1862: James Sanks Brisbin to Mary Jane (Wagner) Brisbin

This letter was written by James Sanks Brisbin (1837-1892), the son of Ezra Dougherty and Margaret (Packer) Brisbin of Centre county, Pennsylvania.

James Sanks Brisbin (seated), later in the war (Heritage Auctions)

When the American Civil War began in 1861, Brisbin was a lawyer in practice. He enlisted in the Pennsylvania volunteer services that April as a private. On April 26, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the mounted 2nd U.S. Dragoons. In the First Battle of Bull Run, Brisbin received two wounds, one in his side and the other in an arm, and was praised by his superiors for his performance during the fight.

On August 3, 1861, Brisbin transferred to the 1st U.S. Cavalry (previously known as the 1st Dragoons until a reorganization of the army) but then was appointed a captain in the 6th U.S. Cavalry two days later. On June 9, 1862, while fighting near Beverly Ford, Virginia, he was again wounded when he fell off of his horse. Exactly one year later Brisbin was brevetted to the rank of major for his conduct at Beverly Ford. In 1863 he very briefly led the cavalry forces in the Federal Department of the Susquehanna, and was wounded in a leg during combat near Greenbrier, Virginia, on July 26.

Brisbin was promoted to colonel on March 1, 1864, and organized the 5th United States Colored Cavalry. He served as the acting head of cavalry on the staff of Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee during the Red River Campaign, and was again wounded during the Battle of Mansfield in Louisiana on April 8, this time in the right foot. On December 12, 1864, Brisbin was brevetted to brigadier general in the Union Army, and seven days later was appointed a brevet lieutenant colonel in the regular army for his performance at Battle of Marion in Tennessee. In 1865, he was on recruiting duty in Kentucky, serving on the staff of Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge. On March 13, Brisbin was brevetted to colonel in the regular army as well as brevetted major general in the Union Army, and on May 1 he was promoted to brigadier general. Brisbin was mustered out of the Union Army as a volunteer on January 15, 1866. [Wikipedia]

This letter was written just a few days before the Battle of Fredericksburg. The 6th US Cavalry had been encamped in the vicinity of the Rappahannock river since 24 November 1862. During the battle, the 6th sent a squadron across the Rappahannock on a pontoon bridge to reconnoiter the enemy positions but had to withdraw when they received enemy artillery fire, losing 2 men and eight horses. After making their report to Gen. Burnside, they were held in reserve near Falmouth where they remained several months. I have not learned whether Capt. Brisbin was with the squad that entered Fredericksburg or not. From this letter we learn that he had been placed under arrest on some unidentified charge though he or someone else tried to conceal that piece of information by attempting to cross out those words that I indicated with a strikethrough.


Camp 6th US Cavalry
Belle Plaine, Virginia
December 9th, 1862

My Dear Wife,

I wrote you this morning but as it is my duty to write you every day, I will write you again. Te sun came out today but the air was quite cold all day. The river is now frozen over but not hard enough to bear. If the river gets solid, I think we will either go over or the Rebs will come over. All the people of Falmouth and Fredericksburg are camped out. It must be pretty cold on the women & children.

I think the great battle of the war is at hand. All other battles will be as nothing when compared with it. They say we have four hundred thousand men here. I think not so many as that but we certainly have three hundred thousand and that is a good many men. The Rebels must have two hundred and fifty thousand so we will be able to get up quite a respectable fight. Half a million of men fighting will raise considerable smoke and dust and make quite a noise.

I am afraid they will keep me under arrest and if so I can’t fight. Men under arrest can’t fight. I suppose you would not care if there was a fight & they did keep me under arrest and keep me out of it, but I would not miss the next battle for anything. I would rather lose a leg. Our men are all anxious for a fight & confident they can whip the Rebels. The next battle will end the war, one way or the other. If we are defeated, I think the Confederacy will be acknowledged. But if we whip them, they will make peace. God grant the war may soon end.

I did not get any letters today and so am disappointed. I missed the mail this morning and had to send one of my men 5 miles with your letter to get it mailed. They say we will get a mail every day hereafter so you can now write and be certain I will get your letters.

We get plenty to eat. Have flannel [pancakes] cakes, ham, butter, sugar, coffee &c. Butter is a dollar a pound but we can trade coffee for butter. Coffee is $2 a pound but we can buy it at 26 cents. Salt is any price but we get it at a cent a pound. The people of Virginia will give anything they have for a little sugar, coffee, or salt. Madden’s brother has come. Madden still has a little diarrhea. Lt. Tupper and I are now living together. Tupper is a nice, quiet fellow. Lt. Madden’s brother is coming up.

I do hope you will try and be happy and patiently bear this separation. I can assure you it is a bitter pill to me but all things have an end and so will the war. You must never quarrel with me anymore when I come home again. Wy did you not get coal? Tell them to get you coal at once. If this coal matter is not attended to, I will take some very decided action about it that will surprise you all. I would give a month’s pay to be home tonight and sleep in your arms. You can’t send a box. I would never get it. Capt. Saunders has got a leave at last & gone to Kentucky.

Do not fret about me. I am all right. The Rebs can’t kill me—at least I am not uneasy. Who is to be—what do you call them? brideswoman to Sallie? I think Josh would make a good groomsman. Your Pap made a very good one when we were married. But I will close. It is getting warmer. How I would like to be at home and get some apples tonight.

Goodbye darling. Pray for your, — Jim

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