This letter was written by Susan (Walker) Burnham, the 47 year-old wife of John Burnham of Busti, Chautaugua county, New York. The content of Susan’s letter gives us a back door account of the Battle of Fredericksburg experienced by her 25 year-old son, Charles N. Burnham (1837-1924) who served as a corporal in the 39th Pennsylvania Volunteers (10th Pennsylvania Reserves) during the Civil War. Charles was working as a printer in Warren, Pennsylvania, when he enlisted in May 1861 and was with his regiment until taken prisoner at the Battle of Fredericksburg and held captive in Libby Prison until mid January 1863. He was discharged from the regiment in July 1864 after three years service. Susan’s letter contains quotations from a large segment of a letter Charles had written to her of the fight at Fredericksburg and of his captivity.
The following account of the part played by the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves (39th Penna.) at Fredericksburg comes from Pa-Roots:
On the night of the 10th of December, the Tenth left camp with the Third Brigade, under command of Brigadier General Jackson, and proceeded to the bank of the river, three miles below Fredericksburg, where two pontoon bridges were speedily laid and a crossing was effected without loss. On the morning of the 13th, the regiment moved with the division to the point whence the attack was to be made, where it was formed, and was soon under a heavy fire of artillery; Soon the word was given to advance, and in the face of a destructive fire of musketry and artillery it swept forward and carried the enemy’s intrenchments; but failing of support the division was forced back and compelled to retire with great loss. The Tenth, in this engagement, was led by Lieutenant Colonel Knox, who won great credit for his skill and bravery. The loss was severe, being eleven killed, seventy-five wounded and fifty-one captured.
In her letter, Susan also mentions another son, 19 year-old Andrew Burnham, who served as a sergeant in Co. D, 112th New York Infantry and who was, at the time, posted at Fort Halleck in Suffolk, Virginia.
To read letters I’ve transcribed by other soldiers who served in the 39th Pennsylvania, see:
James Wilson Hanna, Co. G, 39th Pennsylvania (2 Letters)
James Wilson Hanna, Co. G, 39th Pennsylvania (1 Letter)
Ira Ayer, Co. I, 39th Pennsylvania (1 Letter)
William J. Mitchell, Co. I, 39th Pennsylvania (1 Letter)
Jairus Waid, Co. I, 39th Pennsylvania (3 Letters)
George W. Morris, Co. K, 39th Pennsylvania (6 Letters)
Busti [New York]
January 21, 1863
I will devote a few moments this morning in writing to you for I have not heard a word from you since you wrote me when you first arrived at the seat of war and I would like very much to know where you are and how you like to be a soldier. Perhaps you would like to know something about us. We are all well as usual excepting [our daughter] Sarah. She has a slight touch of diphtheria. We are doctoring her pretty thoroughly and I am in hopes it will not prove to be serious.
I must tell you something about my boys in the army. Soon after the Battle of Fredericksburg, the sad news came to us that Charles was among the missing. We received a letter from Mr. H[iram] T[hompson] Houghton, a member of his company, giving us the particulars of the fight of Saturday, December 13th, stating that he thought Charles was a prisoner and that he also had a son [William Henry Houghton] among the missing. (They were in the Left Grand Division under General Franklin.)
You may judge of our feelings during a month of dreadful suspense and anxiety when a few days ago we received a letter from Charles stating that their division crossed the Rappahannock a little below Fredericksburg Friday, December 12th and Saturday 13th about 9 o’clock in the morning the fighting commenced and soon after, their Brigade was ordered to charge on the Rebs who were concealed in a piece of woods nearly half a mile from them. He says “away we went across an open field, the Rebs pouring grape and canister into us all the time and the men falling all around us, till some of us succeeded in reaching the railroad which was about 10 rods [@ 55 yards] from the woods when we were ordered to halt & commence firing. we went to work and succeeded in keeping the Rebs back about an hour when first we knew about 300 of us were surrounded and captured, which would not have happened if our Generals had sent in support as they ought to.”
They were then taken to the rear of the Rebel army and kept over night and the next day marched toward Richmond. They marched to Hanover Junction and then put aboard of the cars and arrived at the Libby Prison about dark, Wednesday December 17th. He says they were treated pretty well by those that captured them and by the Rebel soldiers generally, but those that never fired a gun nor smelt powder use them rather rough. The women especially seemed very bitter toward them and would frequently come out and sing out to them, “On to Richmond! On to Richmond, you black Du[t]ch you!” 1
They were put into a room (250 of them) 120 feet long by 50 wide where a streak of daylight was almost a stranger and kept half starved. All they had to eat was half a pint of rice and bean soup and a small piece of bread twice a day. He said he thought he had seen some hard times before but he had never seen anything like that. They remained there until the 9th of January when they were released on parole and sent to Annapolis, Maryland.
Charles was taken sick the same day they left the prison and is in the U. S. General Hospital at Annapolis. He wrote a line to us the day he arrived there stating that he had a fever but was not seriously sick and was gaining. I am in hopes he can come home. If he don’t, I think his father will go and see him.
Andrew is at Suffolk, Virginia. He is on detached service in Fort Halleck, is sergeant and has to drill a squad of 5 men four hours a day. He writes that he is well and like his place in the fort better than he did in the regiment. I think he makes a good soldier. Please excuse this poor letter and write soon and let me know how you are getting along. Yours truly, — S. W. Burnham
(I wrote to Mother today)
1 The “Dutch” was a reference to Germans which, by the time of the Civil War was used derisively and had almost became synonymous with the word “stupid.” I have not researched it but there may have been a number of Germans captured at Fredericksburg from other regiments.