1862: Clarence Gillette Harmon to his Friend “Nellie”

I could not find an image of Clarence but here is Lt. Walter C. Hull who was also from Ellicottville and served in Co. I, 37th New York Infantry. He later reenlisted in the 2nd New York Cavalry and was KIA at Cedar Creek in November 1864. (Kyle M. Stetz Collection)

These five letters were written by Clarence Gillette Harmon (1838-1901), the son of Eleazer Harmon (1807-1882) and Harriet Goodspeed (1810-1839) of Ellicottville, Cattaraugus county, New York. Clarence was employed as a bookkeeper when he enlisted in November 1861 at the age of 23 to serve two years and was mustered in as the 1st Lieutenant of Co. H, 37th New York Infantry. His older brother, Luke Goodspeed Harmon (1836-1908) was already a Captain in the same regiment. Some three weeks after the last letter in this collection was penned by Clarence, his brother Luke sent a letter home stating that Clarence was dangerously ill with typhoid fever at Fortress Monroe, so much so that Clarence resigned his commission and was officially discharged from the service on 19 June 1862.

The 37th New York Infantry, or “Irish Rifles,” was recruited during the months of April and May, 1861. As its name indicates, it was principally composed of Irish American citizens, with the exception of two companies (H and I) from Cattaraugus county, a majority of whom were American born. When the books of the regiment were opened, says Surgeon O’Meagher, “more than two thousand members were enrolled, but could not be retained, in consequence, as well of the prescribed limits affixed to the military organizations, as of the difficulties experienced by the recruiting officers in obtaining the requisite authority from the State officials. Nine-tenths of the men and officers might be classed as clerks, mechanics, laborers and farmers’ sons. The remainder—two companies—were mostly American born, from Cattaraugus County, with a slight sprinkling of Irish and German citizens. They were all American citizens and harmonized very well.”

Clarence wrote these letters to his friend “Nellie” who surely lived in Cattaraugus county but does not appear to be the woman he eventually married named Mary Patterson (1844-1905). Clarence asked her to give his regards to Mr. and Mrs. Blakeslee in one of his letters so she might very well have been their daughter, Ella Delia Blakeslee (1852-1946) even though she would have only been ten years old at the time. Ella married Frank Blackmon in 1881.

Four of Clarence’s five letters were written from Fort Washington overlooking the Potomac River

Letter 1

Headquarters Company H, 37th Regiment New York Volunteers
Fort Washington, Md.
January 19, 1862

My dear friend,

You cannot imagine my delight last evening upon receiving and perusing your very welcome letter of the 12th instant and to show you how highly I prize them, I am going to be very prompt in answering. I cannot expect that my scrawls will more than half repay you for the time and trouble expended and shall have to request that you charge the difference to the “the Union.” I fear I should be discouraged and tempted to give up the “old ship” and return to civil life if it were not that then I should be deprived of your letters.

This fort reminds me of the buildings erected in every county seat for the accomodation of men that insist upon breaking the laws of the land. We are entirely shut up away from everybody and everything except these two companies and their officers, the Commanding officer and family, the Post Surgeon, and assistant acting Quarter Master. I have not been twenty rods from the fort in over a month and am getting heartily sick of such close confinement. It is perfect machinery—the same thing over and over and over again.

For the last ten days we have had very disagreeable weather—snowing at night and raining all day, making the mud ankle deep. This evening there is a beautiful rainbow and I hope we may have a few days pleasant weather.

Lieutenant [George W.] Baillet’s wife arrived here last Thursday evening and I fancy we shall soon see a decided change in the management of our culinary department as she has consented to take charge of it. We have a Negress (slave) that we pay her master three dollars a week for her services including a young nigger brat about two months old which of course is very agreeable nights. We also have an Irish girl which we pay two dollars and a half to wait upon the Niggers which occupies so much time that our food is brought upon the table more than half dirt and the other half about one quarter cooked. With your knowledge of housekeeping, you can readily imagine the condition of our kitchen with such help and no one to oversee them. The other night I went to the kitchen and they were having a gay time, I assure you. Catharine (the Irish girl) was playing on an old greasy banjo and three or four young Niggers dancing while the old Negress was sitting the table and making molasses candy. The result is that it costs us from thirty-five to forty-five dollars each per month for board and nothing fit to eat at that price. Hence you see the importance of young ladies knowing how work should be done that they could tell if it were not thoroughly executed.

In answer to your interrogatory, “Have you enlisted for three years?” I take great pleasure in answering, “If the Court know herself and she believe darned will she do,” I have not and do not think I shall remain in the army longer than May or June. I received a letter from Mr. Stowell in which he gave some encouragement that he should want me in the spring. I seriously hope he will for I never saw a better man to labor with and then I think a fine place to live in. I don’t like soldiering here. It is too lazy work. You know I told you I should not remain longer than until I could obtain some kind of business at home and that I only came here because I had nothing else to do and did not want to loaf around home doing nothing. I must say that I do not fancy “Brass coats and blue buttons.” here we see too much of them & they are too expensive. It costs a person five dollars to look at anything in Washington and when you talk of purchasing, they act as though you were the last person they ever expected to see and they must improve the opportunity and make a fortune from one a small purchase.

I fear I have already written more than you will care to read and will not annoy you with much more. I believe I have not answered your question, “Do you know how to skate?” I did know how to skate a little several years ago but think I should make awkward work of it now as I have not had a pair upon my feet in over five years. You must have had a grand time the week you were at home.

I thought I told you I had received a letter from Mary Clarke. I received one about one week before New Years. I think it was Christmas morning. I have answered it but as yet have received no reply. She said she was having a gay time and the evening she wrote was going to the theatre and the next day to Central Park skating. She said her people were not going to remain long in Olean but did not say where they were going. I think she is a good [girl] and agree with you that she improves upon acquaintance. Gillmore is undoubtedly a rascal but I think that his father-in-law is more to blame that he for I do not believe Gillmore knows enough to defraud many without some help and I think Clarke has done it.

Excuse me for writing so long a letter. I won’t do so no more, but you may. Please remember me to Mr. & Mrs. Blakeslee. Are you going to remain at Olean another term? Hoping to hear from you very soon, I remain truly your friend, — Clarence

Letter 2

Headquarters Company H, 37th Regt. New York Volunteers
Fort Washington, Maryland
Washington’s Birthday [Feb. 22, 1862]

Dear Friend,

Your very welcome epistle was received one week ago today and eagerly perused. I should have answered it immediately but a few days before it arrived we applied to Major General McClellan to be relieved from duty at this post and returned to our regiment and were expecting orders every day and I did not know where to have my letters addressed. You will appreciate the delay for had it not occurred, you would have been annoyed with this letter several days sooner.

Since I wrote you, I have visited Edwin Goodrich 1 and Henry Davis. They are in the 9th New York Volunteer Cavalry and are camped about two miles from Washington upon a hillside in a cedar grove—the best location for a camp that I ever saw. There was eight of them, I believe, camped in one Sibley tent and all appeared happy. It was just retreat when I arrived in camp and when I found the boys they were eating their supper which consisted of coffee, bread & rice with molasses. Every man is furnished with a tin plate, cup, knife and fork which they keep in their tent. At meals they all march up to the cook’s tent and get their rations. It is not sulable [?] to wash their dishes more than once a month but I think Henry & Edwin must have violated the rule for their plates & cups were clean.

This has been a great day for Ameriky here. We fired two salutes at this garrison in honor of Washington’s Birthday. [There were] thirty-four guns at noon and thirty-four at retreat (sundown), breaking out about twenty lights of glass and throwing one window entirely out of the building. We burned three barrels of powder.

I cannot tell when we shall hear from our application but think we must hear next week. I sincerely hope it will be approved for I am heartily tired of being shut up in this jail. I cannot say that I have any desire to be shot and sent to the arms of my Heavenly Parent, but I do think I should prefer the field and stand my chances.

I cannot think you honestly believe I wish to flatter you. If I did not prize your letters very much, be assured I would not answer them as promptly as I have done. Indeed, Nellie, you cannot imagine how very acceptable they are, and I think I duly appreciate them. I should expect to hear from you soon—very soon. Please do not disappoint me. Truly your friend, — Clarence

Address Fort Washington

1 Edwin Goodrich (1843-1910) was awarded the Medal of Honor as a First Lieutenant in Company D, 9th New York Cavalry for action in November 1864 near Cedar Creek, Virgina. His citation reads “While the command was falling back, he returned and in the face of the enemy rescued a sergeant from under his fallen horse.” 

Letter 3

Headquarters Company H, 37th New York Volunteers
Fort Washington, Maryland
March 23, 1862

Dear Friend,

Rev. George Ward Dunbar (1833-1911)

Your very interesting letter of the 19th instant was received Saturday evening and you perceive I am going to be punctual in answering it. I cannot with a clear conscience say I have attended church although I heard our Army Chaplain read service and a sermon. I cannot but think it a greater sin to go here than remain in my quarters for I cannot have any respect for a minister of the Gospel that can and will get drunker than I ever was. The other Sunday he was so drunk that it was with difficulty that he conducted the services, and furthermore, he is I believe at heart “a right smart” (Maryland expression) secesher, though he does not commit himself. I would like to be in Olean and hear Mr. [George Ward] Dunbar and if it wasn’t wicked, I would say see the girls. Do you like Mr. Dunbar as well as when I was there? Everyone spoke very highly of him & I liked him very much.

“My opinion of slavery is that it is a blessing to the Nigger and a curse to the master.”

— Lt. Clarence G. Harmon, 37th New York Infantry, 23 March 1862

This is a beautiful day and quite warm. I wish we could have such weather in Cattaraugus. I went out into the country a few days ago and every thing looks forsaken. I called upon several planters that have been at the Fort and was astonished at the method of farming. Everything looks forsaken, prices down, and the ground in horrible condition. Now and then I could see three or four Niggers playing work but would not accomplish as much in three days as one white man North would do in one. Their houses were intended to have been genteelly furnished, but oh Lord, such a mixture. I should judge everything was very expensive but were so arranged [that] it looked very much as if a nigger had unloaded it in the middle of the room and they had not time to arrange it. I dare say, any Irish woman could take the money and display better taste. I took dinner with Mr. Hatton. 1 They thought it was very nice. I think it would have been had it been properly cooked. My opinion of slavery is that it is a blessing to the Nigger and a curse to the master.

Last Tuesday there was one Division passed here going down the river into Dixie and yesterday two more. It was the grandest spectacle I ever witnessed. There were twenty steamers Tuesday and with a Marine Glass I could readily distinguish our regiment (the 37th N. Y. Volunteers) as they passed. We expected ourselves to get ordered with them but failed. Yesterday there was two large steamers and as they approached, it looked like one line of soldiers. Every space large enough to hold a man was occupied and the boats resembled a swarm of bees upon the deck. In all there was about forty thousand troops and you can judge what a magnificent sight it must have been. 2

Today boats have been passing to and fro and just dark one boat went down loaded with soldiers since which they have passed one every half hour and now I can see thirteen anchored about a mile below the point and they look splendid. We can see men (with a Marine Glass) well enough to distinguish non-commissioned officers and officers from the men. They look magnificent all lighted up. They will undoubtedly remain there until morning as the channel of the river is quite narrow and the boats very large. The men are only allowed to take what clothing they can carry in their knapsacks and their portable tents which is nothing more or less than two Indian rubber blankets for four men at night. They drive two sticks in the ground, lay another upon them about two or three feet from the ground, hang the blankets over, and the men crawl under, resembling chicken coop upon an enlarge scale.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I have ready a great many good resolutions & one is to stop smoking. One year ago (when I was twenty-three), I stopped chewing and have not used any in that way since and now I do not wish for any. I have not resolved to stop for any length of time but if it is not to hard, shall stop entirely.

Sarah writes me that she had a very gay time in New York. I was much disappointed that they could not come here. We have had fine sport here for the past week fishing. The two companies purchased a seine )twelve hundred feet long) and have caught fish enough to supply the garrison. Yesterday at one haul we caught seven turtles & six eels. And today we had a splendid dinner—turtle soup and roast turkey, &c. &c. Did you ever eat any eels? I think they are next the brook trout but at first I would not taste of them. They look like a large snake and I kept thinking snake. Won’t you drop in and take dinner with us any day this week? Just send Bub over in the morning and we will give you nice turtle soup, turkey, &c.—the best market affords. You will find Mrs. Buillet a very interesting lady and we will do all in our power to make it pleasant for you.

I have not seen Abe since I wrote you. I expected he would come down and bring Mary but she wrote me saying that they felt so down in the mouth since their boy died one day that they did not care to gab. 3

Nellie, if I have not tried your patience too much with this long letter, please answer soon and I will not trespass upon your very precious time in so rude a manner again, but will do all in my power to promote your happiness, knowing that I cannot repay you for your very entertaining letters. I was much surprised to hear of Mr. Palmer’s being discharged. When I left, they thought him perfect almost—the young ladies particularly.

Wishing you pleasant dreams, I will say bye bye. Truly your friend, — Clarence

1 This was probably the residence of Henry Davison Hatton (1817-1864), a slaveowner who lived near Fort Washington by Swann and Piscataway Creeks. Hatton’s father was listed in the 1833 Tax Assessment for Prince George’s County with 72 slaves valued at $15,145 total. Henry was bequeathed 11 slaves in his father’s will dated 15 November 1824. The 1850 US Census shows him holding 24 slaves, 13 females and 11 males. In 1860, the Hattons were still in the 5th District and had 25 slaves.

2 The 37th New York Infantry spent the winter of 1861-2 at “Camp Michigan.” On the 17th of March it embarked with its division, (Hamilton’s), for Fortress Monroe, where it remained for several days under the orders of General Wool. On the 3d of April it moved up the Peninsula, by the New Bridge road, and encamped on Howard’s creek; and on the 5th advanced, (the division following Gen. Porter’s), to Yorktown, where on the 10th, Heintzelman’s corps was posted in the front. Porter’s, Hooker’s and Hamilton’s divisions extending from Wormley’s Creek to Winnie’s Mills. Throughout the siege the regiment was constantly under fire in the trenches and in the camp, and performed the most arduous and harassing labor up to the moment of the evacuation.

3 Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s son, William Wallace Lincoln, died on 20 February 1862.

Letter 4

Headquarters Company H, 37th New York Volunteers
Fort Washington, Maryland
April 8, 1862

Dear Friend,

Your very welcome and interesting letter of the 2nd inst. I had the pleasure of receiving and perusing last evening. There has nothing of special interest transpired at this post since i wrote you. Nearly every day steamers have passed loaded with troops bound for the land of cotton. I understand that more than one hundred thousand soldiers have passed this garrison within the last two weeks. Where they come from I cannot conceive for Alexandria, Va., and Washington are as crowded as ever. We have been held in suspense here for the past week every day expecting orders to join our regiment now in “Dixie.”

Last Wednesday, 2nd Lieut. William C. Green of Company H, 37th Regt. N. Y. Vols. was at Alexandria, Va., and there saw Major General [Isreal Bush] Richardson commanding the Division to which our regiment was attached. Immediately after passing the compliments of the day, the General said, “Your two companies at Fort Washington, Md., are ordered to join they regiment now at Fortress Monroe.” Of course this coming from him and voluntary was relied upon as being correct and we immediately commenced packing and making arrangements and held ourselves in readiness to embark at a few hours notice. We remained thus until Saturday. Captain Clarke went to Washington and there ascertained that they had not received any such orders. We have just got settled again and I trust we may not again be annoyed by false alarms.

I received a letter from Sarah in which she expresses great disappointment that she was unable to visit you the last evening you were in Olean. She says, “The girl is going away today and where there are about forty young ones there has to be about forty to stay at home and take care of them.”

You cannot see the fun in fishing with a seine? It is this—“eating the fish.” And it is not disagreeable to lay upon the banks of river these nice warm spring days and see the men haul the seine. But rest assured I shall not blister my hands hauling it.

My education being limited, I was not permitted to attend guessing school but if I had been, I should guess that you were to be bridesmaid for Miss Emma White. 1 May I ask who is the happy man that you have allowed to entertain hopes that he should be groomsman? I suppose the expected bride is some lady of my acquaintance or you would not have challenged me to guess who it was. And she is the only one that I know contemplates matrimony and I believe I am indebted to you for that information.

This is a genuine Cattaraugus day. Last night it snowed about two hours and this morning at reveille the snow was about two inches deep and it was raining and now there is a heavy fog so dense that I cannot see across the parade ground. I think I never witnessed a more dismal and gloomy day. Do you not find it very refreshing in the country after being accustomed to gay & giddy city life in so large a place as Olean? I must confess that I like living in Olean very much and think after the war, if it is not my luck to be called upstairs to my Heavenly Parent, I shall settle in Olean if I can obtain any paying employment.

I am sorry Miss Clarke is going away for I think she is a nice girl and one that improves upon acquaintance. I certainly think she is well worthy her “Suvyer” Mr. B. Pardon me if I have wounded your feelings by insinuating they were strongly attached to each other. There must be strong hopes of better times this spring to induce your Father to bring on new goods. You can amuse yourself waiting upon customers and I trust you may not often be annoyed with lookers that do not wish to purchase. Do you and Miss Hawleys enjoy fishing in the canal as much this season as you did last? I shall expect to receive another of your very entertaining letters soon—very soon. Please do not disappoint me.

Truly your friend, — Clarence

1 Emma White (1842-1872) married Rev. George Ward Dunbar (1833-1911) on 26 June 1862 in Olean, Cattaraugus county, New York.

Letter 5

Camp Winfield Scott
Near Yorktown, Virginia
April 22, 1862

My Dear Friend,

You will perceive that we have transferred from garrison duty and are now doing duty in the field. We received orders last Sunday evening (April 13th) to hold ourselves in readiness to embark for Alexandria, Va., and thence proceed to Fortress Monroe to join our regiment. Tuesday evening about eight o’clock we were relieved from duty at the Fort and immediately thereafter we embarked on board the Government Transport Aeriel and went to Alexandria. We were kept in board the boat that night and slept on deck which I assure you was pretty tough, it being my first encampment without any shelter. There was a cold north wind all night and at two o’clock I was compelled to walk the deck or suffer with cold. I was not long making up my mind which to do.

Wednesday we layed at anchor in the river till four p.m. and was then transferred to another steamer with orders to leave at seven but the Captain of the boat simply run into the river and anchored and we remained there until 11 a.m. Thursday. We then weighed anchor. Nothing of special interest transpired upon the trip and at 9 a.m. Friday we landed at Ship Point about seven miles from camp.

After dinner we marched to camp, arriving here about sunset and pitched our tents. The next morning we were turned out under arms. Remaining one hour, after breaking ranks and breakfast, we were marched two miles from camp to join the regiment that were at the time upon picket duty. Shells were exchanged between our troops and the Rebels every few moments all day. They wounded a lieutenant in charge of our batteries slightly but did not injure anyone else. Our troops dismounted three of their heavy guns.

Sunday part of our regiment went out to throw up entrenchments. Monday they were making roads to transport our heavy siege guns upon and today they performed the same duties.

The tactical manuals owned by Capt. Luke Harmon (and undoubtedly his brother Clarence) while serving on the 27th New York Infantry (Kyle M. Stetz Collection)

I have not received any reply to my last letter but think you must certainly have answered & that it is delayed some where a necessary consequence when troops are transferred from one station to another. The officers are not allowed any more baggage than they can carry theirselves, hence the absolute necessity of suffering with cold. For one woolen blanket, one rubber one, an overcoat and satchel are all that I wish to carry upon a long march. I visited Edwin Goodrich & Henry Davis [9th N. Y. Cavalry] this afternoon. They are in camp about two miles from us and are well and look rugged & tough. In case I might fall, I will now say to you truly that in you I have found a friend that can be relied upon. “A friend in need is a friend indeed” is a very true saying & I sincerely believe that you would prove such a friend. I will again tender many, many thanks for your kind letters and all other kind favors you have bestowed upon me.

In case Providence should spare my life and conduct me safely through this war, I sincerely trust that it will be your pleasure to continue the friendship. I was compelled to burn your letters when I left the Fort knowing that if I did not, they might fall into others hands who were not intended to peruse their contents. This I trust will meet your approval. I shall write you every opportunity I have without regard to replies and hope you will favor me with your very welcome letters often. May Heaven bless and protect you, my dear friend, is my constant prayer.

Address Lt. C. G. Harmon, Co. H, 37th N. Y. Vols., Washington D. C. & your letters will be forwarded without delay. Write soon. Do please.

I am truly your friend, — Clarence

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