1864: John Bally to Horace Swallow Reed

This letter was written by a Swiss emigrant named John Bally (1827-1902) who arrived in the United States in 1849. After his first wife Clara Dickson (1828-1859) died in 1859, John remarried to Harriet E, Marvin (1838-1911). In the 1850 US Census, John was enumerated in Oswego, New York, where he worked as a silversmith. By 1860 he had relocated to Deposit, New York, where he was identified as a “watchmaker” or a “jeweler.” John received his naturalization papers from the State of New York in April 1855.

When the Civil War began in 1861, John offered his services as a musician in the regimental band of the 41st New York Infantry. He served in the band from June 1861 until he was discharged on 7 October 1862 by order the War Department when it was determined that regimental bands were an unnecessary war expenditure. He later reenlisted as a musician in Co. A, 144th New York Infantry on 30 August 1864 and was mustered out on 25 June 1865 at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

John’s letter contains a very good description, recounted by those who survived it, of Gen. John P. Hatch’s Expedition up the Broad River on 29-30 November 1864 and specifically of the Battle of Honey Hill on the 30th. From Boyd’s Landing on the Broad River, Hatch’s forces—half of them Black troops–launched an attack on the railroad junction at Gopher Hill, 36 miles northeast of Savannah and 84 from Charleston. Due to delays in their arrival, Rebel forces anticipated their attack and were able to amass 1400 militia to join the South Carolina cavlary and artillerymen under Col. Charles Colcock in fixed fortifications at Honey Hill.

In a series of failed attacks on the rebel fortification that have since been attributed to the “irresolute leadership” of Gen. Hatch, the Union forces suffered 746 casualties. The first assault was made by the 35th United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment up the Grahamville Road to Honey Hill. After they were repulsed, the 55th MA (Colored) regiment charged up the Grahamville Road to Honey Hill three times, each charge with 5 of 8 companies in field column. During the second assault, a supporting charge on their left flank by the 127th New York was orchestrated but all three of these charges were repulsed. Finally the 25th OVI charged unsupported on the Confederate rifle-pits north of Honey Hill and was also repulsed. Each assault was repulsed and defeated in detail as the Confederates were allowed to concentrate sequentially their fire on one Union attack at a time. Between and during these assaults, the front line Union regiments engaged the Confederate position with small arms fire. [Sources: The Battle of Honey Hill, by Lowell D. Hamilton, and Civil War Letters & Diary of Henry W. Prince, 127th New York State Volunteers]

Rebels delay the approach of Union forces with fire and bullets at Honey Hill

Death of John Bally

Elmira, N. Y., Sept. 19.–John Bally, senior member of the jewelry house of John Bally & Son, 330 E. Water St., was buried to-day. Mr. Bally’s death, which occurred Tuesday at his home, 311 Columbia St., was due to heart failure, superinduced by acute indigestion.

The deceased was a prominent citizen of this city as well as one of its oldest Jewelers. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland. July 16, 1827, and attended school and college in his native country. In early life he learned the trade of watchmaker, and when 21 years old he left Switzerland to seek his fortune in the United States.

He located first in New York, where he became employed as watchmaker by the old house of Ball, Black & Co., and shortly afterwards moved to Oswego, where he remained for about three years. During his stay in Oswego he married Miss Clara Dickinson, and later moved to Buckingham and finally to Deposit. In this last place he remained for 11 years, and during his stay there his wife died, and he subsequently married Miss Harriet Marvin.

Toward the latter part of the Civil War Mr. Bally joined the 144th New York Volunteers and served until 1865. After the war Mr. Bally moved to Elmira, which city was his home for the remainder of his life. The firm of John Bally & Son, of which Louis E. Bally, Jr., is a member, was the one interest to which the deceased devoted all his energy until he retired from business a short time ago. Besides being a practical jeweler and a successful merchant, Mr. Bally was also an artist of considerable ability.

The deceased was a Mason, was a member of the Patriarchs’ Club, and was one of the oldest members of the Park Church. He is survived by his seven children– four sons and three daughters.

Source: The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review – 24th September 1902

John wrote the letter to his friend Horace Swallow Reed (1824-1891), the proprietor of a marble works in Deposit, New York. Horace was married to Francis Elizabeth Hull (18xx-1907). In the 1860 US Census, Horace was identified as an hotel keeper in Dorset, Bennington county, Vermont, but ten years prior to that he was in the marble business.


Addressed to H. S. Reed, Esq., Deposit, Delaware county, New York

Hilton Head, South Carolina
December 8th 1864

Mr. H. S. Reed
Dear Sir & Brother,

It is now almost four months since I left home and at this late date only have I at last made up my mind to write a few lines to you. The reason why I have not done so previously was not that I had forgotten you, far from it, as in almost all my letters to my wife I have sent you my compliments, but not having anything of interest to write, I thought I would wait and when something worth writing about should take place, I would then give you the news. Now that our regiment has broke up its long resting spell and that war in its ugly form has begun in earnest around us, then I thought that a few lines would be acceptable to you.

Last Monday a week ago, our regiment embarked aboard transports with other troops from Florida & Morris Island and some negro troops, among them the 26th Colored—the regiment in which our colored boys from Deposit are in and who were stationed at Beaufort S. C., about 10 miles from here. They started up Broad River with the intention of cutting off the railroad connecting Savannah with Charleston. After some severe blunders and considerable time lost, they effected a landing and after marching a few miles, met the enemy in force who gave them battle, and who, by the way, set a large marsh on fire so that our boys had to fight fire and bullets, saying nothing of shells which the rebel’s artillery threw away with great liberality.

The news that I give you I gathered from wounded brought here in the hospital, not having the pleasure of being a participant nor any eye witness, the Band having been left behind, to learn some new pieces and to guard the camp—-I do not know which, but here we are—and what I am writing about you, you must take it as I have but at the same time as all seemed to give the same story it must be near the truth.

“All who have come back to camp says without exception that the colored troops fought splendidly and that no better fighting was ever done. They made charge after charge to the mouth of them guns, but to no avail. But friend Reed, had you been here and saw the poor wounded when brought to the hospital, you might have found your blood taking fire—nay anxious—to go and avenge them.”

—John Bally, musician in 144th New York, 8 December 1864

On Tuesday and Wednesday our troops drove the Johnnies some four miles till they came upon strong breastworks, well defended with heavy artillery. They, not being sufficiently strong to carry them, they fell back to their starting point [with] our regiment—the 144th [New York Infantry], covering the retreat. All who have come back to camp says without exception that the colored troops fought splendidly and that no better fighting was ever done. They made charge after charge to the mouth of them guns, but to no avail. But friend Reed, had you been here and saw the poor wounded when brought to the hospital, you might have found your blood taking fire—nay anxious—to go and avenge them. For my part, I almost cursed my being in the band and thought it the place of a coward. But if I was not permitted to fight, I done the next [best] thing, and that was to volunteer in the hospital and take care of my poor brother soldiers.

During the engagement we could plainly hear the cannonading and every report would make me jump out of my boots, feeling so much anxiety for the result of the fight, knowing the small number of troops sent there and the facilities of the rebs in concentrating theirs. We lost, as near as I can find out, from 800 to 900 men. Our regiment lost about 88 killed, wounded & missing.

I told you our troops fell back to the landing under the protection of the gunboats and then entrenched themselves. Since, they have made several reconnaissance’s and the last news from the front who came here today is that by another road they have turned the rebs’ earthworks and have drove them to half mile from the railroad and now command the road. This was done Tuesday this week and today some heavy artillery is being sent to the front. A load of prisoners has just come up and judging from their appearance, the rebs must be pretty hard up. They are old men and boys from 14 to 16 years old.

In this last fight our forces were very lucky and had all the advantage. The Rebs left in our hands all their killed and wounded, things which they did not in the first fight. It seems that by that flank movement our artillery took them with an enfilading fire and mowed them down by the score. Today we are informed that Gen. Foster, who is in command of our troops, has received a message from Sherman, who is now near Savannah, and that movement against that railroad was—and is, without any doubt—to cut up reinforcements that Lee might send against him.

This afternoon for about two hours, a very heavy cannonading was distinctly heard in the direction of Savannah and we all think and hope that it is Sherman thundering at its gates. May God grant that it may be so. According to the appearances and judging from the amount of ordnance and ammunition sent to the front with the large number of entrenching tools, all go to show that Foster means to hold the position he has gained, and by that means cooperate with Sherman.

There is a bridge in that locality called the Pocotaligo bridge; that bridge is two miles long and a trestle work ten miles long over a large swamp. I do not now think the intention is to destroy it. If they can [just] hold it, it will be of great use in the future. I understand that our artillery knocked off a train of cars yesterday and that they do not run any more trains over it. But what I write about is only my opinion formed by what I gather around me and I give it to you for what its worth and not be be relied on any more than what you may read not officially though I think it pretty near the truth. I presume that the New York papers have heard from this quarter by this time and you will have chance to compare notes.

Our friend, Charles Ediely [?] was among the unlucky—or rather the lucky ones. He is wounded—a slight flesh would over the left shoulder enough to make him pretty mad but that will keep him in camp till after this execution is over. Told his father that he musn’t trouble himself about him. He is doin finely. Now Friend Reed, a few more words about myself. Here I am doing nothing, or rather doing no duty but what we volunteer to do. It is lonesome enough here since the regiment went away and aside from learning some new music, nothing for us to do. When the regiment was here, we had our hands full. But now, escorting dead soldiers to their last resting place constitutes our main business— rather lonesome one it is.

I have written to Ellicot Evans a good while ago to send me the Gen. Lyons Funeral March that our band at home used to play but I have not seen anything of it yet. I would give most anything for it. When you see him, please remember it to him, if you please. I am enjoying the best health in the world and as we Band are messing together, we have the best kind of rations and of course are benefitted by it. My quarters are very good. I have a good A tent with boards all around it and a good floor, have a little stove in it and am just as comfortable as can be. The weather here is delightful. It is warmer here than June at home and have had fire but twice in the evening so far. Mosquitos, flies, fleas, &c. are plenty here; butterflies are flying around us the whole day long and were it not for the leaves of the trees falling off of their own account, we would not dream that it is winter. I should like to settle in this country, but before I make up my mind I want to see what the summer will be.

I play in the Band the E6 Tenor in place of Eb Soprano and I would not change for anything. it is a good part and I can play the whole day long without getting tired. I hope to keep that part till we get through.

My wife sent me one of the last Deposit papers and in it I read the account of the burning of the railroad depot. I am very sorry of that misfortune and furthermore very sorry of the loss you have sustained in marble but I hope there is a remedy for you [paper torn] of course must be responsible for it. I hope that G. Smith & Stop [ ] are not fatally hurt, but they will get well.

Well, Friend Reed, the Elections are over and our old stand by Abe Lincoln reelected. It was a sad blow to the copperheads—at least we think so here by their twisting and mourning—but thanks be to God the country is not to be sacrificed just yet and according to appearances, the war seems to be pretty well going the last pull. Could you but see the men they have to fight with, you would think so. Well, how does the time with you? Full of worry I suppose. Jack Batchelder with you yet? And our old band? What has become of it? out of existence? It must be so as I have not heard it mentioned in this last campaign but saw that bands from abroad were employed a home. I wish you could hear our band place. I tell you, we made it ring and can stand a long pull to play 15 or 20 pieces with considerable marching is nothing for [us] and do not mind it.

Do you go once in awhile over the river and see my lonely little wife. If not, I must scold at you and make it up. I would be very much pleased to have you tell me how you think she is getting along and if you think my absence was for the worst or better for her. I hope that your dear family is all well. I would like to be remembered to your wife and her Mother. Assure them that I shall never forget them but think of the good times we have had together very often and live in hope that after a few months, we will be permitted to enjoy the same blessing again.

How is the Lodge prospering. When you get this letter, it will be election time. Hope you will have a good lot of officers. I wish you would give my best respects to the brethren and tell them that when Wednesday night comes, I often think of our pleasant meetings and often wish I could be there with them. Remember me in particular to Mr. Hadley & Croker. Is the Chapter lodge organized yet? Give me some of the news there. I was forgetting your children. Please remember me to them. I will stop writing for the present as the mail boat will not leave here till sometime next week and probably before that time events of importance may take place that will interest you. I was alone tonight and felt just like having a long chat with you and I think I have improved it pretty well. So good night for the present, and pleasant dreams. For my part, I must turn in and try to dream of my loved ones at home.

Monday the 11th, ’64

There is an extra mail boat starting tomorrow and having good news now I finish this letter today. A Captain with 6 scouts has just come here and announced the arrival of Sherman at Savannah with his army. They say he must have possession of the place by this time. A salute his being fired here and some gunboats & monitors are starting for Savannah. Please tell my wife that I have received yesterday 3 letters—one from our children, one from Emiline, and one from Elliott Evans. The Fulton—the regular steamer—will be here soon and I will write home by it. This time I send her only one newspaper—the Palmetto Herald. Tell her I am well and send her my love. Now Friend Reed, I hope to hear from you. Give my best regard to Mrs. Reed and Mother and your children. As for yourself, take the lion’s share. In hope that this may reach you alright, I remain fraternally yours, — John Bally

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