The following letter was written by Wilber H. Merrill (1840-1925), the son of Leonard J. Merrill (1816-1899) and Eliza J. Judd (1815-1887) of Cattaraugus county, New York. Wilber enlisted on 15 September 1861 at the age of 21 to serve in Co. H, 44th New York Infantry (People’s Ellsworth Regiment). He was quickly promoted to corporal and again to Sergeant in mid-December 1862, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg. He survived his term of service and mustered out with his company on 11 October 1864 at Albany, New York.
The letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner who provided the following description and authorized me to transcribe it and publish it on Spared & Shared.
“The 44th New York was an extremely battle-hardened unit, whose effort had been depended upon in many prior battles, and which would play a significant role two months after Chancellorsville at Gettysburg where it was heavily involved in the defense of Little Round Top. As noted in the letter, the 44th was supposed to be in the forefront of the battle at Chancellorsville, but the Confederate disruption of the Union plans led to their sustaining only modest losses. It turns out that their most significant action at Chancellorsville took place around the time this letter was written, when, as noted above, they were called upon to protect the retreat of the defeated Union troops. Hooker’s 130,000 troops faced Lee’s 60,000 at Chancellorsville, with the battle leaving a total of nearly 30,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The burning alive of Union wounded by the Confederates, described emotionally in this letter, has in fact been corroborated by historians.”
Wilber’s letter praises Hooker for his planning and execution of the campaign against Lee’s army but expresses a personal belief that “some of the generals got a little scared about the rear” and also shares a rumor that President Lincoln may have actually precipitated the retreat due to his concerns that the Nation’s Capitol might be vulnerable should his army be annihilated. I have not found any evidence that this was the case. Hooker kept his battle plan for the Chancellorsville fight closely guarded from even his Corps Commanders. Lincoln knew only vaguely what Hooker had in mind and wrote to him, “While I am anxious, please do not suppose that I am inpatient, or waste a moment’s thought on me, to your own hindrance, or discomfort.” [Lincoln to Hooker, 28 April 1863, in Basler et al., eds., Collected Works, 6:189-190.] The consensus of opinion among scholars today is that Fighting Joe Hooker lost Chancellorsville simply because he lost confidence in himself.
To read letters written by other members of the 44th New York Infantry that I have transcribed and published on Spared & Shared, see the following list. The letters by Anthony Graves are particularly detailed and interesting. His letter of 7 May 1863 gives an account of the Battle of Chancellorsville that is also excellent.
Louis Ferrand, Co. A, 44th New York (1 Letter)
Louis Ferrand, Co. A, 44th New York (1 Letter)
John Gurnsy Vanderzee, Co. A, 44th New York (1 Letter)
John T. Johnson, Co. C, 44th New York (2 Letters)
John H. Lewis, Co. D, 44th New York (1 Letter)
Peter Mersereau, Co. E, 44th New York (1 Letter)
Charles Robinson French, Co. E, 44th New York (1 Letter)
Anthony G. Graves, Co. F, G, H, 44th New York (38 Letters)
Isaac Bevier, Co. E., 44th New York (2 Letters)
Albert Nathaniel Husted, Co. E, 44th New York (1 Letter)
Samuel R. Green, Co. I, 44th New York (6 Letters)
George W. Arnold, Co. K. 44th New York (1 Letter)
Headquarters 44th Regt. New York State Volunteers
Camp near Falmouth [Virginia]
May 6th, 1863
You will see by the heading of this that we are back in our old quarters. We have met with another defeat. I received a letter from sister Jane & Mariett last evening & was very glad to hear that they were enjoying themselves as well as they appear to write. But I can’t say that I feel quite as well as common but I think I shall soon feel better. You need not worry any about me.
Well now I must tell you something about the battle. The fighting continued 3 or 4 days. Saturday and Sunday were the two hottest days of the fight. It raged very hard & the 11th Corps broke and caused pretty sad havoc. They did not fight worth a snap. The 154th [New York] Regiment are in that Corps. They lost about half of their regiment. Them that have seen them tell me that [Harvey] Inman, [William] Blair, [Horace N.] Darbee—Strickland Blair’s son-in-law, Barzilla, 1 Alva, and a good many more that I don’t think of now, they are missing—perhaps taken prisoners. I hope nothing worse. You need say anything about it for they may turn up yet. Perhaps they have got around to their regiment by this time.
Tuesday night, May 5th, the whole army recrossed the [Rappahannock] river, not because we were whipped there but because Sedgwick, commanding the 6th Army Corps, he crossed down below Fredericksburg & took the heights and then left one Brigade there to hold them and started up the river where we were fighting. The rebs turned his flanks and obliged him to retreat across the river so you see the rebs had possession of the heights. They say that orders came from Abe not to fight & endanger the capitol. If that is so, I would not care a bit if the capitol was burnt to the ground.
There was a great stand on both sides. I think it was a great deal heavier on the rebs than ours. We must of taken all of 5,000 prisoners. How many they took of us, I don’t know. The two-years men and nine-months men are leaving as fast as they can carry them away on cars. We think here that the army were not whipped but that some of the generals got a little scared about the rear. I never saw the army so eager for a fight as they were when they had thrown up breastworks. There were lots of them that wanted them to attack us but now things look rather dubious. I begin to think now if they put in a general smart enough to whip the rebs, they will do something to foil his plans. I never saw plans laid out better and carried out better than Hooker’s were as far as I know anything about it.
Sunday, when the battle was raging the hottest, the rebs set the woods afire I suppose thinking that they could drive us out in that way. But think of the poor wounded lying there without the least chance of help. Can such men have any souls in them? I don’t believe they have and they also fired a large brick building 2 and burnt some of our wounded there. Oh war—cruel war—when will it cease—inhuman worse than the savages dare be.
We were very lucky in this fight. We were put every time where they thought the rebs would come but were not engaged at all. Our pickets fired some, had one killed & five wounded in our regiment. There was not one touched in Co. H.
I sent my likeness a few days before we marched. I would like to know if you had received it & I also sent Heman $40. Please let me know if he has got that—that is, if you should happen to know. Tell Uncle Hiram that I don’t know any such man. Wall & Hart have gone over to the 154th Regiment. Probably I shall know more about them when they get back. If you can’t read this, I shant wonder any. If you can’t, send it back and maybe my nerves will be a little steadier then & I will try it over again. Tell the girls that I will write them a good long letter when I get a little leisure time. Please write soon. Write all the news. My love and best wishes to all & may God see fit to soon close this terrible, terrible rebellion. It almost makes my blood curdle to think of the battlefield.
Good afternoon. From your ever affectionate son, — Wilber H. Merrill
1 The roster of the 154th New York Infantry includes Barzilla Merrill who enlisted at the age of 44 as a private, and his son Alva Cole Merrill who enlisted as a private at the age of 18. Both served in Co. K together. According to a newspaper article, Barzilla was shot twice and died lated in the day on 2 May 1863. His son Alva was killed the following day. The Dayton Historical Society has a copy of the original letter written by Asst. Surgeon C. C. Rugg to Mrs. Merrill dated 30 May 1863 informing her of the death of both her husband and son.
2 The Chancellor House was burned during the Battle of Chancellorsville. About mid-morning on May 3, General Joseph Hooker was standing on the porch of the Chancellor House when an incoming projectile struck a pillar which broke and knocked the general out. At the climax of the battle on May 3, Federal soldiers tried to crowd into the basement, where the Chancellor women were hiding, to escape the fighting. Lt. Col. Joseph Dickinson of Hooker’s staff routed them out and, later, conveyed the women to safety when the house caught fire. A letter written by an unidentified oficer in Hancock’s Division to the New York Times and published on 11 May 1863 mentions the Chancellor House as follows: “A large red brick house stood in the front and on the crossroads where our line of battle was formed which was used as the headquarters of Gen. Hooker, but afterward as a hospital. This they shelled and unfortunately set it on fire, causing a fearful scene. However, we succeeded in renoving our own men, The wounded rebels made piteous cries for help, but we were obliged to take care of our own men first.“