1861: Augustus Oswald McDonell to Elizabeth (Nowland) MacDonell

Augustus Oswald McDonell (1839-1912), Image found on Richard Ferry Military Antiques.

This letter was written by Pvt. Augustus Oswald McDonell (1839-1912), the son of Alexander Harrison MacDonell (1809-1871) and Ann Elizabeth Nowland (1808-1880). Augustus was born in Savannah, Georgia, and came to Florida in 1854 where he was educated and working as a merchant in the gulfport city of Alachua when the Civil War started. He joined the Gainesville Minute Men (militia) in 1860 and then enlisted at Gainesville, Florida on 5 April 1861 in Co. H, 1st Florida Infantry. In mid-April 1862 he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Co. K. He was wounded at the Battle of Perryville in October 1862 and promoted to the Captain of his company sometime early in 1864. He was taken prisoner by the 23rd Army Corps before Atlanta on 7 August 1864 and was not released from Johnson’s Island Prison until taking the oath on 16 June 1865.

In the 1860 US Census, “A. O. McDonell” was enumerated as a “merchant” in Alachua, Florida. His father was enumerated at that time in Marion county, Florida, and owned 25 slaves ranging in ages from 1 to 73. In the 1850 US Census, 8 year-old “Augustus” was enumerated in his father’s residence in Early County, Georgia. Others in the household included his siblings, George (age 19), Roselin (age 17), Hannah (age 8), and James (age 4).

In researching the identity of this author of this letter, I discovered that his diary was housed in the P. K. Yonge Library at the University of Florida enabling me to compare and confirm the handwriting [see Augustus O. McDonell Papers, Diary, 1862-1864, to Download]. This diary would be incredible to transcribe. An entry from Murfreesboro on January 1, 1863 gives a hint of his composition:

There has been little fighting today. At intervals artillery and musketry have been heard in blended tones, plainly telling that our skirmishers were contesting gallantly the ground they occupied. The battlefield is still strewn with the enemy’s dead—their bland eyes & distorted features show in wht agony they died. Our wounded with the enemy’s have all been cared for and our dead buried. The battlefield is one vast grove of cedars and thousands of these beautiful evergreens are wrent in shivers by the bursting shell and lightning grape shot. Among this beautiful forest wreck are the graves of the noble dead, the newly turned sod silently says, “Here sleep the Masters of Liberty.”

In this letter, datelined from Camp Magnolia near Pensacola, Florida on 19 May 1861, Augustus informs his mother that all new recruits must enlist for the duration of the war, not just for one year. He also informs her that “it is almost impossible for us to get along without a servant of some kind” and asks his Father to send a family slave named “Nero” to the camp to cook and wash his clothes for him.


Camp Magnolia [west of Fort Barrancas]
May 19, 1861

My Dear Mother,

Both of your kind and affectionate letters were received last week—the one by mail and the other by Harry. I did not get the letter written by him until several days after his arrival here. He left his saddle bags over at Pensacola and they contained our letters. I also received one from Hannah and Grandfather all of which I prized very highly. It makes me feel much happier & contented with my lot when I receive letters often from home.

I commenced this letter yesterday which was Sunday but did not get through with it. Since then an order has been issued from General Bragg to the effect that all visitors here must enlist or leave the army encampment within three days. Harry prefers doing the latter and will leave here in the morning and take this letter to you. We all tried to persuade Harry to enlist and stay with us but it was no go. An easy life at home seem to be the height of his ambition. He says he wants to join a company and go to Virginia but the misfortune now is the President has issued an order not receiving any more companies or men in the C. S. service unless they enlist for the term of the war which I think an excellent idea because troops who have been in service 12 months will be much more effectual than raw recruits. I have made up my mind that if the war is not ended at the expiration of the term for which I joined—and I live—that I will enlist again and that for the whole war, but I hope I will not always serve as a private.

Uncle Thaddeus 1 has written by Harry for Aunt Janie to come on to Pensacola. He will board her at some private house in that place. I want you, dear Mother, to tell Father to send Nero to me as soon as you get this by Harry. Start him off to Fernandina and he can come in company with Aunt Janie and take care of the baggage for her.

The Major [Thaddeus McDonald] was disappointed in getting his boy Grand Fernandina and it is almost impossible for us to get along without a servant of some kind and in case I get sick, dear Mother, I will have him to attend to and nurse me. I have to pay $1 per dozen for all of my washing and if I had Nero here, he could do it for me. I hope he will not object to coming. He told me before I left that he wanted to come with me. He will be kindly treated and well cared for. Uncle Thaddeus will gone one half his hire and expense. Let him get a trunk out of the store to put his clothes in and tell him not to bring any more than he can feasibly help as much baggage is unhandy to move about in case we are sent from this to some other point. Do, Mother dear, send by Nero a pair of sheets for me. The weather is getting so warm that a blanket to sleep on is not so comfortable. also a couple pillow cases and two pair of my summer pants. And tell Father to look in the store among the clothing and if he has not sold them, to send me a pair of black Cap—pants marked $9. I got them in Savannah but concluded I would not need them here so I put them in the store to sell. Once in awhile I get a chance to visit Pensacola and then I like to look a little decent. If you have any little nice thing to send, it will not be at all objectionable, I assure you.

Be sure to write me. I don’t believe there is anything else that I want now. If you can think of any little thing I will need, send it along. Tell dear Father to shut down the credit business and sell for cash only. Goods are just like so much money now for they can’t be had anywhere hardly except for cash and that at the highest prices. If they do not sell now, they will before the war closes. I will write him soon more definitely with regard to it. I got a letter from cousin Gertie today. She mentions Camilla [Saussy] and Mr. Thomas H.] Jordan’s marriage and departure for the war. All were well in Savannah. I am going to write her a long letter soon as she was so kind to write me first. I hope his will find you all enjoying good health.

Laura Dunn is stopping in Warrington at a private house there. I went to call on her yesterday but she was not at home. She had gone to the camp. She sent us word that she was very anxious to see me and that I must certainly call on her before she returns home. Give much love to all relatives and friends and keep a sharp look out for John Brown parties. I believe the South is full of subversives and we should be vigilant at home and see that they do not step in upon us unawares.

I must now close. write me soon, dear Mother. Harry will tell you the news.

Your absent and affectionate child, — Augustus

1 Thaddeus A McDonald [McDonnell] was the Major of the 1st Florida Infantry. He was later promted Lt. Colonel of the regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh on 6 April 1862.

2 thoughts on “1861: Augustus Oswald McDonell to Elizabeth (Nowland) MacDonell”

  1. Thank you for posting this remarkable and historic letter. While I imagine it brought great comfort to his dear Mother, I can’t help but feel Augustus was very frightened of what he was enduring and what was to evolve as death and despair slowly became the reality of our beloved old south.


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