1865: William Darwin Beckwith to Safford Silas Taylor

The following letter was written by William (“Will”) Darwin Beckwith (1841-1922), the son of Daniel Beckwith (1791-1851) and Sylvia Soules of Schuyler Falls, New York. Receiving an $800 bounty from his town for volunteering, Will enlisted on 31 August 1864 with Merritt Pierce at Troy as a private in Co. L, 1st New York Engineers to serve 1 year. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as a blue-eyed, black-haired farmer who stood approximately 5 feet 9 inches tall. He was appointed artificer on 1 May 1865. He mustered out of the regiment on 30 June 1865 at Richmond, Virginia.

After the war, Will married Josephine M. Norris (1847-1910) in 1867 and in 1871 moved with his family to Wisconsin. Shortly afterwards they moved on to Kansas. In 1901, the family moved to Fresno, California.

Will wrote the letter to his friend, Safford (“Saff”) Silas Taylor (1840-1895), the son of Silas Maxon Taylor (1799-1880) and Rebecca Perry (1801-1844) of Schuyler Falls, New York. Safford enlisted on 19 December 1863 at Schuyler Falls: mustered in as a private, 1st New York Engineers, Co. I on 19 December 1863 to serve 3 years. He was appointed artificer on 1 July 1864 and was mustered out of the regiment on 19 July 1865 at Hilton Head, South Carolina. He died in Schuyler Falls on 23 Jan 1895.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Carolyn Cockrell and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Manchester [Virginia]
May 2, 1865

Friend Saff[ord Taylor],

Your most obedient servant has seated himself this fine afternoon (after a pleasant walk through Manchester) for the purpose of answering your last, which I received Sunday. Right glad I was to hear from you for it has been a long time that I have not had an opportunity to get letters for we have been on the march almost every day since the 24th of March. Finally, we brought up in Richmond a few day[s] ago feeling somewhat worn out but in good spirits. I will give you a short history of our journey.

March the 24th we started with our pontoon train from Broadway Landing direction northeast, bound for the Chickahominy River which we reached the second day about noon and laid a bridge over it before dinner for Sheridan to cross over with his cavalry. But we learned that night that he had crossed the day previous three miles below us so we dismantled our bridge and started back following Sheridan to the extreme left, south of Petersburg. We built a bridge over Hatcher’s Run with logs about fifty rods from where they were fighting [but] they could not see us—we were in the woods. We worked most all night on it.  

The next morning the Rebs had to leave [as] our troops [were] in hot pursuit and Co. L with, our pontoon train (consisting of forty wagons, eight mules to a wagon), bringing up the rear. You may guess there was some excitement along the road. We would march all day—sometimes all night—no one thinking of being tired as long as we were after Lee. Our troops drove the Rebs through Farmville about April 7th noon & they burned the bridge after them. They were just over a hill making preparations to shell the village which is nearly as large as Plattsburgh. We came on with our train a little after dark and throwed a bridge over to let the artillery cross and the Potomac Army. Their pontoon train got stuck in the mud but came on the next morning and relieved us.

On we went through the mud and rain towards Lynchburg. Lee was captured at Clover Hill, 1 some eighteen or twenty miles from Lynchburg. I have been within a mile of where he was captured.

April the 10th we started back, bound for Richmond. Our mules were so tried and worn out we could not march but 10 miles a day. The roads were getting worse every day. Sixteen of our mules fell in the traces [and] we were obliged to shoot them. At Burkeville, some 82 miles from Petersburg, we put our train on board the cars [and] went to Petersburg, spent one night there, then on to Richmond. Our flag now gleams in the morning beams from many a spire in Richmond. We have got through marching on. Next, we will go home from Richmond.

We are now quartered on the south side of the river a little below Manchester. Just across the river stands Libby Prison and Castle Thunder. We have a fine view of them from our camp. I have been into Libby. It is a hard looking place. I have not room to describe it. I have been all over the city. The upper part is splendid. The business part is nearly all burned down.

The two pontoon bridges laid across the James River between Richmond and Manchester in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

We have two pontoon bridges over the river. We have got thirty new recruits for our company—a pretty large company.  A part of the company started last Thursday on another expedition, not knowing where. The rest of the company and Co. M and H are to build a bridge here. We are at work getting timber there now. Merritt [Pierce] is all right. He says you owe him a letter. [Napoleon] Flanders has gone on that expedition.

No appearance of war here. I think the fighting is over. We will have a good time yet playing with the girls when we get home. That time I think is not far distant. We will probably meet before we are discharged. Yours, if you can read it. — Will

1 Originally the village of Appomattox Court House was known as Clover Hill. It was a small settlement with a few houses around the tavern, a stopping-off point on the main Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. When the county of Appomattox was formed in 1845, Clover Hill was chosen as the county seat and renamed Appomattox Court House. The next year the county courthouse was built. Slowly the settlement grew into a village of homes, stores, and lawyers’ offices. Among the original structures still standing from 1865 are the Clover Hill Tavern, Meeks Store, Woodson Law Office, Peers House, Mariah Wright House, and Jones Law Office. (National Historic Park)

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