The following letter was written by Edward H. Finch (1842-1867), the son of Bryan Finch (1814-1852) and Mary Thorne (1818-1893) of Caroline Centre, Tompkins county, New York. Edward was working as a mechanic at the time he enlisted on 14 August 1862, accepting a $100 bounty from the town to serve in Co. K, 137th New York.
According to county records, Edward was wounded “in hip slightly” while defending Culp’s Hill on 2 July 1863 at Gettysburg. There is an excellent blog article entitled, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? David Ireland and the 137th New York” that was published on 19 October 2016 describing the critical role played by the 137th New York at Gettysburg. It points out that “Just as the 20th Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain held the Union left flank at Gettysburg on July 2, David Ireland and the 137th New York held the Union right. Yet unlike the 20th Maine, the 137th saw significant action on the final day of battle.” Regrettably and unfairly, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine get most of the publicity when the losses at either end of the Union defenses might have proven equally disastrous.
After Edward recovered from his wound, he returned to the regiment and participated on Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and later on the march through the Carolinas. Though he dodged death in the war, Edward did not live long after he returned to Tompkins county following his discharge in 1865. Less than two years later, on 22 April 1867, when Edward and his sister, Mary Ellen Finch, were riding home in a wagon from Caroline Centre to their home on the Speed farm, “a flash of lightning struck him on the head and passed down the whole length of his body, tearing his clothes into shreds. The same stroke” set his sister’s clothes on fire and burned the left side of her body very badly before she could put it out. (Ithaca Journal)
The letter was addressed to John Taft (1795-1876), the father of his friend and comrade, 2nd Lieut. William Henry Taft, who had also served in the same company until he died of disease at Knoxville, Maryland, on 31 October 1862. William’s remains were returned home and buried in the family plot at Caroline. See—1862: William Henry Taft to John Taft.
The letter contains a rare reference to Thaddeus Lowe’s Observation Balloon being launched “every day when it is still” on the heights overlooking Harper’s Ferry in late October 1862.
137th New York Vols. Col. Ireland
Sunday, November 2nd 1862
Mr. John Taft,
I thought that I would write you a few lines as it was Sunday and I had a few moments to spare. Well, Mr. Taft, we are in the land of the Rebs. I am within sight of them at the present time as I am out on picket duty today and yesterday. We was to be relieved this morning but through some mistake we was not. We are on Bolivar Heights at the present time but we know not how long we shall remain here.
We are under marching orders. We have had orders to have everything in order so that we could lay our hands on them in three moments warning. Our pickets are extended out about two miles from the heights & from our outside pickets it is about one half mile. They are in plain sight. Our Colonel [David Ireland] is afraid of an attack on this place for the reason that the man that that goes up in the balloon on the heights [to] see their movements was up yesterday & he said that they was being heavily reinforced at some place—I cannot think of the name—it is at the west of us.
We have a splendid view of the country here. We can see all over the United States, I was a going to say, but I will take that back, And another thing that is a splendid thing & that is the balloon. He goes up every day when it is still. He goes up about three hundred feet & then they pull him back. 1
Mr. Taft & family, I suppose that you were very much grieved to hear of the death of your son [William] but you must stand up under it as well as you can. Think that he died in a good cause for certainly he did. We was all very much grieved to hear of his death as the company thought a great deal of him. He was thought a great deal of as a Lut [Lieutenant] also. Mr. Head’s son [Isaac] died last night. He was taken with the measles in the first place and then he caught a very hard cold and did not live but a short time. We have had very bad luck in our company. There has not been but four men die in the regiment and three of them was out of our company.
There is very [much] cannonading today in the direction of Leesburg. There is supposed to be a very hard battle there this day that came on this ground. There is a great movement of the army in these parts. The regiments that was in camp here was ordered to move off & we was ordered to move on and it is said that the whole army was under a move. It is supposed that there is to be some fighting now. I shall be home by spring I think if my life is spared me till that time.
Mr. Taft, I have heard them talk about the Sunny South but deliver me from this country. It is quite warm here yet. It is warm days and cold nights. I hear that you have had snow in your town. That’s more than I have seen yet. Well, I must close. Excuse this writing as I am writing on the ground. If you think this worthy of an answer, please write soon. — Edward H. Finch
1 According to the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park, on October 16, 1862, chief of aeronautics for the Union Army Professor Thaddeus Lowe manned a balloon above Bolivar Heights to assist with observations of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. Lowe’s balloon corps marched with a complex contraption consisting of two wagons “with very large high boxes made perfectly air tight.” These boxes held the gas that filled and lifted the balloon. Harley Milborn of the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry noted, “For the last two days they have been inflating it. [T]hey finished last night, and then a few men took hold of the cords to keep it down and they conducted it through our camp.” Hillborn watched for a time, but didn’t observe the end product: “Whether he made any discoveries or not, I do not know.”