1862-63: Otis Whitney, Jr. to Harriett Newell (Barnes) Whitney

The following letters were written by Otis Whitney (1821-1901) who served in Co. H, 27th Iowa Infantry. The following biographical sketch summarizes his life very well.

Otis Whitney, Co. H, 27th Iowa Infantry
(Iowa Civil War Images)

Otis Whitney, Jr., was born 13 Jun 1831, in the town of Seneca, Ontario County, state of New York, where he lived till nearly thirty years of age, working on the farm, attending school and studying law; was admitted to the practice in the supreme court of the state of New York at a general term of the court held in the city of Auburn, county of Cayuga, on the first day of November, 1847, but never engaged actively in practice, having no relish or respect for it. He traveled and taught school for three years, and then went into partnership with his brother-in-law, Tyler H. Abbey, who was a successful merchant at Watkins, Schuyler County, state of New York, and continued in business up to the fall of 1854, when he caught the western fever and decided to take the advice of Horace Greeley to “go west and grow up with the country.”

Before leaving he was united in marriage with the daughter of Dr. Enos Barnes, in western New York, a well known and popular physician and surgeon, and one of the earliest settlers on the west side of Seneca Lake. The newly married couple started immediately on the journey west, and finally located in Quasqueton, Buchanan County, state of Iowa, where he purchased two hundred acres of land, intending to make a farm of it, but finding more satisfactory employment in town never settled on the land. Most of the time up to 1862 was spent in clerking, overseeing flour and saw mills, and acting justice of the peace, for which office his previous study of law was especially helpful. In the fall of 1862 he went into the army as first lieutenant of Company H, Twenty-seventh Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry. In camp of instruction he was familiar with the drill, etc., as he had been studying the tactics from the commencement of the war and in command of and drilling a company of home guards for more than a year. In a few weeks the regiment was ordered to the field, or as the popular phrase is, to the front, and not more than half drilled or disciplined. On 10 Apr 1863, he became captain of the company by reason of resignation of Captain Jacob M. Miller, the previous captain, who became disabled and unable to endure active field service. Whitney was captain of the company up to the close of the war, and was discharged with the company and regiment at Clinton, IA, 8 Aug 1865.

He returned to his home in Quasqueton, which he had not seen in three years, worn out, run down, and weak from constant for three years, and which continued for more than fifteen years after the war. Finding no place of business obtainable he with his family, wife and two children, went on a visit to the old folks at home in the state of New York. While on this visit he was induced to engage in an enterprise to be consummated at Richmond, VA, in the establishment of a dairy farm. The project was a complete failure, and mindful still of the advice of Greeley he again went west with his family to grow up again, locating on government land in Oswego Township, Labette County, Kansas, in the spring of 1867. Upon this place he lived seventeen years, when he sold out and moved into the city of Oswego, two and a half miles distant. 

[Note: These letters are from the private collection of Greg Herr and have been transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]

Letter 1

Camp Gilbert
6 miles above St. Paul
October 15, 1862

My dear wife,

It is now one hour past midnight of the 14th. I am in a room with eight others (one sick with a fever) trying to pass away the night. No beds in the room. The reason why I am here is because I happened to be chosen to act as one of the clerks of election which we held on the boat and came here to canvass the votes. Our camp is about half a mile above Fort Snelling. Our tent is up but no arrangements made for sleeping & the weather is so cold we did not like to occupy it tonight. Ice froze half an inch thick last night in pails that were sitting on the hurricane deck of the steamboat we four companies came up on.

We embarked Sunday morning & had a pleasant trip with some little adventure. Sunday night, just at dark, a snag (a large tree trunk) smashed through the guard deck near the bow of the boat & came very near throwing some of the boys overboard. A few minutes before there were several standing on the very spot where the crash was made. Last night a steamer coming down undertook for some unexplained reason to run our boat down but by the skill of our pilot, we avoided being struck but in doing so, the stern of the boat was thrown so near the shore that a tree on the shore crashed through the side of the boat & tore out the entire side of the barber shop to the great fright of several men who were sleeping on the floor & in chairs. The fright was not without cause as it came near sweeping off several men.

The affair I spoke about when I wrote Saturday night was more serious than I then supposed as you have probably learned by the papers before this time. We brought the corpse of the young man with us to McGregor’s Landing. It is hard to see stout young men killed in that way. It is feared the affair will not end so but that more blood will be spilt. Tomorrow 6 companies of our regiment are ordered north to guard the U S Paymaster in paying off the Chippewas their annuity. My company H remains here. 1 Some think we shall be called out to fight the Sioux. It is thought we shall be sent to Kentucky within three weeks.

You need not be alarmed at any stories you hear. I am now enjoying good health and shall probably live out my allotted time.

I got the comforter you sent & it was very acceptable. I ought not to write any more as I would like to sleep a little if I can on the floor. Kiss Emma & little Eddie for me. Much love to yourself. — O. Whitney

P. S. SEnd me the description of lots where the house stands. The deed is in the top part of the box you keep in the drawers. — O. W.

1 Companies “A,” “B,” “C,” “E,” “F” and “G.” Moved to Mille Lac’s, Minn. October 17, thence moved to Cairo, Ill., November 4. Companies “D,” “I,” “H” and “K” at Fort Snelling, Minn., till November 1. Moved to Cairo, Ill., November 1.

Letter 2

Mrs. H. N. Whitney, Quasqueton, Buchan county, Iowa

State of Mississippi
November 29, 1862

My dear wife,

I write you a few lines upon a camp chest, my candlestick a bayonet stuck in the ground.

I am now about thirty-three miles from Memphis. The camp is on a great broad flat, mostly covered with timber. The locality of the 27th Iowa is in a cornfield together with several other regiments. Our whole force I do not know but probably not far from 40,000. It may be more & may be less. On three sides are hills, mostly covered with timber. The fourth side is a continuation of the flat, heavily timbered & inaccessible by a large force. Batteries are posted on the hills around.

Our march from Memphis was very tedious yet I endured it very well—much better that I expected. The first two days I was able to relieve the men by carrying their guns for them. The third day I had all I could do to get along myself well as I could. You may think it a small matter to march only 33 miles in three days but it was not so.

The first day we did not start until in the afternoon but was on foot all day. We reached camp about nine o’clock p.m. Pitched tents, got supper, and got to bed about midnight. The next morning was on the march before sunrise [and] encamped about sun down. Troops were arriving till 2 o’clock in the morning. The third day were up before daylight but did not march till nearly noon. Waiting, waiting, waiting—more tedious than marching. We reached this camp sometime after dark. We marched by a round about course so that we have actually come more than 33 miles.

The tedium of the march is partly owing to repeated halts—some not lasting a minute. I presume we were over an hour passing over the last mile. The men were mostly exhausted, some miserably footsore. Others were weak with sickness. I was troubled with both. Today we have lain in camp. Tomorrow morning we have to march at 7 o’clock without bag or baggage except what we can carry on our backs.

We have an object in view. That is to cut off Van Dorn and Price from forming a junction with Bragg. We look for a battle tomorrow or next day—a severe one. We have had pale cheeks in camp already. I do not intend to say anything to excite your fears. This may be the last letter I can write you & yet I may be spared to write many more & come home to stay for many happy years. God only knows.

It is very possible that Price may run too fast to be caught. If we do intercept him, we shall have a battle. If I survive or am able, I will write as soon as possible. If I go down, I commit you and the children to God & such friends as you can find. I intend writing a short letter home asking their sympathy in your behalf. I send you an order on P C. Wilcox from his nephew for ten dollars. My wages due from the government some $200, you may get after awhile. I cannot tell how now.

It grieved me to leave you in such straightened circumstances but it cannot be helped. I must not write more now. I need strength for te march. Forget and forgive my many failings since we have journeyed together. God bless you and Emma & Eddie. A kiss for them & much love for you. — Otis

Letter 3

Camp Reed
Jackson, Tennessee
March 19th 1863

My Dear Wife,

Yesterday morning I went out on picket guard & did not return till noon today & found a letter from you. Some things in yours are more interesting than agreeable. For instance, the report nuisance circulates of you & Mrs. H. It is needless to take any notice of his slanders. No one that knows him believes anything he says unless they first know it to be true. I could name certainly one more of the same stripe.

I cannot learn anything definite about pay. It will probably come some time unless the government breaks down in which case greenbacks wil be of no account. Although we are doing nothing in a military view, I am for one kept busy almost all the time. So many sick to visit & then the dead or their effects to attend to. Two more of my company have died within a week—Joseph Moore and B[artimeus] McGonigil. The latter died yesterday. A[lonzo] L. Shurtleff is thought to be getting better. Warren Chase is at the post hospital. The left top of his lungs is said by the doctors to be entirely consolidated. [The] Cordell boys [Albert & Alfred] about as usual. Witten doing duty. Henry French has a large swelling on his neck. I can only send you a short letter now but will try and write often. We know nothing of going to Vicksburg.

I have just received the papers & bundle of linens. Respects to friends, &c. Kisses for the children. Love for you. — O. Whitney

Letter 4

Camp Opposite Little Rock, Arkansas
October 4th 1863

My Dear Wife,

Yesterday I was gratified at the reception of three of your letters dated August 30th, September 6th, and September 13th. It had been nearly or quite a month since receiving any intelligence from you. I was anxious to learn whether you have received the money I sent by the chaplain although I had previously been informed that the money was left at Independence [Iowa].

I hope you will keep the money as safely as possible for I send you all but what I spend for my own personal expenses. I wish you would let me know when you answer this how much you have on hand. I would like to know that I may make some calculation as to the amount I can save. When I leave the service, I shall be out of any income and also out of business & as there will be thousands in the same situation, it may be difficult getting into business. Those who have no money on hand will be driven to work at perhaps uncongenial employment. I expect you will live well & dress well & your judgment satisfies me. Some wives of soldiers act like fools. I have heard of some that received the $50 county bounty & 30 or $40 in cash & at the first opportunity, went to town & laid out the last dime for clothes, buying everything that pleased the fancy as long as money lasted.

It is very difficult finding any clothing here and when it is found, very costly. Boots from $10 to 15 per pair. Pants the same. Dress coat from $30 to $40. And overcoat from $40 to $60, and other things in proportion. Soldiers clothes can be had of Post Quartermaster at very low figures but the service will not allow officers to dress entirely like the men in the ranks & the officers cannot complain as the government pays them liberally & has a right to expect they will wear the uniform of officers. You must not expect me to give an very minute answer to your letter. I am very glad to find that Eddie recognized me & now that I think of it, I will enclose the other likeness in this letter. It is so small I think Eddie will be puzzled to make out the original.

I hope you wil not allow yourself to become nervous on account of my absence. The soldiers wives are much worse situated than you are for when furloughs are being granted, only five in a hundred can go home at once and generally by the time one set gets back, the order granting furloughs is revoked or the regiment is under marching orders & then it costs a soldier several months pay to go home & return. It costs an officer more than a private as it is customary to charge them higher fare on the river and full fare on the railroad. If the order should be renewed allowing leaves of absence, I shall make an immediate application but I do not expect any opportunity for some time. It will depend entirely upon what is intended to be done with us. If we should be posted here, we shall be allowed furloughs & leaves of absence. You must make no calculation on seeing me until I let you know. Now that you have a house full of friends, I dare say you wil not be lonesome.

I have no news of interest. We go to bed at night without any fear of enemies or of being disturbed. There are more Union people here than we have found at any other place. The Arkansas River is very low—so low that the boys wade it in places. The evenings are very cold, not freezing, but if anything worse. One feels the cold here more than in the North. The atmosphere is different here from Iowa, rendering a slight degree of cold very penetrating & uncomfortable. I wish you could make me a couple of good shirts—fine woolen of some delicate tasty color. If you should make them, have them made very large, a fold & buttons in front with a band round the neck. You could send them by mail. Others have them sent by mail. You need not send me paper as I can get it readily. Postage stamps cannot be had for money. I will close this prosy letter but not with the promise of doing any better next time. With love as ever, — Otis Whitney

Letter 5

Camp near Little Rock, Arkansas
October 20, 1863

My Dear Wife,

As it has been a number of days since I have written to you, I conclude to write you a few lines now although I have nothing to communicate but the old story—as well as usual & doing nothing of any account. A soldier’s life is one the most calculated to make anyone reckless & lazy. I have stopped writing long enough to eat breakfast & now that we are about prepared to to put up a log cabin. I must be very brief for we must move the tent to another place to make way for the cabin. I shall not have an opportunity to work today as I have quarterly report of ordnance and ordnance stores to make out.

In some respects we are living very well & comfortably. For breakfast we had nice white fish, corn meal, quick cakes with melted sugar and coffee. I get our supplies from the Division Commissary & do not have to pay as high as you do at home. Sometimes we get potatoes but generally go without for the best of reasons. We have been well supplied with sweet potatoes lately at $1.50 per bushel. Chickens are to be had occasionally at 50 cents apiece. We now have very nice persimmons. I wish the children could have some. They cannot be transported because when fit to eat, they are as soft as a thoroughly rotten apple. They are very harmless & the saying is that no one can eat too many.

The 50th Indiana have been removed fifty miles up the river. We have received no mail a long time. The occasion of the long delay is that the White River is getting unprecedentedly low and the fleet sticks on the sand bars for days at a time.

I have just stopped long enough to move the tent & everything is covered with dust half an inch deep or less. The wind has been blowing for two or three days is the reason of so much dust. There are yet no signs of leaves of absence & I begin to thing the expense from this point too much. I should not think so if it were not that I may be holden by the government for $200 or $300 worth of company property that has been lost, destroyed, & thrown away. I could not afford both now. The government hold captains [responsible] for every article put into mens hands.

I cannot write more now. I hope to hear from you soon. Love to all & yourself, — O. Whitney

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