1864: John Sowden to his Family

John Sowden, Co. K, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, half-plate ferrotype
(Rob Morgan Collection)

The following letters were written by John Sowden (1841-1917) who emigrated as a small child from England with his mother, Mary Ann Sowden (1808-1870)—a “matron”—and older siblings in August 1843 aboard the ship Stephen Whitney. John’s maternal grandfather’s surname may have been “Caser” or “Cazer.” Mary Ann settled her family in Lanesborough in the Housatonic River Valley of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts—a rural settlement that must have reminded her considerably of her native home.

From John’s letter we learn that his mother persuaded him to resist the temptation to give up his job as an engineer and enlist with his friends in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry when it was first being formed in the fall of 1861. He was married to Harriet E. Stocking (1842-1905) in 1862; their firstborn of eventually eight children was born in May 1863. Finally, near the end of December 1863, John accepted a state bounty of $325 and enlisted as a private in Co. K of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry where he served until 10 June 1865. John’s second letter includes a brief description of the cavalry fight at Jerusalem Plank Road on 16 September 1864, 12 days previous. In this ill-advised engagement, the regiment charged Rebel earthworks with artillery multiple times hoping to recapture a herd of cattle that had been carried off by Lee’s army the day before. The regimental history claims only two of their own troopers were killed, ten wounded, and nine missing.

After his discharge from the service, John returned to his family in Lanesborough where he was employed as a “blowers assistant” (glassblower presumably). By the 1880s, he had moved his family to Anoka county, Minnesota, where he worked in a planing mill. In 1900, the family resided in Minneapolis.

[Note: These letters are from the personal collection of Rob Morgan and were transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]

Letter 1

Monocacy River
August 28, 1864

My Dear Wife,

As I had a few moments leisure time I thought I must spend it in writing to you to let you know that I am with the living. I hant got much news for you this time. I wrote to you in my last letter about my having the rheumatism. I can’t say I am much better. I am obliged to walk the camp the bigger part of the night.

We have moved to another new place now. I expect we will stay here for a spell—maybe two or three months. We relieved another regiment which was doing picket duty at the mouth of the Monocacy River where it empties into the Potomac River.

Hattie, we heard some very heavy cannonading yesterday. It was up in the Shenandoah Valley about thirty miles from here. General Sheridan is up there someplace with a large force. I expect it must be him that was fighting. We may think ourselves well off to have such a soft job although we are liable to be attacked any day or night and at the same time we might stay here three years and not be attacked.

Hattie, haven’t you heard from James yet? I saw a man from Camp Stoneman the other day. He told me that everyone that he was acquainted with had got back and I thought that everyone of them had got back. It is quite strange that he don’t write. I am a going to write to Camp Stoneman to see if I can find out anything about him. I shall write today. When you write again, let me know where Arthur Smith was when he wrote to his mother.

Hattie, I am a going to direct an envelope myself for you to send back and I want you to direct just like it as near as you can to see if it will make any difference in getting through. Henry Boggart was just sitting down by the side of me. He sends his best respects to you and all the rest who enquires after him.

My dear, I don’t think of any more to write this time. Tell Mother I should like to get a letter from her because I know it would be a good one for I must say she can write a good letter. My dear, I don’t want you to think that I have run down your letters for I do not but you must acknowledge that Mother can beat you a little on writing letters. But never mind that. Maybe when you have wrote as many letters as she has, you can compose a letter as good as she can. I can’t find any fault with your letters for your writing, spelling, and composing is much better than mine. But I do as well as I can considering the way I have to right. Often times I can’t find a piece of board to right on so I have to write on my blanket in any way I can but am writing on a little box this time. It seems quite good to get it to write on.

You must give my love to Father & Mother. Also the rest. Remember yourself whilst giving it out and remember them kisses sent to Jenny. How is the dear little thing getting along? If I could only see you for a few hours, what is there I would not give. But I feel in pretty good spirits if it was not for the pains I have in my shoulder. But I am in hopes it will wear off in a little while.

Well, my dear, I will bid you goodbye for this time. From your ever loving husband, — John Sowden

To Mrs. H. E. S.

Letter 2

Camp near Petersburg [Virginia]
September 28, 1864

My Dear Mother,

I just received your kind letter last night and was very glad to hear that you was in such good health, hoping it may continue so. My health is very good at present. I have seen one pretty hard fight since I joined my regiment. We had it hand to hand with them but they had three to our one so we had to fall back and they had six cannons playing on us where we only had four on them. They had six officers killed and we did not lose a one. We lost Maurice Casey in that fight. 1 I guess you know him. He is from Dolton. We lost about 25 of our boys in that [fight]. Our regiment was fighting about 12 hours.

Mother, we keep getting good news from the War Department. I think we will all be home by next June if not before and we think all the fighting will be done this fall. I hope so for I have seen enough of it. But if I get home all right, I don’t think I shall be sorry I came for I can say I have seen a good deal and learnt a good deal of such as I would not know anything about if I had not been here.

Mother, do you remember when I was a going to enlist with John Ober? If I had went with him and got through all tight, I should of been home probably next week for the old fellows are going home next week. John Ober came out when the regiment first came out. He got killed last June. 2

Well, Mother, I don’t think of anything more at present to write. You must write soon and often/ From your son, — John Sowden

Give my love to all. Much love to you. Write soon.

1 Maurice Casey of Pittsfield was 28 years old when he mustered into Co. K, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry on 14 January 1864. He was killed on 16 September 1864 in the fighting at Jerusalem Plank Road.

2 John P. Ober of Pittsfield was 26 years old when he mustered into Co. F, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry on 19 September 1861. He was killed on 17 June 1863 in the fighting at Aldie. See “Not for Gain or Glory: The 1st Mass. Cavalry at Aldie,” by Daniel Davis.

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