Category Archives: Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery

1862: George Gates to Sarah Jane (Sears) Servey

An unidentified Union teamster

The following letter was written by George Gates (1838-1892), a native of Rochester, New York, who enlisted in July 1861 as a private in Co. A, Chicago Light Artillery. Prior to his enlistment, George was married to a woman named Rosa and working in Chicago as an omnibus driver. For the Chicago Light Artillery, George was assigned duties as a teamster and harness maker. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as standing 5′ 10″ tall, with dark hair and hazel eyes.

Besides noting George’s physical characteristics, they might have also have noted an overactive imagination for in this letter to his aunt in Rochester he claimed that he was detailed as a “scoute and spie” by direct authority of Gen. “Cump” Sherman himself, making his way by himself through Rebel territory in both Mississippi and Arkansas, and when taken prisoner as a spy in Little Rock, bribed his way to freedom. The owner of this letter informs me that George wrote another letter in February 1863 relating a similar tale of being captured in Jackson, Mississippi, taken to Vicksburg, and escaping by similar means carrying a detailed map of the Confederate fortifications. This map appears to look much like the map that appears in Harper’s Weekly on 7 March 1863 so it was no doubt available in military camps prior to that date.

In the History of Battery A, George’s name is only mentioned in conjunction with a letter that he wrote to Maj. Gen. Sherman from their camp near Kennesaw, Georgia, on 25 June 1864, in which he identifies himself as “a private of Battery A, 1st Ill. Light artillery” and offers the gift of a bridle and collar to the General as “a token of the high regard and esteem which all soldiers entertain towards you as our commander.” No mention is made of a former acquaintance. The letter was only acknowledged in the Battery history because of the General’s response in which he accepted the gift and praised the Battery for their service.

It is my impression that Gates was otherwise not looked upon favorably by his comrades in the Battery for after his name appears what was probably a nickname (“Gen. Debility”) implying he was probably “playing off” most of the time. Following the full reprint of Sherman’s reply to George’s letter, the author of the Battery history wrote, “Poor Gates did not do well after he war, but led a dissipated life in Chicago, dying in that city, in 1890, a homeless wanderer on the streets” —not a very kind thing to say about a comrade in arms, even if true. [See History of Battery A, by Charles Bill Kimbell, 1899]

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


Co. A, Chicago Light Artillery
Camp at Memphis, Tennessee
October 5th 1862

To my Aunts and others,

Your kind letter just came to hand and I was glad to hear from you and all of the folks.

On the 29th of August, I was detailed as a scout and spy for Maj. W. T. Sherman. I have been to Hernando, Senatobia, Cold Water, Holly Springs, Tupelo & Iuka, Mississippi. Also to Little Rock, Arkansas. The Rebel Gen. [Thomas] Hindman had me under arrest for ten days as a spy but I bought the Rebel Captain John McGraw, 1 Officer-of-the Day, for seventy-five dollars to pass me out of the lines and gave me a pass so as not to be retaken by the bands of guerrillas that is in the country between Little Rock and Hopefield opposite Memphis.

I arrived at Memphis Friday the 3rd of October. I learned many interesting particulars of the condition of the Southern armies and General Sherman says when I get recruited up again that I must go to Vicksburg and other points of interest to our armies. It is not pleasant work but I am willing to do anything to benefit our cause. I will start on Tuesday next and trust I will have as good luck on this job as I did on my last.

I rank as Captain 2 and get the same pay and all my bills paid by the government. I was shot at by guerrillas three different times but I was not hurt. I had one horse shot under me at Iuka, Mississippi.

1 I have not been able to find any Capt. John McGraw (or MaGraw) in the Confederate Service in Little Rock (or elsewhere) in Fold 3 Military Records.

2 George Gates entered the service of Co. A, Chicago Light Artillery as a private and mustered out in 1864 as a private. There is no indication in his Fold 3 Military records that he was paid anything but a private’s pay.