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William H. Johnson Civil War Letters

Twenty-eight letters, 1861-1863, of Union soldier William H. Johnson, a sergeant in Co. E, Seventh Connecticut Volunteers, originated from various locations in coastal South Carolina and Georgia and were sent home to his wife, Hannah J. Johnson. South Carolina places represented include Daufuskie Island, Beaufort, Hilton Head Island, James Island, and Morris Island.

Over the course of two years of war, Johnson remained optimistic about the final outcome of the conflict. Writing from Daufuskie Island on 26 January [18]62, he predicted a speedy end to hostilities—"There doesn't seem to be any doubt as to the result of the pending engagement—and if we are successful it is the opinion of a good many that the war can't last long....It is my opinion if we do not lick the Rebels in 6 months more the difficulty will be settled either by ourselves or the interventions of foreign powers. In either case we should probably return home—if the former—in peace, and if the latter, for home protection."

By January 1862 the Union army stationed along coastal South Carolina turned its attention southward to Savannah and Ft. Pulaski. Johnson's letter of 17 January [18]62 reports on efforts to clear obstructions from a waterway near the fortifications—"a Machine was rigged for sawing of[f] the spiles close to the mud in fifteen feet of water we sawed of[f] twenty two in three nights and raised the hulk in three more the way is now clear for our Gun Boats." When he wrote next on 20 April [18]62, Ft. Pulaski had fallen into Union hands and Johnson was billeted there. "I see eve[r]y sign of the war ending [and] I think that the fighting will all be done within two months," he suggested, but "how long we shall have to stay after the rebellion is crushed I cannot tell." Johnson remained at Ft. Pulaski for several weeks. "I expect to be at home as soon as the 1st of August if not before," he wrote on 15 May [18]62, "and if all of the rumors are true that we hear it will be before that...." "I sup[p]ose that you have seen the cuts of the Fort," Johnson continued. "Leslies paper of the 10th has a good representation of the interior of the Fort as it looked when we came in you will find me when in quarters just inside the door over the left hand corner of the furnace for heating shot where I am at present writing."

In addition to talk of war, Johnson's letters discuss the health of the troops, convey business advice, and express his love for daughters Mary and Lillian. While in the army, he earned extra money by speculating on watches, chewing tobacco, cigars, and other goods forwarded to him by family and friends at the North. Writing from Ft. Pulaski on 19 May [18]62, he suggested—"I could sell three thousand Cigars and three or four Gross of Chewing Tobacco in two days for cash and make from 40 to 50 dollars on it....I am glad that the watches are a coming as I think I can dispose of them to good advantage."

From Pulaski, Johnson was relocated to South Carolina, first to Christ Church Parish, then to James Island. From the latter spot, he penned a letter, 11 June 1862, telling of preparations for a fight—"a part of this Island commands Sumter and Charleston and the rebbels learning a lesson by the taking of Pulaski have determind to defend the Island their force as near as I can learn is about 15 thousand ours is not as much at present but troops are ariving eve[r]y day and before we make the at[t]ack our force will be as large or larger than theirs when with the aid of our Gun Boats we ought to lick them easy and anxious...as I am to get home I want to be one to help in the subgugation of Fort Sumter and the City of Charleston the very heart and core of seceshdom and then Oh how glad I shall be to return to my dear little family once more." The anticipated fight, known as the battle of Secessionville or Ft. Johnson, took place on 16 June 1862, and Johnson's letter of that date speaks of the Union defeat, explains that he had not actively participated but had served as orderly attending to the wounded, and reports on casualties.

By July 1862, Johnson was located near Regimental Headquarters on Hilton Head Island, where sickness had begun to take its toll. One letter, 27 July [18]62, tells of the death of company commander Capt. Palmer, on 7 July 1862, while another, 14 September [18]62, mentions common curatives—"red pepper is one of the best things in this climate that a man can use as it tends to keep of[f] fever and ague I think that with summer Pills for Diarrhea Blue Pills for Jaundice Cayenne for fever and good care a man can get along in almost any climate." A 6 August 1862 letter comments on changes at Hilton Head since Connecticut troops landed there in the autumn of 1861—"a great many buildings have been put up one Hotel two or three eating houses Post Office Express Office Transportation Office and so on it is quite a buisness place we have a chance to buy almost any thing we want"—and responds to inquiries from Johnson's wife—"you have asked me a number of times if I wrote in my diary I have not written in it for a great while for the reason that it is all smashed up it has been wet through a number of times and nearly ruined I have it yet and as soon as I can get another one to suit me I shall get it and copy off the old one and write some more in the new one it is almost impossible in camp life to keep such things safe."

In October 1862, Johnson went with an expeditionary force to capture a Confederate battery on St. John's Bluff on the banks of the St. John's River between Mayport and Jacksonville. Thanksgiving, however, found him at Camp Palmer, near Beaufort, from where he wrote, 30 November [18]62—"I spent the day very pleasantly as we had the day to ourselfs and got up quite a dinner...we had Chicken stuffed and baked roast pig pies Oysters apples good Coffee and Tea so you see we had quite a feast and after dinner we had lots of fun of all descriptions sack races being the most prominent." In the same letter Johnson expresses hope that "Genl Burnside will do more the next four months than McClellan has the whole time" and then retorts—"if he does not he will not do much."

A 12 January 1863 letter indicates that Johnson's company expected to relocate to Fernandina, Fla. There is no further indication whether the Union troops wintered in Florida, but by 15 September 1863, the date of his final letter, Johnson was at Morris Island. The bombardment, which he likened to "a thousand New Haven Fourth of Julys each day and night," had been continuous, yet he anticipated several more weeks of fighting before Charleston would fall.

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