1863: James William Burrell to Jacob Burrell

This letter was written by James William Burrell (1842-1929)—a 19 year old from Youngstown, Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania, when he was mustered into Co. K, 53rd Pennsylvanian Infantry on Nov. 1, 1861. He re-enlisted on Dec. 22, 1863; Listed as POW, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., May 12, 1864. Mustered out June 30, 1865.

He wrote the letter to his parents, Jacob Burrell (1816-1883) and Mary (“Polly”) Withrow, at Youngstown, Pa. James mentions another brother in the letter, John “Amos” Burrell (1845-1865), who served in Co. G, 135th Pennsylvania and also in Co. K, 53rd Pennsylvania.

The 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry fought at Fair Oaks, the Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign of May-June 1864, the Siege of Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign.   This letter was written approximately one month prior to the Battle of Bristoe Station in which the 53rd Pennsylvania participated. Much of the content of this letter pertains to Burrell’s complaints about substitutes and copperheads.



Headquarters 2nd A. C.
September 11th 1863

Dear Father,

I seat myself this morning to answer yours dated Sept. the 6th, which I had the pleasure of reading yesterday eve. It found me about as usual. I was very glad to hear that you were all well and I hope the reception of these few lines may find you all enjoying the best of health.

Well, I have no very particular news to tell you this morning more than that Gillmore has taken Morris Island and Ft. Sumter and Rosecrans has taken Chattanooga and Bragg’s army is still retreating. The papers say that he is retreating back into the boundless depth of the South. I think that he had better stop or he might get so far South that  he will never get back. But I guess that he will stop now for Jos. Johnston has succeeded him. If all is true that we hear, Jeff Davis had better get his ships ready. Davis addressed an audience at the breaking of this rebellion in Tennessee and said that if the North should over power them and drive them off the land, that they wouldn’t still give up, but that they would get some ships—Men of War, I suppose—and fight a guerrilla warfare on sea. I guess that he intends to turn out pirate. 

There is deserters coming in daily. They tell a lamenting story, but we can’t believe what deserters tell for they are generally cowards and who would believe a coward. 

We had upwards of 30 men in the guard house—the most of them were in for desertion—and last night there [were] 6 or 8 of them escaped. We hain’t heard whether any of them was seen yet. 

Well, it is 4 P.M. I was out patrolling all day—or since 8 A.M. this morning. We have found none of the boys that escaped. I tell you if they are caught, they will be handled roughly. They are all substitutes. Those substitutes are very troublesome. They are worse than no soldier at all, but what won’t a man do when he will sell himself for a few hundred dollars. I respect a man that is drafted and we have no trouble with such men. But those infernal bought men, they give us more trouble than they are worth or ever will be. 

This day, Sargent Wineland with a squad of 8 men—I was one of them—traveled over at least 10 miles of the country and we daren’t go the road, but through the very worst thickets and woods that we came to, and this is not the only time, but it’s so almost every day. I tell you, such work don’t pay! We heard very heavy cannonading in the direction of Beverly’s Ford this morning. Beverly’s Ford lays southwest of these headquarters. After about 2½ hours firing, it then ceased. The results we hain’t heard yet, but at all events, the Army still holds it old position. 

I would like to know how the Rebel Army is getting along with their conscripts. I tell you, if they have as much bother with theirs as we have, there won’t be much hard fighting done this fall, for it will take all of the men in both armies for to guard their conscripts. Some of those subs can tell all about the mob in N.Y. City. One of those fellows that escaped last night was seen counting his money yesterday evening and he had 400 and some odd dollars in greenbacks! I tell you this is not the first time that he has sold himself. 

One thing I forgot to tell you. We just got all the ripe peaches today that we wanted to eat. We came across an old farmer that was a going to make peach Brandy, and he had a wagon load nearly 2 thirds full, and we acted soldier fashion, helped ourselves all the time. 

I would like to know the reason that you fellows don’t read some of those Copperheads out of Greensburgh. There is 5 or 6 that comes out openly and expresses some of the most absurd, mean, ornery and degraded sentiments that ever I heard. There is old Sykes. You know he was Major in the Regular Army, but was such a drunkard that his Commission was taken from him. To say the least, he was dishonorably dismissed from the service, and there is old Laird and Kenan and Lattas that ought to have their heads shaved, stripped naked, and both ears clipped off, and tarred and feathered—and then one of their toes cut off right close up to their ears, for it’s a disgrace for a civilized country to allow such men to live in it. But Greensburgh and Westmoreland county is not the only place those fellows are in. They are all over the North and it surprises me that the military authorities allow such men to be carried on. I tell you, Greensburgh, or I might say, Westmoreland Co. may be thankful that they have Capt. Colter there. Colter is a good man, but he is a little too easy. If they had Col. J. K. Brook or Capt. Mintzer or if Lieut. Weaver was living and they had him there, I’ll just bet $100 dollars that there would be some necks stretched, or else there would be less talk (disunion talk, I mean). 

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 9.07.28 AM
A camp flag of the 53rd Pennsylvania sold by Skinner Auction House

This evening’s paper brings excellent news from the Southwest. Our forces are in operation every place but here and I judge that from the middle of October to the first Dec., will be an exciting time in this wing of the army and hardly before that. If only they had of taken those conscripts and organized them into regiments and scattered them through the army that way it would of been better in every sense of the word according to my opinion.

If you hain’t sent that box yet, please send me a few cigars if you do send it at all. You can just use your pleasure about sending it. Tell Amos to take good care of that old flag and for to not let it leave him. Col. Brook hain’t got back yet…

As a general thing, the Army is in good health, and I guess I have told you the news in general, so I will close for this time. Please give my love to mother & all of the rest. My respects to Mrs. Caldwell and Nancy and all of the folks. Please write often. 

From your Affectionate son, — Jas. W. Burrell

To Jacob Burrell and family

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