Union soldier awakens to reality of war

Posted 4/4/23

On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for soldiers. Over the next several years, the north and south would do battle through a bloody Civil War. That July, Albert Fenner Waite, …

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Union soldier awakens to reality of war


On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for soldiers. Over the next several years, the north and south would do battle through a bloody Civil War. That July, Albert Fenner Waite, the 22-year-old son of John Tillinghast Waite and Mary Madison Allen of Warwick, enlisted in the 15th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Company G.

Waite marched off to war with an air of pride and excitement. It did not take long, however, for the reality of the situation to chip away at a farm boy’s innocence, replacing the thrill of adventure with the discomforting awareness of how quickly a life can be extinguished.

Shortly after his enlistment, Albert wrote a letter to 18-year-old Clara Francis Carpenter, whose family had been neighbors of his uncle Allen Waite. It’s possible the young girl might have been an object of Albert’s affection. The letter is the first of 12 addressed to Clara that still exist and was written from Camp Scott, a military training camp upon the Brooks Farm in South Worcester, Mass.

“Dear Clara, This is the first opportunity that I have had to write. It is rather a hard writing desk that I have got. I found an old board and went out in the woods. I had to lay on my stomach to write. So you must not make fun of my writing when you know what a fancy desk I had to write on. I went to camp the next day after I left Providence… When we started off, such hugging and kissing I never saw. I felt sorry that I did not have somebody to embrace. There was an old lady stood close to me and I had a mind to clasp her in my arms but I thought it was not proper, she being a stranger to me…

Could use iron teeth to chew the food

We started for Worcester in wagons, singing and cheering all the way. I never had a better time in my life. We had about two miles to march on foot through sun and sand. The dust was so thick that I could not see ten feet ahead. Such a supper as we got, the boys call it horse beef. I got one mouthful and chewed on it all night. The next morning I found it hard as ever. If they had not changed the food, I should get me some iron teeth… There is 15 men in a tent. Some can’t find their blankets. Others lost their beds. But most of us feel so tired at night we don’t bother much about beds… I never was in better health in my life. I have not seen a sick hour. It seems to me I could eat Jeff Davis if I had him here…

I don’t think you would know me with my hair as short as a young Robbins. My moustache has grown clear down to my knees. I stuff it into a bag nights so I won’t step on it. Don’t suppose you believe it. One of our company was discharged for stabbing a guard that was placed over him. Another was drummed out of camp with twenty bayonets pointed at his head…

Saturday night I was on guard. My orders was to let no man pass in or out, without giving the countersign. The guards and head officer are all the ones that know the password. About 16 o’clock, I heard a noise in the woods close to my beat. I sing out who goes there. Not getting any answer, I started into the woods. But it was so dark I could not find him. It was some of the boys that had run the guards through the day and was trying to get back at night. We have the strictest orders at night to run the Bayonet through any man that attempts to run the guard, if he does not stop when you hail him. I stopped one of the officers that night and made him give me the password which was Banks. It don’t make any difference who the man is, you must hail him. If he does not stop, try some cold steel…

“Our regiment can’t be beat”

While I am writing, there is a cry of a boy drowned. I have been to see him. He is dead. It is bad but can’t be helped. I wished you would come up here and see a fellow. If you will come, you may have my front room and best feather bed and all the horse beef you can eat...

I tell you our regiment can’t be beat. Our company has the name of being the best in the regiment. I had a letter from Gen. Scott saying that he wished to see me on important business. I think he wants me to take Lincoln’s place. Keep dark, this is privacy between you and me…

Don’t you think I had a dream about you last night. It seemed as though we were walking down towards Smith’s palace in company with quite a flashy damsel. Pretty soon she came to something that looked like an observatory. We went up to the top of it and sat down. While we sat there, as broke down, I thought you two broke your necks and escaped with only a broken back. When I woke up, I was crying. Yes, I cried. Get your dream book and when you write, tell me what it says…

I must say I never saw rain harder than it has for half an hour. I do not tell a lie when I say it is all of a foot deep in our tent. One tent that stood in a hollow got so full they took it up and put it in another place. They are carrying the water off in pails, it being 2 ½ feet deep. Most all of us will have to sleep in 2 inches of water… I don’t know of anything else except I should like to see you very much. Sometimes I feel quite lonesome…

Tell my dear, beloved sister that a letter from her would be read with the greatest pleasure… If I don’t get acquainted with some girls, I shant know how to talk to them when I get home. I want you to write as soon as you can because all the boys are getting letters and then it would be so nice to have a letter from you, don’t blush… Write within a week. If you don’t, I shall commit Susan Side. Good Bye, From Dobby.”

On July 13, 1861, Clara responded to that first letter. “Dear Albert, I received your letter Thursday. I was real glad to hear from you. I have been looking out for a letter ever since a week ago Thursday, a week from the day you went away… The day you went away, they all went down on their clam bake. The wagon was pretty full but there would have been room for you if you had been there…

I have not had time before since last night to finish my letter. I went down street and when I came home, I had not been in the house more than ten minutes when Mrs. Gardener, one of our neighbors, sent after my mother and me to come over there. Her baby was dying and we went over. It was over a year old and we had not been there more than a half an hour when it died… mother did not get home until after twelve o’clock. She stayed to lay him out… Hattie says she wished you would have the measles so that you would have to come home. She means have them light and I second the motion.”

Spectator to regiment drill killed in accident

Later that month, Albert penned another letter to Clara. “Dearest Madam, I received your kind and affectionate letter, in due season, and was very glad to hear from you. I felt five years younger after reading it and I can eat our horse beef with perfect ease now. We had quite an accident last week. While we was having our regimental drill in the afternoon, a span of horses took fright and broke their halters, starting at full speed right among the visitors. The pole struck a woman in the neck, breaking it instantly. They took her to our camp physician’s tent but she was dead before they got there. She came from Oxford to see an adopted son in the regiment. There was a little girl with her about 12 years old. I never felt so bad about anything as I did for her when she found out she was dead…

We have received most of the army uniform. You should see our overcoats, they are gay ones I tell you. They come clear down to our heels with a tremendous big cape. They make me think of Grandfather Long Legs. I have got so many clothes now, I don’t know how I shall ever carry them with me. Uncle Sam has been very liberal to his sons and I guess he has got some work for us to do pretty soon…

The other day I felt pretty tired and did not want to drill so I went to the dr. and told him I was not very well… he gave me a bottle of medicine… I saw him coming so I poured half the stuff out. He poked his head in, wanted to know if I felt any better. I put on a long face, said I was pretty bad off…

It is quite still down in the woods this afternoon. The gentle breezes roaming through the tops of the treezes makes me heave a deep sigh for the gal I left behind me. I see some pretty good looking city girls from Worcester up here but they don’t make a fellow’s heart bleed like the Providence girls. I believe I could tell a RI girl blindfolded among ten-thousand sheep… You should have seen me this morning when I got my sister’s letter. I was so glad when the officer gave me the letter that if he had been a woman I should hugged him to death. I dropped my horse beef and coffee.”

Next Week: Off to battle

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


How the letters were found, connected to Rhode Island


In 2009, Marcia Pollock Wysocky of Winneconne, Wisc. discovered over 200 letters written by her father to her mother during WWII, stashed in the shed of the old farmhouse where her mother lived. Wysocky read them, wrote a book about them – “Two Fathers, One War” - and became obsessed with history. "I can't get enough of it," she said.

Recently, her mother's neighbor, Gayle Baylor of Friendship, Wisc., told Wysocky, "I have something for you." She returned with a binder containing 13 handwritten letters from the Civil War. They had been given to her by her mother. Wysocky did some research and determined that the woman in receipt of the letters, Clara Francis Carpenter, was Baylor's great-grandmother.

After Wysocky discovered that Albert Waite descended from Warwick, Baylor agreed to give her the letters and she contacted Pegee Malcolm, president of the Rhode Island and Warwick Historical Cemeteries Commissions. Malcolm quickly identified the cemetery where Waite is buried in Warwick.

 Malcolm recalled the introduction. “I got a phone call and she said 'I have these letters I think you might be interested in. Do you want them?' I said, 'Yes!'."

Thanks to Baylor and Wysocky, the preservation of these 162-year-old letters will now be assured, allowing future generations the opportunity to see the human aspect of a battlefield.

“I want everybody to experience how much has been sacrificed,” Wysocky said.

Malcolm said scanned copies of the letters and other Civil War artifacts in the collection of the Warwick Historical Society may be combined for a Memorial Day display to be announced.


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  • Bunson

    Pegee Malcolm: Albert Fenner Waite is my great grand uncle, my great grandmother's brother. I would love to have copies of these letters. Let me know if this is possible.

    Thank you Edgar E. Edwards email: eearlenelmac56@gmail.com

    Thursday, April 6, 2023 Report this