These letters were written by Robert McKee Gaston (1840-1863), the son of John Gaston (1817-1870) and Rachael McKee (1815-1869) of New Castle, Lawrence county, Pennsylvania. Robert had been employed teaching a public school in Mount Pleasant prior to the outbreak of the Civil War but enlisted when he was 21 years old with other young men from his community as a corporal in Co. F, 100th Pennsylvania Infantry on 31 August 1861. At age 23, he accepted a commission as 1st Lieutenant of Co. F, 1st Regiment South Carolina Volunteers (33rd USCT) on 23 October 1862 at Beaufort. This commission made him a marked man for an article appearing in the Charleston Mercury on 30 August 1862 under the title “Marked Men” listed him among the officers of the 1st South Carolina (Negro) Regiment, with the preamble, “In view of the recent order of President Davis, concerning the execution of officers of negro regiments, we copy the following list from the New York Tribune. Though eager to lead his men into a major battle, Gaston never got the opportunity. On 27 May 1863, while leading a “scouting expedition from Port Royal Ferry to the mainland, in the excitement of the moment a negro accidentally discharged his musket and instantly killed Lieut. Gaston of the First Negro Regiment who was ahead of him.”
Robert’s younger brother, Sylvester S. Gaston (1842-1887) served with the Roundheads as well, though as a private in Co. K. He was severely wounded in the left arm during the fighting at Second Bull Run on 29 August 1862 resulting in an amputation and discharge from the service. He died at the age of 44.
He wrote all the letters to his boyhood friend, Oscar L. Jackson who was born in Shenango Township, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania to Samuel Stewart and Nancy (Mitchell) Jackson. He attended the common schools, Tansy Hill Select School, and Darlington Academy. He later taught school in Hocking County, Ohio.
During the Civil War, Jackson served as an officer in the Union Army from 1861 to 1865. He entered the service as the captain of Company H of the Sixty-third Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and later received promotions of major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel by brevet after the war. He was shot in the face by a Confederate soldier with a Squirrel Rifle and left for dead in the 2nd Battle of Corinth.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Mount Pleasant [Pennsylvania]
January 18th 1861
O. L. Jackson
Again I begin an epistle for your perusal. I should have written sooner but I am so situated now that I cannot get letters as I used to as I am not at New Castle more than once a week and sometimes only once in two weeks. So my letters may lay in the office for 5 or 6 days or I may not have an opportunity more than once a week of sending a letter to the office. I received your last on the 12th so it could not have made as tardy a trip as your letters used to.
Well the holidays are over and I suppose you had a good time of it while I was laboring to “learn the young idea how to shoot.” I stopped my labors only two days, viz: the last day of last year and the first day of this. But I did not enjoy myself any better than if I had been teaching. However, I was at an oyster supper the night after New Years at John Mayne’s that “some” for a a big crowd and plenty of fun. There was about 25 couples there. Yet the next day in school I felt as you have felt, no doubt, when you did not get any sleep the night before. I am kept very busy having 60 pupils on roll. I like my school very [much] in some particulars. They are well advanced and intelligent, industrious, and most of hem easily managed. But a few of the large boys are of the “fast” kind and do not come to school for any good and it keeps me to about all I know to keep them straight.
I am used like a king among the old folks and the “grub” is of the first class. Take it all in all, I have a first rate time of it and time passes swiftly. I am over half through with my term and it seems as yesterday since I began. I wonder a considerable some times that I get a long as well as I do for they are the wildest set at night meetings I ever saw. Hog Hollow is nothing to it. If your average attendance is 50, I think I will beat you this month. My pupils—all but a few—come to school to learn and miss no time at all scarcely.
I suppose you will be through in about a month. By the way, what are you going to do when you get through? Will there be any chance for a summer school down there? For my part, I do not want to fool around 8 or 9 months in the year and do almost nothing. I am beginning to think since I was 21 years old on the 17th of this month that it is time I was “up and doing.” If I can make it pay about here to teach, I will do it but if I cannot, if I can get anything else to pay, I am it. Or if I can hear of any place away that will pay to teach in, I’m off.
I liked your sentiments on secession pretty well but as you did not say anything as to the result of the present excitement, I will give you my opinion of the present, past and future. I believe we have really got into a serious scrape. In my opinion, one of three things must be done and either of them is certainly a calamity. First a backing down of the Republican Party, second a peaceable secession of the Southern states, and third civil war to coerce them into submission. You say think there is many other ways of getting out of the difficulty and there may be, but this is the opinion of your humble servant.
The first I believe to be the most calamitous and at the same time the most likely to be done. We have a great many examples of weak backbones among the leading men of the Republican Party such as Tom Corwin at the head of the committee of 33 and wishing to conciliate the South by even amending the Constitution to favor the slaveholder. Now the history of the past teaches us when a step is taken in this direction (that is, to compromise in any way), there will be no looking back until we dishonor ourselves by concessions which show us to have either very little courage or very little principle. But the idea of changing or amending the Constitution to suit the oppressor still better, when it should be lamented by every good man that there is so much in it now that can be twisted and construed into the right of holding property in man is desperately wicked. No! may the hand wither that should attempt to write such an amendment and may the voice falter that would advocate it.
I do not like the idea of a dissolution of the Union, but if it cannot remain together unless we bow in submission to the slave power, then I say let the bond be severed. This slavery question has just come to the crisis I have wished it to come to for years. It is not now whether slavery shall be protected in the territories but whether it shall be recognized everywhere and the right to hold property in man denied nowhere. Nor is it the election of Lincoln or our refusal to protect slavery in the territories that alarms the South but that the public conscience of the North has been awakened and has taken form for once in political action.
It is the public sentiment that chose Lincoln an exponent of itself. Lincoln’s election is a finger-board pointing to the way the event has come. It is a weathercock sowing which way the wind is blowing. “Slavery is wrong”—that is the sentiment in the North today and in a country like ours where public sentiment is almost law, it is no wonder the South trembles and grows white with rage. Death does not more relentlessly follow its victims to the grave than the roused spirit of Freedom will advance forward to the complete extinction of the crime and folly of human slavery.
I believe Seward uttered nothing more than the truth when he said there was an irrepressible conflict between North and South on this question. Each have their vital principle. The North Liberty and the South Slavery. The question is which much give away. The principle of the one or the other must fall to the ground. Either Liberty must discrown her fair head or oppression shrink and veil its head and depart. We cannot compromise with them—the South—without giving up our own belief, our own principles and our own honor. Yet I believe there will be a compromise—not that the South expect to gain much by the compromise itself, but that it may distract parties at the North and quell public opinion for the time. And they are right if the Republican Party backs down, then there will arise an Anti-Slavery Party and neither will succeed. But the Democratic Party will again carry the day. That is the opinion of your humble servant.
But if instead of doing as they did our Republican Representative in Congress had remained silent when asked to take some action in regard to the state of feeling in the South, South Carolina and her sister states would never have gone as far as they have. But enough of this. When I get started, I don’t know when to stop with this question.
You seem to think it something that you haven’t got the “mitten” this winter but I can say more than that. I never got it in my life. But I have a pretty good reason for not. I very seldom indulge—not because the “softer sex” have no charm for me, but because I am very seldom thrown into the company of those I care anything about and I am not one of those who keep the company of ladies merely for the name of the thing. I like something that has either wit or wisdom and not the mere excuses you generally find in our day and generation. The “stock” up here is plenty and respectable but nothing particularly enticing about them so I have not indulged once since I came here. Perhaps I have been severe but I have seen so much empty giddiness from the sex that it makes me so. I wondered when you made that proposal to send me the address [of some girl] whether you could find many of the right kind in a country place. For my part, I don’t want to correspond with anyone unless they have either wit or wisdom. But more anon.
Now for local matters. We have a good association in Old Shenango this winter. It meets at Rose’s S[chool] H[ouse] and on Friday evenings and as it is right on my road home, I attend pretty regularly. The active members are Morehead, R. J. Breckinridge, Mullen, Mr. Newton who teaches in the McLaren district, Leslie Conner dis, Sylvester, Womach dis, Miss Drew, Miss Kerr, and others. I would give almost anything to have you with us one night, but I won’t look for you unless it comes good sleighing. By the way, we [had] a very large snow to fall last week and stayed on 2 days and went off the quickest and fastest of any snow I ever saw. Mr. Miles, Sr. died last week. He has been ailing for a long while. Mrs. Kerr, widow of Old Bob) died last week also. I understand we have got clear of $100,000 railroad bonds and perhaps all the North W.
That is all I can think of now. Write soon again and in the meantime, believe me your sincere friend and well wisher. — R. M. Gaston of Pennsylvania
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Mount Pleasant School House
February 18, 
O. L. Jackson
At your request I commence an answer to yours of the 28th January promptly. Although it is not likely you will get this any great length of time before coming home, yet I feel in duty bound to do whatever you may dictate for me to do since you have been so prompt in writing to me.
I feel almost like swearing a little at the mails again. I did not get your letter until the 16th although I was at the office only 4 or 5 days. Well I cannot say as heretofore that I enjoy the great blessing good health. I have heard it said that one who enjoyed good health always did not know the value of it. So it seems to me. I have had such good health generally that I scarcely knew what bad health was. But for the last 6 weeks I have not enjoyed one hour of health.
We had a deep snow about 7 weeks ago and it went off very suddenly and the weather became very warm for the time of the year and many caught cold and myself among the rest. For 2 weeks it was nothing more than an ordinary cold, but it then began to get worse and settled in my side and breast in something like pleurisy and I suffered for a few days very bad but I still continued to teach hoping that each day would find me better. The pain in my side did leave in a couple of days but I still have a bad cough and pain in my breast at times. I am taking medicine for it and have hopes that I will be better soon. But troubles come not singly. Shortly after I became unwell [again]. The whopping cough got into the school and diminished from 50 to 25 in a few days and the weather is at present very bad (the largest snow we have had this winter being on the ground at present0. So that today, I have but 15 or 16 pupils. Taking all these things into consideration, you may suppose that I am in none of the best spirits. You can also have some idea how much good it would do me to get a letter from my old friend Jackson. But 3 days more and my time will be out here and I will be free to roam wherever I choose (that is, in the Northern states).
February 19th—Today is the best day for sleighing we have had here this winter and it is snowing more at present. Our seasons are surely changing in this latitude. I have never seen as changeable winter as the present. Last week we had 2 or 3 days that I have seen solder in May.
Now for an explanation. It is true that I did write that I would not correspond &c. with anyone who had neither “wit nor wisdom” but of course that did not include those I had been corresponding from necessity or old friendship that had been existing between me and those with whom I had been corresponding although those correspondents were so unfortunate as not to possess “wit or wisdom.” So you will see why I make such declaration and still continue to correspond with you. Consistency is a jewel and I do not like to be classed with those who have it not. I hope this will prove satisfactory to you. If not, your friend will apply to Hon. Robert Y. Toombs or Roger A. Pryer into whose hands I place the case and whose arrangements will be binding upon me.
February 20th—The snow is melting quite fast today and I think we will soon have muddy roads again.
February 21st—I was interrupted yesterday by the appearance of visitors and could not write anymore at that time. This is my last day of school. In about three hours I will be as free as the air we breathe. I wish you were here to hear my parting [speech]. It will be very effecting, you had better believe.
Local news in our neighborhood is pretty scarce. There is one piece of information that I know will pain you but it must be told, however. Miss S. J. Kerr and James Rigby are now one flesh. The ceremony took place about 3 weeks ago. Lorenzo Wilson is married to a daughter of John Allens. There has been some other marriages but you have heard of them no doubt. But I must stop now and attend to duty.
Home, February 23rd, 1861—Friend Jackson, I am once more out of employment . Yesterday I reported and received my warrant for my 3 months services. I then came home via Rose’s School House and was present at the ingathering of Teachers and Friends of Education. You know how we used to do it there. Well, we do it the same way yet. I don’t know what I will do now. I suppose I will loaf next week, visit some schools, &c. I wish you were here to accompany me in my rounds. After that, I don’t know what I will do. If you are at home this summer and it would be agreeable to you, I would not stop to study and recite to you as I did last summer. Come home as soon as you can. If you don’t get this before you leave, you can send for it after you come home. Hoping you will meet with no accident but have a pleasant time, I remain your friend, — R. M. Gaston
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Camp Wilkins ¹
[near Pittsburgh, Pa.]
August 8, 1861
O. L. Jackson
I seize the present opportunity of writing you a few lines to let you know of my experience in warfare. I did not expect when we parted on last Sunday evening that I would not see you again before leaving. There is not in reality anything serious in not bidding our friends adieu, yet one feels like it should be done. However, so long as our chances for corresponding with one another is good, one can in a great measure make up for it all by frequent writing of letters.
You were not at New Castle when we left but you have been told all about our leaving. We had a pleasant trip of it and arrived at Pittsburg about 5 o’clock. We got our suppers in town and were afterward marched here and quartered for the night. I did not rest very well the first night as we had not straw sufficient and what we had was infested with fleas. But now we have cleaned up our quarters so that we can live quite comfortably. We did not get our rations the next morning but had to provide our own breakfasts.
The first eating I did of Uncle Sam was Thursday noon and since that time we have had what I would call first class times—enough to eat and a good quality. We do not cook ourselves. The government provides a stove and set of cooking utensils and each soldier with a tin cup and tin plate, leaving you to make your own arrangements for cooking, &c. You can imagine what an endless confusion it would make for each mess of a company of 90 men to cook his own. But we are not in that fix for about one cent a day, we get a couple of “darkees” to cook for us so that we have simply to send our plates and tins up to the kitchen and our meals are there served out to us. For supper and breakfast we get god fresh bread and coffee. For dinner we get beans instead of coffee with our same allowance of bread and meat. When we get through eating, we simply take back our dishes to the kitchen and that is the last we have to do as far as eating is concerned till the next meal.
I neglected to say that our quarters consist of the stalls formerly used for putting cattle in but they have been overhauled and made quite comfortable. They are well roofed and floored and have bunks to sleep in. We have not yet got any blankets or clothing from the government nor do I know when we will get any.
We know nothing of our destination nor how long we will have to stay here. I see it stated in the Dispatch that Leasure has made a proposition to the War Department to establish an independent camp offering to find the tents himself and endeavor to increase his regiment to a brigade. I hear strangers remark every now and then that he is the best Colonel in Western, Pennsylvania, and that this regiment is the regiment, second to none any place.
We have now the full number of companies to forma regiment, viz: 7 from Lawrence [county], one from Beaver, one from Washington, and one from Mercer. The Mercer company arrived today. It is a splendid looking company. I have not once regretted that I enlisted. But on the contrary, I am glad I enlisted. But I must close for the boys are just going over to town.
I had an envelope addressed to you at New Castle but since I began, [my brother] Sylvester tells me you did not intend to be home for two or three weeks so I will address you at Logan. I want you to write as soon as you get this and write about it all. With my best wishes for your welfare, I remain yours friend, — R. M. Gaston
P. S. Address
R. M. Gaston
Care of Capt. Cline
N. B. I forgot to say to you I hold the high position of 1st Corporal in my company, — R
¹ Camp Wilkins was established at the County Fairgrounds on Liberty Avenue near Pittsburgh. We learn from Gaston’s letter that the cattle barn was converted into barracks for the men who initially slept four abreast in each stall on a bed of straw. By the time that Gaston and the companies that would for the the 100th Pennsylvania Infantry had arrived, apparently bunks had been provided though straw was still used to make their beds. Gaston speaks on a solid roof and floor but does not indicate whether the structures were sided or not. For more information about Camp Wilkins, see Joseph P. Borkowski’s article, “Camp Wilkins, Military Post, 1861.”
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
[Beaufort, South Carolina]
March 3rd 1862
I had not time to finish this on yesterday but I might as well have sealed it up as writing any more for I don’t know what to write. There seems to be a general impression along the men of the regiment today that we are going to move soon—perhaps to Florida. For my part, I have no inclination to go further South. It is now pretty warm here and the gnats and mosquitoes are so bad some evenings that one is constrained to charge bayonet on them.
Well, friend Jackson, you would like to be in Beaufort now? I know things look nice, I must say, and we spend our evenings after supper as pleasantly as schoolboys. We have various amusements. Capt. Cline bought the company a pair of $5 boxing gloves and you would laugh till your sides would ache if you could but see our boys use them. We also play ball and cricket and pitch quoits. And as for reading matter, we have an amount of it. If I could always have good health and have nothing more to do than now, I would not change a soldier’s life for some other occupation I know of. Don’t think from this I wish a continuation of the war.
Things in Old Pennsylvania are dull as usual from what I hear. I get letters from home almost every week. I hear from you now and then in that way. I get letters from R. S. Breckinridge now and then. In his last to me he told me what I suppose he thought I did not know—that you were a Captain in an Ohio Regiment and that Steve Butler was an aide to General McCook with the rank of Lieut. He thought you were fortunate and wound up by asking me if there was any hope of me getting promoted. Was that not impudence? I find there is no chance of being promoted where one asks for it. I was not made to succeed to any great extent but I am pretty well satisfied with myself. It would not make any difference if I was not satisfied. I am somewhat surprised at the success of some men in our regiment but I account for it because they have the “poke in” spirit.
This is a wretched poor letter but I know to whom I am writing. Write often to your fellow soldier and sincere friend, — R. M. Gaston
Co. H, 100th (Roundheads) Regt., Pa Vols., Beaufort, Port Royal, S. C.
to be forwarded to regiment.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
Beaufort, South Carolina
April 2nd 1862
My Dear Friend Jackson,
Yours of March 16th is received which I will now endeavor to answer. I have nothing new or important to communicate. You have had a change of scene almost constantly while we are here at the same camp we pitched our tents upon 4 months ago. Since I wrote you last our regiment spent two weeks on advanced picket duty on the bank of the Coosaw river. We had a very pleasant time being on duty only every third day. The enemy’s pickets were just on the opposite bank of the river and for their amusement they would occasionally discharge their pieces at us but their balls fell harmless in the river only carrying half way across.
The command of the Southern Expeditionary Corps has been given into the hands of General Hunter of Junter Lane notoriety. I think the change is a good one. I think there might have been much more done in this expedition than has been if the right man had been in the right place. However, I think the command is like Fremont when he was relieved. That is—it is ready for action.
Our brigade is thoroughly disciplined and consists of four as good regiments as are generally brought together, viz—on the right, the 79th New York Militia (Highlanders) on the left 100th Pa. Vols. (Roundheads) on the right center, the 8th Michigan, on the left center the 50th Pa. Volunteers. General [Thomas] Sherman, when he reviewed and inspected us a few weeks ago, said the 79th New York was the best volunteer regiment he ever saw and I think the Roundheads are not much behind them, but you must take my opinion with allowance.
We drill in Brigade each alternate day under the command of General Stevens’ son, a lad of about 20 who by the way is a very promising young man. We have one of the best parade grounds just out of town imaginable. It is as level as a floor and consists of 3 or 4 hundred acres.
But I fear I am tiring you with this. I am in excellent health and spirits and hope this may find you the same. Soldiering agrees with me very well now. The health of the regiment is very good. Not one man dies now for 5 that died three months ago.
Well, you have been in a fight, have you! I see General Pope’s report of the Battle of New Madrid. It is no small honor to have been in such an engagement where such an engagement where such a victory was won. Our news from the North is up to 25th of March but I hope by this time much has been done that we know nothing of.
What do you think of the young Napoleon General McClellan? For my part, I am not a worshipper of him and have not been for several months. I believe he would make any sacrifice to the demon slavery and patch up a peace on any terms rather than give them battle if he thought he could gain popularity and stand a chance for the Presidency in 1864.
[unsigned and probably unfinished letter]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SIX
Beaufort, South Carolina
Saturday, May 10th 1862
I have had the extreme gratification of receiving two letters from you this week—one last night and one few weeks ago. I was no little surprised to hear of you not getting my letters. I have written to you quite frequently and directed my letters as you told me. However, you have been moving about so much that it’s almost impossible for the mails to keep track of you. One of the letters I got from you this week was dated near Island No. 10 and was cut off short by you receiving marching orders. In the next I find you nowhere but in the great army before Corinth. I had expected to hear of you next in New Orleans but I suppose it was the best that could possibly be done to remove you to the stronghold of the enemy in the West.
Jackson, you are lucky in getting into positions where there is work to be done and laurels to be won. Yet what is honor worth to a man if a minié ball of or piece of shell strike him in a tender spot. I will watch the papers anxiously for the list of killed and wounded in that “Great Battle” when it comes for who can tell if I may not see your name among the officers in that list. God grant otherwise. Let us crush this viper with a will but it seems hard to crush it at so great a cost of human life. We are here in the enemy’s country and I thought long ‘ere this we would have had to try the terrible ordeal of battle but it seems that the brave sons of the West will have the honor of most of the fighting.
We are lying about loose doing nothing but guard and drill a little in the evening when it is cool. I don’t know what to write. Your letter deserves a good one but it is not in me today. I am too hot—my mind is very scattered and my pen will not write what I want it to. I can answer the questions you ask, however. Mr. Ross is 1st Lieutenant. [Robert J.] Ross of Co. H (Capt. [Adam] Moore). Walter Clark did not come to war. Mr. [Jefferson] Justice who was in the 3 months service came out as orderly sergeant of Co. H. but since then, Quartermaster Leslie has resigned and justice fills his place. Sam Morrow who lives out beyond Punkington came out as an orderly of Co. I. (Capt. Squier). He has been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant of said company. What do you think of that? You know the position of Vangorden Gilliland & L____ Smith Dushane holds a sergeant’s position in that company. He has just returned from a recruiting tour of 3 months duration. 1st Lieut. [John P.] Blair of Co. I has not been with his company since we came to Beaufort but has been acting Provost Marshal.
The first death of a commissioned officer in our regiment occurred in our own company. James L[aw] Banks (you remember him I suppose; he took a prominent part in the nomination of Jno. Wallace for Congress from Hickory township). died last week. He was the stoutest and most robust ma in the regiment. Had never been sick before. His disease was inflammation of the bowels. He lived only about 48 hours after taking the disease. His place was filled by the election of Sergeant [David] Patten. He will make an excellent officer.
I suppose I get more letters from dear Old Lawrence [county] than you do and perhaps hear more gossip from that country. Andrew Gibson has a son (I mean his wife has). Pretty fast for Andy, is it not? He was married in September and the child was born about the first of April. He must have tired [himself] about the time he was at home burying Robert. Or about the time he called to see our famous company, the Liberty Guards drill at Punkintown. How that gallant little band has become scattered! Their gallant little captain [O. L. Jackson] is doing service in the Great Western Army and has perhaps led a gallant company into the field of strife before this.
The Second Lieutenant (Bill Gibson) serving in the same office at Hilton Head, South Carolina. The Orderly away down south in Dixie acting high corporal with no hope of promotion. The Secretary ([my brother] Silvester) acting high private in the same regiment. Some of the privates of that gallant company are now before Yorktown or in pursuit of the flying enemy (Messimore and others are in Col. [Samuel W.] Black’s Regiment [62nd Pa. Inf.]). ¹ Where is the spot that there are not some of the Liberty Guards? Who would have thought nine months ago that we would have been so scattered, yet each one having the same object in view and all working for the same paymaster. If any one asked then can any good come out of this, let time answer the question.
Jackson, Tom Leonard came as a recruit to our regiment last week. You may depend upon it, there will be some tall fighting done now.
We have news up to the 6th of May. Then Yorktown was evacuated. Whether this is of any advantage to us is more than I can tell yet. It seems to me McClellan is lucky in getting an enemy to move without giving them battle. But I must not criticize. The change in this department is a source of great gratification to the command. Hunter is the Lion for the present. I hope we may have the same opinion of him to the end.
Jackson, I could talk to you if I had a chance but I can’t write. I am too nervous or something. How I wish we could see each other about 10 hours. I don’t think the war will be over so soon as I did a while ago but I have hopes we will see one another before a great many months.
Till then, adieu. — Gaston
N. B. Write as often as you can. I will write just as soon as I feel like it if it should not be 3 days. I know you will pardon this. — R. M. G.
¹ The 62nd Pennsylvania Infantry was organized at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania beginning July 4, 1861 and mustered in August 31, 1861 as the 33rd Pennsylvania Regiment for a three year enlistment under the command of ColonelSamuel W. Black. Its designation was changed to 62nd Pennsylvania Infantry on November 18, 1861. Col. Samuel W. Black was killed in action at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER SEVEN
[Note, this letter was written while Robert served as a lieutenant in the 1st South Carolina (Union) Vol. Infantry, which was later designated the 33rd USCT.]
I never could stand the tears of a woman very well so I am glad that the most of them were pleased upon a second hearing day before yesterday. I think they have no friendship fir us or our cause but they can’t do much either way. As to their appearance, there is nothing remarkable in their looks—about as northern women upon the average.
But perhaps you want to know what we have done. Whether we have done any fighting as you are a fighting man. No, we have not done any fighting of any consequence although the 1st Regiment was under arms almost all of the 2nd and 3rd days we were here.
The pickets were driven in a short distance by a body of cavalry and quite a body of infantry were in their rear. Our men were spoiling for a fight and came out with a rush no less than half a dozen times in two days but the chivalry did not think proper to give us battle. One man of the 2nd Regiment was killed and two wounded.
Our position is very perilous as we have not more than 900 men all told and here we are on the bank of the St. Johns River on the mainland of Florida (the only part of the main in possession of the U. S.).
To be sure we have the assistance of two gunboats in the river which came along with us but if the rebels have a much larger force than we have, they may dash in upon us and the effects of shell from the boats would be as disastrous to us as to them.
If they find out our weakness, they will I think give us fight before long but that is what our men want. We expect reinforcements of several companies of the 7th Connecticut Regiment from Fernandina in a few days.
I fear we are only strong enough to act on the defensive which is much to be deplored. I think the prime object was to invade the state and recruit a black army as we go forward. I don’t think it is possible from this point.
Jacksonville is a very pleasant healthy place and in time of peace an immense amount of trade was carried on from appearances. I like it much better than Beaufort. I am once more out of the sand where there is gravel and even stones. I did not see a stone at Port Royal during a fifteen month visit.
But this letter is already too lengthy and I have been in such a hurry that I think you will be satisfied by the time you decipher it all. The last I had from you was a little note written from Chillicothe, Ohio (damn your short letters; why can’t you find a little more time) when you were returning to your regiment. I don’t know what may have happened to you since then. You said you were terribly in earnest and I suppose you were.
Don’t get killed as I am more than ever anxious to have a good chat with you before you “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
I don’t know what your Northern and Western Army may have done since I heard from it and I suppose I won’t hear very soon as we will not get mails so often here as at Port Royal. I hope to hear of much being done near Charleston and Savannah soon There were 7 of the ironclads there when we left. Let me hear from you often and in very long letters and I will try to scratch something for you when I have a chance, but I am busy today and will only write myself.
Your most obedient and humble servant, — R. M. Gaston
Lt. 1st S. C. V. I. USA, Jacksonville, Florida
March 20th 1863
Dear O. L. J.,
I add a line to this as it may appear that this letter may be long in reaching you. The fact is there has been no boat to [leave] from here till now. The Burnside will go today.
Our boats have been busy making excursions up the river to different points doing whatever their hands find to do. We have not yet been attacked by the Rebs. They sent in a flag of truce warning all men, women and children to leave the town on yesterday. Accordingly, a number of women and children went.
I don’t anticipate a fight soon although they threaten to destroy the place. One of their men deserted yesterday and came to us. He says they have 1,500 men which is twice our number nearly. They don’t want to fight our men, he says, and will wait till the white troops come. They think it would be an eternal disgrace to be whipped by niggers.
Yours in haste. I am yours, — R. M. G.
[Note, this letter was written while Robert served as a lieutenant in the 1st South Carolina (Union) Vol. Infantry, which was re-designated the 33rd USCT. Robert died less than two weeks later from wounds received when a gun discharged accidentally while on a reconnaissance.]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER EIGHT
Advanced Picket Station
Port Royal Island, South Carolina
May 15th 1863
O. L. Jackson
Honored & dear friend,
I received your kind and much welcomed favor of April 18th some days ago but cannot say I was able to read all of it although enough was made out of it to fully repay the untiring efforts your humble servant made to decipher certain portions of it. However, I don’t blame you to sometimes writing in Greeley’s style as I sometimes adopt it just for a change when I am writing to you.
Te “joy or sorrow” you spoke of coming from Charleston, Vicksburg, &c. has come and has come in sorrow too. Charleston—that nest of treason and oppression—yet flourishes in her iniquity. The affair at Vicksburg is fully asa discouraging as from Charleston as far as I can learn. Jackson, the war goes on but slowly. I think before this perhaps, Hooker has shown to the world if he is a general or not. If he fails, then our horizon will be dark indeed. To be sure, we have had several small successes lately but nothing to make up for our failure to reduce Sumter after making two years of preparation and our failure after many attempts to get possession of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river. We cannot settle down into a seven or ten years war. The people at home will not sustain us in it. Let us fight it out and now. I for one want no more fooling about it. Better for to perish in the breach at once than perish in te camp after years of toil and privation. When we have suffered and bled as our enemies have, we will have conquered them—not sooner. This dying for one’s country by inches is not what it is cracked up to be.
I cannot give you that “experience of a big fight” you desire yet nor do I expect to soon. There seems to be but little likelihood of any fighting to do here soon. We have been doing picket duty here on the Port Royal River since before the expedition to Charleston. It may be possible that after General Hunter sees the folly of bringing us away from Florida he may send us back there. In that event, we may have a chance to do some rough work. It seems to me I could “fight a good fight” with these men and am anxious to try myself. You are right that we occupy a conspicuous position. I would not belong to another kind of a regiment than a Colored one. I would rather be 2nd Lt. in this regiment than any White regiment in the U. S. I am not alone in this opinion. Two Captains of the 8th Maine Regiment with good companies resigned their commissions there and took the same position in the 2nd S. C. Vols. (Col. [James] Montgomery). A Captain on General Davis’ staff having allowances which he will not now have resigned his commission there and has now a company in the same regiment. So you see the movement that brought down so many curses on its head at first is now becoming very popular. Colonels of White regiments are very anxious to give them up and raise Black ones just as soon as we can get the men.
To give you an idea of how we drill and how we appear in camp, let me make a statement from Paymaster Wood, a West Pointer who paid us week before last for four months service. He and his clerks came on to our camp strongly prejudiced against our regiment and all connected with it. He ridiculed the idea of making soldiers of Black men and thought this regiment was only the work of a few abolitions and others who had no other way of filling their pockets from Uncle Sam’s purse. They paid five companies (only five companies are stationed at Headquarters) and in the evening witnessed the company drills and passed through camp viewing things generally. The result was the statement given above and that their minds were entirely changed. That they think the ex-slaves better suited for soldiers than any men in the U. S. I hears Major Wood say very positively that Co. G of our regiment was the best drilled company in the Department—either White or Black.
Who are to fight the battles of the Union hereafter? For what was John Brown hung and who hung him? Where are they who hung him and cried for his blood? Traitors to their country and in open rebellion against it. Where are John Brown’s friends and fellow sufferes? [Colonels] Higginson & Montgomery live to do the same work for which he was hung. Will the same power hand the, that hung Brown? It would if it could but now, thank God, Brown’s friends have the U. S. Government to support them. When Brown died, it supported traitors. Bless God for the change! This war is not in vain after all.
No danger of my marrying a secesh lady for her Niggers. They are not a good investment here just now.
Hope the “Fair Lady of Notoriety” may receive the flowers kindly. I suppose General’s daughters and wives appear pretty much like other fine ladies. Generals are almost as plenty as Captains and Lieutenants.
My health for the last months has been good till within the last week. I have been down with fever but am up again. I am a little troubled with diarrhea but hope to be rugged soon. We have blackberries here in any quantity and are enjoying ourselves hugely. We have just got the news from rebel sources that we have indeed done a good work in the neighborhood of Richmond. I guess Fighting Joe Hooker is to be the great man after all.
I will not weary you with writing more at present. I will write again when the fit takes me. Let me hear from you very often. I hope to hear of your army annihilating the Western Army (Rebel) as it is said Hooker has done the Eastern one. Leave it to the African Army to use up the Southern Rebel Army. The 2nd S. C. Vols. in nearly full and the third is fairly under way. Believe me, I am very respectfully your obedient servant, — R. M. Gaston
P. S. I believe it was since I wrote you last that your humble servant received promotion to a 1st Lieutenant. I was only a 2nd Lieutenant till the 15th of last month. — R. M. G.