeling a little better today. But too slow getting along.
There is one thing that surprises me. I have no sore throat or next to none. I had it once or twice in Elmira but tis clean and clear as need be. I have been bleeding from the left lung pretty thorough. Oh dear wife, you can pick this out, can’t you? Several of the boys offered to write to you but no sir, do you suppose I was going to let them when I could write.
I don’t suffer much pain. I can eat but very little. The tea and coffee they furnish here would make a lovely dose for some sheep stealing dog whom you wanted to make afraid. Now, my love, don’t worry anymore than you can help about me. They all think I am coming out all right. I find now and then a friend that I can trust. There has come in today 4 having the measles. I just got some sage and I am going to make some tea. I have been drinking a good deal of crust tea and it tasted first rate. Their tea and coffee I could not get down. We had far better tea in the regiment than was given any hospital.
I will tell you how I proved the deviltry. The first night I came in a slice venerable looking bread if age and care had ought to do with its appearance was placed before me coffee or tea. Tea said without giving me time to say what. I wanted on it came it was something with a great amount of the cheapest sugar mixed with it. That was a good deal better a times when the bread was fresh. I never saw nicer bread in my life. The tea was brought me I tasted. I saw their game, It was nothing more nor less than clover or other bitter herbs as long as they could sweeten it the sugar took away the taste. I sent for my next cup. It came and back it went and I have never tasted tea or coffee.
Tell Ike what or some of what I have written. I don’t see why Lib’s letter did not go through the same as Ema’s did. They were both mailed the same time. Lib’s had a fine little picture and a song suggestively of the whole thing. Ike has undoubtedly heard that Old Abes fancy horses comprising his carriage team a fancy team of some guest and a pair of ponies the man discharged not long since was arrested for the fire.
Now dear wife and little boy, God take you into his own good keeping and preserve your lives from all harm is the prayer of your father.
I am getting to use my hand better as you can see. With many a warm kiss already on those I love. I bid you goodnight. [—John Sayles]