N. B. White, Reporting from Boliver Heights

In October of 1962, Private N. B. White was at Boliver Heights, not far from Harper’s Ferry. White is likely N. Berdett White, a private in Company B of the 145th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. On the 19th of the month, he wrote a letter to his cousin, Darius, in reply to one received on the 12th. Like many soldiers, he offers an account of mutual acquaintances and fellow soldiers: who has fallen ill (measles was making the rounds), who was on picket duty, who has or hasn’t written (or should write more!), a request for news, and even an apology for his spelling (“I dont know that I can think of eny more for my bad writing and spelling”). Like many other Civil War letters from soldiers, it offers us a snapshot of White’s days in mid-October. But in the middle, he has a rather interesting story to tell. First, here’s the letter itself. We’ll get to that story…and a transcript…shortly.

Around the start of page three above, in the midst of telling his cousin about his own sickness and a recent fight, he suddenly states “there was a grate explosen the other day.” That, of course, might catch someone’s attention–as it did ours here at Special Collections. He goes one: some of the men built an arch to cook on. there was fore cooking the other day and there happened to be a shell in the dirt under the arch and when they built the fire the shell bursted and kild fore men.” White then goes back to talking about who his cousin got a letter from and who he wants to write him. He skips right over the lessons we might learn from this story: Always look where you dig? Don’t light a fire until you know there’s nothing under it? Don’t stand near a cooking spot someone else built? It seems like there could be several takeaways. White, however, seems to place it in a different context. And “context,” I think, is the key word.

To us–or to me, at any rate, as someone who spends too much time around food history–I find this surprise story fascinating. What did this cooking arch look like? What was it about that particular spot that seemed appropriate to build one? Was there any hint of something beneath the surface? What where they planning to cook? What kind of supplies did this Union regiment have relatively early in the war? For White, this was an off the cuff mention. After all, wasn’t the news of the recent fighting, in which no one was killed and only seven wounded, far more important than an accidental explosion and death of four men? Isn’t it better to focus on who is still alive, rather than think about who has died, especially during wartime? In the context of the time and his letter, most certainly. And of course, White had no idea his letter would last 156 years and I would have questions about this incident and he may not have had the details himself. He may have simply included it because it was an event of note or because it was something different to report back home.

If you’d like a little more context for this collection, the finding aid is available online. As a final note, this letter came with a transcript, so here’s the content in its entirety (I just didn’t want to spoil it before). Enjoy!

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The Words of a Massachusetts Ambulance Driver

Sometimes figuring out a subject for the blog is surprisingly challenging. I like to look at what I’ve done lately, but a lot of that amounts to committee work, organizing incoming materials, and cleaning up data for the catalog and archival management software. And the end of the semester/year is my usual “catch up” time to dig through the piles in my office, problem solve, and return to some on-going projects. Interesting for me, but not “blog” interesting, to be sure–trust me! The most recent collection I processed is the topic of a relatively recent post on “The Sherwood Anderson Odyssey” (if you’re interested in that topic, the finding aid is available online), so there’s no need to re-hash that subject just yet. After a bit of digging through the memory banks, I thought it might be fun to revisit a manuscript collection we acquired in three parts back in 2011: the William Leonard Papers, 1864-1865 (Ms2011-106).

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Inside cover of Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary

William Leonard was born about 1843 in Massachusetts, as were his two sisters, Leonora and Roselia. In his letters, he often mentions Leonora, who he calls “Nora.” He was living with his family in Great Barrington when he was drafted into service in July 1863, supposedly for a three-year term with Company F, 16th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. The following year, however, the 16th Regiment mustered out and along with the remaining veterans, Leonard was transferred to the 11th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry.

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Page from Leonard’s March 15, 1865 letter to his mother, in which he writes, “You must keep up good courage + not get the blues for we are going to whip them out this Summer. we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. [Ulysses S. Grant] Sheridan [Philip Henry Sheridan] & Sherman [William Tecumseh Sherman] are giveing them fits. I have seen Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] & Mede [George Meade] a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go Soldiering”
The collection includes the 1864-1865 diary of Leonard, along with 35 letters written to his both is parents or specifically to his mother during the same time. His letters indicate that by August 1864 and through Lee’s surrender in April 1865, he served as an ambulance driver, shuttling the wounded from battlefield to hospital, primarily around the Petersburg area.

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The earliest of Leonard’s letters in the collection, dated June 15, 1864. He writes about, among other things, the lack of food, stating, “most of the boys are out of rations again but we are going to draw this morning. I have a few hard tack + Coffe + Sugar yet. they had ought to give us rations for the nights to for they keep us up so much.”

While waiting to muster out in 1865, he was stationed around Washington, DC, where he continued to serve in a driver capacity, often civilians in and around the city. He continually reassures his mother not to worry about it and passes along war news, though he had a distinct lack of interest in the soldier’s life, writing, “we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. Sheridan & Sherman are giving them fits. I have seen Grant & Mede a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go soldiering”

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Pages from Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary, noting “Apr 25 Moving Camp and Washing Ambulances. Fireing a cannon every half hour all day. 13 guns this morning + 32 at night for the death of abram Lincoln President of the U.S. who was shot by a man by the name of Booth”

In spite of his medical association during the war, he does not hesitate to share his opinions on what he sees around him. In a May 1865 letter, he wrote that “The Doctors here dont have any thing fit to give any one and the bigest of them dont know how to doctor a hen anyway. They take the wounded men legs and arms off half the time. when there is no need of it, do it practice there has been a number of times I have heard of that…The Doct of the Regt was a clerk in an apothecary shop…” and the following month, detailing the sight of unburied dead men and horses on the battlefield.

After the war, Leonard returned to Massachusetts. He worked in a local woolen mill and later purchased and ran a plumbing and steam-fitting business. In June 1886, he married Hattie Goodsell (b. 1862). They had at least one daughter (Nellie, b. 1897).  It is unknown when Leonard died, but he does appear on the 1910 census and not on the 1920. Both Hattie and Nellie were boarding with another family in 1920, suggesting William died in the interim. Nellie later married Courtland Sparks and they had a daughter.

Since its acquisition, Leonard’s diary and letters have all be digitized. They are available on our digital platform. The images also include transcripts, which are searchable, in case you want to dig around and see what he talks about most! You can also see the finding aid for the collection online. And, of course, you can always visit us and see Williams’ words in person.