This letter was written by 2nd Lt James Place Gay (1837-1916) who first entered the service as a private on 6 July 1861 in Co. H, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry (4th Pennsylvania Reserves). He was commissioned an officer on 1 December 1862 and was still a 2nd Lieutenant when he mustered out of the service on 17 June 1864, just days after this letter was written. Oddly, Gay says nothing of his impending departure from the military.
James was the son of Ansel Gay (1809-1882) and Elizabeth Bunnell (1812-1864) of Auburn, Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania. James wrote the letter to his brother Calvin Sterling Gay (1839-1916)—one of his 15 siblings.
Gay’s letter describes the taking of Lexington, Virginia, by the Army of West Virginia in June 1864. Confederate General John McCausland’s cavalry brigade of some 1,000 troopers were no match for the roughly 18,000 Union troops under George Crook and David Hunter who combined forces to descend on the town. Delay tactics only forestalled the inevitable. When Hunter’s men entered Lexington on June 12th—the day this letter was written—they looted almost every house, business and institution in the town but they only burned the barracks at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the former home of Virginia Governor John Letcher. McCausland, a VMI graduate, would have his revenge a little over a month later when he put over 500 structures to the torch in Chambersburg, Virginia. [Source: Lexington and the Burning of the Virginia Military Institute]
Five of the Gay family letters were acquired by the Special Collection & University Archives, Virginia Tech in 1988.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Greg Herr and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
Camp near Lexington, West Virginia
June 12th 1864
I take this opportunity of dropping you a few lines to let you know that we are all well and hope these few lines may find you the same.
We are now encamped about one mile from Lexington in sight of the town. This is a very nice little town and a very nice country around it. Brig. General [George] Crook captured Lexington the 10th with the loss of only five or six men killed. On the 9th of June we marched out from Staunton and our company was called out as skirmishers and we soon got underway and formed the skirmishers in the front of a woods and commenced to advance till we got through the woods and came out into a cornfield and got about halfway across the [when] the rebs opened up on us from behind their fortifications made out of rails. But lucky for us, they could not reach us with their guns. If they could, we would [have] met with a warm reception but most of the men in the company went to the left and got in the woods and slipped around on the flank of the Johnny Rebs and soon made them ge up and dust. They didn’t hurt a man in the company.
We don’t get any mail now. I will have to close this time for the mail is about to go out of camp. Write soon.
— James P. Gay
to Calvin S. Gay