1863: Ira Penfield to Sarah Jane (Beard) Penfield

This letter was written by Ira Penfield (1835-1930) of Co. D, 17th Connecticut Infantry. Ira was a resident of Stepney, Connecticut. In fact, his home [see Penfield Homestead] still stands there today. Ira was living there and working in the family carriage business when the Civil War began. In 1862 he enlisted as a Union soldier. He was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863, and held prisoner at Libby Prison. He was paroled (traded for a southern soldier) two weeks later. [See Appendix below]. Ira Penfield lived to be 94.

In this April 1863 written a little less than a month before the Battle of Chancellorsville,  Ira writes his wife, Sarah Jane (Beard) Penfield (1837-1920) of camp news from Brooks Station, Virginia. He expresses violent opposition to Democratic supporters in his home state who were backing former Democratic Governor Thomas H. Seymour for the same high office in 1863. By 1863, with the casualties of war entering its third year, with the introduction of the draft, the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the rising national debt, many residents in Connecticut began to turn to Seymour who was openly advocating for a brokered peace with the proviso that the seceded states rejoin the Union. He just narrowly lost the April 1863 gubernatorial election, 41,033 votes to 38,397.

Three of Ira Penfield’s Civil War Letters can be found published on a website devoted to the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]


Camp near Brooks Station
Monday, April 6th 1863

Dear loved one,

Another letter has come and it was unexpected and so much the better—just such letters as I like and the more the merrier. I mailed a letter to you this morning and I hardly know what to write as I taxed my brain to the utmost to fill out that large sheet that I sent you. But I will try and fill this out with something if it is ever so foolish.

Today some of the companies in our regiment have been out on a target shoot and ours among the rest. Our company came out No. 1 as we did the best and hit the target the most number of times. I tell you, Co. D is not to be beat in anything that we undertake—that’s so—and we have the name of being the best company in the regiment.

There is today a Grand Review of the troops down in front by President Lincoln and all of the big generals and it is thought that tomorrow he will review the troops about here and if so, I may get a sight at his lordship. I am glad you are so chiek and have so many friends that take such an interest in you and I would accept all invitations as far as you can for it will tend to keep up your spirits and you will enjoy yourself, I hope, a great deal. Every letter that reaches us soldiers from home go to confirm us in our belief that in the course of six months we can return home a country saved from the claws of traitorous hands and our starry banner waving over this fair land of ours, none daring to again insult its authority.

[Charles] Stiles Wells, one of my tent mates, has just received a letter from Bridgeport and says that the political excitement runs higher than it has done for some time and if Seymour is elected today, I hope that this regiment will be sent for and if there is any fuss, I want a hand in putting out of the way those demons. I know that this a large word, but what are they, those mean low-lived traitors that are trying to stab us in our back whilst we are contending with an enemy in front of much better principles for I think that the South—as a majority—are not so much to blame as their infernal leaders. I tell you it makes the blood fairly boil in my veins and if father has voted for that contemptible scamp Seymour, I do not want to have you go or have anything to do with him for I do not want my family disgraced by the scoundrels.

I tell you I am mad and cannot find words to express the feelings of my heart. I should like to be at home today and I warrant you my tongue would not be tied but it may be for  the best that I am here. We soldiers are anxiously waiting the result. And should Connecticut go for Seymour, I do not know but what the soldiers would desert and come home and move their families from Secesh, Connecticut. We, however, are hoping for the best.

Yesterday I wrote a letter to William Stebbins and also one to you. The weather today is much warmer from what it was yesterday. Very sudden changes we have here—more-so that I ever imagined it could be and a person has to be careful of his health. One of the men in one of the companies in our regiment was buried yesterday having been sicj but a few days. Fever was what he died with. My health is uncommon good and my appetite also so you may rest easy as to my health.

I shall post the last stamp on this letter that I have and in my next I want you to send me some without fail. Write me how Mr. Taylor is getting along and what is the matter of him. I am getting run ashore for news and must stop but I love to write to one I hold so dear to me. You need not send me any more Standards as Capt. [William H.] Lacy has a large bundle come to him every week and he distributes them among the men. One thing I want you to send me [is] The [Christian] Advocate that has the Conference Appointments in without fail. Write often and good letters.

My love to you as much as the letter will hold. — Ira Penfield

P. S. Hurry up those photographs.


The below copied transcript, originally produced by Ira Penfield, 17th Connecticut Infantry, was found among family estate papers in the form of several typed pages. The pages were old, brown, and had split at the folds. The original document has been lost (or perhaps was donated by Penfield or his family to a local historical society orUniversity archives).

Penfield was paroled and exchanged. He eventually saw service later in 1863 on the South Carolina islands. As the Civil War ended, Penfield was in active service with the Department of Florida (1865). The complete transcript follows, without alterations, and may be used freely by researchers and historians:

“Record of my experience while Prisoner of War, covering a period of twelve days within the Rebel lines; having been captured at Chancellorsville, Va. May 2nd, 1863.”

Ira Penfield, Co. D 17th Conn.Volunteer Infantry

The 17th Conn Volunteer Fairfield County Infantry Regiment, which formed a part of the Army of the Potomac, broke Camp at Brooks Station Va. on Monday morning April the 27th 1863 at 6 o’clock A.M. and took up its line of march after spending the winter at the above named place. It was a beautiful morning, and nature seemed to smile upon us tending to cheer us on our journey. We marched the 1st day 72 miles and it was a very hard march, as we had been lying still for a long time, and it was new business to us, however we journeyed on with light and merry hearts, stopping at frequent intervals for rest. We carried eight days rations in our Haversack, something uncommon, as heretofore we had not carried over three, and so much extra made it very hard, but the good Lord gave us strength of body, and we went on our way rejoicing with a light and merry heart. We stopped at night about 7 P.M. in a large open field, and being a clear warm night, we did not pitch our tents, but lay down on our rubber blankets spreading our woolen blankets over us, and being very weary, after invoking the blessing of God upon us through the night, were soon in the land of dreams. At 3 A.M. the next morning, we were aroused by hearing the voice of our Colonel coming through the Camp waking us from our slumbers, in order that we might make our coffee, eat a few hard tack, and be ready at 4 A.M. to take up our line of march.

This being done, we moved on with a long day before us, and so it proved to be. We marched at a very rapid rate, stopping once in three or four hows, fifteen minutes at a time for rest, for which we were thankful. On this day march blisters began to come very fast on many of the boy’s feet, and it was almost impossible for many of them to keep along. Many however dropped out and were carried in the ambulances, but I was fortunate in not having a blister raised on my feet on the whole of my travels, which are exceptional, and I am one out of a hundred it seems that escaped. We marched the 2nd day until 4 P.M. and having reached the place intended for us to stop during the night, was it was raining, we commenced putting up our tents expecting a good nights rest; but no sooner had we got our coffee, supper eat, and lay on the wet ground resting and making preparations for the night, when sudden as a clap of thunder in a clear sky, orders came to strike tents, and be ready again to march. It seemed touch, but the fortunes of war often change, and we picked up and marched on as before. We were within a mile and a half of the Rappahannock River, and as one corps had crossed over, we had to follow them. We crossed at midnight April the 28th on a Pontoon bridge with the moon and stars smiling upon us. Pontoons make a splendid bridge, being composed of row boats lashed together, and covered with heavy plank which make them very secure. Long before we reached the river, we could hear the steady tramp of men and artillery crossing, and it seemed for the time to take our tired feelings away amid the general excitement. After we had crossed, we marched until 4 P.M. and then halted for a short rest, and never, never was rest so sweet as that, as I was tired beyond all account having marched at the least calculating that day thirty miles We lay until 7 A.M. when we were again aroused, and orders were given to get our breakfast and be ready again to move. This being done, we lay down awaiting orders to move; but as luck would have it, we lay until 12 M. and then were ordered to move on.

This is the third days march. We marched all the afternoon at a very rapid rate, the heat being very oppressive. We halted within a fourth of a mile of the Rapidan River, and stopped for the night. The 12th corps which was in the advance, was crossing the river as we came up. As they neared the river, they discovered a force of seventy-five reb’s making a bridge with the intention of crossing and heading us off, but fighting Joe Hooker (as he was familiarly called) was a little too smart for Stonewall Jackson his opponent, and our men captured the seventy-five men, after having killed two or more as they made a desperate resistance, killing one of our men. This ended the third days march. The next morning the Colonel came through the camp at 2 A.M. and awoke us, saying that the reg’t that was ready first would cross first and in fifteen minutes the 17th was up, tents packed moving towards the river. Crossed at one half past 2 A.M. April 30th, the national fast morning. The stream was very much swollen, and running at a fearful rate. It was very dark, gloomy, and raining hard while we were crossing. We crossed on some plank that our Pioneer corps had laid, and it was very dangerous. Several lost their lives having made a misstep, it being so dark and the current running so swiftly, they were carried down to a watery grave. 

Having crossed, we marched a short distance up the bank of the river and lay down for a little more sleep. When we awoke in the morning we found ourselves lying in a field where corn had been cultivated, and we were lying in the furrows, with the water nearly submerging us, and raining very hard. It made little difference to us where we lay as we were so exhausted that sleep was sweet under any conditions. We now began to realize something of the hardships of a soldier’s life, but being assured we were in a just and righteous cause, were willing to undergo any hardships that might befall us. We again began our march at 11 A. M. and marched on a plank road a distance of fifteen miles before dark. As we were now in the enemy’s country, we knew not what time we should be attacked. The reb’s had passed over the night before the raid we were now on destroying several bridges so that we had to ford streams a great portion of the way; however we reached our destination in safety and had a good nights rest.

It is now Friday morning May 1st. and have reached the field of conflict; however, nothing transpires on our lines today, yet further on we hear the roar of artillery and musketry of the contending armies, telling us to be on the alert with all diligence. Friday night my company and three others of the regiment, was sent out on picket duty, and it is picket in earnest this time, and no boys play. We were expecting all through the night an attack, as it was very bright moonlight. The remainder of the corps were at work digging rifle pits, and entrenchments preparatory to the coming battle to sleep for us Friday night. Saturday morning we were relived on picket and reported to our reg’s. The reg’s had been laying on their arms all night ready at any moment to spring upon the foe. Saturday was a day of suspense to us. All day we were in a line of battle expecting an attack. The General (Hooker) with his staff were riding at frequent intervals along the lines, and as they passed cheer after rent the air by the soldiers who were in the best of spirits, and waiting patiently the onset of the enemy. Saturday however, as the sun was sinking to rest beyond the horizon, an awful sound burst upon our ears. Our enemy with which we were contending was not ignorant as to our movements, and while we were in readiness to give them a warm reception according to our plans, lo and behold they had worked around and attacked us at our weakest point, and poured into us such a shower of shot and shell that fairly filled the air, and it seemed that we must all share one common fate and that death. (I might add in this reflection being in this battle that if General Joe Hooker had been sober the battle of Chancellorsville, would have resulted differently. He reeled on his horse as he rode along the lines.)

My regiment was divided up the right wing in one place and the left in another supporting a battery. Two companies of the right wing of which my company was one lay in a garden back of a house, and in the advance of us on the raid the way the reb’s came in were two Ohio reg’s (Col. Noble) gave orders for us to lie flat, as the shot andshell began to pour in upon us at a furious mte. We obeyed orders, and lay flat upon the ground, but the Col., bold as a lion, sat mounted upon his horse, watching the advance of the enemy. All the other Col’s in the brigade had dismounted. It was in this place that our Lieut. Col Walters was shot dead standing by the side of a small tree looking in the direction of the enemy. I saw him fall being a few feet away. A shot struck him in the left eye killing him instantly. At this time the Col. gave us orders to retreat, as all the other regt’s had passed us. We obeyed orders loading and fixing as we went the reb’s close upon us. We retreated about two miles and were completely surrounded. In retreating, my knapsack was struck several times on the corners that extended beyond my body, and the bullets it would seem that the air was full of the deadly missiles.

After having been surrendered, I was forced with others of my company to surrender at the point of the bayonet. There was no other alternative, being surrounded, and under the circumstances we thought wisdom the better sense of valor. After having given up our accouterments, including gun, and all personal effects we were marched back to the rear where we lay all night in the same place where the battle opened. The reb surgeons had taken possession of the house on the place and were busy all night amputating limbs from the battle opened that night. The long night was made hideous with the moaning of the dying and wounded. I heard that night at 12 A.M. the volley of musketry that sent General Stonewall Jackson into eternity.

On Sunday May 3rd, in company with about one thousand prisoners captured on Saturday eve the commencement of the battle, we were put under a strong guard on our way to Richmond. I had nothing in my haversack, having used up my rations the day I was captured with the exception of a small amount of sugar and coffee which I used in the morning before starting. It was a very hot dusty day. They marched us very fast regardless of our feelings. When we first started we passed the field of battle and the booming of cannon with the roar of musketry told us that death was doing its work. As we passed we saw scores of wounded and dead lying upon the field, and never do I want to witness such as sight again. Sunday morning ere the sun had risen the battle waged furiously. We were marched until night a distance of fifteen miles, reaching Spotsylvania Court house at dark where faint and weary we put up for the night with nothing to eat except a cup of coffee. Morning dawned upon us in all its loveliness and beauty, no food for us excepting a small piece of cornbread about the size of a common plate that I begged of one of the guards, and after dividing it up among eight of us it made a small bite apiece, but we were thankful for a little and having eaten we again started on our days march. This on Monday morning and we marched about ten miles and reached here at 2 A.M. and stopped for the night. Rations were here given us what do you think it was? It was flour and a small piece of salt beef. We made our flour into dough wetting it up with water and put it in a tin cup of hot water and boiled it a few minutes then eat it. Our meat we put on a stock and roasted it and managed to keep soul and body together. It was a 9 A.M. when we lay down again on the ground for the night a slept very good.

Tuesday morning found us alive and well and after eating our dough and salt beef felt quite refreshed. We remained here until Thursday morning when we again moved on. There was bread for sale her at the Station. Three loaves about the size of a bakers rusk, for one dollar and some of the boys that had money bought and shared with those who were less fortunate. Tuesday afternoon a very heavy thunder storm came up, and we consequently had a very soft bed at night; viz. mud and plenty of it. Wednesday morning found us cold, wet, and very hungry. We made a fire and sat over it waiting for our rations. It was a cold stormy day and the hours wore heavily away, but night came at last and we again lay down on the cold wet ground for the night. Morning dawned finding us alive and well, seeming almost a miracle for I would not have believed when I was at home if any person had told me that I could have passed through so much and escaped sickness and even death itself, but praised be God he spared me.

Thursday at 11 A.M. we again started on our march. The rain had made the roads very muddy, the mud being over shoe deep every step. Our guards were very particular that we should take the center of the road where it was the deepest however; we made the best of it fording streams past of the way bridges having been swept away in many places. We marched until night and reached another station on the rail road; viz. Hanover Junction and having a small quantity of flour left, we made more dough and being nearly exhausted lay down and tired natures sweet rest over balmy sleep had departed and the hours of the night wore heavily away. Friday we again moved on and it did seem that I would have to succumb, being so exhausted from lack of food and sleep. We marched all day on an empty stomach and stopped at night within twenty-eight miles of the confederate capital, the city of Richmond. Rations were here given us consisting of our crackers and one fourth of a pound of bacon for the night and the following day for which we were thankful. I eat that night two of the four crackers reserving the balance for the next morning as we were to dine in Richmond the following night or morning.

Saturday morning at 6 A.M. we were awakened and started on our march of twenty-eight miles for Richmond. It looked like a long and and wearisome march and so it proved. We marched through mud, forded streams, crossed the Chickahominy River at 3 p.m. and now were within seven miles of the reb capital. Along the road at different points were ladies, the ladies waving the secesh flag at us, and I tell you it made us feel rather strangely but we were prisoners and had to put up with it, but at the same time kept up an awful thinking. About 6 P.M. the spires of Richmond were seen in the distance and with what feelings of thankfulness is more than tongue can describe. Most of the boys feet were terribly blistered it being almost impossible for them to walk but I am extremely fortunate not having had a blister since I entered the service. They marched us down through the heart of the city amid the gaze of thousands of citizens who lined the sidewalks to keep at us Y. S. B. (Yankee sons of bitches as they termed us). Even the children exhibited the same spirit as their fathers and mothers and insulted us almost beyond endurance but onward we moved regardless of the thronging multitude and as the clock in the city was striking eight P. M., we were halted in front of Libby Prison, our hotel. Here we were marched in from two hundred fifty to three hundred men on a floor. It made us so thick together that when we lay down, if one wanted to turn over, the whole floor had to tum the same time. We were very soon in the land of dreams and slept soundly until eight A.M. Sunday morning as much so as if we had been in a palace.

When we awoke we began to take in the situation and I must confess that we were disappointed as to our quarters in finding ourselves in a good sound brick building although the livestock running around the floor was not all that could be desired, as we were not sure when we lay down whether we should be there or elsewhere when we awoke. We were at this juncture forcibly reminded that we had not eaten for many hours and wondering whether we should have to wait as many more before our appetites would in a measure be satisfied. At eleven A.M. our daily allowance was brought in, consisting of one half a loaf of bread and a piece of bacon the size of my three fingers. This was as much as they gave their own men and we could not expect any more we made the best of it. The guards had strict orders to not let any prisoner come into the building by men outside who were eager to sell at fabulous prices for Uncle Sam greenbacks; however a great deal was smuggled in notwithstanding. Bread sold ten loaves for a dollar the size of a common raised biscuit, seven cakes for a dollar the size of common cookies, everything in Richmond selling in the same proportion. Previous to the war the building in which we were placed was used as a tobacco warehouse, owned by a party by the name of Libby (hence the name Libby Prison). Here we spent three days and nights seeming more like three months. We were strongly guarded, not being allowed to leave the room nor even look out of the windows under penalty of being shot, being guarded inside as well as out.

Tuesday night was a joyful night to us although we were aroused from our slumbers at midnight for the purpose of being paroled. A rebel officer came through the building taking our names, also the different regiments to which we belonged and Wednesday at high noon the prison doors flew open and we marched out into the street formed into line, and took our march for City Point where the flag of truce boats were waiting to receive us. Tuesday was a high day in Richmond, it being the day when General Stonewall Jackson was buried, having been shot at the battle of Chancellorsville May lst at 1 P.M. on Wednesday we were started on our march. It was an excessive hot day and very dusty. They started us at a very rapid gait, the officers who had us in command having strict orders to march us the twenty-seven miles without even halting to rest. In our asking for a few minutes to halt, they would insultingly reply, no rest for the wicked. We were, if we seemed inclined to lag, had bayonets pointed at us and if the pointing did not have the desired effect we then would feel the thrust of the pointed weapon. Wicked and designing men cannot always carry out their well laid plans as there is an overruling Providence and so it seems to have seen in this instance. “Man proposes but God disposes” At seven A.M. a hearty thunder storm came up making it very dark so much so that it was impossible to see each other, excepting as the lightning would flash and in order to keep together we kept hold of hands. I never witnessed such terrific lightening so sharp and incessant resembling the thunder as shells bursting incessantly over our heads.

At this juncture the boys began to break ranks and crawled into the woods beside the road being completely drenched through and through. Here we lay on the ground until 5 A.M. when we again moved on. We were marched through Petersburg—quite a city, and here as at Richmond sidewalks were lined to see the Y. S. B. as they termed us. On many of the ladies dressed were displayed a flag some having seven stars in the field; others only one. On we moved towards our destination fording streams and marching in mudshoe deep all the way. Reached City Point at noon, and having washed all over in the James River, we embarked on the Roger S. Spaudling and were soon steaming down the river towards Fortress Monroe. It seemed like reaching a new world as soon as we were again under the Stars and Stripes. The steamer was loaded with provisions to meet our hungry appetites. Never did Old Glory look so beautiful and I seemed for the time inspired to pen the following lines: 

Wave on, Wave on, the dear old flag. The emblem of a nation free.
And Centries as they come and go. Thine offspring; may they loyal be.


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