1862: John Wales King, Jr. to Benjamin King

I believe this letter was written by Sergeant John Wales King, Jr. (1834-1914), the son of John Wales King, Sr. (1780-1840) and Charlotte McCauley (1788-1871). The author was clearly in Co. D, 18th Massachusetts Infantry and there were only four soldiers by the name of “John” who were members of that company at the time — John L. Emerson, John Thompson Haskell, John Wales King, Jr., and John Randolph Merrick. Searching the genealogical records of these four soldiers for a brother named “Ben” or Benjamin does not yield a clear-cut confirmation but there appears to be a Benjamin King who seems to be a brother of John W. King. [The death of their father in 1840 caused the family to break up before census records could confirm their connection.]

On the recurrence of the Anniversary of Washington’s Birthday, the 18th Massachusetts Regiment was stationed at Camp Barnes, Hall’s Hill, Fairfax County, VA. Camp Barnes was names after James Barnes, colonel of the 18th Massachusetts.

Stephen Thomas was the captain of Company D who later rose to colonel of the 18th Massachusetts.


Camp Barnes, Virginia
February 17th 1862

Brother Ben,

We are having a fine rainy day here today and we have been having some fine news here lately. I hope that it is but the beginning. The tide is turned now and I want to see it set strong and followed up until the business is done to their satisfaction. Our army have had a succession of victories lately that I should think if the tide did not turn against them again soon, must crush the rebellion. The battle at Mill Spring, then at Fort Henry, then Fort Donelson, and the evacuation of Bowling Green and nearly 100,000 men following up the retreating rebels which are minus the 20,000 killed, wounded, and taken at Fort Donelson, I should think would strike a dread to them in that quarter which would not be easy to get over soon.

The Battle at Fort Donelson must have been a hard one. It must have been a dreadful sight to see the battlefield. I understand that an officer said that was there that he could walk all around on the prostrate bodies of the soldiers. Then the news from Com. Goldsborough & Gen. Burnside is very good. They have done their business well so far. That affair at Roanoke and at Fort Donelson make the enemy about 25,000 less than they were two weeks ago and some of their best officers among the number. It is allowed by the rebel papers that Savannah is ours and I have heard that it was taken without firing a gun but I cannot hardly believe that and there has been another story going that Charleston is our again but it is not confirmed yet. But one of our company had a letter the other night from his brother in Sherman’s Division stating that an army had started for Charleston (about three weeks ago) containing 25,000 men, that Gen. Sander has turned them on their heels in that front, and Gen’l Price has left Springfield in a hurry and Gen’l Curtis is after him. And to top off with, it is rumored that A[lexander] Stephens, Vice President of the Southern Confederacy has resigned and recommends the Southern States to come back into the Union again. I cannot swallow that yet.

Sunday, February 23rd

We received yours of the 14th Friday when we were on picket. They were short of men I suppose was the reason they called on us to go but we had a first rate time — only the traveling was rather bad. We went betwixt two storms and had the most fun that we ever had. The boys were as happy as clams and the two companies of us had a large barn for our quarters with broken straw all over the floor and the ground was so we had a plenty of good room to lay in. We stood 2 hours and off 6 and Saturday morning was the 22d [Washington’s Birthday] the boys had to celebrate a little. The guns began to go off on the picket line about 5 o’clock and quite a number of them fired but we did not have to turn out as we used to when they fired on their posts. The officers knew what the firing was for. They could not countenance it but did not say much about it then and when they got back here they would laugh at it. ¹

Our news does not seem to come in very fast now but I hear of no reverses so far. I expect that Savannah is ours for the Richmond papers do not dispute that story. Our men are doing well in Tennessee and Missouri. Our cavalry went out yesterday and brought in 16 rebel cavalry. It is reported a number of different ways that the Rebels are evacuating Centreville and Manassas. It is said that they are going to take them down to 30,000 there.

Capt. Stephen Thomas, 18th Mass

Capt. [Stephen] Thomas said this morning that he saw a courier going to the general’s that said our right wing had advanced to within 8 miles of Manassas. That came pretty straight an I hope it is so.

It would be almost impossible to move the artillery here now but as soon as it will do, it it will wind things up, the sooner and surer there will be a move made here that will make their eyes stick out when they meet it or I miss my guess. It looks now as though the lead men had taken off their gloves and was going to satisfy them that one Southern Gentleman could not meet fire of the Southern mudsills and get off without getting hurt. If they stick to it, there may be some more such times as they had to Fort Donelson but the stronger we move now the less such battles we shall have. And if our leaders can hit them hard again a few times before this gets cool, I think that they will quit altogether.

Love, — John

¹ See “Down with the Traitors” — a sermon delivered on Sunday, February 23, 1862 by Benjamin Franklin DeCosta (1831-1904), Chaplain of the 18th Massachusetts.

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