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Charles F. Lee Papers, 10 May 1864-30 May 1865
Ten letters, 10 May 1864-30 May 1865, of Union soldier Charles F. Lee to his mother, Mrs. Artemas Lee, Templeton, Mass., provide information on Lee's military service, chiefly for the period in which he was stationed in coastal South Carolina. The letters are supplemented by a history of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry.
Lee enlisted 19 September 1861 as corporal in Co. A, Eighteenth Massachusetts Infantry, and was discharged 20 October 1862 for wounds sustained 30 August 1862 at Second Manassas. He re-enlisted 21 October 1863 as second lieutenant in Co. D, Fifty-seventh Massachusetts Infantry, was discharged for disability 17 May 1864, and was mustered into Co. H, Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry as second lieutenant 1 February 1865. Lee was mustered out at Charleston on 29 August 1865.
Two early letters, 10 and 11 May 1864, written by Lee from Pittsfield, [Mass.], describe a bullet wound to his leg for which he was undergoing medical treatment. "I am once more under the hands of a surgeon," he wrote in the earlier message. "My wound for several days has been very painful: gradually growing worse: it has been very much swollen in front accompanied by a very profuse discharge: today I went to a surgeon and was examined; he probed the wound till he found the ball, he passed the probe in over seven inches; I do not know when I have suffered so much as during this operation; I shall consult the surgeon again tomorrow today he was not prepared to decide if it was best to attempt to extract the ball or not but desired another examination."
Letters, 6 February-30 May 1865, are descriptive of the Union soldier's army experiences in South Carolina. On 6 February from the steamer Louisburg off Folly Island, Lee noted that upon his return to active service at Hilton Head he had been sent on expedition to Edisto Island and was being redeployed to James Island in anticipation of a fight. Five days later, this time aboard the steamer Cosmopolitan off Folly Island, he described a battle on James Island and commended the African Americans of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts for their valor under fire-"If you ever hear any one say the colored troops will not fight you may very flatly deny it; they are perfectly magnificent under fire; I have never seen white troops go into it with any more if as much spirit." His 19 March letter, however, gives an account of an incident in which an African American had run away after allegedly stealing from him. "I am beginning to lose faith in the honesty of the colored boys," the letter relates. "I have had two; the first one ran away the first skirmish we were in this was all very well as he did not steal much; the second did very well and I prided myself that I had a good boy; had drawn him a full suit of clothing &c. But while away on the last expedition he cleared out taking everything he could lay his hands on; besides his own suit, one overcoat, one dress coat, one pr pants, knapsack, a quantity of provisions &c in fact completely cleaned me out besides taking some things from one other officer."
Letters of 11 and 19 March 1865 are expressive of Lee's aspirations as an officer. The earlier tells of a military expedition in which he had commanded infantrymen mounted in the absence of cavalry-"the duty was quite arduous as I was the only officer & it kept me in the saddle night & day; this however was not so bad as the marching would have been; when we started back we had some cavalry therefore my men were dismounted; Gen. H. tried to have it made a permanent detatchment but Gen. Potter decided otherwise; I must confess I felt a little pride in being assigned to this force, being the junior officer in the brigade, not that I suppose I was the best qualified for it...but it showed that Gen. Hartwell had confidence in me." The 19 March letter notes that he had recovered personal baggage lost since leaving Hilton Head in February and had enjoyed "the luxury of a good bath and clean clothing." It also indicates that Lee had hoped to be appointed Assistant Provost Marshall for Charleston. "I was detailed for that position," he wrote, "and am confident I could have performed the duties of the place, but the order was for a 1st Lt therefore a mere 2d Lt would not answer."
The papers also include a 28 March 1865 letter referring to a ceremony to bury the remains of members of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts killed in battle on James Island in July 1864-"at the time of the battle the Rebs held the field therefore it was impossible for our troops to bury their own dead, supposing of course the Rebs would do so, and imagine our astonishment and indignation to learn that they never were buried; the remains were carefully collected, all except the heads, and in every instance these were missing; the only supposition we can have is that the Rebs must have smashed them in order to show their spite against colored troops. I should have enjoyed going into a fight with the Regt after this ceremony; what the chaplain said did not tend to soften their feelings and I could see in the faces of the men a desire to revenge this insult." Lee noted that he was shipping northward a rifle captured from a Texan and a Revolutionary War era sword which, he claimed, "belonged to one of the first Families before I captured it."
Letters, 19 April and 3 May 1865, react to news of the fall of Richmond and the surrenders of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. The earlier letter voices the Union soldier's frustration at not having been present at Appomattox. "The news...quite elated me till I read the account in the papers," he confided, "and then I was disgusted because I did not have a hand in the thing. I believe I would give ten years of my life to have been there." News of the death of President Lincoln provoked an even stronger response-"all I can say is that I sure hope this war will continue till every man woman and child of secession proclivities are either banished or exterminated...can any one tell me what will be the satisfaction of simply hanging the perpetrator? ought not the cause of it be killed as well...now let those who believe in it suffer." "[S]ome of the sesech in Charleston are glad of the Presidents death," Lee noted, "but the better class abhor the manner by which it occured; for a few days they literally trembled in their shoes; fearful of the consequences that act would produce; now they are feeling a little easier as hostilities have ceased."
The 3 May letter also announces that they had received orders to march from Camp Hallowell near Charleston to Orangeburg. From there he wrote on 30 May 1865 that a request from the officers of the regiment had petitioned the governor of Massachusetts "to use his influence to have the Regt discharged now that the war is closed." Orangeburg, he observed, "was quite a place for the South before the war, containing about three thousand inhabitants but now not more than two thirds of that number; the principal portion of the town is on one street about one mile long: Sherman when here burnt all the stores and public buildings and a few private residences but not sufficient of the latter I think to benefit the people; they are the most bitter I have yet met with; Charleston is nothing compared to it; they especially dislike colored troops but that makes no difference they cannot help themselves in this respect."
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