Camp Pickett N.C. Oct. 12th, 1863
I received your letter of the twenty-third and was very glad to hear from you and to hear that you were all well but Father I am sorry to hear that he is sick but it is the common lot of man here below and I think the more we suffer in sickness and affliction will better fit us for that world to which we are all hastening if we only make the right use of it. Life is short at the longest and we ought so to live as to be prepared for death at any time for we know not what a day may bring forth we are admonished of the uncertainty of life every day one after annother [sic] of our friends pass away and their places are left vacant never more to [be] filled on earth . . . George W. Gould
In July, 1862, the second year of the Civil War, a twenty-nine-year-old man named George W. Gould from Leicester Massachusetts was paid a $100 bounty and enlisted in the Massachusetts 25th Volunteers to fight for the Union, leaving his wife Almira (“Mira”) and their three young children Ada, Cora and Etta at home. He traveled by ship to New Bern, North Carolina, which had recently fallen to Union forces, arriving intact according to a letter written from Mira to George’s mother, despite seasickness and rations of “maggoty” crackers. Mira also addresses his mother’s inquiry about the bounty paid to George.
Like most soldiers in an era of widespread literacy, George wrote home frequently: reporting on his circumstances, speculating on the prospects for the war, and desperately inquiring about the well-being of loved ones so distant to him. I came to read some of George’s letters by happenstance through the kindness of Morgan Kolakowski, a graduate student in history working her way through school at Staples, where I shop frequently. Morgan also interned at the Wood Museum in Springfield MA, where I had digitized a trove of rediscovered Civil War correspondence, diaries and memoirs in 2014. Morgan had privately acquired a small collection of Civil War letters, and knowing my interest offered to let me borrow them for a time. In return, I promised to digitize them for her.
Shortly thereafter, before I managed to scan or read the letters, I left for vacation to North Carolina, where my son lives, and while there happened to visit the New Bern Battlefield. A few days after my return, I scanned the letters and sat down one evening with my iPad to read the digital images. Imagine my surprise when I read a letter from George Gould to his mother written from his camp at New Bern one hundred and fifty-three years ago! We only have eleven of George’s letters, written in beautiful penmanship, all directed to his mother or his siblings, but through this correspondence we can in some ways truly reach out and touch the very soul of a Civil War soldier. We read his tragic relating of the loss of his wife Mira, who at only twenty-six is taken ill and dies. We can feel his concern for his three little children, who have now been trundled off to stay with Mira’s parents, with whom George has something less than a loving regard. George writes of agonizing over whether to re-enlist, but seems finally persuaded by the re-enlistee’s reward: the prospect of a chance to come home on a thirty day furlough to see his family, to see his children. Then it is back to the war. And then there is a letter to George’s mother, not from George but rather from John Simonds, a commissary sergeant in George’s regiment, reporting that her son was killed in battle and his body left on the field amid a fierce rebel assault; Simonds relates that George records in his diary where he was hit, which means of course that he was gravely wounded and did not die right away.
Sitting in my armchair, my eyes unexpectedly flooded with tears . . . Private George W. Gould, Company F, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was killed on June 3, 1864 in the notorious battle of Cold Harbor, where Union causalities were remarkably severe. He was thirty-one years old. His three young children were orphans.
Historians are fortunate that so many Civil War letters have been passed down to us, but surely these represent only a fraction of the whole. George probably wrote and received dozens and dozens of letters during his two years as a soldier. Some or all of these, along with his diary, may survive in a dusty attic or
uncatalogued in an archive somewhere. More likely these were long ago destroyed, along with perhaps millions of other letters that did not become part of the historical record. But we have the letter from Almira, we have the eleven letters George wrote, and we have the one reporting his death. There are also two more. One is to his mother from an attorney representing George’s estate seeking letters found on his body that were allegedly forwarded to her after his death. And then there is another one to her from someone named Mrs. Almira Wheaton Mars (or Mears?), who apparently now has custody of the orphaned children, replying to an inquiry from George’s mother about the whereabouts of the bounty!
Why George W. Gould?
The purpose of this website is to resurrect the lost voices of ordinary Civil War soldiers. I plan to add other “lost voices” over time, but George W. Gould seemed the most appropriate central subject for the site launch. I have spent a lifetime reading about the Civil War, and much of the sesquicentennial years visiting battlefields and immersing myself in the study of the conflict and why it still so loudly resonates to this day. Although I own a computer services company, my interest in history prompted me to get a Master’s Degree in Public History with a focus upon digital archiving. And it was through a grant awarded to the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History by the Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission of the American Civil War that I found myself appointed to digitize a long-forgotten collection of Civil War materials associated with the Massachusetts 31st Infantry, which served with the controversial Massachusetts political General Benjamin Butler as the occupying force in New Orleans after its fall to Union forces. Subsequent to that, I volunteered to be part of a team that digitized the John Pooley Collection of Civil War letters, also at the Wood Museum. [See the LINKS page for more information on these projects.] More recently, I had the pleasure of reading historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s magnificent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which is focused upon the practical and spiritual ways American soldiers and civilians coped with death on such a monumental scale, one that amounted to well over six hundred thousand mortalities. But a random letter from a George W. Gould – a soldier from Massachusetts, where I make my home – strips away the statistics and puts your finger on the once-living pulse of an ordinary man participating in an extraordinary struggle.
George very much believed in the Union cause, and spoke passionately of it in his correspondence. But he was also a man with a wife and three young children. At enlistment, he identifies himself as a “laborer;” the one-hundred-dollar bounty must have represented a huge sum for his family – money his mother was apparently still chasing after his death. He was also a very religious man; a letter to one of his brothers is devoted to fervent proselytizing and recounts his own personal decision to turn to Christ. George was also a family man far from home, lonesome for his wife and children as well as his mother, father, and siblings. His grief for Mira’s death and what that absence will mean for their children is gripping, although he expresses it in a mere few lines. George writes about the mundane nature of camp in one letter; in another he wonders aloud whether he will be fortunate enough to survive. Of course, we know that he does not.
I was so touched by reading this small handful of letters by George W. Gould – someone who died fighting for the preservation of the Union nearly a century before I was born – that I determined at once to share them widely. Resurrecting lost voices like these includes an obligation, I believe, to let many others hear them. And George’s letters, although only a tiny microcosm of the Civil War experience, represent to me a very critical one, especially because he was such an ordinary man. That is the element of history that most interests me, rather than the stories of generals and political leaders that were so emphasized when I was growing up. George Gould died in the field at Cold Harbor, VA, where lives were vastly hemorrhaged as part of General Ulysses Grant’s “Overland Campaign” which ultimately brought Lee to bay, but not for most of another year. The 25th Massachusetts itself suffered a staggering 69% casualty toll that day: 215 men fell out of 310 on the field and 74 of those died, including George Gould. It was at Cold Harbor where the top commander of all Union forces earned, more than any other place, his unfavorable moniker of “Grant the Butcher,” a somewhat unfair characterization given his overall strategic genius. Grant later admitted he regretted his last assault at Cold Harbor, but in the greater scheme of things he knew that the Confederacy had to be broken, and that is where all of his predecessors in the east had failed before him. Grant would not fail, but he understood that he would have to spend many, many lives to get there so that many more lives would be saved once the bloody rebellion had finally been crushed. George W. Gould was one of those spent lives that preserved the Union and thus ensured the survival of the United States of America.
So, on this website, I am sharing the collection of George W. Gould letters, but I am also doing more. Through research, I located his grave. His body must have been disinterred from the battlefield and sent home to lie next to Mira, because there is a marker for George and Almira in an ancient cemetery in the center of Paxton, Massachusetts. I drove there one afternoon and took pictures. I also found buried there nearby their daughter Ada, who sadly only made it to seventeen years old. Not far is the grave of their daughter Cora, who lived to be thirty-eight, buried with her husband, an older man who just happened to serve in the in the same regiment as her father George, so he may very well have known him! There is also the grave of Almira’s mother and her stepfather, Marshall Mead, who took the children at first after Mira’s death. I am continuing to do research and hope to learn more about George and his family, both through online genealogy searches and through “field trips” to libraries and archives. I would love to find a photograph of George or his family or his regiment. The Civil War was photographed on a grand scale, but alas most of the photos of individual soldiers are either lost or out of context because they lack identification, although they may be housed anonymously in weathered frames at antique stores across the country. Unlike a book, the advantage to a website is that it can be updated continuously, so as I learn more, I will share more. Other “voices” will also join George’s over time. So this is very much a work in progress.
Each one of the letters is published here in its original handwriting and as transcribed. If you click on the thumbnail of the original letter, the full size PDF will open. The handwriting is remarkably readable, although those not accustomed to cursive, may struggle nonetheless. The transcription is an easier read. All letters were transcribed by myself, and I am responsible for all errors and omissions. I generally followed the original spelling; if it is incorrect I put [sic] in brackets next to the word; I always used brackets [for words left out] and for [??] if I was uncertain, as well as to note if something was [unreadable]. Fortunately, there was little of this. George spelled New Bern as “Newbern” and I simply left that alone. I generally left punctuation – or lack thereof – alone, so you will find apostrophes missing and many run on sentences with neither commas nor periods. If anyone finds an error or notes a correction from the original PDF, please do not hesitate to contact me & I will update the transcription.
Finally, I welcome your feedback, positive and negative. I hope you enjoy these letters as much as I did. Please send your comments my way! – Stan Prager, May 2016
A bit of trivia: all of the letters are sequentially labeled with the preface MCWL, which stands for: “Morgan’s Civil War Letters” 😉 We owe special thanks to Morgan Kolakowski, for it is through her kindness and a shared passion for history that these letters will see a wider audience!
One more thing: the final i’s are being dotted on this website project in time to officially launch it for the first time on Memorial Day May 30, 2016 – I thought it would be appropriate on such a day to honor the service of George W. Gould and the countless others who gave their lives in defense of our freedom. As such, there are no doubt certain proofread and stylistic errors which may have been overlooked as the first draft goes to press. My apologies in advance for any such as yet undetected flaws.
[Note: Cold Harbor casualties as cited derived from Ernest B. Fergursan, Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 279-80.]
[Note: The painting in the website header is Camp Oliver, 25th Mass. Vol. Infantry, New Bern N.C. 1862-3, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Digital ID: (digital file from original item) pga 08202 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.08202 Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-08202 (digital file from original item) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA]
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