This incredibly detailed six-page letter was written by Lt. David Wilbur Low (1833-1919) of the 8th Massachusetts Infantry. David was the son of sea captain Frederick Gilman Low (1789-1878) and Eliza Davis (1790-1874) of Gloucester, Essex county, Massachusetts. At the time the Civil War began, David was a merchant in Gloucester, married, but without children.
The 8th Massachusetts regiment entrained and traveled through New York to Pennsylvania where it seized a large railroad ferry called the Maryland to cross the Susquehanna River, arriving off Annapolis on April 21. The arrival of the Eighth Infantry protected the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) from certain capture or destruction by Confederate forces. On April 22, Company K was detailed to reinforce the garrison at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor where they remained until May 16 when they rejoined the rest of the regiment outside of Baltimore. The Eighth secured the Northern railroad supply and communication line to Washington (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad), ensuring a flow of Federal reinforcements at a rate of up to 5,000 troops per day into the Capitol.
If you take the foregoing single paragraph for the regimental history and expand the events described within it into six lengthy pages, you’ll have some notion of the contents of Lt. Low’s letter.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
May 2, 1861
You have no doubt heard of the adventures of the 8th [Massachusetts] Regiment since they left Boston so that I hardly know what to write. But I must say that when I left home, I did not dream of passing through such hardships so soon as we did. Our bill of fare from the first was short allowance of food, less of water, still less of sleep, and plenty of work.
When we approached Havre de Grace we were inspected and prepared for a fight. Ten rounds of ammunition to a man was supplied and we were told that we were to meet 1600 men and take from them a ferry boat at all hazards as the safety of what was left of the regiment and the “success of our expedition depended upon the capture of the boat.” Every man in the regiment except one (who jumped off the cars) was nerved to the work laid out for him. We stopped half a mile this side of the station, the Salem Zouaves [Co. A, 8th Mass.] thrown out as skirmishers who took to the woods & made for the boats, the regiment following at double quick time. But to our great surprise & joy, we were ahead of the secessionists and took the boat without a gun being fired.
Gen. Butler then had a train of coal cars loaded & shoved upon the boat—also about 20 barrels of water. We then started [but] we didn’t know where. The muskets were stacked on the upper deck and guarded and the men slept below. They had to lay across each others legs to stow away. The floor was covered with coal dust as well as every part of the boat. I laid down across & against a door. In the morning there was two inside of me and coal dust instead of my blanket under me.
The next morning (Sunday) we arrived at Annapolis harbor and went alongside of the Old Constitution where we went to work getting her heavy guns out & putting them on board the Maryland (our boat). The sappers & miners, 20 out of 60 from our company, were to work in her hold getting up ballast & throwing it overboard. We lightened her from 23 feet to 19 and then she started, towed by the Maryland to sea. In going over the bar, owing to the treachery of our pilot & engineers, our boat and the ship were both got ashore on the bar. The engineers were immediately arrested & engineers and firemen from the regiment were put in their places. Capt. [Henry S.] Briggs [Co. K]—who was to be Officer of the Guard that night—was sent on board the Constitution [and] I was detailed in his place.
I stationed the men, some 60 in number, in two reliefs. My orders from Gen. Butler was very strict as an attack from Baltimore was anticipated. Two men were stationed over the small boat with orders to blow the first man’s brains out who offered to touch it without orders (as it was expected those belonging to the boat would try to escape). Every boat that approached was challenged and if they gave no good account of themselves, were ordered off under penalty of being fired into. The sappers & miners and other troops on board the Constitution were beat to quarters & drilled at the guns.
About 3 o’clock in the morning, a steamer was seen approaching. An alarm was raised and all. the troops mustered on the upper deck with their arms, Co. G being the first to muster. The steamer proved to be the Boston of New York with the 7th New York Regiment on board, accompanied by a tug boat which pulled the Constitution off [the bar], which was a great relief to us. We were then living on two biscuits and a slice of raw salt pork from the Constitution put on board of her in 1837.
All the next day we were without water, but towards night some breakers of water were brought to us by the middies.
We remained on board the Maryland another night trying all the time means to get off the bar the N. Y. boat at anchor, about a quarter of a mile off.
In the morning I had to serve out the water to the regiment as they passed up stairs to the upper deck. I never had a harder two hours work in my life. I gave them a small tin cup full to a man and not until he got upon the step opposite to me and such pushing and crowding I never saw. Some of them seemed to drink it down at one swallow, they were so thirsty. The Boston took hold of us but could not start us, 3.5 feet water alongside. Gen. Butler then ordered the coal cars to be run off which was done in good shape, he beating a drum himself (the drummer being below) to make the troops more lively. Towards night the Boston was sent up to land her troops & return. The guard was set on board our boat and all turned in. I piled myself across some empty water barrels out on the guard of the boat, the night being warm & slept until roused by the order of “turn out men” given at half past 1 in the morning. We were then transported in boat to the Boston which had returned. The boats being manned by the midshipmen from the [Naval] School; they took a company at a time. We all turned in aboard of her and were roused out at the wharf at Annapolis about daylight.
Each man [was then] furnished with his rations of two biscuit & a slice after which we were marched out upon the parade grounds [and] after drilling a little while, were dismissed. I went the first thing up to the gates where the darkey girls & boys were selling pies & cakes & got something to eat. About 5 o’clock I was ordered by the Colonel [Timothy Munroe] to take charge of fifty men that had just been ordered from the regiment by Gen. Butler for special duty. We were marched with another detail which had been made with Gen. Butler at our head through Annapolis with silent tread to the [railroad] depot where I found that I was to relieve Capt. [George T.] Newhall & his command [Co. D] which had been on duty there all day. The other relief was sent on ahead to guard the track between the depot & the outposts of Capt. [Knott V.] Martin’s company. Gen. Butler gave me my orders and said that “if the depot buildings were surprised & taken, I must answer for it with my life.” I told him “all right” and immediately posted my men as I thought most advantageous to resist attack or give alarm. Capt. Newhall’s company went to sleep and were ready as reserve in case of attack. Men were around us all night long and you better believe your humble servant did not sleep much that night (tired as he was). I had 60 men posted, 50 that I brought and 10 fro the other relief. They were on all night long—but we got through with it safe, thank God.
The next morning all that had been on guard at the depot were sent back to the Chapel at the Naval School (which was to be out head quarters) 1 to get some sleep & get recruited up, while the rest of the 8th [Massachusetts] Regiment and 7th New York Regiment went on. The 8th Regiment—and that only—worked laying track & repairing bridges. Towards night, Lt. Colonel [Edward W.] Hinks with [Knott V.] Martin’s company [C] & detachment, came in. We all had a good night’s sleep. I slept at the Colonel’s quarters having gone there after something from my baggage and went to sleep sitting on a trunk (with my valise in my lap, I suppose) for I found it bottom up alongside of me when I woke up about half past three on the morning. I made a change of my underclothes the first chance I had had). I was about 4 o’clock sent up to the Chapel to arouse Capt. Martin and tell him to get his company ready to march forthwith.
When I got up there, I found one or two companies from the 6th Massachusetts Regiment quartered there. It was dark and the floor was completely covered with human beings. I called two or three times for Capt. Knott Martin but could get no response. I then made my way upstairs on every one of which was a sleeper to the singing seats. [On my way up,] a thought having struck me how to awake Marblehead and Gloucester men [and] as soon as I got there, I found, I sung out in my loudest voice (which is not very weak, if hoarse), “All hands ahoy! tumble up!! tumble up!!! Do you hear the news?!” which brought every man to his feet with exclamations of what is it? What is it? Capt. Knott Martin with the rest of the 8th Regt. to be ready to arch forthwith. I then mustered out my command and we all marched off for the depot where we got some raw ham and good fresh baked soft bread which we eat with a relish. We then got on board the cars, my command having a large open platform car with casing about two feet high around it.
Our first stop was stop was a log lashed across the track; our next a tree felled across which was quickly removed. We then went on until we came to a place where the rails were torn up. Men were set to work and by using rails that we brought along with us, we soon got it fixed. My response to a call to run some cars back, my men were so prompt that the next stopping place (which was only seven feet from the end of a rail where two rails, sleepers and all, had been torn up and thrown down an embankment 60 feet high into the river. Eight feet farther and the whole train would have gone to total destruction with all on board.) I was out of the train & on the spot. I was ordered with my men to hunt up the rails (if possible) as we had one of that length. My men I had all out. One man jumped into the river up to his waist and feeling around with his foot found one of the rails which my men dragged up the embankment & what sleepers we could get picked up, but the other rail could not be found. The other side was searched but finally it was found on the same side with the first and in less than half an hour from the time of stopping, the rails were laid & the train went over for which dispatch the train was put in my charge as Conductor (a position I never dreamed of ever reaching & from the experience I have had at it, I don’t envy Conductor Davis or any other).
As soon as we reached the junction two miles from this last place, I had orders to take fifteen men as guard and go back with the train to Annapolis. I had some passengers aboard who had just arrived at the junction from Washington. After running 7 miles from the junction, the train stopped. I got out on the platform & found we were surrounded by the 71st New York Regiment & the Rhode Island troops under Gov. Sprague who was introduced to me. The Colonel of the 71st [George B. Hall] wanted me to run back with some of his troops who he said were tired out & had only one ration left. My inclination was to do so. I told him at last if the passengers were willing, I would do so [but] as I turned to go into the cars, a gentleman met me and said, “Lieutenant, you can’t go back. I’m the bearer of secret dispatches from Washington and you must go on at all hazards.” The other passengers came to the door & said they were willing to go back. I said, “Gentlemen, it is impossible. I can’t go back. My orders are imperative for me to go on.” The Colonel again remonstrating with me, the bearer [of the dispatches] went out and took him one side and spoke to him and showing him his packet under his shirt, the Colonel called out to his men, “The train can’t stop. The conductor would return, but I’m satisfied he can’t according to his orders.” I then made the signal and the train went on.
As soon as I arrived, I told Lieut. Hodges who had charge of the depot & trains at Annapolis that my orders were to bring all the baggage and provisions belonging to the 8th [Massachusetts] back with the train as soon as possible. He told me his orders were to report to Gen. Butler as soon as the train arrived. I then went down to the Academy with the bearer of the dispatches and was told at the door of the General’s quarters that he was too busy for the present. I told him to report Lieut. Low from the Junction [was here and] I was immediately admitted. The General came forward, shook me by the hand & expressed his gratification that the route was clear & then asked me how many men my train would carry. I told him about 600. He then ordered a regiment to the depot. After I got down to the depot, an orderly came to me there and gave me a half dozen letters from the General to parties in Washington. After an hour’s detention, I got the train started, packed solid full of troops and I never travelled on a train of cars where I felt such responsibility resting upon me as that night. I was with my 15 men on the engine & tender. The packing of the engine was loose and a cloud of steam around the engine prevented the sails ahead being seen. However, we got through safe. I then gave up the train to [George B. Hall,] the Colonel of the 71st [New York] who in running back the train run it off the track two miles from the station.
I went on with the. regiment to Washington where I left at the depot and went and delivered the letters. The regiment marched to the White House [and] from there to the Capitol where they have been quartered since—the roughest, toughest, dirtiest, and ragged regiment there is in Washington. By what I have just learned, they are bound we shall have the brunt of everything. So we are to be under marching orders ready at a moment’s warning after today to march wherever ordered. The Colonel has just been around enquiring the state of the muskets & the supply of ammunition. Our probable destination will be Virginia where in some sections the Union men are kept down by a state of terrorism, threats of the secessionists, and as soon as the Union men know that Government will protect them, they will show their strength. We may remain here for weeks and we may be off tomorrow. It’s hard telling what will be done with us until we receive the orders.
Write me or let Presson write me all about the business, how the vessels are doing, how the notes are met, &c. &c. If we are gone from here, letters will be forwarded. Stir up the citizens to send us a set of knives such as were furnished Allen’s company. We shall need them if we go into active service in Virginia.
We have all been sworn in—not one backed down. I little thought ten years ag when I joined the Mass. Vol. Militia I should ever be an United States officer. I now rank as 1st Lieut. of Co. G, 8th Regt. Mass Militia. Send me with some things I have written to my wife for, some Castile soap & fifty dollars in small gold. If I find I have got to leave the city soon, I shall draw on you for fifty dollars at sight and get Hon. B. B. French who Mr. Parkman has given me a letter of introduction to, to get it cashed for me a it is hard work to get any paper cashed here. Hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst, I remain yours truly, — David W. Low
1 The first building specifically designed for religious services, and referred to as the first Chapel, was dedicated by Chaplain Theodore Bartow in February, 1854. A simple structure, built of brick with Ionic columns, the first Chapel could house 300 people, and also served as an assembly hall for debates and lectures. During the Civil War the building was used as an enlisted men’s barracks.