1863: Henry Wilson to Se Se Jay

This letter was written by 2nd Lieu Henry Wilson (1834-1913) of Co. G, 177th Pennsylvania Infantry. Henry was mustered into the service on 19 November 1862 and mustered out on 5 August 1863 after nine months service. There is a collection of letters housed in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania under the heading “Wilson Family Papers, 1852-1939” that pertains to Phillip and Frances (“Fanny”) M. Wilson — Henry’s parents. A biographical summary of that family connected with this collection reads:

Phillip and Fanny M. Wilson lived in Carbondale, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania with their four children, Robert Bruce, Henry, Jerome, and Theresa. Little is known regarding the lives of Phillip and Fanny, outside their dedication to their children. Following the death of her husband, Fanny lived alone for several years until eventually moving in with her daughter, Theresa, and Theresa’s husband, Lewis Berkley. Fanny died in 1882.

Phillip and Fanny’s oldest and most industrious son, Robert Bruce, was born in 1830 in Carbondale. In order to finance medical school, Robert Bruce, who was frequently referred to as Bruce, took up a variety of odd jobs across the country. In 1867 he performed as a gymnast for the Robinson Circus for 25 dollars a week. Following this stint, Bruce entered medical school. In 1869 he married a woman named Henrietta from New York. The following year he graduated from medical school and began a lucrative career as a New York City doctor. Bruce also owned and ran two drugstores.

Henry Wilson, Fanny and Phillip’s second son, was born in 1835 in Carbondale. Though Henry attended law school and eventually became a practicing attorney, much of his financial success came later. Leaving his law practice, Henry became a political journalist and, after spending only a relatively short time writing for various papers, became publisher of The Honesdale Citizen. Yet Henry and his wife Sarah, ten years his junior, were not without personal loss. On January 24, 1870, Sarah gave birth to the couple’s third child and their first son, who died less then a month later after suffering violent spasms. Shortly thereafter, their second child, Gerti, fell ill and died, leaving them with only their eldest daughter, Clarabel.

Theresa Wilson Berkley, born in 1836, was Phillip and Fanny’s third child and their only daughter. In 1867, Theresa met Major Lewis Berkley, who at the time was boarding with her brother, Henry. Major Berkley was from Missouri and had just served four years in the Confederate army. After securing Fanny Wilson’s permission, Major Berkley and Theresa began their courtship. They were married in 1869 and shortly thereafter invited both Theresa’s mother, Fanny, and her niece, Fannie, to live with them.

Phillip and Fanny’s youngest and most unpredictable son was Jerome. Jerome married Annie A. in 1861 in Edmeston, Ostego County, New York, although his parents could not attend the wedding. In 1864, Annie gave birth to their only child, Frances (Fannie) E. Wilson. Shortly after her birth, Jerome left New York in search of a better paying job to curtail his growing debt. Though he promised to write home frequently and return soon, these promises were soon broken. With no word from Jerome for years, Annie and the rest of his family assumed he had died. However in 1881, Jerome returned home to Carbondale with a rather large fortune.

During Jerome’s absence, Fannie was under the care of her mother and her father’s family. Fannie spent a great deal of time in Carbondale visiting her grandmother and Aunt Theresa, and eventually moved in with Lewis and Theresa Berkley. In 1886, Fannie married Charles J. Watson.”


Suffolk, Virginia
January 9, 1863

Se Se Jay,

I know well enough that your first emotion on the receipt hereof will be that of wonder respecting its authorship. In order, therefore, to remove all uncertainty on that point, I announce at the outset that the writer is your eternal friend H. W. I may add in confirmation of this statement that  my signature will be found in an appropriate place. But, as that will be the first thing you will seek, it seems useless for me to waste time in giving valuable information now on this subject.

The 13th Indiana is just going past on the road to Blackwater. When they go by I will come back and tell you something about our affairs. Wait a minute longer — some artillery is coming. It is only two rifled cannon, however, following the Hoosiers. ¹

It is 10:36 P.M. The undersigned officer of the guard for the 24 hours immediately succeeding 10 A.M. of this day. Seated by a fire in the guard-house, he recalls to mind the friends of his boyhood’s sunny hours, and is seized with an impulse to write to one of the most worthy. That impulse becomes irresistible and behold the result.

We have several brigades here and hereabouts. The Rebs lie in force at Zuni [Va.] on the Blackwater some 20, 22, 25 or 30 miles distant (nigger estimate). Consequently the region round about Blackwater is regarded by us as the abode of the Elephant. Divers of our troops have at different times gone forth to view him and have generally beheld more or less of him before returning.

On Sunday afternoon, December 28, 1862, [Col. Alfred] Gibbs‘ brigade indulged in this exhilarating recreation and fortunately for it, the subscriber was present on the occasion. We marched about halfway to Zuni, slept on our arms from eight P.M. till 2:30 A.M. and then rose, like giants refreshed by slumber, and returned with great speed to camp. We captured some prisoners and had one man wounded. We reached camp about sunrise, just escaping being cut off by a large body of Rebs who had spied out our weakness and come down like the wolf on the fold upon the spot where we had slept. They arrived about half an hour after our departure, sorely grieved not to find us there.

Yesterday morning some five or six thousand of our men, with six or eight guns, started from this place taking the Blackwater Road. Their mission is as yet unknown to me. Among them were a portion of Mickey Corcoran‘s celebrated Irish Laygun [Legion] and by my soul, they seemed to think they could smash the Elephant! During last night, firing was heard in the direction of Blackwater which lasted about two hours. This morning about daybreak, the 164th New York — another regiment of the Laygun — went past our camp on the track of their brethren and this evening the force I first mentioned has followed. More have gone by other roads — how many I know not — at internals during the evening. I have heard, or rather felt the jar of heavy canonading at a great distance. There is no doubt a row going on somewhere. It is quite possible that our regiment may be the next to move. A part of the brigade has already gone. At present we are performing picket duty which is not pleasant on the outposts as no fire is permitted and the nights are uncomfortably cold, though it is the sunny South.

We are well defended by forts, breastworks, and rifle pits, and are constructing more of them all the time. We have lately heard that Rosecrans has just been punishing the Rebs in Tennessee. I think you will hear of everything that happens in this vicinity before it reaches me. Therefore, it is useless for me to write any more.

If you are acquainted with the duties of special correspondent to the seat of war, you may find it to my advantage to furnish me with a specimen of the style in which they should be performed — and let your communication be to —  Lieut. H. Wilson, Company G, 177th Regt. Pa. Militia, Washington D. C.

¹ A history of the 13th Indiana Infantry claims they took an “expedition toward Blackwater January 8–10, 1863.”


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