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Henry L. Burnell Papers, 1861-1903
One hundred seven manuscripts, 1861-1903 and undated, document the Civil War experiences of Union soldier Corp. Henry L. Burnell, Co. I, Eighth Maine Regiment. Of particular note to the South Caroliniana Library are the letters Burnell wrote during the time he was stationed in South Carolina, from 25 August 1861 through 1864. Additionally, the collection includes letters written to Henry and other family members serving in the military that convey news from home Baldwin, Me.
Burnell's letters begin in August 1861 from Augusta, Me., as he entered active military service and was encamped along the banks of the Kennebec River. His correspondence mirrors his travels from New England to South Carolina. The earlier letters tell of preparations for war. Burnell was preoccupied with mundane matters, and his letters are filled with day-to-day generalities such as what he ate?"coffee, sugar, molasses, bread, sometimes baked beans." He wrote frequently to his parents and brothers and sisters, in particular Sarah, Bell, and Aaron. Other letters were written to his brother Mell who had volunteered for service with Co. E, Fourth Maine Regiment.
The Eighth Maine Regiment was organized at Augusta, Me., on 7 September 1861 to serve for three years. Three days later the regiment left for Hempstead, Long Island, N.Y., and then sailed for Fortress Monroe, Va., where it formed a part of Gen. Sherman's expedition to Port Royal, S.C. At the start of the war, Burnell, who had volunteered, seemed confident the fighting would not last long. On 9 October 1861 he wrote?"this war will not last six months, that is the opinion."
By the fall of 1861, Burnell had arrived at Hilton Head. He was primarily occupied with guard duty. On 12 November 1861 he wrote?"I expect that you have heard of the recent battle that our expedition had with the enemy? We laid off the entrance to Beaufort the fourth of November. We cast anchor in the bay Monday night the fourth of November." His letter recounts the fight in detail, explaining that the gunboats were, at first, unable to advance against the Rebel fortifications. Finally, on 7 November, they succeeded and fired on two forts until they surrendered. Burnell was not involved in the battle, but watched it from the ship on which he was stationed.
For several months the regiment took a prominent part in the attack on and capture of Ft. Pulaski. Large detachments moved to Tybee Island where they manned batteries engaged in the bombardment. Although Burnell remained behind on Hilton Head, his letters home include rich details of his experiences and observations.
The letters often convey a sense of wonderment with respect to Burnell's surrounding environment. Coming from Maine, much of what he saw in South Carolina must have seemed tropical and exotic. Writing to his father on 24 March 1862, he noted?"So cold as it is the orange trees are all in blossom and the peach trees, also other kinds of fruit. They have had some green peas so they tell me. That beats Maine; so you see we shall have any amount of fruits before long." In a letter of 5 August 1862, written from Beaufort to his sister Bell, Burnell describes Beaufort as "a very pretty city, the streets laid out neatly; there are quite a number of full stores down on the wharf, but they ask very high."
On 12 August 1862, still in Beaufort, Burnell wrote to Mell, who may have been stationed at Fernandina, Fla., by this point. "We have some warm weather; the thermometer stood the other day at 120, that you know is rather warm." He discussed the fact that Maine was continuing to enlist soldiers and stated that their fellow citizens at "the North are wide awake. They mean to crush out the rebellion." Later in the letter he revealed his feelings of loneliness?"Mell, I wish we could be together, I think we could take more comfort, but I'm well contented here....I suppose you heard about the British gunboat that attempted to run into Savannah the other night. Ft. Pulaski gave her a broad side which caused her to halt. They took her, she had guns and ammunition for the rebels."
On occasion Mell and Henry were able to see each other. In a letter of 22 August 1862, Mell, who was visiting Henry, penned a greeting to their sister Bell. He reported that he was well and that, since he had to travel to Hilton Head for military reasons, he had used the opportunity to visit with Henry. Henry filled in the rest of the letter?"We get together quite often; it seems very pleasant for us to meet to talk of home....Bell I can soon count the months, my time is out one year from the 7th of next month; but they pretend that we will be mustered out in June 1864."
On 13 September 1862 Henry wrote to his brother Aaron back in Maine?"I was but a short distance from the rebels, less than a mile from the main land; we rescued a darky that came from the main. He made a raft and started for us; his raft was just sinking when they reached him with the boat." Burnell expressed a sense of ennui at the one-year anniversary of his enlistment?"One year ago last Tuesday, I left Augusta for the seat of war, now I find myself away down South, guarding an island where there is nothing but wild hogs and negroes."
The regiment was ordered to Jacksonville, Fla., in March 1863. Henry wrote home from Jacksonville on 22 March 1863?"You may think it strange, my letter being mailed here. We left Beaufort the 19 run into Fernandenia last night, because we could not run up the river it being so rough. Don't know how long we shall stop here." Evidently, the regiment skirmished with Confederates and returned to Beaufort within a few weeks.
Henry wrote to Mell from Beaufort on 22 December 1863. He expected to remain there throughout the winter while the Union forces prepared to attack Charleston. Henry was at Seabrook plantation where his company was stationed on picket?"We are close to Johnny Reb you can see them cut wood with the naked eye; we have a marine glass so we can see them very plain." The same letter describes a local tradition?"The colored folks are going to have a festival in town New Year's day; I should like to be there; 25 cts each; our band furnished them with music; the money they get is to be expended in behalf of the colored poor of Beaufort."
On 9 April 1864 Henry wrote to his sister Bell from Beaufort. He anticipated mustering out in the fall and did not plan on re-enlisting. Rather, he contemplated returning to his old life?"I suppose they will want me to go home, and work on the farm, but I can't see the point although farming is an honest occupation....I cannot content myself at home, it will seem like a funeral to me, every body has gone to the war." Evidently a friend had married; this was not the first friend of his to get married while he was away, but it struck a nerve with Henry who expounded on the institution of marriage. Life had gone on during his absence, yet he seemed ambivalent about it?"They think its big thing to get married, bully for the man that gets married, I want to look around a while." He also reported that Mell had been transferred to the U.S. Signal Corps.
On 25 April 1864 Burnell's company was on the move into the heart of the war. He wrote to his brother Mell from Gloucester Point, opposite Yorktown, Va.?"We sailed from Port Royal Thursday 14 arrived at Fortress Monroe Saturday about noon, then sailed up the river, and landed here." There the company waited to gather more troops and then planned to march on Richmond.
The collection contains one other letter written from Gloucester Point. For the next few months, Burnell's company was engaged in a number of battles around Virginia: Drewry's Bluff, White House Landing, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Bermuda Hundred. Although there are no letters originating from these locations, Henry may have been engaged in battle at this point. Presumably in the fall of 1864, he was mustered out and returned to West Baldwin, Me. Letters in the collection return to more mundane matters. Henry tried to reestablish himself in Maine. It appears that he did not go to work on the farm, but was unsuccessful as a builder. Letters written by and to him indicate that he traveled in a peripatetic manner around northern New England in search of work.
Around 1870, Miss Clara Bliss, of West Baldwin, Me., started writing to Henry and his sisters. The relationship between Henry and Clara ripened from friendship into courtship. In a letter to "My Dear Clara" from the "one that loves you truly," 18 March 1871, Henry's feelings for Clara are obvious?"My mind is settled; before I went with you I could not content myself anywhere; now I have but one object to live for, and that is to make you happy which I am sure I think I can."
Henry and Clara were married by 10 December 1871, as a letter from a friend is addressed to Mrs. Clara E. Burnell in West Baldwin, Me. Little is known about their daily life after that date. Evidently Clara became quite ill in 1883. On 18 February 1883 a letter from the World's Dispensary and Invalid's Hotel in Buffalo, N.Y., informed her that the hospital did not have a bed for her. Her case, it suggested, was complicated and she should pursue a course that "will cure you of syspepsia, relieve the morbid distress in your throat and overcome the functional disturbance of the heart." Henry must have been away at the time, because Clara wrote to him on 22 June 1884 pleading with him to come home as she was uncertain how much longer she would live. It appears that Clara battled her illness for several years but eventually recovered.
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