This letter was written by Henry Augustus Cheever (1839-1905), the son of Ira Cheever (1798-1876) and Mehitable Gardener Felt (1802-1882) of Chelsea, Suffolk county, Massachusetts. He was captain of the Chelsea Wide-Awakes in the Lincoln Presidential campaign and also served as a member of Co. F, 7th Mass. Vol. Militia before the war. Henry received a commission as a 1st Lieutenant early in the war and was assigned to the 17th Massachusetts where he was appointed adjutant.
Later in the war, Adjutant Cheever was severely wounded at Batchelders Creek in North Carolina, He was wounded on the morning of 1 February 1864 and was taken prisoner but survived the surgery and recovered to return home. He went into the mercantile business after he war but eventually went to work for the Treasury Department and processed pension claims.
In this May 1862 letter, penned from New Bern after the Union occupancy, Henry tells his mother about the skirmish at Trenton Bridge that took place on 15 May 1862. He also shares his views of the New Bern inhabitants, their customs, farming methods, and the weather in general in the South. He includes some details of a long conversation held with Rebel officers during a flag-of-truce.
Picket Station near New Bern, [North Carolina]
Sunday, May 18th 1862
As a few moments are at my command, I will write you a few lines to let you know that I am in the land of the living (also Rebels) and am well—never was in better health in my life. Think that upon the close of the present war, I had better enlist in the Regular Army, hadn’t I? I received a letter from you a few days ago and it seems that you had only received one letter from me. I have written several but I presume they were lost as the mail arrangements are not the best in the world. So you must make up your mind that some of the letters I send you will never reach home.
We still remain here in the same place but we have frequent skirmishes with the enemy. On Thursday [15 May 1862] of the past week quite a force went up 15 miles above our camp to a place called Trenton. We had 800 cavalry [3rd N. Y. Cavalry], 2 pieces of cannon, and the 25th Regt. Massachusetts Vol. and our [17th Mass.] regiment. [We] started about 2 o’clock in the morning and came within two miles of Trenton and the advance guard of the cavalry ran upon the enemy and a terrific fight took place. The enemy were double in force to our men, they having 75 or 80 men to our 37, but our boys drove them from the field and they left in double quick for town where they set fire to the bridge and then evacuated the town. There were 7 Rebels killed, 2 wounded that we got, and one prisoner, while on our side were 2 wounded and 1 Lieutenant taken prisoner. The Rebels left on the field 13 horses killed and we three.
One of our wounded was the Major 1 of the [3rd New York] cavalry who in the skirmish was taken prisoner three times but got away by the help of his men. The 4rd time his captors looked at him a moment and then cooly told him that he must be a dangerous person and that they had better shoot him on the spot. The Major had discharged his revolver but when this was told him, quicker than thought, he raised and threw it at the speaker. It hit him in the mouth and knocked him from his saddle. Another Rebel who helped take the Major raised his saber to cut him down, but at this moment one of our captains struck the Rebel with his sword and cut his right arm off so it hung by the skin. In consequence of this, the Major got away. He is a nice man and a very powerful one. All this took place in less time than I have written. The rest of the cavalry and troops were a mile behind the advance guard but we came up on the double quick to give them a volley, but were too late.
I was in command of the Pioneers and was ahead of the regiments and in rear of the cavalry. After we halted three of our companies were sent out to search the woods and C. C. had a skirmish and killed 4 more. After remaining here a while, we started for home, having marched 30 miles in less than 12 hours and through mud and water up to our knees. The object of the expedition was to capture and steal a lot of horses as this department is greatly in need of them. But they got the alarm and took them away.
Father wished to know concerning the people, habits, customs, &c. I should be very happy to inform him but as there are no people here save negroes, I can’t enlighten him much. When the town was evacuated, the people left also. Some few have returned but not many. There are poor whites here but they are far worse than the negroes for they are so lazy that they won’t work and the consequence is that they steal and starve.
The weather is at the present like our July weather. We have frequent thunder showers. I have read and heard tell of a thunder storm in the Southern States but I must confess that my imagination was not strong enough to conceive what a storm could take place. A person must experience one in order to realize the beauty of it. Peaches and plums are fast ripening, strawberries in quantity, only we hardly dare venture into the fields to gather them for fear that the Rebels may pick us up. It is a sad looking sight to look over the broad fields of the plantations and see their barrenness for no one has planted anything save the negroes who only look out for themselves. Let a hundred live Yankees come down here and in three years time they could make a paradise out of this now neglected country. There is no care taken of the land, merely to drop the seed into the ground and let it grow—is the Southerner’s principle—and it is well carried out. In everything they are 100 years behind our time. Their houses would amuse you. On all of them the chimneys are built upon the outside and contain brick enough to build a common-sized house. Then they are all old style and in such comical shape that it is really amusing to ride a few miles to merely look at the houses. I should not like to settle in this part of the state unless there be a colony of Yankees here.
There was a Rebel Lieutenant Colonel 2 and Adjutant here last week came up with a flag-of-truce. They say that the western part of the state is much more pleasant—it being on higher ground. Speaking of these officers, I went up two miles outside of our lines to carry their escort some rations as they brought none, expecting to return the same day but did not. There were 20 of them. They belonged to the 1st North Carolina Cavalry. I was with them three hours and had a jolly time. They had many questions to ask and I answered all that were proper. They are sick of the war and wish it over. They talk it out. They felt anxious to know my opinion on the matter and they felt or acted pleased when I told them tht I thought it would close virtually in two or three months. I carried up 30 papers which were eagerly grabbed at for they cannot get the true state of the case from the Confederate papers.
I gave one of them a New York Herald in which was a editorial which stated the fact that if Yorktown and Norfolk were taken, that the contest was decided. One of them read it and came along to me and told me it would certainly prove so. I asked him if he did not know that they had already been captured? No, he had heard nothing of it. He supposed they were still in their hands. They were very much surprised at learning the fact. When I parted with them, I told them I hoped that if it was my fate to be taken prisoner, I hoped I might fall into their hands for I felt sure the would treat me well. They gave me the prices of their uniforms. Overcoat $35 (worth $5), pants $17 (worth $3), boots $20 (worth $5), coffee 150 and 200 per pound and other articles in the same proportion.
But I must close. Please tell Electa Brown that I will answer her letter very soon. Also convey my compliments to Anna Misley and say I should be very happy to hear from her. If I had any photograph, I would send her one. Also Electa. But I have none and there are no means of having any taken here so I shall have to wait until I arrive in some Northern City. Give my regards to my friends. Remember me to Sarah Young & Fred. Please write soon. From your son, — Hen
1 The name of the Major is never given in this letter but the Regimental roster indicates that the Major at the time was 35 year-old George W. Lewis of Elmira, New York.
2 The Lieutenant-Colonel of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry at the time was James Byron Gordon who later became a Brigadier General in the CSA.