1863: John Olin Rice to Sister

This letter was written by a member of the 17th Maine Infantry during the Civil War. Since he did not sign his full name and there is no envelope to accompany the letter, it is difficult to say with certainty who the soldier was. We know his first name was John and that he had a sister to whom he addressed the letter. We also know his father was still living at the time and that he had a comrade named Kimball serving with him in the 17th Maine who was known to the family.

There was an Augustus A. Kimball serving in Company B, 17th Maine Infantry, who was born about 1843/4 and resided in Portland, Cumberland County, Maine, before his enlistment in August 1862. Presuming this is the same “Kimball,” my hunch is that the author of this letter was also from Portland, about the same age, and serving in Company B. This narrows the list of John’s to seven, four of whom either were Irish or sons of Irish emigrants. Since the author seems to speak derisively of the Irish in this letter, I think we can rule them out. Of the three that are left, the best prospect (in my opinion) is John Olin Rice (1843-1907) of Portland, the son of Rev. John and Mary Tirrell (Hunt) Rice. The chief drawback to confirmation of this identity is the existence of a sister though the on-line family genealogical chart seems to be only a partial one.

The author of this letter writes comparatively well for a private and John Olin Rice’s biographical sketch indicates that he received his early education in private schools and was tutored by his father. He also attended Yarmouth Academy for three years. He became an accountant.

Written after the Battle of Fredericksburg but before Burnside’s Mud March, the letter gives a good first-hand account of General Burnside, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, and of Gen. Hiram G. Berry.


Camp of the 17th Maine Vols.
January 7, 1863

My Dear Sister,

Gen. Burnside — “a very modest, unassuming man…”

As I have a few moments of leisure, I thought that I would write you a short letter. We had a Grand Review of the Division on the 5th. It was a fantastic sight — one third of the Army of the Potomac. Gen. Burnside appears to be a very modest, unassuming man. While he came onto the field destitute of all pomp and circumstance, some of his subordinates actually seemed to bend under the weight of gilt buttons, sashes, and other paraphernalia. (I just broke the point of my pen and will have to continue in pencil). As Burnside approached the band played “Hail to the Chief” which wasn’t altogether inappropriate. After the review, we returned to regiment and in so doing, we passed by Gen. [Hiram G.] Berry’s Headquarters. He came out to greet us. He has just recovered from a fever during which he lost all his hair and whiskers giving him a venerable appearance.

Yesterday we assembled to witness the sufferings of one Francis Herman[ce], 1st New York, who was charged with desertion. his head was shaved. He was marched around the square and he was dismissed to the tune of the “Rogue’s March.” Truth was he wasn’t he only guilty one but they couldn’t very well draw out the entire regiment. ¹

That night after mess a generous dose of stimulant was served and things quickly enlivened. Some of the New Yorkers air their eloquence at our expense — sporting for a fight as the Irish always are when they have had an “Odd Supp.” As their chances of getting at the Rebels is as small as their desire to do so, they exercised their pugnacity on one another. Judging from the howling, I would say that a good number of them have been rendered into sausage meet. Noise and boister are an Irishman’s special prerogative.

Perhaps matters are worsened by the weather. It has been simply horrid. _____ rain with everything all mud. We walk on the corduroy road by day in mud which is almost ankle deep and in the evening we try to dry ourselves before the campfire.

Sister, you wouldn’t believe the price of sundries here in camp. What we at home would hardly regard as fit for soap grease is sold for butter here at 60 cents per pound. Cheese is a triple loss costing at 50 cents. If we received even half of what the government allows for rations, we could resist this extortion.

The bugle is sounding the call to extinguish lights so I must close. Kimball sends his regards. Tell Father that I hope that he isn’t working too hard for I should hate for him to suffer another attack of the dropsy.

Love to all from your affectionate brother, — John

¹ A regimental history states that, “On the sixth of January, the brigade was paraded to witness the execution of the sentence of a general court martial in the case of a private soldier of the First New York Regiment. The prisoner was escorted by a corporal’s guard to a position in full view of the brigade, where, after listening to the proceedings, findings, and sentence of court, he was seated on a stump, while a barber lathered his head and shaved it perfectly bald. He was then marched back and forth before the line, the guard at “charge bayonets” in his rear, and a drum corps playig the “Rogue’s March,” after which he was turned adrift, and ordered to leave the lines of the army at once.” [The Campaigns of the 17th Maine, page 42]


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