This letter was written during the US Civil War by Hiram A. Chambers of the 15th Regiment Massachusetts, Company C, out of Worcester. He wrote it home to his family. The letter was dated November 1, 1861, and details Hiram’s experiences at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. I was given permission to document these letters by my dear friend Jane Richardson. Hiram was Jane’s great-uncle.
Here is the full transcript of this letter. I’ll note I added punctuation and paragraphs to make it easier to read. Also note it has the “n-word” written out.
Letter Number 32
HeadQuarters 15th Regiment Mass Volunteers Poolsville Maryland
November 1st 1861
Dear Parents and Brother
I received your letter last night and it made my heart leap with joy to hear that you had received my letter. I supposed that you would think me amongst the missing and I can say that I came very nigh being there.
Now that is so but you all seem to want to know about the battle and get the correct account there of. Well, I will comment give you a detailed account of it that is if possible. All ready I am disturbed and have got to go and do police duty this foremoon.
Well now I can commence. Sunday noon while at dinner we had orders to pack our knapsacks as soon as possible and start for the river a half a mile from where we were we had to let our dinner go and get ready. We took some hard bread and junk of cold boiled horse and shouldered our little rifle and started for battle.
You would little have thought to have seen them there that they were going to set them selves for a target to be shot at by them rebels of the south.
We crossed the river to the island. The first company – I mean the first company that crossed that, for Company H was stationed on island as picket, we laid down after the rest of the companies had got over niums (?) by Companies A G and I making in all five companies A C G H and I. We went to sleep and were roused at 12 at night and drawn up in line to cross the river on to the Virginia shore.
Well I will commence again and see how far I can get before I am called up again. I have just got through dinner and before dinner I had to attend the funeral of Luther Turner, one of our company who died of his wounds received in the battle of Balls Bluff.
To come in where I left off, we crossed over the river with out any trouble. The most that could be carried at a time was about 25, this was slow work.
Now I can tell you there were about 400 of our Regiment carried over then we were formed in line and started towards Leasburg the place of the rebel rendesvouz. We advanced about a mile and a half. We here halted till about 6 o’clock when Companies A and H were thrown out as advanced guard. They had advanced about half a mile, Company A acting as skirmishers and Company H as reserve, when all at once a very heavy volley and then the firing became thick and fast then the wounded began to come back, some alone, others being brought.
One poor fellow was brought back by three men with two bullets in one leg and one in the other. He was laughing and cheerful and said, as they carried him, he was only three wounds, boys, give it to them.
We that is the remain Companies C I and G were double quicked half across the field and the firing ceased. The rebels had withdrawn from the open space and our companies were ordered back to the woods again.
Company A lost 1 man killed, 1 taken prisoner, 13 wounded. Not so bad as we expected. The rebels, after the first volley, hid themselfs behind a house and a lot of stacks of corn and wheat which was there making it more dangerous for our boys and better for themselves a great deal. Their first position was well chosen – they were at the foot of a little hill so that our boys could not see them till they were within 10 rods of them. They knew that our men were coming and we knew nothing about them, yet our boys were not panicstricken as some troops would have been for we had made up our minds to have it said that the Mass 15th was made of good material and this day if possible should close and the sun set upon our hearts with our name standing high in the annals of history and be held up as a model for all other regiments in the US.
We think that we have gained all this and even more is it not so after we were drawn back Co A was thrown out as shirmishers again they advanced as far as the place of battle but no signs of the rebels was to be seen. They returned and reported. Just then the rest of the regiment began to arrive and Company A was thrown out again, this time on the left of the field. Company B was put in the centre and Company C on the right comanding the road to Leasburg. We laid on our faces so that we could not be seen. We were thrown out in this way so as to give the alarm to the main body if the rebels made any forward movements.
We had lain there about two hours when we heard occasional shots in the direction of Company B when it began to come thicker and faster and it was evident that the main body was engaged. Company A and B began to fall back, some coming through the woods where we were stationed. Company A had on their fatigue suite and as one after another would show himself coming in the direction of where we lay all the rifles would be cocked ready for the heathans as some have seen fit to call them many a one of Company A would have been shot only for some of our boys would recognize the face a pass it along the line that he was a friend. The firing ceased again and in a few minutes a messenger came to us and told the Captain, the Colonel wanted him to report as soon as possible. This we did in good order coming in in double file.
All the regiment was there and many a face lit up with joy to see their companions once more. It is singular that I am here to write this for scouts coming in reported that the rebels have surrounced Company C as they lay there in the woods on every side but that which was towards our regiment and are were some 900 or 1000 yards from them but we got there without a drop of blood being spilt.
After this skirmish we fell back to where General Baker was with the reserve. We there formed a line of battle and tho General asked the Colonel if he thought he could hold his position the Colonel in his cool and deliberate way answered WE WILL TRY and we did try and held it till after the death of General Baker and we got the order to retreat we stood in line of battle tho Sharpshooters of the 20th Mass on our left our Regiment numbered between 700 and 800.
There were 2 companies of the 19th and 20th regiment Mass a part of one of the California regiment and two companies of the Terming (?) Regiment of New York. This was all the force that we had during the day numbering in all not far from 1500.
Some of these crossed over and had just landed when we were ordered to after we had got our lines formed two howitzers were drawn up in front and shelled and old house in which they could see some rebels and this is all they did for in a few minutes the rebels opened their fire in our front and on our right and the way the balls flew was a caution to niggers (??) the California boys engaged them on our left assisted by the 19th and 20th boys. We had fired 5 or 6 rounds when we that is the 15th boys were ordered to cease firing and save our fire for the Rebel cavalry which was approaching.
As fast as possible we reloaded and came to the position. We stood in this way for half an hour not firing. Only when one of the rebels approached to close when the crack of a rifle would end his days. This I did once myself bringing my man down receiving praise from one of General Baker’s aids who stood by my side.
When I did the deed, just after we were ordered to cease firing. A rifled cannon was drawn up and it powered its messengers of death thick and fast in to their ranks in the shape of canister shot. This did more execution than all the rest of our firing during the day. Every man that manned him in the first place except the sergeant and Lieutenant were killed. The sergeant was wounded the first shot. Our brave General helped fire it three times. The Lieutenant who was a great friend of Captain Bourman was wounded in two places.
But I was writing about the Cavalry charge. As I said, we did not fire for half an hour and then the cavalry not coming up we opened our fire again and awful was the fire to it seemed as though there were thousands upon thousands of bullets that came and went. We lost but very few men while standing here but we saw – at least the officers saw – that in a few minutes we shoud be cut all to pieces for reinforcements were arriving on their side all the time and they were surrounding us and we were ordered to file left and take a new position.
This was a foolish move for it brought us from the edge of the woods into the open field where the Rebels could rake us, as they were stationed in the woods. This was just as bad a thing as could have been done.
But glory to the old 15th, she stood as firm as an adamantine stone till the order was given to retreat.
Then came the most appalling sight that ever was witnessed. There was no place only the river to go to. Every man must swim the stream or give himself up as prisoner without he was lucky enough to get into one of the boats.
I was one of the lucky ones.
It was an awful scene to see those men trying to swim the river and see the balls strike them and then they would sink and be seen no more. We lost more in this way than any other way.
We camped that night where we were on picket guard – I mean Company C – and I tell you, it was a good thing those brush (?) houses and we were glad to lay down after we got some tea which our cooks had got read they (having heard that we were retreating) and go to sleep.
In the morning we got the company together and after getting breakfast consisting of salt horse, hard bread, and coffee we started for camp a distance of 5 miles. We only rested once. We generally rest 3 or 4 times in going that distance but we were eager to get into camp and see how many men we had lost. The colonel was anxious to see us to. After summing it up we find in the regiment we have lost 342 out of about 700 that went into the fight in our company we lost 27 besides the Captain who is expected is a prisoner now and may he be treated with kindness for there never was a braver and cooler man in the world.
Yesterday we bore to his last resting place Luther Turner, one of our company, the first one that we have die in our company. He died of his wounds received on the day of the battle.
I have now given you a correct account of the proceedings of that days work which has gained such honor for old Massachusetts and the 15th regiment.
You may show this to any one that you are a mind to.
On another sheet you will find your private letter. My love to all.
From your loving son
Camp Foster HeadQuarters of 15th Mass Vol
Gen Stones Brigade
November 2nd 1861
I have just finished the account of the battle hoping that you will be pleased with it. I will now write an answer to your last. To commence let me say that we are having today one of the hardest storms that ever I saw. The rain comes down in torrents and the wind blows a hurricane.
I am sorry that you were so much worked up and felt so bad for I thought that we had prepared ourselves for the worst. I am glad that my letter was a welcome messenger to you. As you say it must have been the work of Providence that saved me from death that day.
I am glad that it made Father and Marilla feel so well who beat playing gammon. In return my love to Ms Cutting for hers. I hope it will be my luck to return home to those I love before long, never more to engage in war.
It is cold out there, it is cold as Greenland here. It is dinnertime and it rains so I guess I will close this by budding you good bye. My love to you my dear parent and may God bless you my love. To all inquiring friends and pass any account of the battle around.
From your loving son,
Hiram A. Chambers