1863: Samuel Henry Putnam to Otis Earle Putnam

Samuel H. Putnam (“Wearing the Blue” by Capt. Denny)

The following letter was written by Samuel Henry Putnam (1833-1911) to his brother Otis Earle Putnam (1831-1911). They were the only surviving sons of Salmon Putnam (1800-1892) and Tryphena Bigelow (1800-1865) of Worchester, Massachusetts.

Samuel was working as a clerk in Worcester when he enlisted as a corporal in Co. A, 25th Massachusetts Infantry on 19 September 1861 and was promoted to sergeant three months later. He survived the war though he was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor on 3 June 1864. He mustered out of the regiment as Sergeant Major of his company on 20 October 1864 after three years service.

Like most young men, Samuel was anxious to see some action. Before embarking on Burnside’s Expedition, he had written his cousin, in December 1861, “I find the love for camp life rather grows on me; It may be the being outdoors is the thing, but anyhow my health is first rate and there is a kind of feeling—a sort of independence too—that one does not experience in common every day life. I hope it will be more exciting as we move onward.” [I’m Off to See the Elephant, by Dennis Buttacavoli, 9/3/2018 History Net]

In 1862, the regiment suffered losses of 50 killed or wounded in the Battle of Roanoke Island, and they were also active in the taking of New Bern and Goldsboro that year. By March, 1863, the 25th was part of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 18th Corps, Dept. of North Carolina.

Putnam’s long detailed letter reads much like a book and he no doubt used it to recall the event when he wrote, “The Story of Company A, Twenty-fifth Regiment Mass. Volunteers in the war of the rebellion,” published in 1886. A e-version of the book may be found on Internet Archive. Two other valuable sources on the history of the regiment may be found on-line in a book entitled, My Diary of the Rambles with the 25th Mass. Volunteer Infantry by D. L. Day, and “Wearing the Blue,” by J. Waldo Denny, published in 1879. Neither of the events described in Putnam’s letter of March 12-16, 1863, are described in these latter publications, however.

Incredibly, there is a companion letter to the one by Putnam that was written by William Jahaney Lowry (1841-1863) of Co. B, 45th North Carolina Infantry, that describes the exact same event described in Putnam’s letter—only from the perspective of the Rebel encampment that was the object of their nighttime attack. Lowry’s letter can be found as Letter 3 on 1863: William Jahaney Lowry to Ann (Walker) Lowry on Spared & Shared 17.

The last part of Putnam’s letter, written on March 16th, describes the Battle of Deep Gully in which Gen. D. H. Hill devised a three-pronged plan to wrestle New Bern away from the Union forces garrisoned there. See Battle of Deep Gully and Fort Anderson.

To read other letters by member of the 25th Massachusetts that I have transcribed and published on Spared & Shared, see:

Charles Newton, Co. B, 25th Massachusetts (1 Letter)
Henry Arthur White, Co. H, 25th Massachusetts (1 Letter)


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

Camp Pickett 1
New Bern, North Carolina
March 12, 1863

Dear Bro. Otis,

Here we are in Camp Pickett and on picket too, and since leaving New Bern have had quite an exciting time. We left New Bern Wednesday, March 4th, and reached this camp before noon, it being only some 7 or 8 miles from town. I was on guard next day, having in my charge the reserve picket guard—a squad of eight men, behind 5 posts with 3 men on each. This was about 1.5 miles from camp. The advance guard was perhaps half mile beyond this at what is called the “Deep Gully” [on the Trent Road].

Capt. Joseph Waldo Denny, Co. K, 25th Mass. Volunteer Infantry (Photo Sleuth)

The next day instead of being relieved, we were ordered to fall in as our regiment came along bound off on an expedition. That day we marched some dozen miles more or less, and camped in a pleasant little spot shut inn completely by pine woods. Before turning in, companies A, K and G were ordered to be ready at midnight to be off on a scout, to try and “gobble up” a couple of Rebel companies of infantry. I thought that was rather tough—a day and night’s picket duty, a day’s march, and now a march of 12 or 15 miles on top of that without sleep. Would say here that Capt. [Joseph Waldo] Denny was commanding.

At midnight we started with two companies of the 3rd New York Cavalry in advance. A camp, away from the main body or a picket camp, has outposts or pickets at considerable distances from the camp. If the first post is disturbed by an enemy, they fire at them and retreat to the next post. They in turn do the same, and ditto till the camp is reached, which is supposed to be alarmed by the firing, and the men turned out, ready to meet the enemy. So you see, it is a bod thing to attack an enemy camp thus situated.

Well, we had just that to do—take the outposts and surprise the camp. It was a bold and daring enterprise and you will see how successful. The plan was to take the outposts without alarm if possible as our folks knew about where they were stationed. If an alarm was made—that is, if the pickets fired upon us, the cavalry were to sail in and grab them if they could. Their pickets were mounted—called videttes.

Well, on we went mile after mile through swamps, woods, fields, mud &c. and were within say a couple of miles or less of the Reb camp when pop goes a rifle at our advance of cavalry and a sudden charge of the cavalry follows. We infantry follow at double quick. Perhaps you can imagine the excitement.

Our cavalry boys caught the devils on this first post and the second ditto. At the second, our advance heard a couple of horses coming down the road and guessing what the trouble was, a couple of them dismounted, sent their horses to the rear—or rather back some distance, and cooly waited for the horsemen to come on. They took possession of the post occupied by the Rebel pickets remember. The horsemen came on, our boys challenge them—“Halt!” This they do at once, for you know no one dares pass a picket post after being challenged or he is a shot man. “Who goes there.” Reply—“Friends with the countersign.” Our boys continue the challenge, “Dismount friends. Advance and give the countersign.” (This is always the custom—to dismount a mounted man when he approaches to give the countersign.) They came up and gave the countersign (two low whistles). “You are our prisoners,” say our boys, and grappled them. The struggle was short and no firing this time. As was expected, these men were sent out to see what was the trouble with their pickets—they found out!

Lt. Merrit B. Bessey, in command of Co. A on expedition described in letter (Photo Sleuth)

The game now grew intensely exciting. A little further on we passed another post and our cavalry received the fire from probably half a dozen or more men then. This was no doubt a sort of reserve. Here two of the cavalry were wounded—one in the thigh bad, another in the arm. On our left was a field—sort of open field. On our right woods for a short distance, then open field. Ahead half mile perhaps, woods on either side. All of us were in the road now. Our left section (half platoon—Co. A) was ordered to be deployed as skirmishers. Lieut. [Merrit B.] Bessey was in command of our company of course, and our Orderly [George Burr] 2nd in command (Capt. [Frank] Goodwin gone home). I think the 2nd in command should have taken command of this section as skirmishers. I think it was his place—never mind (This is not for the [Worchester Daily] Spy) I am told by our boys on the right of our company (I am left guide) that Bessey told him (the Orderly) to take the section out but be that as it may, they both came to me and Bessey told me to take them out. All right.

I gave them the word forward and over the fence they went into the field and deployed in good style. On we went cautiously towards the woods ahead of us. The Germans (Co. G) had been deployed before this but had come to a halt for some reason or other. My boys passed them and came to a deep ditch running clear across the field with a fence on the other side. Twas say eight feet wife and 5 or 6 deep with water in the bottom—a sort of brook. We cannot cross this ditch, sergeant, says one or two of them [to me]. “You can,” says I. “Away with you—cross the brook and deploy on the other side,” and they did cross it—devilish quick too. One or two leaped into the ditch and scrambled up the other side, took rails from the fence, and in a very few minutes that had a bridge across. [The following comment was inserted later here: “before reaching this ditch a volley was fired on our right but from where I did not know. Some said from our own boys, the Germans, but it did us no harm, the balls going over us.”] “Forward!” again and silently my little line of skirmishers (only 12 men) advanced ahead of all others, crossed another fence, and approached some outbuildings—a barn evidently with sheds, &c.. and another fence across the road from this barn was the house of the owner.

“Boys, we shall catch it here.” Steady now and slowly the boys advanced, rifles cocked, ready at the first flash of a gun to blaze away. Bit no shots came. We passed the fence and buildings scaring up a flock of geese that gobbled and squawked and hissed at us, lending a little of the ludicrous to the occasion. The boys as they passed this last fence, looked back and one or two spoke out—saw there is no reserve for us. In skirmishing, a reserve force follows the line of skirmishers in all their movements. Twas true, we had none. I do not know why the rest of our company was in the road and slowly following it up, but if we were fired into, they could not have helped us in time.

“Never mind boys. We will hold our own if we can.” I though the boys would flinch at this but they did not and more cautious than ever we advanced towards the woods. Why don’t they fire at us—it’s good rifle distance? Still closer to the woods and no shots. It was a moment of intense excitement—a single shot might tell the tale for anyone of us. Don’t show me your faces, but forward steady and fire at the first flash, then drop, every Mother’s son of you. I tell you, Otis, the boys behaved nobly. The night was somewhat cloudy and very quiet.

We had now reached the woods very nearly and no shots fired. What was the trouble? Did they wish to make a rush on us and take us all? Did they wish to wait and fire a single volley and drop us all? We soon reached the woods. A low whisper on the right, another on the left at the same moment—Sergeant, sergeant, there is a fire in the woods. “Tents. Tents,” says another. We had discovered the Rebel Camp.

I concealed my men. Sent one back to report to Capt. Denny. What should I do? Attack the camp with a dozen men? I waited a few moments and made up my mind, ordered the skirmishers to advance and close in on the camp as much as possible and at the same time went in with them—pretty exciting, Otis, I tell you. But to sum it all up, we found the camp deserted—evidently but a few moments before and in great haste. I gave the order to the boys to sail in and help themselves. After they had skirmished around the camp and found no one. I knew our other boys must be somewhere near in the road and felt comparatively safe.

We found knapsacks, rifles, blankets, clothing, &c. any quantity, and eatables too. They evidently had just received boxes from home for we found several boxes that had not been opened. “Bayonet’s Boys! and open went the boxes on short notice. There were pies, cakes, apples, eggs, &c. and didn’t we have a gay supper, or rather breakfast that day. We were in the midst of all this when we were startled by a volley of musketry. This told us that our boys had met the Rebs. Now for the fight, but the Rebs fired the one volley and skedaddled and our cavalry were held back for some reason or other. It would have been a laughable sight for you could you have seen us in this Reb Camp.

Corp. Walter [S.] Bugbee was with us and Cousin George Bigelow. George is bold as a little lion. We heard chickens cackle [and] Bugbee sings out, “Damn ’em. Wring their necks, boys. We can cut ’em.” and soon he made his appearance with a poor chicken with its neck wrung.

After we had been through the tents enough, I went to the road and found [Capt.] Denny who ordered the camp and everything there burned. This was done and we returned to our camp where we had left the rest of the regiment, reaching it in broad daylight, having travelled since midnight some 14 or 15 miles. It made considerable talk—our finding the camp and I was much complimented for the way in which I put my skirmishers through by our officers, Denny and others. (This is not to be published—it is a private letter.)

We staid in our camp a day more and returned towards New Bern, camping for about two days at a beautiful pine grove about 3 miles from this camp. Here we did picket duty by company—that is, one company at a time. When our company was on, it so happened I was at the outpost, and wishing to know somewhat of the country, took one man with me and went into the woods and into the country four or miles miles, visiting several houses, finding only old men and woman—the conscription having taken all others. It was a bold act and occasioned much talk and surprise at the camp. Indeed, they thought we were gobbled up by the Rebs and the Colonel came near sending out a company after us. I was gone three hours and should not have been gone at all for I have no right to leave my post to be gone so long. What made another big talk through the regiment, Capt. Denny (Officer of the Day that day) tried to talk some but he could not help laughing about it and said, “Well, you are a bold, careless devil anyhow.” As he was going to the Colonel’s tent (headquarters), I sent by him my respects to the Colonel and desired him to report for me, “No Rebs within 5 miles of our camp on the Kinston Road.” That capped the whole affair. I expect to be reprimanded and perhaps broke but I don’t care a damn anyhow.

And here we were on picket at Camp Pickett four companies A, C, G, K and last night we had news that our whole Brigade was ordered to Plymouth which very likely is true, so we go. I don’t think I shall forget very soon at all event the “midnight skirmish on the Kinston Road.”

“In the rebel knapsacks we found letters they had just received from home giving pitiful accounts of things in Secessia, and true accounts too. One woman writes to her sons named Apple in the 45th North Carolina, Co. C, and says she is horrified at what she hears they have been doing to the Yankee dead—digging them up—standing them on their feet—pulling their eyes and mouths open and cursing them. She says, how should I feel if the Yankees should treat my dead boys so.”

In the rebel knapsacks we found letters they had just received from home giving pitiful accounts of things in Secessia, and true accounts too. One woman writes to her sons named Apple in the 45th North Carolina, Co. C, and says she is horrified at what she hears they have been doing to the Yankee dead—digging them up—standing them on their feet—pulling their eyes and mouths open and cursing them. She says, how should I feel if the Yankees should treat my dead boys so. 2 This is the nineteenth century and in a civilized land in which these things do occur. What think you of that?

I have not received the snuff box or Dave his boots but I learn that an Express is just in at Beaufort so it is probably there.

I suppose you would know about trophies. I’ve got nothing but an Enfield Rifle from the Rebel Camp. Shall send it to you if I can. It is precisely like my own that I use only it is dirty. But it is just as I found it. If it should reach you, you can do as you like with it. These rifles are very good to shoot and long distances too. Many boys brought away knapsacks. One found some $60 rebel money. But there was nothing of any great value.

Suppose you have seen Capt. Goodwin before this. How about the war? Goes rather slow, don’t it? You will probably see Capt. Denny’s report of this attack on the rebel camp. It was indeed a very daring thing, but was hardly successful as we took only five prisoners but then we lost none.

Camp Oliver, 25th Mass. Infantry, New Berne, N. C. (The Huntington Library)

Camp Oliver
March 16, 1863

The boxes have come OK. Davis and George’s boots are tip top. Wish I’d waited now and had some of the same sort. Aunt’s box I received all right. The locket is a fine affair. Am very glad I’ve got it. Felt kinder lonesome though when I first got it.

Well, her’s more news—more excitement. Last Friday 13th, our pickets were fired upon at the deep gully, our outpost, and the four companies were ordered up there—A, C, K, G. the Rebs were advancing in force so the story was, and we made ready to meet them. At this deep gully, there is a small bridge over a narrow stream on the New Bern side of which were our pickets. A sham breastwork had been thrown up by our lads and a Quaker gun mounted on a big pair of wheels. This gun was kept covered with rubber blankets whenever a Flag-of-Truce came in or when anyone went out of our lines, it made a big show.

On the left side of this road going from New Bern was the breastwork and gun. Back of this breastwork was a little rise in the ground and then a very slight hollow, and an old shanty had been put up for guard quarters. Into this hollow our three companies were formed—A, C, and G, while K was posted behind the breastwork to support the Quaker (ha, ha). Now come on the Rebs. Couriers have been sent to town for artillery and infantry meantime. Soon we had orders to lay down low for artillery would be playing on us in a few minutes, and so it was we soon had grape and canister flying over us, solid shot and shell occasionally. We hugged the ground pretty close, you can bet. We took this perhaps 20 minutes and were then ordered to retire which we did gradually, falling back. Soon the Rebs crossed the gully. The bridge had been cut away and charged gallantly on our breastworks and Quaker which they took (ha ha). When they charged, they shouted like fury but I rather think they found a mares nest that time.

Meantime as we fell back, our pioneers felled trees across the road thick so that no artillery could follow us. Soon our artillery got along and the balance of the 25th Regiment. That night we camped on the ground and it was a very cold night too. Dave and I found some straw and two or three boards which we made into a bed and got along quite comfortably considering.

In the morning we back towards New Bern. I should have said that 1 cavalryman was killed and two or three wounded by the Rebs at the Gully. As we passed our camp, we took our knapsacks on our backs and started for town, leaving one company at our camp to pick up stuff and take off the tents, &c. Heavy firing was heard towards New Bern and our lines were attacked at the same time in four or five places and the Rebs came down opposite the town on the Neuse River and threw shell and shot, &c. and tried to scare folks, but the gunboats did the job for them. At present, all is quiet. Maybe this is the last of it as they are reported retreating. There was quite an excitement for awhile in town but no one fled the town.

Well, Sergt. [George] Burr is promoted and I shall have to be Orderly. I suppose I cannot get rid of it very easy.

Tell the girls I think everything of that locket. It will go with me everywhere.

I shall have very little time now to write as the orderly is the company’s servant, but I’ll do as well as I can. How I despise this military business. Wish to God I was out of it. The war goes on well, don’t [it]. I did think once I should be home before the three years was out but I don’t see it that way now.

Had a pile of letters last mail. Will answer as fast as I can. You are not liable to draft. The family depend on one son for support. One son is gone. You are left. I think you are exempt. At all events, I’d procure a substitute or pay anything rather than join the army. It is your place where you are.

Love to all. Am greatly obliged to everybody for the box and contents. Everything was in [good] shape. — S. H. Putnam

1 Camp Pickett was named for Josiah Pickett who began his service with the 25th Massachusetts as the Captain of Co. A and was eventually promoted as its Colonel.

2 The mother of the soldiers named Apple who served in the 45th North Carolina Infantry was probably Rachel (Flack) Apple of Guilford county, North Carolina. She had two sons who served in the regiment in Co. B who were both with the regiment in March 1863 when this letter was penned. There were only three soldiers with the surname “Apple” in the 45th North Carolinathe two named brothers, and a 35 year-old in a different company named Richard. The salutation “Dear Sons” convinces me the soldiers were James M. (“Jim”) Apple (1844-1940) and Andrew Flack Apple (1846-1913). The boys came from a poor subsistence farm in Guilford county. Their father had died before they were ten years old, leaving them to care for their mother and two sisters. Andrew, the youngest, was definitely illiterate; his older brother may have been so too (soldiers sometimes relied on comrades to write and read letters for them). Both soldiers would end up being taken prisoner, Andrew twice (on 3 July 1863 at Gettysburg and again on 10 10 May 1864 at Spotsylvania Courthouse), and James once (on 25 March 1865 during the Siege of Petersburg). Following their final capture, both men were held in Union prisons (Andrew at Point Lookout, MD and Elmira, NY, and James only at Point Lookout) until, after war’s end, when they signed the Union Oath of Allegiance. [Note: Extracts of the original letter, datelined 2 February 1863, by Mother Adams was published in Putnam’s book on page 164 if you’d like to read it.]

The 45th NC was organized on Apr. 1, 1862 and was mustered out on Apr. 9, 1865. At the time of Putnam’s letter, the 45th NC was in Daniel’s Brigade, D. H. Hill’s Corps, Dept. of NC and South VA. The 45th NC was also a hard-fought unit, suffering enormous losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, with 247 killed or wounded and 161 captured (totaling 40% loss). Severe losses were also sustained at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Ironically, the 45th NC fought (with little loss) in the Battle of Cold Harbor, where the 25th MA was decimated and Putnam wounded (although it does not appear that they faced each other).

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