[Ed. Note. The Cambridge Chronicle, in which this letter appeared 3 May 1862, was the first of the newspapers that I mined for soldier’s letters. There were so many letters in this newspaper, primarily because two of its employees enlisted in the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, that it made me consider how many other letters might be found in all of the Massachusetts newspapers. The author, John Thomas Wilson, was a 21-year old clerk at his enlistment in 1861. He rose from a private in Co. E to become 1st Lt. of Co. I when he was wounded in the battle of Deep Bottom, Virginia, 14 August 1864. He was brevetted Captain at the end of the war and he returned to East Cambridge where he gained entrance to Harvard Law School in August of 1866, joining the Massachusetts Bar in 1868. The discussions of the North Carolinians vs. the Virginians is interesting, as is his description of Burnside’s Expedition.]
24th Reg. Mass. Vols., Camp Foster
Roanoke Island, N.C.
Mr. Editor, — Earnestly believing that the nation needed every person that could shoulder a gun to enlist and endeavor to sustain the Constitution and the laws, I have entered the service of my country, and shall try, to the best of my ability to sustain the honor and integrity of our government and the fame of the old Bay State.
Since I have been a soldier, I have enjoyed myself very much. I have no reason as yet to regret my enlistment. I have seen just enough of war to know that it is no boy’s play. Yet I am willing to undergo a great deal of privation for the cause in which we are engaged.
I will now endeavor to give you a brief synopsis of the work of Gen. Burnside’s expedition since leaving Annapolis. You have, no doubt had a full account of the embarkation at Annapolis. Therefore I will pass it. In relation to what was done with our own regiment, the Twenty-fourth, six companies were placed upon the Steamer Admiral (now named the Guide), three companies on board the gun-boat Vidette, and one company on board the schooner Skirmisher. Our boys embarked in the best of spirits, thinking they were going to do their country a great deal of service in less than a week from the time we left Annapolis. But the sequel has shown that they knew nothing of what they had to experience. Our voyage to Cape Hatteras, whither it proved that we were bound, was void of incident, and our life on shipboard was none of the pleasantest, where six hundred men were crowded upon a steamer where there was just about room enough for a man to turn round once, and then be in danger of striking his friend upon the head or some other portion of his body. You have long since heard of the capture of this place. The engagement was begun by our gun-boats, on the morning of the 7th inst. Their fire was returned quite spiritedly until late in the afternoon; then the rebel fire began to slacken, and Gen. Burnside gave orders to land the troops. Our regiment was to be one of those to land first, but owing to some mistake on the part of our pilot, our steamer got aground and was the last steamer up to the landing place. Our regiment did not land until the morning of the 8th, and after the hardest part of the battle was over. The hardest fight occurred at a mud battery, about four miles from where we landed. The rebels made their only stand at this place, and a very poor stand it was too. Their battery was placed across a road which ran directly through a large swamp, and it could not have been taken by a direct assault without great loss of life, but being outflanked, and vigorously assaulted in front, they were obliged to retreat. – The number of prisoners captured was 3,500, with three forts, one of which was mounted with twelve guns, two of them were Parrott guns of the best pattern. The battery was found to contain three very good mounted brass guns and one howitzer. The rebel plan of fighting is mean enough; they are very brave when behind shelter, but when it comes to a charge they will scatter like sheep. The rebels have since told me, that they cannot see how our troops got around that battery. They thought it was sheltered by an impassable swamp, but they were outdone by Yankee perseverance. Our regiment won part of the glory, although it was not in the fight. As soon as it was landed, it was ordered forward, double quick, in pursuit of the rebels, which movement the regiment performed nobly. We followed so closely as to capture a camp of the rebels, which contained 2,500 men. The camp was situated upon the opposite end of the Island to that on which our troops landed. The rebels say that if we had not followed them so closely, they would have re-formed and given us more trouble.
The rebels remind me of the figures that you may have seen on the 4th of July, when the Antiques and Horribles turn out for their annual parade, armed with all kinds of guns. The loss on our side was fifty killed and two hundred wounded. The rebel loss has not been ascertained, but it is less than ours, as far as it can be learned.
A great many of the rebels here say that we have been misrepresented to them. They had the impression that we were nothing but savages, and have been led to believe that we were going to desolate their homes and destroy their property; and therefore they enlisted to protect their families and their firesides. But since we have been here, and have assured them that we came to uphold, the honor of our noble government, and not to desolate their homes, they declare if they were our of it, they would not again enter the rebel army.
There are a few Virginians who will hold out to the last; they declare their hatred in no very soft terms. We do not mid them much, as we consider them as we would the rattlesnake after his poisonous fangs are extracted. I have talked with a few of the rebel officers, who seem to be very well informed in regard to the commencement of the war. Not one of them, however, can give any adequate reason for it, except that they supposed President Lincoln would trample on their rights.