1862-64: William Duffield McIlvaine to Sarah Jane McIlvane

I could not find an image of William but here is James A. Barton wearing the uniform of a Third Assistant Engineer (January 1863)

These letters were written by William Duffield McIlvaine (1838-1916), the son of George Duffield McIlvaine (1805-1849) and Sarah Stauffer (1810-1901) of Salisbury township, Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. In the 1860 US Census, William was enumerated in his widowed mother’s household near the Gap Post Office, making his living as a machinist.

I have not yet learned the date of William’s enlistment in the U. S. Navy but suspect it was very early in 1862. The first letter in the collection was written from onboard the US Sloop Oneida in late March 1862 just a month before the Battle of New Orleans in which Admiral David Farragut captures the city. William was identified as the Third Assistant Engineer on the vessel at that time.

[Note: There are more letters in this collection that I will add as I get time. It appears that after the war, McIlvane relocated to Chicago where he went into a partnership with S. L. Hart in a firm at No. 10 South Clinton Street manufacturing light machinery. The firm was known as “Hart & McIlvaine.”]

Letter 1

Addressed to Miss Sallie McIlvaine, Gap P. O., Lancaster county, Penna.

Southwest Pass, Mississippi
Sloop Oneida
March 31, 1862

Dear Sister,

I have just learned that vessel leaves this tomorrow for the north and as I have a little leisure tonight, although I am “on watch,” I’ll write to you also, having written Robert by the same mail. It is eight or nine o’clock p.m. My watch is from 8 to 12 tonight and as we are lying still with heavy banked fires in our furnaces (that is, fires that make but little steam but can soon be made very good, if required), it requires only an occasional walk around to keep things in order. I have it very easy now about four hours on & 12 off as it only requires one Engineer on watch at a time. But you may want to know what we are doing here and as I promised to give a truthful account of affairs, I’ll tell you. But lest I might write something which would be contraband, you must not tell everyone what we are doing or expect to do.

We are lying here with about 40 other vessels of all character waiting until things are perfected for the expedition which may not sail yet for a month almost. Vessels are coming in daily to join the fleet and soon it will be as a larger, or a larger fleet than was ever afloat.

The weather is very mild and at midday, quite war, but since here I have not suffered any from the heat, being dressed as cool as I can with straw hat and no underclothing. I wish all the underclothes were at home. It is continually misty here while the wind is south as the cold water of the Mississippi meet the warm waters of the ocean two miles below this and the wind blows back the fog so caused so that we can see only about a hundred yards from us. Sometimes the fog rises and we see all the neighboring vessels, several of which are “aground”—a situation which we enjoyed for 24 hours but by good luck got off before the mud had accumulated much around us. The current is very swift just here on the bar and large vessels drawing 16 or 18 feet of water have much difficulty getting over. We draw 12 & 13 feet of water. While getting off the mud yesterday, we lost an anchor and all the cable in the mud and today a lighter draught vessel has been picking it up and returning it to us.

Tomorrow if clear enough, we go up the river four miles to place called Pilotstown where the Porter mortar schooners are lying. Also several large sloops of war. I hope we will have some nearer neighbors there. There is no mist there they say.

Yesterday (Sunday) a row boat came down the river with a load of oysters and two men—very ignorant looking fellows. They are poor fishermen from the neighboring shores who know but little and care less about the war so long as they can sell their oysters. We bought a good many and paid for them in silver which was very acceptable indeed. Of course we thought of poisoned oysters but there was but little danger of it being so. They are very large but not so good as northern oysters.

Lieut. [William B.] Renshaw, commanding the Westfield is alongside of the Oneida and has gone up the river today to reconnoitre. I think he is a relation of Mr. Renshaw of Philadelphia. I wish you could see Key West, Sallie. It’s a very pretty place, so different from anything north and such a delight climate. I trolled around over the town one day and had a fine time eating oranges and drinking cool drinks.

I spend my leisure time on deck and reading or writing. Do not study much yet as it is too soon. I have one or two congenial friends among the officers who think about as I do on matters and things. One of my best friends is the Paymaster Mr. [C. W.] Hassler—a nice young man just a week older than myself. I don’t care much for the Third Asst. Engineers as they are envious of my superior position. The junior third is a regular prick. The oters are smart and have good (school) educations but their moral training was not a religious one, I suspect. Mr. [Horace] McMurtrie is pleasant and naturally smart. Can do almost anything. Is very lively and carries on high sometimes. Mr. [R. H.] Fitch, junior second asst. is rather a sedate little fellow, very precise, and a disciplinarian (that is), goes in for strict discipline, but when we stir him and tease him, he can fight his way. He is a Nantucket boy & has been to sea most of his life.

I can hardly realize that I am a hundred & twenty-five miles below New Orleans. Wonder what kind of a reception J. H. L. would give should I ever get to the city. I suspect a good one providing the Stars & Stripes were flying over the city. Otherwise, not so cordial. Well, I’ve been standing here at the “Log” desk in the engine room two hours. The Firemen at the furnaces have been sitting, talking, until now when I have made them clean the fires and renew them, and as the steam keeps down pretty well, I’ll keep scribbling away and thus wile away the silent hours of the night.

We don’t much fear any battering ram down here as there are too many vessels above us. I see no fish here. The current is very rapid and the water looks very muddy. But it is very good to drink and we use it altogether.

You may want to know how I like the Navy by this time. Some things I like very much & some things not so well. I am becoming used to the discipline and do not make any mistakes now. I miss the church and other religious privileges much and this is a serious objection to the service. We have prayers and a chapter read on Sunday but it don’t suit me very well. I take it for granted that you have returned from Philadelphia. Well, stay at home and take good care of your mother. You must write me often and then when a mail reaches us, I shan’t be disappointed by not receiving a letter. I wonder when you’ll get this—not for two weeks, if then—about the time you begin to make garden. Letters and papers will be very welcome as we get no news here. The last had was up to the 12th of March at which time the enemy had evacuated Manassas and committed some depredations in Hampton Roads, &c.

I suppose Dollie will soon be home. I have never given her my note for the $150 I owe her, but will try and do so yet. I owe Thacker & Co. some money which can be paid out of what I sent home. I will speak of this in Robert’s letter unless i forget it. Well, my watch is nearly up and my paper about full. I hope you will know by this letter that I have a comfortable time and that it may allay any uneasiness about me. I enjoy good health and spirits, have plenty to eat and drink. I do not trouble myself any about the future as far as this world is concerned. As the Lord hath ordained, so all things shall be & that is enough. Give my love to all the folks at home. I hope to be with you all in a few months again. I must now stop and prepare for the relief watch. Good night. Appreciate your quiet peaceful home. Be as good as you always have been and write often to your affectionate brother, — W. D. McIlvaine

P. S. I’ll write to Mollie & Josie next time.


Letter 2

Addressed to Miss Sallie J. McIlvaine, Gap P. O., Lancaster County, Penna.

Pensacola [Florida]
January 8, 1863

My dear sister,

Your welcome letter came duly to hand and I will endeavor to write you a few lines this eve as there is a prospect of a mail north soon as well a a probability of our going to Mobile Bay soon. I have a little more bad news to communicate in addition to what you have from the battlefields of Fredericksburg. The rebels have retaken Galveston and captured the Harriet Lane and blown up the Westfield, two of our side-wheel gunboats, and have gone to sea with the former of them as a privateer. So you see troubles are thickening around us. I must say I am very much disquieted with our commanders in the Northern Army and am much discouraged with the state of affairs. Some of our late moves are decidedly stupid and I despair of the success of our arms in this contest. Whenever the Government stop fighting about the nigger and over their generals, there may be hopes of success but I don’t look for any now.

“Some of our late moves are decidedly stupid and I despair of the success of our arms in this contest. Whenever the Government stop fighting about the nigger and over their generals, there may be hopes of success but I don’t look for any now.”

—W. D. McIlvaine, US Sloop Oneida, 8 January 1863

We felt very badly over Burnside’s reverses and think it a very bad move to attempt what he did. I fear to hear of our losses for I expect some of our friends fell there. I despair of the Union very much indeed and will never feel like going away from home again if we are whipped. But I say if we are going to make such poor miserable fighting as we have made of late, we’d better stop and save the lives of our noble young men who are being sacrificed to the ambition of politicians and money worshippers who are growing rich upon the very vitals of our beloved land.

Perhaps some government official may get hold of this and read it and have me jerked up but I have seen so much to make me vexed and so many inconsistencies that I cannot help express it to some one.

Well!! I wonder how our turn will come. The Almighty who reigns over the destinies of Nations has ours in His hands and to Him I confide our good ship and crew. May brighter days dawn on us soon.

Well, we’ve missed another prize by being here. A large steamer was taken at Mobile the other day and another one got in. The rebels made a big show of Forts Morgan & Gaines. They had about six gunboats out to help their steamers in but they don’t come out very far.

Well, tis Saturday morning & we are about starting off for Mobile. They want us there. Our Jun. Third Asst. [Engineer] is just leaving the ship to remain here and go home on the Circassian when she returns from New Orleans, so I’ll send this by him, I think. I alone am left of all our Thirds. I’m so unfortunate as to be very healthy now. Never was fatter.

We get a great many reports here. I have heard that the Harriet Lane did not get out but is blockaded and one of our sloops (the Brooklyn) has gone down there to attend to her case. They had a desperate fight on her and killed everybody but an Acting Master. The rebels ran two steamers alongside of her and boarded her but they fought bravely until the last, the commander [Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright] being almost cut in two, and then his brains blown out. The Westield got aground while coming to her relief and when the rebs got possession of the Harriet Lane, they were going to take the Westfield, so the captain got ready to blow her up but she went off too soon and killed nearly all of her crew. The commander of the Westfield is named Renshaw and may be some relation to those in Philadelphia. 1

Line engraving from “Harper’s Weekly.” The USS Harriet Lane is shown in the left distance, under attack by the Confederate gunboats Neptune and Bayou City. The grounded USS Westfield is at right, being blown up to prevent capture. USS Owasco is in the center of the view.

We have another month’s blockading to do, I suppose, unless something turns up. You must write soon to me and often. I enclose a X for you and Dollie and don’t say anything about it in your next. I had hoped to be able to send some money home but our mess bill has been so enormous that I can’t well just now, bu I am most happy to give you a small lift and when ou need more and can find any belonging to me, just help yourself. All I wish is enough to eat and wear and to bring me home, if tis God’s will that I shall ever get there. It makes me feel sad to see anyone leave for the North but we’ll endure hoping that peace may dawn on us soon and then I can come home in better shape.

Give my love to all at home & all enquiring friends. I was very sorry to hear of your sickness and hope you are fully restored. You must be very careful this winter & receive the Presbyterian generally. I must close now as we are about ready to start. Goodbye. May the Lord provide for and protect you all is the prayer of your affectionate brother, — W. D. McIlvaine

U. S. Sloop Oneida
Blockading Mobile Bay
(via New Orleans)

1 Actually some of the crew of the Westfield survived. The crew was transferred to transports and Renshaw, fearing she would fall into the hands of the rebels, blew her up.  By some mismanagement or accident, the explosion occurred before the boat containing Com. Renshaw, Lieut. Zimmerman, and the boat’s crew, got away, and they were consequently blown up with the ship. The crew of the Westfield arrived at New Orleans on transports. 


Letter 3

Addressed to Miss Sallie McIlvaine, Gap Post Office, Lancaster county, Penna.

U. S. S. Oneida
Off Mobile Bay
March 6, 1863

My dear sister,

your kind letter of February 13th was received yesterday. I had made up my mind not to write any more until I heard from someone at home, but guess I may as well overlook the resolution now and send you a note—this week some day. Glad to hear you are all getting on so well & passing the winter pleasantly away. Tis quite a comfort to know that you are all comfortable and to tell you of my similar condition. This with one other little item constitutes about all I have to say at present. The other item is that I have at length had my examination and passed very creditably. The “Board” said, for all of which I am feeling quite lightened in mind, as I have been studying pretty hard for two weeks, and felt rather uneasy at being taken up so suddenly, but our Chief [F. C. Dade] who was President of the “Board of Examiners” told our Captain that he was “never more surprised than he was at my examination,” as I had seemed so fearful of not going through, but that I had “passed an excellent examination.” But it did not suit me so well as that. It may be satisfactory, however, for you at home to know these things. So I suppose I am no longer a Third Asst., but a 2nd. However, I do not expect to get my “warrant” for a mont or so, and of course keep the (3rd) before my name until after that time.

You cannot imagine how much anxiety I felt for a week previous—more by far than at entering the service for the disgrace of a failure would have been very severe on me. I am open for the congratulations of my friends.

I am very glad to hear of John’s success in getting into a good situation and hope nothing will now disturb him soon for he has had enough of trouble for two or three years past. Twas very kind in those gentlemen to assist him in getting the place.

7th March. I would not mind having a good position in Philadelphia myself but I don’t think anyone would value my services enough on shore to give me $1100.00 but maybe in a few years I’ll be able to get along ashore.

They are drilling with small arms today & firing at target on deck. It don’t appear just so pleasant to me for its nothing but bang, bang, bang all morning over my head but that’s the way on a man-of-war—always some kind of drilling going on.

The Admiral attacked a rebel battery at the entrance of Grant’s Pass two weeks ago but did not take it. The probable design was to make the enemy show all their gunboats. They brought down two ironclad rams and three gunboats which is about all they have here I guess.

I haven’t heard nothing from T. H. S. since returning from New Orleans. He promised to give me pictures of the children but has never done so. I don’t believe he will soon either unless I go after them. The mail leaves in the morning so I will not be able to write very much of a letter. If you can get any photographs (cards) of friends, I wish you would do so to fill up my album. I have about 25 now—some very handsome officers too. I’m badly off for ladies though. Try and assist me in that line, can’t you? Good-looking ones, you know. I’m always ready for an exchange. I’m thinking now of advertising for a situation as son-in-law in some highly respectable family. Negotiations to be opened any time and the situation accepted on returning home. Terms—good looking, good health, good disposition, intelligence & piety. Anyone possessing these qualifications will please address at this station. Good disposition not absolutely requisite as when she gets ill-tempered, I’ll go to sea.

I did not expect to continue on another sheet but couldn’t quite get through on one. I am very sorry to hear what you said of my former associate, but tis not at all unexpected as that trait of character always would show itself in him and sometimes gave me much trouble. I mean the want of due self respect. I do not believe it would ever have been so if I could have been with him but hope he will see his danger and retrace his steps soon. You must not allow this to be seen away from the family.

I think when I get home, we’ll have to make a short trip either to Pittsburg or on east, what do you think? I don’t know how soon we shall attack this place but probably inside of two months or at least three months. I think the Admiral is waiting for some ironclads as these rams would be rather too much for wooden vessels. I’ll try to get leave of absence late in the spring. Whether I shall succeed or not remains to be seen, when one is not his own “boss,” his movements are somewhat doubtful.

Well I’ve got the middle watch and am getting rather dull so I guess I’ll close. I’m very glad to hear of George’s strict adherence to the good principles taught him at home, if he only sticks to them wherever he goes, he will have no trouble. They allow no card playing on board ship. With much love to all & hoping to hear from you soon, I am as ever your affectionate brother, – W. D. McIlvaine, 3rd Asst. Engineer, USN

If you can exchange one of my pictures for one of the young ladies who asked for one, do so.


Letter 4

Addressed to Miss Sallie J. McIlvaine, Gap P. O. , Lancaster county, Penna.

Off Mobile Bay
U. S. S. Oneida
October 18, [1863]

My dear sister,

Your letter of the 26th September was received last evening. Also one from Robert of earlier date. The only two received for a month, nearly. Very glad therefore to get them and thankful to hear of the good health of the family in general. Of trouble and hard times we all expect to hear while we have health & protection let us be content with little until peace smiles on the land. I don’t see much prospect of that soon though for Charleston remains almost as strong as ever and the rebel army is becoming accustomed to being “annihilated” and don’t appear to mind it any more. I think it about time for the Pet Army of the Potomac to make another “move” and thus help the brave Rosecrans and his active army who seldom rest. However, I presume that will suffice on that topic. I often wish I didn’t know so much of the blunder and inactivity of the army and navy.

I am very well and growing fatter. We have two new thirds now and I am much relieved having much easier times. They appear to make engineers out of some rather poor specimens now-a-days. I wonder whether I was ever so green as some of them appear, Maybe I was. We are having comfortable tines now. Do not get underway often or run far. Our captain [Samuel F. Hazard] does not believe in running up to the flagship every day or two so we lay day after day at our station. We still like our Captain very much. He is very fond of having some of the officers dine with him. I expect to be asked in one of these days.

The [Yellow] fever at Pensacola is much abated and will soon disappear, I think. The quarantine rules are so strict at New Orleans that we have difficulty getting even our mails. No fever of any great account there and none on this station. Not much prospect of the Oneida coming home. What repairs she requires can easily be done in New Orleans & nothing else would be likely to take her north. I hope and expect to be home before the vessel is though. Being entitled to examination, I may be ordered home anytime during the next two months and if not, I may suggest the propriety of such a course to the department. I want to try and make some preparation for it first though for a good many are failing to pass who I think better prepared than myself. I should not fret much over the result, however, decide it as they might.

Mr. McMurtrie, you know, didn’t get his examination. Was badly fooled. He is at New Orleans on a used up gunboat. I never expect to get the $10 he owes me. He spends all he can get or make by boarding at big hotels and paying for smashed up buggies. I never saw one who could tell you all he knows to a better advantage than McM.

I’m glad to hear of Mollie’s return and will write to her now soon. I would love to step in and complete the family circle some evening. You must remember that this is one of the many privileges I do not enjoy which some of you perhaps without my comforts do, and I hope you can appreciate them. You have home society, friends, religious influence in all its forms, security, peace, and a good share of comforts. You have also a beautiful country to look upon and enjoy whilst I have but the unbroken sea spread out before me except a long low sand bar on which stands the enemy’s fortifications. How one learns to appreciate blessings he never knew he enjoyed by being deprived of them. But I have health, strength, ease, and enough to eat and wear and am therefore willing to be content, trusting to God for protection and a safe return.

The winter is fully as comfortable down here as at the North and to come home in cold weather would set rather hard on me, I suspect, and thus prevent me from going out much.

The other morning after a very dark night, the dawn of light revealed a steamer ashore near Ft. Morgan and a rebel steamer pulling her off. She probably tried to run in and got aground but it was too far for us and at noon they succeeded in getting her off and took her inside the fort while our gunboat was beginning to drop shells very close to her, But we lost her and can only wait until she tries to run out. We hear that the prize money for the steamers &c. that our flat captured at New Orleans is ready for distribution, being something over half a million. It won’t amount to anything among so many and two hundred dollars would be as much as I should expect if I ever get any. They also talk of awarding the prize money for the gunboats sunk and captured above Ft. Jackson on the morning of the battle but when twill be, I do not know.

I’m completely astonished at the rush of beaux to our house—not but what there is attraction enough, but I thought they were all afraid to come. I know they used to be when your brothers were to home, but I presume our absence and their being soldiers has made them bold. Tis about time for me to come home and disperse them. Well, tis evident that I’m about out of writing topics so I’ll close hoping soon to have later dates from you as you must have from me by this time. Hope Mollie will write without waiting for me. With much love, as ever, your affectionate brother, — W. D. McIlvaine


Letter 5

U. S. S. Oneida
Off Mobile Bay
May 5, 1864

My Dear Sister,

I think I owe you a letter though not quite certain but I’ll just scribble a little tonight even though I don’t feel in any too good a humor at present. We have just returned from Pensacola after a ten days stay there, painting ship and doing a little repairing. The stormy spring weather appears to be all over and summer almost upon us so we have got our straw hats and got our white clothes starched up ready for a warm spell. Things are quiet as usual here except that blockade running has been on the increase of late, but it’s a matter of o great interest to us as we do not expect to catch any. Indeed, our captain seems to care very little about taking any for he is tired of his ship and thinks he has a poor crew & inefficient officers, The fact is, he thinks he ought to have a larger vessel. Well i wish he had and we had some young captain with enterprise who would help us take a prize to cheer us up.

i had a letter from John Bitzer last week & have written him; was very much pleased to hear from him. He seems to take times very easy. I don’t see how he can but it won’t pay very well. I think, however, so long as he is happy & contented, it don’t matter much about the money part. The enjoyment of one’s youth without money is better than old age with it. That is, I think it is better to enjoy our youth than to weal it away in hard work laying by money for old age.

I must now speak a little about the coming home business. I’m sorry not to be able to say when I can come and almost wish I had not spoken so confidently to you at home of coming, for I now believe that it all rests with the Admiral who is not good at granting leave of absence and if he says I can’t come, why I can’t come and that is all. He is “the Admiral,” you know and if he sees fit to retain me here, he can do so, and I must submit for although this is a Republican Government, yet in war times we can’t do as we please. I had thought of asking Himes P. to assist me in getting home but have almost come to the conclusion not to for an instance has just occurred where an Engineer got ordered home without making application through the Admiral and the Admiral would not give him his orders when they came, saying that “when an officer left the fleet, he wanted to know of it first.” So I conclude that it is policy to apply direct to him & run the risk of being refused which I think is a pretty great one. But I will try him at any rate. So you see just how the matter stands. There is no use in my turning aside from the case but better to look the matter straight in the face and do the best I can. Our chief is willing I should go & said he thought I would be ordered home before long, but I “can’t see it.”

I hope you will not feel badly about it at least until I find out for sure. I’m going to “turn in” now. Good night.

I wish I had something interesting to write you but how can I have here. All the news we get from our forces in Louisiana [on the Red River Campaign] is unfavorable. Banks seems to have had bad luck. I begin to lose faith in him as a general. I hope Grant may be successful but the North is expecting too much of him I fear.

I have not received my promotion yet—about time I think. I don’t believe J. H. S. will send me pictures of the children. I think you ought to get some good “vignettes” taken. I have run out of copies of mine almost. Send on any you can collect of Lady friends. I have received Josie’s picture which is a very excellent one I think.

I see but little signs of attacking this place for a couple of months, till the ironclads arrive, after which the “Admiral” will not delay long, probably. I would like to get away from here during the warm weather of July and August. I don’t know whether Himes P. has influence such as could get me relieved or not but i think probably in I were relieved, without being instrumental in procuring that relief, I would not be detained then; for the admiral could not suspect that I had been trying to get home and at the same time my place would be taken by my relief and therefore the number of officers not diminished which is the great question with him. I’m sure I have no objections to any of my friends getting me relieved if they can; on the contrary I should be very much obliged to them. I believe the matter rests about as much with them or more than it does with me. So if H. P. can get me relieved, I only wish he would, though I will not request it of him myself for that would spoil the matter. These discussions on coming home are not for any one out of the family.

We are senior officer now and all mails and everything else comes through us which makes it a little more lively, and gives us the news often. I wish George would write me. He ought to begin to correspond regularly with someone. It will help him when he comes to write to his “jularky.” I’ll close now with much love to all and hoping to hear from you soon. Also from Mother who I hope is well. I am in very good health, as ever your affectionate brother, — Wm. McIlvaine

Please send me $1 worth of postage stamps & oblige. Rather a small amount to send so far but there are so many thieves on the way.


From the publication “Forest Leaves” 1916

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