1863: William A. Smith to Parents

This letter was written by William A. Smith of Co. D, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry (fought with the Irish Brigade). The letter discusses the Battle of Falling Water (soon after Gettysburg, in which that unit was heavily involved) among other things. Even though the letter is not datelined, it most likely was written on July 15, 1863, since it is headed “near Harpers Ferry.” According to Mulholland’s history of the regiment, the 116th spent the night of 15 July 1863 there following Falling Water. William served as a private in Co. D, and later as a corporal in Co. A of the 116th Pennsylvania before being transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps.

I believe that William A. Smith was the son of John Matlock Smith (1809-1873) and Phebe M. Medenhall (1813-1900) of West Chester, Chester county, Pennsylvania. It is curious, however, that he was not enumerated in his parent’s household in the 1850 US Census.

There are several references to this soldier — including quotations from other letters — posted on the internet or published in books. In his book, Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, (page 87), Lawrence Kreiser wrote that Pvt. William Smith — when he learned of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — was quoted as writing, “To hell with the Niggers…I would shoot one quick as a wink if he gave me any sase.”

[Editor’s Note: This letter is from the collection of Richard Weiner and is published with express consent.]



Pleasant Valley, Md, near Harper’s Ferry
[15 July 1863]

Dear Father & Mother,

I thought I would write a few lines to let you know where I am. We have had a hard time of it since I wrote to you before. We have been chasin’ the johnnie rebs up and run them to Falling Waters and then captured about 2,000 prisoners and kill[ed] a good many of them. We have about 16 rebs of them that we are going to shoot for surrendering and waving a white flag and seeing that there was not many of them and then they run back and pick[ed] up their arms and shot our men down after they had surrendered. So they held a drumhead court martial and their sentence was to be shot.

We have had marching all the time — today 20 miles. And the day before the Battle of Gettysburg we marched 35 miles — and it is hard work. It is kill[ing] me up marching with the diarrhea so bad. It [is] keeping me running all the time and it makes [me] mighty weak. And it is as much as I can do to get along on the march. If they don’t stop pretty soon, I will have to give up the ship.

We have got orders to go ahead again tomorrow at 4 o’clock to Winchester [to] try to get ahead of Od Lee. If we had not marched so hard and so long, we could [have] got ahead of them in a day and got half of Lee’s army. They rushed them in the river with the point of the bayonet and drowned a great many of them in [ac]count of us running them so hard to get them across the river so that we could not get them. As it was, we took about 2,000 of them altogether. Our division took 4 or 500 of them. In their rush, one of the orderlies at the headquarters took 3 of them himself — so you can see which side it takes to capture one.

Well, it is getting late so I will have to stop writing. I seen Bill Dollings today and 2 others from West Chester. Asis Fittings and Gad Goule in the bands. I think it is Beck’s [Philadelphia Brass] Band and they are all well.

Here is an envelope with the stamp on that was taken from [a] rebel’s knapsack at the Battle of Falling Waters and a little cathrel [?] badge that I found on the Battlefield of Bulls Run. It was laying along a lot of human bones. I have got some things more to send home but there is no chance. I thought I would [have] got them sent home when I was in Pennsylvania but we got out of it in such a hurry there was no chance. And tomorrow morning we will have to cross the river in[to] Old Virginia again. I am sick and tired of that state.

So goodbye to you all for awhile and direct your letters [to] Headquarters, First Division, 2nd Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.

From your son, — Wm. A. Smith


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