1861: Thomas W. Powell to Olive Powell

Though unsigned, the provenance that came with this letter attributes it to Thomas W. Powell while serving in Co. E (the “Huron Infantry”), 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) when it was a three-months organization. This regiment was mustered into service in late April 1861 at Cleveland and mustered out on 24 July 1861 at Camp Dennison, Ohio. The regiment never saw any action and were barely organized and drilled before military authorities began requested that the soldiers reenlist for three years of service. Most men agreed, but those who did not were mustered out of service upon the end of their three-months term.

There is a muster record for a “Powell” (no first name given) in Co. E, 7th OVI (3 months) and I assume this is the same soldier. His name does not appear in the roster of the 7th OVI (3 years) regiment so I can only assume he decided against reenlisting as it appears his sister had advised him.

I have searched the census records in Erie county for Thomas and his sister Olive but have not found him though I note he refers to the United States as his “adopted” country so it may be that he was a recent emigrant. If a recent immigrant, he probably came from Canada as his English vocabulary is pretty good though his spelling is poor.

An early war image of Camp Dennison on an envelope


Camp Dennison (Ohio)
May 30, 1861

Sister Olive, 

Once more I find myself engaged in the delightful task of writing you a letter—although I realize it is in much weakness—but then I know you are charitable in some respects, and will make due allowance. I received yours Tuesday [and] not tell you how thankful I was for your condescension in writing to one so unworthy and hope this will be received with half the appreciation that yours was. Would also acknowledge the reception of your note which has been remailed from Berea.

I must apologize at the onset for writing you as long a letter as I intend to, but judging from some parts of your letters, you are considerably tinctured with that which goes by the name of patriotism although in your case I believe it sincere. I thought it would not come amiss to give you my opinion of some matters as they now stand. It is with a heart of sorrow I write what I am going to—sorrow for this my land of adoption as I see her crumbling and falling from her once glorious position and bending under the iron heel of oppression.

I with the thousands left my home to contend for right, as the booming cannon of Sumter echoed not only in Charleston but in the heart of every freeman calling him to arms. But little did I think that while going to fight for freedom, of myself becoming a slave to a set of “petty tyrants.” Not only have we to be nosed round by a set of officers but the government has used us as no feeling man would use his dog. Some men have been sent home because they would not enlist for three years—hundreds of miles from home, no provision made for their return, and without a cent in their pocket and scarcely a rag on their back.

Those at home are no more honorable who promised to provide for the families of those who volunteered. I have seen letters from wives to their husbands stating what suffering they are called upon to pass through. Two from Milan [Erie county, Ohio] I saw yesterday saying they had not received a cent’s worth since their husbands left and beg of them to return home as soon as possible. You would be astonished to see three-quarters of the men, some without breaches, making drawers supply their deficiency. Others barefooted. Uncle Sam supplied some of the most needy with split leather shoes which I should call worse than one.

You advise me not to go for three years. I certainly shall not under present circumstances although if the case is urgent of two evils, I shall choose the least—that is, to be a slave to a military despotism or a southern aristocracy. As regards my constitution failing, that is all nonsense. There is not a person in the company better able to go than I am as far as that is concerned. I will give you a little of our camp life. We have to stand guard 24 hours about once a week. I was on a few days ago. It rained all day and all night. we are two hours on and four off while on duty. We have to walk back and forth. When off, we are housed in a guard house or lie on the ground.

— Thomas W. Powell, Co. E, 7th Regiment, care of Capt. [John W.] Sprague 1

1 On April 25, 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, John Wilson Sprague joined the 7th Ohio Infantry and was made a captain in the unit’s Company E. In August 1861, while heading home on leave, he and a small group of other Ohio soldiers were captured in West Virginia by Confederate troops. He was held at the infamous Libby Prison in Virginia, and then moved to South Carolina where he was held in Charleston and then Columbia. After five months, Sprague was released as part of a prisoner exchange in January 1862. He returned to duty with the Ohio 63rd Infantry Regiment. On January 23, 1862, he was promoted to colonel. Sprague led the regiment at the Siege of Corinth. 

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