19 July 1861: “then we all fell down and loaded and fired as fast as we could. The enemys balls whistled and rattled by our ears pretty sharp…”

Item description: Letter, 19 July 1861, from William Ray Wells, private in the 12th New York Infantry Regiment, to his family. He describes the “slight brush” his regiment had with the enemy the previous day in which over 60 Union soldiers were killed. Uncertain whether he will survive much longer, he nevertheless asserts that he will continue to do his “duty” and fight for the “good cause.”

[Item transcription available below]

Item citation: from folder 3 in the William Ray Wells Papers #2960-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item transcription:

July 19

Manassass Junction

Dear Friends,

I presume this will be the last letter I shall ever direct to you. We are within about 3/4 of a mile of the enemy waiting by the road side I do not know what for. We had a slight brush yesterday afternoon with the enemy. Our reg, was marching along when we were fired upon from the bushes. At the first fire there was a young man who stood by my right side fell with a bullet through his head. I gave a glance around to see who it was and then we all fell down and loaded and fired as fast as we could. The enemys balls whistled and rattled by our ears pretty sharp. The boys got mixed at the first fire Co A Co J and part of Co E and Co H I think these were together and I do not know where the rest of the reg, was. us that were together stood it, like tigers and did not retreat until we were ordered to do so and then very sloly. There were some 60 or 70 of our reg killed and wounded. The union forces all drew of about 3 miles and camped over night. We are expecting to attact them now soon. We do not know the enemys exact number but hear they are very strong but I for one am going to do my duty. I hardly ever expect to see home again but if I fall it will be in a good cause. I have not rec,d my letters from any of you (except Mary) since that dated the 9th of July, but I must close. Perhaps forever. From your true son and brother


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3 Responses to 19 July 1861: “then we all fell down and loaded and fired as fast as we could. The enemys balls whistled and rattled by our ears pretty sharp…”

  1. Brian Leehan says:

    Fascinating stuff! I’ve read a LOT of letters/journals fromt his period (research for my book on the 1st Minnesota regiment during Gettysburg – pub. 2002) and have discovered how useful a “second pair of eyes” can be in deciphering handwriting of the period. I offer a few suggestions/considerations about transcription: 1) Regiments did not have a “Company P” – the letter appears to be an “A,” with the looping flourish of 19th century handwriting. 2) He didn’t cap the letter “u” in the opening of the sentence “us that were together stood it,” but you’re right – the word is “us.” 3) You’re right on your transcription of the sentence “We are expecting to attack them now soon.” He would have made more sense to have put a comma after “now,” but the “now, soon” is clearly the way he talked, so he wrote it that way. He spelled “attack” as “attact” – but “attack” is what he was intending. 4) Your sentence: “I have not read my letters from any of you …” should be “I have not rec,d (received) any letters from any of you …” I’ve seen that contraction for “received” in other letters/documents of the period. Not getting mail is the lament of every soldier from every war – they often mentioned it, either thanking for the letters, asking to be written to more often, or – like this fellow – reminding family that they want to receive letters and haven’t.
    Great stuff! Thanks for posting/transcribing this.

    Brian Leehan

    • dcbh says:

      Thank you, Mr. Leehan, for your notes on our transcription. We appreciate the assistance. I agree with your notes and I have updated the text to reflect these suggestions.

      Unfortunately, due to time constraints in this project, we often must make a quick pass at transcribing the material. In fact, we had not originally intended on including transcriptions in our presentation of these items. However, we will make every effort to transcribe, when and where possible. All that to say… we are very glad to get help from our readers on this aspect of the project. Please feel free to reread, copyedit, and comment or make suggestions about the text that we provide. We appreciate it.

      As to your point about soldiers always lamenting the lack of letters from home: you hit the nail on the head exactly. It seems like it appears in nearly every letter (at least a mention of the last letter received, but often an admonishment to family for not writing more frequently!). William Ray Wells, the Union soldier that penned this letter, was particularly adept at this admonishment. 🙂 In one of his letters (which we’ll feature in a few days) he even gave a tongue lashing to his family for inappropriate use of stamps and envelopes.

  2. Pingback: Pvt. William Ray Wells, 12th NY, on Action at Blackburn’s Ford « Bull Runnings