Letter from a black Civil War soldier
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    Civil War letters from soldier to his son back home

    When I saw the two orange absentee-bid stickers attached to the box of faded letters, I instantly asked the auction staffer to see them. I figured if two people wanted the letters, there must be something interesting about them.

    And there was: They were the letters from a Civil War soldier. Some were still in their envelopes with the torn ends while others had no envelopes and were still folded – all strewn inside the bottom half of a cardboard box.

    I’m always eager to read about soldiers’ tales of the tedium, pain, fear and loneliness of war, along with their experiences of the new and unfamiliar places where they were fighting. The war letters I’d come across at auction were just that type: One was from an African American Civil War soldier to his wife in Connecticut. Another was from a World War II doctor who told of his encounters, the most horrific of which was a Nazi concentration camp.

    civil war letters

    A box of Civil War letters from a father to his son.

    I expected this group of letters to be like those of the black soldier who fought on American soil. As I started to read the letters, I was confused because they were different. I realized that these were not letters from adult to adult; they were from father to son. They did not contain the tragedy of war but the love of a parent.

    They were sent by a man named James Touchstone to his teenage son James Monroe, whom he addressed as “Mr.” on the envelope. The family lived in Port Deposit, Cecil County, MD, and the father was a blacksmith before he joined the Union Army. He was a first lieutenant quartermaster in the 6th Regiment of the Maryland Infantry. Touchstone left a wife and 12 children behind.

    In 1863, he became ill during a retreat of Union forces from Berryville, VA, when he and other exhausted troops spent days exposed to harsh weather, according to war documents. He was honorably discharged in October 1864, and his personal physician said in an affidavit that he never fully recovered from that experience. He died in 1872 at age 51.

    civil war letters

    Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his son, dated August 1864.

    His obituary in the local newspaper noted that he was a Union man at the beginning of the war but grew to become a conservative and Democrat (whose beliefs back then were more the Republican way of thinking today). He served two terms in the Maryland Legislature in the 1870s.

    Touchstone gained a reputation as a “slashing political writer,” the obituary said, and his views were “governed more by the strength of his prejudices than reason.”

    He was very outspoken in his political beliefs, and wrote letters and commentary about them, including a letter to his son. He seemed to have been a member of the Copperheads, a group of Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War, and wanted to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the southern secessionist states to end the war, and bring them and slavery back into the union. The group opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

    During the 1864 election, Touchstone supported Gen. George McClellan over President Lincoln for the presidency.

    civil war letter

    Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his son, dated October 1863.

    Here are excerpts from letters to “My Dear Son,” who was born in 1846:

    Officers Division Hospital, Annapolis, MD, Aug. 31, 1864:

    “Last winter you promised me you wanted go to school every day and that you wanted to attend church. Have you done it? I have not been anxious for you to work but I have been anxious for you to learn. So that you might be an honor to your parents and yourself, and a useful man.

    “I am sorry to hear you say that your ‘future is a blank.’ How can you say this? What is there to cause you to say this? My dear boy this is not the proper view to take of things. You are too young to despond in this way, and you must not do it. There are many young men like you who have no kind father or dear and loving mother to care for them, who go forth to battle with the world in confidence. You must know that you have many advantages in this respect and you must resolve that you will, God being you helper, do your part.”

    Culpepper, VA, Oct. 6, 1863:

    “I am not surprised that I am called a ‘Copperhead’ by the ‘Codfish’ or ‘Stink pot’ party. I disregard them as the dirt. They may say and do as they please but cannot disturb my equilibrium. … You are right in supposing that Linc will buy votes. He loves his money as his God but he will even sell his God to be elected, thinking to get him back with interest. And by the use of his money he may succeed in defeating Mc.”

    Bolivar Heights, Jany. 10, 1862:

    civil war letter

    Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his teenage son, dated January 1862.

    “I am surrounded by mountains and storms this morning. Everything looks wild but enchanting. The mountain crags and peaks are hidden from view by the snowstorm that envelopes them and down their steep and rugged sides sweep the whirling gusts of what may really be called ‘a stormy day in winter.’ From the back window of my chamber I see the Potomac as it comes down from the Northwest, winding its way through the mountain gorges, struggling as it were, to be forced from the frozen embrace of the Ice-clad hills above. … From my window I see the beautiful, though romantic Shenandoah, stealing quietly down the rugged sides of the Londen (London Heights) and Bolivar seeming unconscious that it is just lost forever (and swallowed up) in the angry waters of the Potomac.

    “And why does ‘Mam.’ not write me a sweet letter with her own hand? She used to write me sweet letters when Siss and you were babies but since you have learned to write she has given it up. I love to have a letter from any of my dear children but I would give anything for just a few simple words from my own dear wife – your dear mother. … Perhaps she forgets the love letters she used to write me. Oh how sweet they were! Well a ‘love letter’ from ‘Mam.’ after my long absence, would be sweeter than ever.”



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