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Thomas W. Cusack Papers, 1861-1865

Forty-seven manuscripts, 1861-1865 and undated, of Union soldier Thomas W. Cusack, a member of Co. A, 127th Regiment, New York Volunteers, Drum Corps, consist largely of letters addressed to Frank D. Karr, a merchant with the firm of E.A. Hayt & Co., 361 Broadway, New York City. Also present are letters, 26 July-28 September 1861, to Karr from Union soldier James Nelson Hyatt, Newport News, Va., and Henry A. Carpenter, Lowell, Mass.

Cusack's letters begin in October 1862 and from that time until August 1863 are written from camps in Virginia and Maryland. This early correspondence tells of the need for additional items of clothing, the severity of winter weather, army food, sickness in camp, and attrition in the ranks due to heavy losses at Gettysburg.

His first letter from South Carolina, written from Folly Island on 16 August [1863], reported that he expected to see hard fighting soon, that they had sailed on the steamship Empire City from Newport News, Va., and that Folly Island was a pleasant location, "just like Coney Island." Cusack's letters also tell of the proximity of Union and Confederate troops. On 12 September 1863, he wrote from Coles Islandó"Where we are doing picket dutie we can see the Rebs quite plain and we can talk to Them we can here every word theay say....some of our men going To Be co[u]rt marsled for Exchaing papers with them," and he noted that letters from Union troops along South Carolina's coast were being censored by military officials. Two weeks later, 29 September, he reportedó"we can see the Rebels quite plane and we Some time have long conversations with them[.] Theay are very fond of coffee for theay give Our Boys a large supply of Tobacco and Sweet potatoes for a cup ful of coffee."

Other letters northward discuss the plight of Cusack's family and the young man's attempts to reclaim family possessions after his sister Mary died in New York. A letter of 3 October 1863 asks that Karr buy back family pieces that Mary had turned over to an undertaker as payment for her burial expenses. Cusack wrote also of his father's demands for money and the fact that he had not acted as a parent to his children.

Cusack's letters are significant in part for their details of camp life. One from Coles Island, 21 December [18]63, describes the dedication of a camp church built of logs and encloses the text of a "Dedication Hymn" composed by Col. W. Gurney for the occasion. Another, 5 January [18]64, that mentions the outcome of a prize fight is indicative of the degree to which Union soldiers far from home kept abreast of current events not related to the war. Washington's birthday, he reported on 24 February, was celebrated in camp with music and speeches organized by the regiment's "Ed[e]lphic" debating club.

As 1864 progressed, the letters began to deal more with military matters. On 16 March Cusack told of a drum presented to him by members of his company and the formation of a regimental band as well as a military expedition to Bulls Bay, one in which the troops experienced seasickness but no fighting. In late April, they moved from Coles Island to Morris Island. "From our camp," he wrote on 3 May, "we have Got a view of all the Rebels works....we can see fort Sumter very plain But you could not Tell that it was a fort if you did not now It for all as we can see is a lot of Stone and dirt and the Rebel flag Flying over a lot of Bricks and dirt...." They could also see Union forts, including Battery Wagner, where two companies of Cusack's regiment were garrisonedó"I Was up to visit fort waggner the other day And I think it is one of the grates forts I have seen Since I have ben in the Searves...it is a very pretty fort...the Men have got butiful quarters...and Every thing inside of the fort is as clean as a Palace." Cusack goes on to describe duties assigned different companies in the 127th, to note that "Most of the Troops on this Island is colored Troops," and to report that the regimental band and drum corps had their own "street" in camp, a man detailed to cook for them, and "Bully Quarters" with elevated tent floors.

The Federal bombardment of Ft. Sumter began on 13 May 1864, Cusack reported two days later. The Confederates did not fire a shot in return, but it was the intention of the Union troops to level Sumter to the groundó"it is a Horrible sight to look at and To Say that their is men in side of it I beleave that their is somthing Like 3 or 4 hundred men in side of the Fort." Despite the escalating tensions, Washington's birthday was celebrated once again with, among other things, "an Ode...Composed and delivered by one of the Smartest men in our Regt.," J.M. Haynes.

Cusack's entrepreneurial bent is evident in several letters. That of 5 June [18]64 suggests that Karr send him smoking and chewing tobacco to sell in camp since the sutler had none for sale. Again, on 12 August, he requested cigars to market to fellow soldiers. Apparently Karr honored Cusack's requests, for a manuscript of 9 October 1864 gives an itemized account of tobacco sales.

The summer of 1864, however, was to involve Cusack's regiment in its heaviest fighting since coming South. On 9 June, he wrote of the attack two days earlier upon a Rebel steamer that tried to reach Ft. Sumter before running agroundó"our Battrys Opened on her and damaged her So that she can not move....The first shot that was fired at her struck her and Put a hole in her when our Battrys Commenced to fire on the Boat The Rebs opened with their battrys On us and their was nothing but Firing all day and the Rebs opened On the Blockcade fleet." A nine-page letter dated 4 July 1864 discusses the 127th's role in the ill-fated attack on Ft. Johnson, part of the abortive James Island offensive, while that of 12 August argues that the blame lay with the officers in command.

Having completed all but eleven months of his term of enlistment by the start of October 1864, Cusack voiced pride in the fact that he had not been away from his regiment a single day for sickness or furlough. By the end of the month, his regiment moved from Morris Island to Beaufort. A letter of 29 October 1864 gives details of the move and, responding to Karr's question about the presidential election, indicates that "The Majority voted for Lincoln" although "a bout 50 Foolish men voted for Little Mc as theay Call him...."

Letters from mid-February 1865 indicate that Cusack had been detailed as a nurse for the officers hospital at Beaufort. He enjoyed good food and accommodations there but longed to rejoin his regiment. By 30 May, the date of his last letter, Cusack was reunited with them. From Charleston he wrote that they were "waiting very paitiently for the day to come that we can march up Broadway" and that there were bets as to whether they would be home in time to celebrate the Fourth of July. "Charl[e]ston is not such a place as I expected to find It," Cusack reported, "but it can not be expected to be such a place now as it was before the war, for the best pa[r]t of the city has been knoc[k]ed to peices." Noting that Charleston women were all "rank Rebels," he related an account of a conversation in which one had "commenced to sing the Bonney Blue flag...." Unperturbed by her response, Cusack had "asked...where that flag was now... and...commenced to sing we will hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree...."

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