1863: John Rison Gibbons to his Father

This letter was written by Pvt. John “Rison” Gibbons (1843-1919) who enlisted at Harrisonburg in Co. I, 1st Virginia Cavalry in December 1861. He remained with his company throughout the war until he surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865 at which time he was described as being 20 years old, standing 5′ 8″ tall, with light hair and blue eyes. He filed a claim for a bay horse killed in action near Berryville, Virginia, in August 1862 which was valued at $2900 when he entered the service.

I could not find a Civil War era photograph of Gibbons but here is one of Pvt. David M. Thatcher who also served in the 1st Virginia Cavalry (LOC)

Rison Gibbons was the son of George Rockingham Gibbons (1814-1907) and Harriet Caroline Rison (1818-1876) of Rockingham county, Virginia. He married, in 1874, Ann America Felton (1848-1938). After the war he farmed in Georgia, went into the wool manufacturing business in Brentwood, Tennessee, and finally became a Mining Engineer in Georgia.

Gibbons’ letter includes a description of the battlefield at Fredericksburg and mentions the collection of two Yankee teeth he pulled from the jawbone of a half-buried Union soldier. Most soldiers found this behavior reprehensible but a great many others engaged in the occasional collection of such morbid souvenirs when time and opportunity allowed. Both sides were guilty of collecting these human trophies. After the Battle of Seven Pines, it was reported in the Pontiac Weekly Gazette (11 July 1862) that “a [Union] soldier pulled off the lower jaw [bone of a dead rebel] and asked” his comrades if they didn’t want a rebel relic.” [See Dark Trophies, by Simon Harrison]


Camp 1st Virginia Cavalry
August 13th 1863

Dear Pa,

I wrote to Bettie last Monday. I suppose you have received it before this time. At least I will look for an answer in a day or two. We are amping out two miles from Fredericksburg on the plank road. We have a very good camp here. The spring is not more than twenty steps from the tent though the water is about as warm as the creek water is in August. We can hardly drink it. All the springs in this country are warm. The water has not a good taste. We get wheat to feed our horses—a very small sheaf. We keep our horses out trying to graze but the field we graze on is not as good as the grass in the field. Our horses are falling off very fast though Fitz is looking very well yet.

The weather has been very hot for the past week. It is much warmer here than in the valley. We are camped in an open, sandy field and you can judge pretty well how it is on man and horse. I can stand it well enough myself but it is distressing to the horses tied to a stake without any shelter at all from the scorching rays of the sun. My horse was appraised the other day at $750. I don’t think he was valued high enough. John Dever’s bay horse was valued at $650. He is very much dissatisfied with the appraisement. Newton Black’s horse was appraised at $716. There was but one horse brought down that went over a thousand dollars (Marshall’s).

This country is very much torn to pieces. Everything is very high here—viz: butter $6 per lb., lard $3, flour 50 cents per pound, potatoes $16 per bushel, & everything else at the same rates. We have had nothing but corn meal since I returned except one mess of apple dumpling that I had yesterday evening. We sent to Fredericksburg and got 3 pounds of flour which we paid $150. We enjoyed them dumplings very much. Tell Cousin Will that John Herring enjoyed them more than he did the pie at the picnic, if possible. Corn bread & gravy don’t agree very well with me. John Herring is out after apples now though they are very scarce and trifling but it wouldn’t matter much of they had rocks in them so they are called apple dumplings.

I wish you could see the battlefield of Fredericksburg. It is the most interesting battlefield that I have been on since the war. If you were here so someone (John Herring, for instance) who knows [it] could show you the different positions of the armies, it would be very interesting to you. Fredericksburg is a much nicer looking place than I expected to find it. It is a very pretty place though it has been injured by the war.

It is reported in camp that our Brigade is to go to Richmond but I don’t believe any camp rumor now. Our Brigade is under marching orders. If you get this before Lute Dever starts, send by him my dictionary & spirits turpentine. I neglected them when I left.

Enclosed you will find a Yankee tooth which you will please give to Mr. Irvine. He told me when I first started into service to send his a Yankee’s tooth which request I will comply with. Uncle Shanks Miller made the same request. I have one for him also. I will write to Uncle Robert as soon as I get through this and will enclose it to him. Both of these teeth came out of the mouth of a Yankee that was killed at the first Battle of Fredericksburg. He is buried about three hundred yards from camp. The reason why I know he is a Yankee is that a part of his blue coat is sticking out of the ground (not grave). I got his jaw bone and extricated six teeth and picked out two of the nicest to send away. The others I gave to some of the boys who wanted them for some other purpose. There are a good many Yankee bones bleaching upon the field that I am now writing on.

I must close this uninteresting letter so as to have time to write to Uncle Robert. You must come down before you go south if practicable. Some of the boys are anxious to see you before you leave. Give my love to all the family, Aunt Mary, cousins Laura & Will. write soon to your affectionate son, — J. Rison Gibbons

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