1861: John Seaton to Charlotte (Tuthill) Seaton

This letter was written by John Seaton (1834-1912), a son of John M. Seaton (1804-1847) and Elizabeth Jones (1810-18xx) of Cincinnati, Ohio. When John was three weeks old his parents removed from Cincinnati to Louisville, Kentucky, where his boyhood days were spent. He was eleven years of age when his father was killed on the field of battle in the War with Mexico. He attended school until he was fifteen years of age, and then began learning the trade of a machinist. A few years later finds him working as a journeyman machinist in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1856 with a cash capital of $2.50, John Seaton started a foundry at Alton, Ill. A natural aptitude for mechanics and machinery appliances, combined with pluck, energy and perseverance, enabled him to make a success … and the enterprise prospered. He was married in 1857 to Charlotte Ellen Tuthill (1840-1925), to whom he addressed this letter.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, John Seaton offered his services in defense of the Union and was commissioned a captain of Co. B, 22nd Illinois Infantry. The regiment trained in Belleville until 25 June 1861, outfitted in the grey uniform of the Illinois militia; and equipped with a .69 caliber converted flintlock musket that fired buck & ball.

Their first serious engagement was the Battle of Belmont (7 November 1861) under General Grant and Captain Seaton was in command of the skirmish line that opened this engagement. Before he advanced, Captain John Seaton of the 22nd Illinois told his men, ‘If I should show the white feather, shoot me dead in my tracks and my family will feel that I died for my country.’ [See Battle of Belmont on HistoryNet] One of the precious possessions of his family at this day is the personal letter he received from the famous commander, commending him for the efficient manner in which he performed the task allotted to his command. He served for one year and then resigned his commission and returned to Alton to take charge of his business.

A letter that John wrote to his wife following the Battle of Belmont and published in the Alton Telegraph on 15 November 1861 was beautifully summarized and transcribed by my friend Dan Masters on Civil War Chronicles under the title, Standing Up to the Work: A Captain’s View of Belmont.”

After the war, John Seaton remained in Alton in charge of his foundry until 1872, when he removed to Atchison, Kansas, with his entire force of fifty employees. In addition to general architectural work, he filled orders for the Santa Fe, Missouri Pacific and Ft. Scott and Gulf railroads, such as casting locomotive wheels, smoke stacks, steam cylinders, etc., …. The business of his large establishment in Atchison was built up until it amounted to over $250,000 annually, and the plant covered an area of 700×400 feet. Mr. Seaton was in business continually from 1856 until the time of his demise, January 12, 1912.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Addressed to Mrs. John Seaton, Alton, Illinois

Camp Norfolk, Missouri
Sunday, September 15, 1861

My dear wife,

I am well sitting in my tent writing on the box you sent me laid on a drum. I got the box and six shirts this morning. I tell you I was glad to get them as I was just out. I had only two shirts left to wear and they were both dirty. They will soon be ragged. I put on the top shirt, and it fits well. I am much pleased with them.  

I am well and hearty but awful tired. We have been put through this week—scouting and marching nearly all the time. Day before yesterday about 300 of us went out and traveled. During the time we were out, about fifteen or sixteen miles, at one time we thought we had arrived to camp; all of a sudden, bang! went a musket of one of the enemy’s picket’s, shooting at our cavalry that was 100 yds. in advance of us. My company was at the head of the battalion and I immediately called them into line and marched in line of battle towards [the] enemy. In a couple minutes more, bang! went another of the enemy’s guns. Neither shot took any effect. By that time the cavalry was drawn up into line and I could see them aiming their pieces. They did not fire though.

We marched up right behind them, halted a moment, and then proceeded to a house a little further ahead. In an adjacent field among the stumps, still burnt their camp fires but no enemy could be seen. The woman of the house informed us that she was just getting dinner for a party of 20 horsemen. They slipped us and we heard no more firing during that tramp. The woman’s husband has been taken away to Memphis because he known to be a Union man. It is supposed he will be made away with or pressed into their army. He is a slaveholder too. We saw several of his negroes.

On our way coming back, we came around by another road and when within 2½ miles of Norfolk, we came to a fine large, white, two-story frame house. Here was the residence of another sound Union man by the name of Blanchard. He was seized upon about ten days ago, his house ransacked, and himself, Negroes, horses and cattle conveyed southward. His family, they say, have fled to Cairo. Here was a scene to nerve the patriotic arms of Union men to deeds of valor. A fine family living in a quiet place having a fine farm, and living in affluence, scattered to the four winds of heaven, property torn up, front door of house standing open, fine furniture laying scattered and broken, women’s garments of various kinds scattered here and there, beds look as though the sleepers had just turned out of them, the large cistern all torn off on top, dead cats and other articles thrown in the water, the front of the house riddled with bullets, some of the shingles torn by the leaden missiles, fine fields of corn left without one to take care of them, negroes quarters broken up, and in fact outrages on property of every conceivable shape meet the eye, no matter which way you turn. After stopping there a few moments we left. The place as we left was as silent as the grave, and looked as though the place might be haunted. 

We came back to camp tired and hungry and eat our supper with a great gusto. We rested quietly that night and yesterday morning received orders to get our companies ready with 24 hours rations in their haversacks to go on an expedition. Our regiment, part of the 11th [Illinois] regiment, and the 8th [Illinois] regiment in full left camp for down the river road with 4 brass field pieces accompanying us, and a gun boat on river. We marched on towards the camp that the gun boats had the fight with, that I wrote to you about in my last. The boat of course went down a great deal faster than we did. When we had got about half way down and was winding our way through the young cottonwood trees, we suddenly hear the gun boat down below us—boom! boom!—went two large guns throwing shells. We thought the fight had commenced and we hurried on, and the heat was so intense we could hardly breathe. We kept on but no further firing was heard. When we got a couple miles further down, we came out in full view of the river and there could see the gun boat maneuvering around about 2 miles below us. We went on down and she landed and gave the information that the enemy had fled as soon as she fired. We halted there and rested some time. We were then 10 miles from camp. This regiment was in the lead of the expedition.

I went in Colonel Hunter’s house there. He is colonel of a regiment at New Madrid. There I found several negro women cooking supper for 150 men. They told us that a company of secession cavalry that strong were fed there every breakfast and supper by order of old Massa Hunter. There were no white folk there—nothing but niggers. They had a splendid lot of beef cooked and pork and they were busy baking corn bread. We pitched in and eat everything they had. The niggers flew around there waiting upon us and tickled to death because we had come. They set out milk, apples and everything they could do, they did. One of the women said to me, “Fo’ God, Massa, I’se mighty glad you cum. Dem folks makes great brags what dey’ll do wid yo. Dey was here dis mornin’ when de gun boat cum in sight and dey took to deyre heels and broke fo de woods as fast as deyre hosses could carry um.” And then another one says, “Eat it all, Massas, and don’t leave dem none. Golly how dey’ll swear wan dey come back.” I told her, “I guessed we’d wait and catch them.” She answered, “God knows you nebber catch em, dey will be sure your gone befo dey com back.”

They sent their little niggers out to catch chickens and give to our men. I tell you the niggers are not blind at all. They see what’s going on and their sympathies are all on our side. We are half mile from the battlefield of the other day, but did not go to it on account of the road striking square off into the woods, and we could see there were none there. We got back to camp at ten o’clock last night. Nothing more at present. I wrote you in my last to send me five dollars. I still write the same as we are not paid yet, and I have just 10cts left. Send it by express to Cairo. Kiss them babies for me.

Your affectionate husband, — John Seaton

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