The story of a Rhode Island soldier in North Carolina
Recently I found a collection of letters written by my grandfather’s Uncle Will while he was serving in the Fifth Regiment of the Rhode Island Heavy Artillery from 30 Nov 1861 to 20 Dec 1864. He rose in the ranks from Second Lieutenant, Company B to First Lieutenant, Company D and eventually Captain, Company C. I am related to him in the following way: my grandfather Miles E Baldwin Jr. — his father Miles E Baldwin Sr — his half sister Anna Jean (Bennett) Douglas — her husband, William Wilberforce Douglas.
William W. Douglas was the son of William Douglas (1812-1887, born in Scotland), and Sarah (Sawyer) Douglas (1816-1901; born in Newburyport, Massachusetts to Jeremiah Sawyer and Betsey (Fitts) Sawyer). William Sr. was a Baptist minister who served as the chaplain of the Rhode Island State Prison for 40 years. The family resided in Providence.
William Jr. graduated from Brown University in 1861. On June 24, 1861 the family lost a daughter, Sarah Ellen (“Ellen”) to consumption. She was 17. At the time William left for military service in late 1861 he had four remaining younger siblings: Francis Wayland, age 15, Anne, age 13, Charles Henry, age 10, and Samuel Tobey, age 9.
After his return from the service William studied law at the Albany School of Law. After graduation, he began a career as an attorney in Providence that included elected office, appointment as a judge, and an eventual rise to Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He married Anna Jean Bennett Douglas on 30 Jun 1884. They traveled extensively and during his lifetime William served in many leadership roles among church, civic and veterans’ organizations in Providence. Aunt Jennie and Uncle Will had no children.
Discovering the letters
The above is the impersonal view I had of him before last week. As William wrote letters home during the Civil War, his mother transcribed them into a notebook which had formerly (turned the other way) been used by the late sister Ellen to take chemistry notes (she must have been a very intelligent girl, from a special family, to pursue chemistry in 1861). The mother, Sarah, carefully notes when letters have been omitted although we would have no way of knowing why she chose to omit certain letters. Through some pasted-in articles towards the end of the book – one of which has a penciled “Providence Journal” – one can see that some of William’s letters were partially printed in the local newspaper. The notebook runs out of pages around 1863 and I know of no source for the originals, so the story stops there.
Below are some excerpt of my choosing from those recorded letters. The page numbers refer to penciled numbers at the bottom of many pages. The notebook is safely housed in the Manuscript Collection of East Carolina University, and viewable online [see reference at bottom of this page]. I first learned of the letters through a search in Archivegrid.
Annapolis, December 30, 1861 [from p. 3-4]
Now that I have arrived at our rendez-vous I can sit down to write you a more circumstantial account of my journey. I started as you know from Providence Friday p.m. [...] [note: all omissions [...] are by the author of this post and can be recovered by perusing the original documents online; see bottom of post]
We arrived at Philadelphia and were marched immediately to a Refreshment Saloon. Kept by the Volunteer Relief Association exclusively for the entertainment of Soldiers passing through the city. Here we had a supper gratis of hot coffee, tongue, ham, bread & butter, and after a tedious halt at the Baltimore Depot, we once more embarked and composed ourselves to sleep as well as we could upon the seats of the cars. [...] At noon we left the depot at B- [Baltimore] and we were unexpectedly invited to a repast similar to the one which we had partaken at Philadelphia. After enjoying the hospitality of the former Secessionists or silent Unionists, we recommenced our tedious ride. [...]
Please send some 3 ct. postage stamps. I cannot procure them here. – WWD …
We are expecting to go on ship board in a day or two and to start very soon. I was introduced to Mrs. Burnside this morning, she is quite plain looking but very pleasant.
Everything has gone very well. [...]
You must not WORRY ——
My love to Susan and all the children, Miss Henry and Eliza & all our friends. [...] [note - in the 1860 Federal Census, "Susan C. Sawyer" is living in the house, age 23, music teacher, and "Eliza Fowler", age 28, is a domestic, born in New York.]
Walter does first rate. One of the officers got a negro at one of the stations where we stopped and took him along to act as his servant & will thus free him unless his master finds him out which is not very likely.
There is nothing I can think of that I want except a letter from you & so I remain
Your affectionate son
Camp Harris, Annapolis Jan. 5, 1862 [from p. 6-7]
I have written two letters to you before and not having received any answers, I begin to distrust the mail and send this by express.
I write today because it is likely we will go on board ship tomorrow. The fourth R.I. Regt are here and are going with us.
We were paid off yesterday and I received $59.75 of which I send you $50.00 leaving me about $39 to last til next pay day [...]
P.S. I have taken out $15 which I have lent to William Avery. I send you an order on his father. Think of me and pray that I may do my duty to God and to my country. We sail tomorrow or day after [...]
Aboard the ship Kitty Simpson near Fortress Monroe, Va. January 12, 1862 [from p. 8 - 10]
[...] we set out again for Fortress Monroe. Before dark we came to anchor in the midst of the large fleet under the guns of the Fort.
There are in sight three Frigates & about a hundred smaller craft – steamboats, propellers, gunboats, ships, schooners, & tugs. We know no more of our destination than at first but we are told that the mail will go ashore at Cape Henry, so that I suppose we shall go south and not any where in the Chesapeake as I at first thought. I think the original object of the expedition was to sail up the James or Rappahanock River, but since one on McClellan’s Staff divulged it to the Secessionists the destination of the expedition has been altered. [...]
Give my love to mother and all. Remember me as I know you do, in your prayers.
We are all well, I never enjoyed better health.
There is nothing that I want so far as I know except to be relieved of that promise which I made you not to smoke. I believe Mr. Hall and I are the only men on board who do not. [...]
Your affectionate Son,
Ship Kitty Simpson, Pamlico Sd. January 19  [from p. 11 - 20]
Dear Father & Mother,
[...] the motion began to be felt all over the vessel, and about a quarter of the men furnished amusement for the rest whose stomachs were stronger. To my own great astonishment and not less satisfaction, I enjoyed the sail unmolested by sea-sickness. [...] Capt. Wright has spent his time in short hurried journeys from his berth to the rails & back again from the rail to his berth. [...]
It was soon whispered among the officers that our destination, at least as a rendezvous, was to be Hatteras Inlet where the first naval expedition stopped. [...] In the morning we could see, across the low island, the fleet which had preceded us, anchored in the Sound. [...] For five days we lay off the shore [...] fog [...] rain for four days [...] hailed by a steamer [...] heave up the anchor [...] succeeded in attaching our 10 in. hawser to a smaller one of his [...] under weigh for the inlet.
[...] we were suddenly thrown off our feet by the striking of the ship upon the bar. The steamer hawser parted at the same time and her Capt. after shouting to us as if in mockery to let go our anchor, steamed away and left us to our fate. The fog lifted a moment and showed us breakers on each side, and the wreck of a steamer not 300 feet from our boat, which had gone ashore like us in attempting to cross the bar, a few days before. [...] Every wave which rolled in before the freshening breeze raised the ship a little, and beat her against the hard sandy bottom, making her tremble and quiver in every timber and spar. [...] wondering why no one came near us [...]
The Capt & Major were calm and collected during the whole time, and the men obeyed the orders cheerfully and well. I thought at one time that the continual thumping would break the ship’s back, and that we should stand the chance of swimming or drowning … the ferry boat Eagle again appeared [...] this final effort was successful, and just as the shore and the and sea became blended in the dusk of the evening we dropped our anchor again among the other vessels, safe in the harbor. Give thanks to God with me for our providential escape.
We are still as ignorant as ever of the object of the Expedition. [...]
Thursday morning 2 1/2 o’clock
I am again on guard and again resume my pen. Sunday afternoon [...] the mail arrived [...] a welcome letter for me. It was dated Jan. 8th, showing how circuitously it had come.
[...] we all have to use salt water for washing. The lower hold of the ship is full of provisions, so that we don’t suffer at all but salt junk and hard bread are rather poor fare when I remember Eliza’s hot muffins and light sweet biscuit. I tell you I would give a good deal to sit down to breakfast with you some of these mornings, but I am very well satisfied to wait til I have done my little for my country, and until the Rebellion is subdued.
Monday January 27
[...] As near as we can guess Roanoke Island is the place to which we are going, and the engagement is expected to be almost wholly naval. [...] The General was deceived in regard to the depth of the water in the sound by some traitorous pilots, & has almost insuperable obstacles to overcome. At last however I think that everything is favorable [...]
My love to all of you [...]
Thank you for the disposition you made of my photographs and for your love & kindness ever since I could feel it. [...]
Your affectionate son
Hatteras Inlet N.C. On Board the Transport Kitty Simpson, Jany 31 1862 [from p. 21 - 23]
[...] We are to be transferred from this ship, which draws too much water to proceed further, to the Steamer L.R. Spalding [...] she is the best vessel in the fleet& is occupied by Gen. Burnside himself, so we shall be on the same vessel with him. [...] Please give my regards to H- & to Dr. and Mrs. Wayland. [...]
You may not receive letters regularly from me but scribe it always to the carelessness of Mail Agents, or to accidents, not to my not writing. Do not believe the reports in the newspapers, especially if they say we are defeated. Gen. B. is cautious as well as brave and will not risk success by any rashness. [...]
Roanoke Island, N.C. Feb 11th 1862 [from p. 24 - 26]
I write this on a camel chest in the open air. We have taken the island notwithstanding it was very strongly fortified. All our men of the 5th are safe. We were engaged in marching and counter marching to outflank the enemy and so did not get into the fight at all. Friday last, the gunboats began by canonnading the Rebel Fort on the Island. At night we landed 6 or 8000 men. Sat. morning the fight commenced. The Rebels were all deployed throughout the woods and perfectly hidden by the thick underbrush. The ground except along a narrow road was covered with mud & water knee deep. Through this swamp and along the road our men forced the enemy for 2 or 3 miles. The firing which we (the 5th) could hear but not see was tremendous and incessant. As the Rebels steadily retreated & our men advanced, a turn in the road brought them to a Rebel [masked?] battery of 4 32 pound guns which played upon them to terrible effect. A little more and they would have turned in a panick but the 9th N.Y. Zouaves advanced at double quick through water up to their waists, & with fierce yells climbed the redoubt and turned the enemies’ guns on them, without losing a man.
This decided the day. The Rebels were in full retreat, and in attempting to embark for the mainland 3500 of them were taken prisoners. Perhaps 500 of them escaped. We took three large camps with wooden barracks, hospitals, etc and 3 forts which in our hands would be almost impregnable. We are now waiting for our things to come ashore from the fleet.
The gunboats chased the rebel fleet of 7 vessels & sunk the commanders ship retook one which they had taken from Gen. Butler, & sunk, burned or captured all the rest. They then took and occupied Elizabeth City. So that this expedition has been more successful than any before it in this war. The U.S. loss is about 50 killed and 130 wounded. The rebel loss is probably much greater & we have now taken in all nearly 4000 prisoners.
A force of rebels in two schooners were retreating from some place to this Island, not knowing that it had fallen into our hands, & one of our vessels went out under a secession flag and and towed them in and took them prisoners. [...]
Write soon to
Your affectionate Son
Roanoke Is., N.C. Feb 23rd 1862 [from p. 28]
[...] We have heard [...] of a great victory over the enemy in Kentucky or Tennessee & of the capture of 15,000 troops. This has been corroborated and is probably true. If so the war will not be very protracted. I should be very glad to see you all by next Christmas and especially to know that the government was once more respected all over our happy country. [...]
Your Affectionate brother,
Fort Foster, Roanoke Is., N.C. March 2nd 1862 [from p. 29 - 34]
[...] Gen. Burnside came into our tent the day before yesterday and sat and talked a long time. He complimented our Battalion on their proficiency in the [manual?] of the rifle, and spoke of the neatness of the camp, etc. Today he has gone off with the other Generals, and has taken a bodyguard from our Regt. [...]
I have had some washing done by a colored woman living near the camp, and it was done very well and very reasonably. Walter has done some also very well.
We are living now on the fat of the land. We have fresh shad at 25 cts apiece sweet potatoes and good bread which Walter bakes in a cook stove left by the rebels. He makes fritters and dropcakes & quite a variety of dishes from flour & hominy. We have a board floor for our tent which keeps us from the damp sandy ground. [...]
I don’t know that I can describe my feelings on the day of the battle. As we stood in the woods listening to the heavy firing, not a thousand yards from us, and heard the shouts of the combatants, as they rushed upon each other, & listened to the bullets as they cut off the twigs over our heads, & felt, I think all our men did, that it was serious business in which we were engaged. And I felt that I could give up my life if necessary in the cause which I believe to be right – I felt that God was with me [...]
Pray that I may be preserved from temptation and sin, and prepared to meet any fate which may await me. [...]
I suppose we shall start this week for Newbern or some other place on the mainland. If as is reported here the enemy have fallen back from Manasses, we may have some hard fighting,; but it is useless to conjecture our future course. I hope I shall do my duty. [...]
I have a secession bayonet & scabbard which I will send to Wayland when I get an opportunity.
We expect to have an express soon between you & us, & if you have a chance by this or any other conveyance please send me two or three towels. I find I have only two, one white and one brown. [...]
I wish I could put my arms around your neck and kiss you as I used to do when I was your baby. I cannot express the love I feel for you & Father & all — Wayland and Anne & Charlie & Sammy & Aunty Henry & Susan and Ellen dear Ellen — for I think I love her now more than ever — now that she has gone before and pointed out the bright heavenly road for us to follow. [...]
This is Sunday evening, and I think of the many precious Sunday evenings which we have spent together when it was too stormy for us to go to meeting, in singing & conversation. I hear too from one of the tents a hymn which she & we have often sung together, and I feel sad to think that we shall sing together on earth no more. [...]
Your loving son
Camp Pierce near Newberne N. C. March 19th 1862 [from p. 37-40]
Dear Cousin [S. Sawyer, according to note at top]
[...] it was indeed an exceedingly painful march [...] Every step of those twenty miles was ankle deep in heavy clayey mud. [...] Our bivouac the night before the battle was as uncomfortable as you can imagine. Yet I slept quite well in my blanket & rubber coat, undisturbed by the heavy rain drops falling from the thick evergreens above me, and not much caring for the wet bed of pine needles upon which I lay.
You want to know of course how I felt during the fight. I experienced first a strong contempt for those whom I saw straggling behind their regiments and crouching behind the trees where our line stood before we went into the thickest fire in the open ground. [...] Then when we followed the 4th & passed through the thickest of the fire, when men dropped groaning all around, and winged bullets kept up a continual hum like heavy rain upon a metallic roof, or upon the water. I was not conscious of any feeling except for pity for those who fell from our ranks, and desire that the men under my charge should keep their line and do their duty. [...] The being under fire was really nothing when we were once there. Once a bullet came singing 2 or 3 feet over my head and instinctively I dodged to avoid it, of course after it had gone by. I caught the eye of one of my men and we both burst out laughing. The next minute another came 6 or 8 inches from me & I kept my neck perfectly stiff. Another time as we were going at double quick, I stepped into a hole 2 or 3 foot deep and stumbled forward. A man asked me if I was hit and, as I answered “Not this time” said, “just as you stumbled a bullet came where your head was a moment before”!
During the thickest of the fight, as I turned for a moment, I saw an officer carried to the rear from the sight of our line. Fearing to discourage the men by directing their attention to it, I did not inquire his name, but after the battle was over I learned that it was Lieut. Pierce of Co. D. He was struck in the left breast, the bullet severed some large blood vessel. He died without pain for he said first “I am not struck”, then immediately, “I am dying. Carry me and lay me down”. Almost the minute before he was killed he spoke to his men encouraging them to be ready to die for their country. [...]
Newberne, now occupied by our First Brigade, is a very pretty town. The streets are lined on both sides with beautiful elms and are adorned with many fine houses, and gardens. Gen. Burnside’s Head Quarters are in a fine old mansion [...]
The union sentiment here, or more truly, the aversion to fighting is very strong. One man, who acknowledged that he had fought against us, said that he did so on compulsion, and as soon as he got a chance he ran away.[...]
Give my love to mother & father & all the children [...]
Your affectionate cousin
Carolina City, N.C. Saturday, April 5th 1862 [from p. 41-45]
I seize the occasion to write a few hasty words to you [...] We have been moved a little farther down the R.R. [...] in about a month we expect to get inside Fort Macon, but it may not be until after a desperate conflict.
I must stop a moment to listen to the band with Jo Green as they play so exquisitely that charming “Departed Days”. It seems as if I were listening to our piano at home [...] Hold fast in all times of temptation and trial [...] Pray that I, too, may not be led away into Sin [...] Pray, too, for the millions who are held in bondage by wicked men, who have been the innocent cause of this deplorable strife & who must have justice before this country can have peace permanent & honorable.
God bless you,
Bogue Banks, Apr 18, 1862 [p. 49- 50 ]
[recipient is one of his parents]
[...] You would laugh to see how we live, sometimes we have butter, never milk for tea or coffee no means of baking bread, which consequently we have to fry; No floor to our tent; water a foot below the surface of the sand; had potatoes 5 days since the battle, but plenty of fish; in fact corned beef and fish are our only meat yet I have been quite well except for one day. There has been much sickness in the Battalion from overwork & exposure [...]
Bogue Banks, Apr 27, 1862 [p. 51-52]
I received your welcome letter a few days ago & have delayed in order to answer you “Fort Macon is ours”. After three weeks of picket duty – the most tedious and the hardest duty we have done since leaving home, we the 5th had the honor of planting the flag the first upon the walls of the fort, and of taking possession of it in the name of the U.S. [...] and following the General marched into the Fort & planting our banners took possession [...] It was indeed a glorious day for our Battalion.
May 18, 1862 [p. 55 ]
… Then Anne has entered the High School just as another dear one did four years ago, with just such bright hopes and strong determination to succeed. God grant she may be spared to us for many years. [...] I saw a list of the graduating class of the High School. How many familiar names: but one never forgotten, one most familiar, was wanting. [...] I cannot but imagine her as she would have stood, near the head of her class I know, flushed with pleasure and bright hope, receiving the congratulations of her friends, and the praises of her brother, proud of her as ever. Well perhaps we may be permitted to see dear Anne in a similar position. Don’t let her expose herself nor study too hard.
Camp Anthony, New Bern, Sept. 5th 1862 [p. 71]
Dear Cousin [Susan],
I was interrupted in my preparations for retiring last night by a hand thrust into the door of my tent with a letter from you. In placing the candle on the nice board floor which I have made for myself, and rearing myself upon my elbow, I renewed my old bad practice of reading in bed. I think though as the bed was on the floor, and there were no sheets to catch fire, & the letter was too good to keep, I may be excused for not putting on my dress coat & sash before commencing, at least I know you will pardon me if I did not show sufficient respect to your production.
I was very glad to hear that you were all well & that the children have had a pleasant visit to Massachusetts. How I would like to go to the old place where Grandfather & Grandmother used to make us children so happy in Summer days. How dear Ellen and I used to race around the field away down to the boggy meadows. How carefully Mother used to follow our heedless steps lest we should disappear into the bottomless spring. Then what quantities of huckleberries we used to pick, and how kindly Grandmother used to excuse us for eating them all on the way home. [...]
I still think that the fighting will be over by Christmas. We shall conquer if the people at home give us enough proper support and the politicians can be restrained from putting their isms before their country’s good.
Camp Anthony Sept 16th 1862 [p. 74-77]
I received your good motherly letter this morning, and now, having just come in from a drill, I sit down to have a few minutes talk with you. How much I would give to hear one word from your dear lips, and to kiss your dear cheek, but I must wait for so dear a reward til my work here is done. I do not feel homesick; I would not go if I could while my duty is here; but I can think of home and those who make it so dear. [...] The great uprising and spontaneous rush to arms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and throughout the North, assure me that the country is at last alive to the fact that they are carrying on a war, and and that if they do not conquer they will be subjugated [...]
I have gradually, not without much thought and examination come to the conclusion that this war will not end until slavery is either abolished utterly or in a fair way to cease. I have always of course seen the wickedness of this institution, but this struggle has opened my eyes as well as thousands of others to the miserable political effects of its existence in this country, which have culminated in this outbreaking of evil passions, into desperate deeds. [...] The pressure which is exerted upon the President in favor of Emancipation (of ourselves no less than the slaves) is a sure inclination which way the great tide of public opinion is turning & [...] will sweep to destruction the stain upon our civilization, the barrier to our progress, the great sin of our nation against humanity and against God.
Newbern, N.C., April 1863. [p. 78 - 81]
We have been on the jump for the last week. Every day new rumors of attacks upon Washington, N.C. have terrified the people at headquarters, and orders have almost dayly sent us with 40 rounds of ball cartriges in all directions in this vicinity. I have not had 4 hours sleep any night since Saturday. [...] This morning all the troops in Newbern expect the 5th R.I. and the 45 Mass. start for Washington overland. We have orders to fight as long as we can – to hold on til reinforcements arrive if possible. The belief here is that the troops sent to relieve Gen. Foster in Washington (who is closely shut up there) will be cut off to a man. We consider it a high compliment to be left in the most responsible position, and shall endeavor to do honor to our state [...]
I have a strong presentiment that everything will turn out right. [...] As I think of the possibility of laying down my life for my country, I can contemplate such a fate with kindness and composure and my only regret would be at being separated from those whom I love [...] Perhaps I am frightening you with too gloomy a description of our position and on the whole I think I will not send this until the affair is settled one way or the other.
-Tuesday April 14 1863
The expedition returned last Friday [...] I went ashore with 42 men covered by a gunboat, and got some information [...] Monday evening we put the men below the water line and started for Washington at 8 1/2 p.m. We had 10 tons of powder and ammunition aboard and a large quantity of provisions and 900 men [...] though they fired about 100 round of shot and shell at us, none hit us, and we arrived here safe. [...]
I hope it will turn out right and and with gratitude to God for our miraculous preservation last night and praying and believing that He will still preserve and bless us
Your loving son
P.S. Don’t give up hoping but pray.
William Wilberforce Douglas Papers (#1192), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA. For the repository record of the original manuscript, see here.
Further works on this subject
[p. 476 - 522] Relief of Washington, North Carolina by the Fifth Rhode Island Volunteers by William W. Douglas, Late Captain Fifth Rhode Island Artillery. Providence: Published by the Society, 1886. (Series: Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being papers read before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society. Third Series – No. 17.)
Reminiscences of the Burnside Expedition by William H. Chenery, Late Sargent Company D, Fifth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery; First Lieutenant Company F, Fourteenth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. (Series: Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Being papers read before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society. Seventh Series – No. 1.)
History of the Fifth Regiment of Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, during three years and a half of service in North Carolina. January 1862-June 1865 by John K. Burlingame. Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1892.
[page 242-246] History of Providence County, Rhode Island. Edited by Richard M. Bayles. In two volumes, illustrated. Vol. I. New York: W. W. Preston & Co., 1891.
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