1864: James Franklin Drenan to Clarissa (Bill) Drenan

This letter was written by James Franklin (“Frank”) Drenan (1847-1866), the son of James Drenan and Clarissa Bill, of Woodbury Vermont. Frank enlisted in Co. L, 11th Vermont Infantry in May 1863 and was mustered into the service on 11 July 1863. He was wounded in the fighting at Petersburg on 2 April 1865 and discharged for disability in August 1865. He died only a few months later.

Lt. John Silas Drenan, 11th Vermont, 1st Vermont HA (Ed Italio Collection)

In this letter, Frank breaks the news to his mother of the capture of his brother, Lt. John Silas Drenan (1840-1894) who served with him in the 11th Vermont Infantry (also known as the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery). He was taken prisoner on 23 June 1864 when the II Corps was ordered forward to retake its lost ground, but they found that the Confederates had already pulled back, abandoning the earthworks they had previously captured. Under orders from General Meade, the VI Corps sent out a heavy skirmish line after 10 a.m. in a second attempt to reach the Weldon Railroad. Men from Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant’s 1st Vermont Brigade were ordered to begin tearing up track and did not have their weapons handy when they were attacked by a larger force of Confederate infantry. Numerous Vermonters were taken prisoner and only about half a mile (0.8 km) of track had been destroyed when they were chased away. 

Readers are referred to the book entitled, “A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864” by David Farris Cross. The date 23 June 1864 came to be called “Black Thursday” in the Green Mountain State. “Cowardliness, negligence and inept behavior by multiple officers resulted in the needless capture of more than four hundred Vermonters” and many of the enlisted men were sent to Andersonville and later to other Confederate prisons where 60 percent of them perished.


Camp on Weldon Railroad, Va.
June 28th 1864

Dear Mother,

I think I will try and answer your letter. Mother, I am lonesome today. No one with me. My company is gone to Richmond—all of the officers with them. One of our men got away from them. He said it made John swear some when he had to throw down his sword. Our captain and three lieutenants are taken prisoners.

Mother, you must take this as cool as possible for if the rebs fight like this, they will get the whole of our army. I have got all of John’s things—all of his letters and everything—but mother, he is a prisoner. They took all of our company but 19 men but they did not get me. All I have to do is to care of their things and keep my old pack horse thins.

Mother, John has had rather hard luck. He has been wounded twice. He had just come back to his company. He had the offer of going to the general hospital but he did not want to go and now he is worse than deal, I think. Hope he will be exchanged before long. He may not.

Mother, I have sent home three or four times and you have not sent any. You can’t write as often as I would if I had stamps.

Mother, we had 17 hundred men when we started from Washington and we have got eight hundred left. The rest are all gone. This afternoon we are going on picket where the rebs shall be considerable. Send me some stamps. I opened that letter that you wrote John. — Frank

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