5/10/2014 2:50:00 PM Mother never far in thoughts of Illinois Civil War soldiers
by Tom Emery Breeze-Courier guest writer
CARLINVILLE — Mother’s Day did not become an official holiday until a Congressional proclamation in 1914. But a half-century before in the Civil War, soldiers rarely forgot their mothers back home.
During the war, letters from home took on great importance, as there were few other means of communication. A remarkable number of Civil War letters still exist today.
Men lived for the mail, and those who were literate devoured letters and newspapers that had some tie to home. John Follett, a private in the 33rd Illinois from Galesburg, Ill., unabashedly responded to a letter from his mother by declaring, “I don’t know what I should do if you didn’t write to me.”
In another letter to his sister, Follett also lauded his mother’s quality and style of letters. “Mother does write good letters,” wrote Follett, “and she is hard to beat and the reason why is because she writes all the little things.”
Letters to home frequently contained references to conditions in camp and on the front. Writing his mother from Memphis at 10 p.m. one evening in February 1863, Edward Stevens of the 72nd Illinois penned that his comrades “will have a rather busy night of it, striking tents, packing boxes, etc. But as it is a beautiful night, moonlit, and quite warm it will not go very hard with us.” However, Stevens complained of “a dreadful sore throat” that he hoped “would be well in a few days.”
Often, letters from home contained misspellings and grammatical errors, which were not unexpected in an era of primitive education. Martin Luther Vincent of the 112th Illinois was well aware of his deficiencies, writing to his mother back home in Cambridge, Ill. that “I know that I write and spell so miserable that I do not want everybody to see my writing.”
Young Martin was one of three brothers in service, which was an added strain on his mother, who also had to deal with a severely ill daughter. A May 1864 letter from Georgia likely added to her concern, as Martin wrote that “we are laying under the Rebel fire and have been for several days. The bullets are passing all of the time over our beds. I got your letter yesterday on the skirmish line and could hardly get time to read it, for I had to keep an eye pealed to dodge bullets.”
Sometimes, men recognized the motherhood of their wives, who were left to raise children as best they could while their husbands were at war. From Mississippi on May 6, 1863, Company C Captain Henry Kellogg of the 33rd Illinois included a loving passage to his young son in a letter to his wife back in Bloomington, writing “Harry, Papa often thinks of his little boy and would love to be with him and Mama. Someday Papa hopes he can come home and stay with Harry and Mama…but Papa must stay and ‘shoot the rebels’ a little longer.”
Sadly, Kellogg was killed by “a piece of shell in the head” just fourteen days later. On May 26, Company C First Lieutenant Edward Lewis penned the letter that all wives and mothers dreaded. Attempting to be as comforting as possible, Lewis wrote to Kellogg’s widow that “I can only bid you summon all your fortitude to read the next words I shall write, and may God soften the terrible blow; your noble husband is no more, he died the death of a brave man.”
Many were more fortunate, as thousands of sons, husbands, beaus, and brothers returned alive. Still, women – including mothers – were honored recipients of letters written by lonely young men in the darkest four years in American history.