The Civil War letters below were written by my great great grandfather’s uncle, John H. Lawrence, a private in Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, serving from June 1861 until his death at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
I guess this story started with my trip to the URI Library to look at Grace Church Cemetery records. I didn’t have any special reason to track down these records, I was just trying to be thorough. My gggg-grandparents, James and Annie Lawrence, had a family plot in Grace Church Cemetery, Providence, that included several of their children. Viewing a card index file led to an indication that their son John H. Lawrence had died at the Battle of Antietam. And some footnotes that I found in some military histories while researching John Lawrence’s service and death indicated that the Antietam National Battlefield may have some letters of John Lawrence.
I couldn’t imagine why that would be true, but I emailed the Battlefield to inquire about the letters. After a few weeks I received a package in the mail. The package contained photocopies of letters and some sort of pension claim. There were no explanations, just the copies, which I was fine with because I’m sure the Battlefield is just trying to get information out quickly. It took me several hours to figure out what I was seeing.
What I ended up finding was a way to find my gggg-grandparents’ life story.
The only document in my packet from the Antietam National Battlefield with an official heading was called “Mother’s Brief.” Only after carefully assembling the pages letter by letter did I realize that the Mother’s Brief was part of a dependent pension application, and the letters had originally been attached to the pension application, as proof that the soldier had been sending money home. Snippets of his letters where the soldier wrote about sending $10 or $20 were underlined. All pages had a printed “Reproduced at the National Archives” on the bottom.
I finally realized that a researcher had found this pension application at the National Archives, and the copy had been conveyed to the battlefield at some point because it concerned a soldier who had died there. Previously, all my efforts to find a record of any pension or payment had turned up nothing.
I was lucky that a claim number – 197,794 – was on the papers. I consulted Fold3.com and managed, finally, to find an original index card and also, a certificate number. With that, I was able to order the pension file from the National Archives. The pension file should give me a lot of details about the lives John’s parents, James and Annie Lawrence, including the reasons they were in need. Until it arrives, I am looking more closely at these letters to see what can be learned about the soldier, John H. Lawrence.
Knowing the law
I found a useful introduction to the subject of dependents’ pensions in a Vita Brevis post from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. “Something to Love in Civil War Pensions” by Christopher Child explains how he found a mother’s pension related to his own family’s history. Mr. Child also gave a helpful link to a site that contains a large number of the pension laws.
Mr. Child detailed the pension law of July 27, 1868. That law (27 July 1868 – An Act relating to Pensions) specifies:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the laws granting pensions to the hereinafter-mentioned dependent relatives of deceased persons leaving neither widow or child entitled to pensions under existing laws, shall be so construed as to give precedence to such relatives in the following order, namely: First, mothers; secondly, fathers; thirdly, orphan brothers and sisters under sixteen years of age, who shall be pensioned jointly if there be more than one: Provided, That if, in any case, the said persons shall have left both father and mother who were dependent upon them, then on the death of the mother the father shall become entitled to a pension commencing from and after the death of the mother; and upon the death of the mother and father the dependent brothers and sisters under sixteen years of age shall jointly become entitled to such pension until they attain the age of sixteen years, respectively, commencing from and after the death of the party who, preceding them, would have been entitled to the same: And provided further, That no pension heretofore awarded shall be affected by anything herein contained.
The bill goes on to specify some pension rules for other cases, such as soldiers that left widows or children behind. The Act can also be found on page 235 of this government Record of the Fortieth Congress, Session II in Google Books.
So basically, under the law of 1868, we can expect that since John Lawrence died in service leaving behind no widow or child, his mother and father may have been eligible for support if they could prove their son had provided needed support to them. Hence the letters where John mentioned that he was sending them money.
Saturday October 12 1861
Dear parents and family I last night I sent you 10 dollars and wished for a reply in consequence of its delay. I have received yours but I was very glad to hear from you and that you had received the money. I would of send more but I paid 3 for a pair of boots $7 for a watch which comes very handy out here. I swapped it for a better one but its chain was broke so I have sent it in Washington to get it fixed, it will be back I will have a nearly brand new watch [tatdent?] lever for the sum of $7 and five I have in my pocket which had better keep.
You wished to know what I had to eat well as you are so inquisitive as to ask we live very well. By the [missing: way?] I did not tell you that we moved from our masked battery at Seneca Mills to our sorrow for theres where we had our good living. Did our own cooking had plenty to cook corn vegatables Mollasses Milk honney but sweet potatoes we had to by non raised but had a plenty of meat fresh and salt but we have been up here with the battery so we live plainer and have guard duty and plenty of drill to the bargain. We have just killed a beef creature not 5 minutes ago. So a plenty of fried steaks goes very well mornings along with good white bread and we have a company cook something new we are in Banks Coulum part of [which?] has gone across the Potomac [how?] soon our first and second pieces went last tuesday under sealed orders and we have not heard from them since but we have not gone to Washington yet and I guess we will not for we can’t get away from Banks colum give my best respects to all my friends and tell mother I am doing well. It is useless to send any papers for I do not get none
your affectionate Son
Senaca Mills [Seneca, Maryland?]
tuesday 24th Nov
Dear parents. I thought I would write a few words having nothing else to do
Last week the 17th [Rome?] of the 34 N.Y. boys went over the river. Just opposite where our pice was masked as had been there habit scouting and foragen but the rebels had lain for them. So it was about 12 at night just as they had passed a small brook the enemy laying in ambush 15 feet from our pickets gave the order fire when crash went a volley of about 25 guns which was not returned by our side. I could plainly see the guns flash and hear the boys holler help but took to their heels and ran no doubt it was the best plan. Out of 11 men there was 7 slightly wounded 4 missing of which one is dead. The alarm set us on our pins last Sunday 29th when we shelled out a small camp in about 15 minutes and there was some awfull scampering over the hills. I will not trouble you with a very long letter this time but will state I have received two months pay $24.83 I enclose $10
Give my love to gramma and all inquiring firends etc etc
P.S. send your number I have lost your last letter
Your affectionate son
John H Lawrence
March 9th 1862
Camp near Charlestown Va
I now take the opportunity to write [illegible] tired of waiting for a letter. I have not received a letter from you in two months and I have written 3 times. I sent 20 dollars in one letter. I guess you [illegible] it [illegible]. If you have I wish you would let me know as I could found it very useful here rather than lost it.
I have received your Box and it was very acceptable. It is very fine Sunday compared with what we have had. we advanced from Poollesville about 2 weeks ago crossed the Potomac on pontoon bridge into Harpers Ferry wich is a splendid little village most all deserted. Owned mostly [U.C.?] Government. We stopped there 3 days quartered in a fine house, and we marched 6 miles and camped near Charlestown [about 20 miles from Winchester] wich is a very strong seces’t town place where John Brown was hung. I have just come from there. rite smart place – saw the tree that scaffold was built on (or at least the stump) got piece of the tree. Will send it home when I get a chance. I think there will be some fighting at Winchester in a day or two. We have just got about 40,000 troops including 3 Bull Run regiments, the Massachusetts 15 is to cover us. Albert Waite and Chappel is here. We are under Banks in his column the cry here is March on but he won’t go untill he gets ready. I think most likely we will be in reserve as we are at present. However it doesn’t make much odds the sooner we do the fighting up the sooner we will get home. The pickets is bringing in rebels every day. Some of them a littel inclined to the Union. Say it is all up with them and a few more victories on our side will end the war. Albert sends his best respects to Richard Some more give my love to all the children including Maggy [Eliza?] Mary Jane her folks and the Bamfords and Gramma. Ask Martin how the baby is. your son
John H. Lawrence
James River Va
Sunday July 13th 1862
I received a letter from some one with one dollar in it although it was too late as I got paid off at Fort Sully. I send you by the Commissioner twenty dollars.
You must know that the Army is laid up for repairs for this last retreat has bunged up this Corps it having had the brunt of the retreat such as being rear guard and having all the fighting to do. As you are aware that we commenced shelling the same day that Gen. Porter was attacked but it was all shelling about and that we did not mind as we had breastworks but the doctor that got hit on the head there. The next day being Sunday we commenced to fall back and as we fell back they followed up close in our rear making it necessary to fight and our troops displayed the most unequal courage that I ever imagined standing face to face to the rebels hordes and not flinch one inch but it was all that saved the Batterys in our Division and in fact the complete capture and anialation of this army depended on our movements [I mean the Corps] though the retreat cost the life of many a foe whose bones will bleach this summer on the sandy soil of Virginia. We nevertheless had our losses and our hardships averaging about 3 hours sleep per day with our limbs aching with fatigue and hard work at the gun (firing no less than 18 hundred rounds on the [streak?]) however we are here and will be all rested in a short time and ready for another fight as we have made up our minds for to fight now and we shall go at it with a will. Tell William the first chance I have I will send him a revolver it is out of repair a little I suppose he can fix it we are hard up for delicacies paid $0.50 cookies 5 cts apiece lemons 10 = 15 cents and everything in proportion and I want you to send me a box not of broken dishes though. I will send you a list of things I shall I expect to receive. So no more present give my respects to all [so no more at]
A few thoughts
- Evidently John’s mother was unable to read. The letter is addressed “Dear Parents” but he says “tell mother I am doing well.” so clearly she was not reading the letters.
- I’m not sure how the pension claim went, but I don’t think it’s proven, from these, that John was truly sending money home for the support of his family. He seemed to expect them to send him packages, and had enclosed a list of what to send. There is also the possibility they were supposed to be saving the money for him. But all in all given their circumstances, he probably was.
- When he says in the third letter “give my love to Mary Jane and her folks” that makes me think he may have had a girlfreind, or at least someone he was fond of.
- I know, from the Civil War letters of my other uncle who served, William. W. Douglas, that communications could get backed up and evidently this was not always obvious to the soldiers, who blamed their families for not writing. It really is sad to see that. A small indication of how stressful the situation was for everyone.
- He gives his love to “gramma”, but it took me a minute to think which gramma was nearby. His parents were born elsewhere, so I hadn’t slowed down enough to realize that of course he grew up around his mother’s mother. I knew that, but hadn’t thought of it as having a “gramma.” Funny how much more personal things get when you read letters.
- He mentions his aunt and uncle, William and Mary (Shortridge) Bamford, a couple of times. That is the family of my DNA cousin. He will get a kick out of that.
The post you are reading is located at: https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2015/07/09/give-my-love-to-gramma/