1863: Jonathan Hersey Ayres to William Buford Ayres

The following letter was written by 39 year-old Jonathan Hersey Ayres (1824-1887), a private in Co. B, 14th Virginia Infantry. He wrote the letter to his older brother, William Buford Ayres (1820-1892). They were the sons of John Wesley Ayres (1787-1848) and Mary C. Powers (1788-1859) of Bedford county, Virginia. They had two brothers who fought for the Confederacy but did not survive the war. Elijah Quarles Ayers (1823-1862) served in Co. K, 28th Virginia Infantry. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Richard Pleasant Ayres (1827-1864) served in Co. I, 58th Virginia Infantry. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Gettysburg and died the following year at Point Lookout, Maryland.

In this letter, Jonathan informs his brother that he had returned safely to Richmond just in time to witness a huge fire of the Public Warehouse used to store government supplies. This fire took place on March 10th in spite of a torrential rainstorm. By the time he wrote this letter, Jonathan had been in the service for more than 21 months. His muster rolls indicate that he went into the hospital sick at Richmond on 29 June 1862 and that he was still there through December. Beginning in January 1863, he was detailed as ward master in Hospital K 20 in Richmond. On 2 March 1863, he requested a 7 day leave of absence from Surgeon V. W. Harrison so that he might visit his home in Bedford county and make some arrangements for his “two motherless children there.”

This letter was written just two weeks before the Richmond Women’s Bread Riot (see image below) of April 2, 1863. The situation in Richmond in the spring of 1863 was the result of an unusual sequence of bad luck. A massive snowstorm struck the city in March, and the melting snow turned roads into muddy paths, which made it difficult to transport what little food was being grown on nearby farms into town. In addition, the city’s proximity to the war and the continued influx of wounded soldiers, civil servants, and government staff placed further stress on an already overburdened system.

After the war, Jonathan returned to Liberty, Bedford county, Virginia where he earned his living as a miller/farmer.


Hospital No. 20 1
[Richmond, Va.]
March 16, 1863

Dear brother,

I this evening take my pen in hand to let you know that I returned to Richmond on Tuesday night safe & found all things right at the hospital though there was the largest fire burning when I arrived I ever saw. One side of the Petersburg Depot was on fire. Loss very heavy. One thousand hotheads of tobacco burned with corn & an immense quantity of other articles. 2

We have not received any patients as yet though it will not be long. First the hospital was reported for duty this morning. I have no news which would interest you on the war subject. There is no new moves making as yet that we are apprised of.

After returning to Gran’s, he told me that I ought to collect a debt that I hold against Old big Billy Creasy Estate. That it could be gotten & I will get you to attend to it. You will find it. either in the wallet on big Pocket Book. It is an order from Wm. J. Creasy to me on Wm. Creasy excepted & W. T. Nichols witness to it. The Principal near 40$. You can carry it to court & Gran can tell you who is the Administrator & collect it, &c. & let me know about it.

I had a rough & muddy ride from Mrs. Tinsleys on Sunday night. It rained hard. Though I waited till the rain was over, I had to ride to Liberty in the rain, got my feet wet & suffered with cold all the way down, which stiffened me up & has caused the rheumatism to work in me though I now feel right well again. We are about through here for something to eat. I haven’t ate a half pound of meat since I returned owing to its being so old and strong. Bread & coffee & walnuts I get in the street is my present diet. I hope [for] some patients soon so we can get something else to eat.

My stay with you all was quite limited though it was a great satisfaction to me. I left Jim when I left Grans right sick & would be glad to hear from her. She complains with headaches and her breath was out of order. There is nothing I think of at present more to write. Therefore, I close hoping these lines may find you all well. So nothing more but as ever your brother til death, — J. H. Ayres

To Wm. B. Ayres

1 General Hospital #20 was also called Royster’s Hospital and First Alabama Hospital. It was formerly the tobacco factory of J. B. and A. L. Royster for Royster Brothers and Company. The First Alabama Hospital was first located in Manchester, Virginia. After 1862 it was at 25th and Franklin Streets in Richmond and became General Hospital #20. It opened before June 1862. A report of June 4, 1862 lists 44 patients but the building had a very large capacity.

2 About half past 12 o’clock on Tuesday night that part of the Public Warehouse known at Brown’s Addition, fronting 20 feet on Canal street, opposite the packet landing, and 130 feet on 8th street, was discovered to us on fire in the upper stories, occupied for past for storage purposes by the Confederate Government. Owing to the combustible nature of the contents of the upper story the flames soon enveloped the whole building. (which was of brick,) and extending downwards set fire to many hundred hogsheads of tobacco, the property of individual citizens and firms both in the Confederacy and foreign countries, but for which the State of Virginia is responsible. When the fire got well started nothing could stop it but the exertions of the Fire Brigade, with the steam engine and other help, which was vigorously applied on the occasion, preventing the spread of the fire to the other property adjoining and on the opposite side of the street. By the failing of the wells of Brown’s addition to the Public Warehouses, some of the sheds under which tobacco was stored in hog heads several tiers deep, they were set on fire, but luckily at this point a surplus of water prevented the damage that seemed likely to ensue. A number of bales of cotton, belonging to the James River Manufacturing Company and Manchester Cotton Factory, were stored on 8th street, in front of the burning building, and caught fire several times, but being quickly deluged with water were not materially injured — The loss by this fire is computed at two hundred thousand dollars. It was certainly the most destructive conflagration with which our city has been visited for some years, and whether caused by accident or design is to be equally deplored. We heard yesterday evening the rumor that the State of Virginia intended to institute a strict investigation, so that the blame of the calamity might be determined. The part of the warehouse destroyed was probably worth forty thousand dollars. Eight hundred hogsheads of tobacco were burned, which, at present prices, ($500 per hhd,) would amount to $400,000; but the state paying only the original valuation, will only lose in this item about $160,000. Two hundred hhds, of the tobacco belonged to the Rothschilds, of Paris, and were at one time the subject of a suit in the C. S. District Court, when they were sought to be sequestered as the property of August Belmont, of New York, and alien enemy. The above enumeration comprises most of the loss accruing to the State. The Confederate States Government lost $3,000 bushels of shipstuff, 1,000 bushels of bats, 300 bushels of corn, and 100,000 empty cotton grain bags, besides other property of which no list could be obtained. The loss of grain etc., can be determined by the present market value. The from this fire Illuminated the whole horizon for miles, and the best was most intense. Even at 1 o’clock yesterday the smouldering remnants were emitting fitful glares and the most uncomfortable odor. There were very few persons present, considering the extent of the conflagration. The rain fell during the while in torrents. The Daily Dispatch: March 12, 1863. Richmond Dispatch. 2 pages. by Cowardin & Hammersley. Richmond. March 12, 1863. microfilm. Ann Arbor, Mi : Proquest. 1 microfilm reel ; 35 mm.

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