Editor's note: I am richly blessed by not only having my great grandfather's Civil War diary but also to have letters written to him while he was in the Army from 1864-65. When the two documents are combined with history books tracing the movement of troops and describing the overall military strategy, one gains a more complete understanding of Thomas B. Fisher, his family, and their reactions to current events.
The following text is based on the Civil War diary and the family letters. I published this material in the Illinois State Genealogy Society Quarterly, Vol 28, No. 1, Spring 1996.
A parallel article titled "Letters from the Western Frontier"
was published in the Illinois State Genealogy Society Quarterly,
Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 1994. This article was based on letters
written from 1847 - 1861 to Thomas B. Fisher's wife's grandmother,
Cordelia FOWLER. (Cordelia's daughter, Stella BUCKINGHAM) married
Thomas after his return from the War. These letters paint an interesting
picture of life in Amboy, Illinois, as the territory opened for
On October 5, 1864, Thomas Benjamin Fisher and his brother Wilson Jewell Fisher traveled north from their farm home in Amboy, Illinois, to Dixon, the county seat. They left the comfort of home and family, as did thousands of other young men, to join the U. S. Army and fight in the Civil War. Thomas was 21 years old and Wilson was 20. They left behind their parents, Alexander and Jane Hales Fisher, and two sisters, Rebecca (age 18) and Alma (age 15).
Going off to war was a big adventure for these two men just as it was for thousands of others who never had before wandered far from home. Luckily for the descendants of Thomas and Wilson, there is evidence of their experiences and concerns. Thomas maintained a war diary and also saved some of the many letters his family wrote to him. These have been handed down from generation to generation for 130 years until they reached my hands, the great grandson of Thomas B. Fisher. I have organized the diary and the letters into a form that can be enjoyed not only by family members but also others who are interested in Civil War history and what life was like in Amboy, Illinois, during those years. I left the punctuation and spelling exactly as in the original documents even though this may make reading somewhat harder. The reader needs to realize that many people in those days were not highly educated, and punctuation rules were not commonly applied.
Other soldiers maintained diaries and exchanged letters, of course-many are more comprehensive than those I have. Often, they were engaged in famous battles and could provide descriptions that were quite graphic. War affects people in different ways. The material to follow describes how two young men tried to maintain their health, sanity, and values while doing something that was distasteful but had to be done "for the good of the nation." Perhaps the value of this material lies in the fact that it describes the everyday existence of two common soldiers and the pain of the family while waiting for their return. The Fisher family realized firsthand the divisiveness of the Civil War. Alexander had a brother, William, who was a Baptist preacher in Virginia. When war broke out, William served as the Chaplain for the Confederate 22nd Virginia Infantry. It is evident from family records that William's name was never mentioned, and, upon his death in 1898 after serving his fellow men and women and his church for so many years, there is no mention in his obituary of the existence of two brothers and a sister whose loyalties remained with the north.
Thomas and Wilson Fisher joined the 11th Infantry Regiment organized as part of the great western Army of the Mississippi. The 11th saw service in the early years of the Civil War at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, and at Shiloh. Toward the end of the War, they moved to Vicksburg and participated in the action along the Mississippi River including the campaign against Mobile.
Both Thomas and Wilson joined the Army as substitute volunteers, according to their enlistment papers. For this, each man was paid an enlistment bonus of $100, payable in three equal installments during their time in service. They enlisted for a one-year period of time.
On October 5, the boys were examined by the Army physicians in Dixon and then given permission to return to Amboy to say their good-byes. On their last night in Amboy, they "went to the Slaughters' and had more than a good time." The next day, they were sworn into the service and spent their first night in the barracks. Thomas commented, "Prospect rather poor for a comfortable night. One-half rations and but one blanket for three men." In general, this pattern held constant throughout the next year-the soldiers were poorly fed many times and often had inadequate clothes and shelter. Within a few days, the boys had joined their unit at Camp Butler and Army life began in earnest.
On October 17, 1864, Rebecca Fisher wrote her brothers what must have been one of the very first of many letters. She wrote in a chatty, loving way and fills her letter with news from the home front in Amboy:
Dear Boys, Your anxiously expected and very welcome letters came to hand this evening, and now like a dutiful sister I will make an attempt to answer them. But you must not expect a well-written, well-composed letter to-night, but I am too tired and sleepy. ... It is now after 10 o'clock and we have been down to singing school ... The singing was held tonight, as there is to be a sociable at Mr. Ives' tomorrow evening.
I think Wils had better hurry up and write to the rest of our family, or they will be making a fuss. I was home during Saturday and Sunday, as usual, our folks are well and do not appear to have lost their appetites by losing their boys. Alma made the important discovery on Saturday that she was Tommy's sister because she liked squash! John is as happy as a king because father lets him ride one of the horses for the cows every evening.
We did not get your letters until tonight -- although we confidantly expected to hear from you on Saturday.
Do not be surprised if you should see some Amboy faces this
week. Quite a number speak of visiting you. Mr. Webb started for
Springfield to-day to attend the General Association held there.
He will most probably give you a call.
Mr. Barrell has just been saying that Mayor Butler's son has disappeared and cannot be heard from. Mr. Hawks has been to Chicago again. They have a new clerk there (at the store) whose hair and whiskers are perfectly white. He looks as old as old Mr. Benway. The boy who never "lithpth only when he says goothe" is still there.
I received a letter for Wilson last week and I will enclose it. I think you had better answer it, as he seems quite anxious to hear from you. Also write to Mr. Davis and Uncle John. Let me tell you, you will be glad of these correspondents before you get home. So you had better take your sisters advice and answer those letters, for you have nothing else to do.
I have the care of your Sabbath School class as you requested.
They are very good boys, always present with a good lesson.
Our school goes on as usual. I am kept quite busy preparing my lessons. I am learning quite rapidly. (This will be "quite" a letter if I stick in a few more "quites.")
Next Wednesday we are to have what Mrs. Reiss calls "rhetorical exercises." Do you know what that means? All I know is that I am to have a composition and I have not written a word yet and don't know what to write. School-girls troubles! Nellie and I talk some of staying at Binghamton to-morrow night. Would you like us to purchase a small quantity of "Bran" for you? Oh, dear! That joke will be all worn out if we don't let it alone. Oh, fury, how my head aches! Monday is always the most tiresome day of the week to me.
It seems that George Keeling and Charlie Ives are going in to the State service after all. I did hope that they would be compelled to go into the 11th after all. What brave stay-at-homes they are to be sure.
Let me see now if I have written all I wanted to. When I send a letter I want the worth of my stamps. Is this worth 3 cts? Well if it is not perhaps Eberhart's is.
Nellie is writing away as if she was working for wages. I have not ideas enough to write anymore. Father went to help Mr. Bear thresh, today Mrs. B. has gone to Ogle Co. on a visit.
My neck is so stiff I can scarcely turn my head. Mother and
I were caught in a shower last Friday eve. It rained on us all
the way home. Hope you will soon get rid of your colds. Doctor
up with pain killer, pills or any thing else.
Oh boys, have you heard the good news from the late elections? The war is going to be closed up in a year's time I believe. Don't you hope I am a true prohetress.
It is time for rogues to be turned our of doors and honest folks to be abed. It is approaching the "lone starry hours." It is quite moony to-night.
Perhaps I can find a place to sign my name if I try. Write to me soon. Direct to Amboy Ills until informed to the contrary. My respects and good wishes to all that want them. From your loving sister. Reba
You're in the Army Now
Army life at Camp Butler quickly proved to be unhealthy for Thomas and Wilson. Both men came down with colds, fevers, and sore throats right away. There was no fire in the barracks, and the weather was very cold. Thomas wrote in his diary, "My throat was quite sore and on the whole it was a poor day for me. ...Chase and Shortell are down with fevers like myself. Painter's medicine is helping me right along. Just one week since we came here and it has been as poor a week as far as my health is concerned as I ever spent. But thank the Good Lord I am better."
Thomas quickly found that Sunday was not necessarily a day of rest in the Army. He complained, "No Sunday here. In fact it seems as if the post commanders try to make it an extra day for business." And, a week later, "No sign of Sunday. I think that when we get home we will prize Sundays' privilege more than ever before."
Obtaining enough food was going to be a problem wherever the
soldiers went. On October 25, Thomas commented, "Jim and
I went out to forage. Did not get anything but some apples. There
is nothing in this camp worth having."
Sending boys off to war is always a terrible thing for a mother to have to do, and it was no different with Jane Hales Fisher. She was afraid for her sons' health and safety, of course, but she was also concerned for their souls. Her first letter, dated October 23, 1864, was quite heart-rending:
"My dear boys, It seems strange to me to address you as soldier boys; but so it is, though sometimes I can hardly realize that it is so. I miss you very much when I go to town. Hawk's and Bourn's store looks very lonely, so desolate to me now. We were all up to church to day except Becca. Elder Webb preached, although we did not expect him home yet, from Springfield. Mr. Roberts is to preach for him to night.
While attending church I thought of my absent boys, wondered where they were and what they might be doing, whether they could attend any religious meeting, hoped they were not idley wandering about and listening to the foolish talking and jesting of others. I tried to imagine them seated in some secluded corner intently reading their little testaments, and seeking wisdom and guidance from its scared pages, and silently lifting up their hearts in gratitude and trust to its' Author. O, dear boys, could I be assured that you have made Christ your hope and refuge I should feel better satisfied, in prospect of the future.
I was to town Friday afternoon for Rebecca. Received your three letters, dated the 14th, 17th, and 19th and also a line by Henry Barrell, in which you requested her to get flannel to make you shirts. It was raining disagreeably, getting later and I was in a hurry to get home, and the store was full, so that we had no chance to look after anything, and Ben said he did not know what you meant by "miner's flannel" and besides I had no money to get it with, nor your father has not, unless he takes that note of Hawks and Brown which Thomas gave him. As we have been trading altogether on the cash system I should not like to ask for trust. I have thought of sending you those under shirts that Thomas got last winter, and if I can get flannel, make a couple of new ones, which perhaps would answer until you draw more from government, for certainly you will soon get another suit. Write immediately if you have knowledge when you shall leave Springfield, for if you should go before you get them, it is not likely you will ever get them. We have heard various reports-one that you would likely remain in S. all winter, which I don't believe, another that you would stay till after the election and that the voters would be sent home to vote, that to my mind seems more probable. If that should be so, we may perhaps see our boy Tommy again before leaving the state.
We had nearly an inch of snow on the ground last Friday morning. it is supposed that there were several inches fell. But as it rained before the snow commenced, and was not cold, it melted for a long time as fast as it fell. It was truly beautiful to see the green trees covered and bending with the weight of snow. But it all passed away by noon and the weather has been mild since, and the grass looks fresh and green as spring.
Your father helped Mr. Bear thrash last Monday-went for wood one day, it rained one day, and the remainder of the week he was digging potatoes, and I was busy fixing John some clothes. We have cleaned house, and got the stove set in, and feel quite comfortable, if we were assured that you were as much so, we should feel quite content.
I will now close by repeating my parting request-Be good boys, Be kind to each other, as brothers, and also to your friend James. Consider how hard it must be for him to be parted from his dear friends at home. Be free to communicate to your parents whatever may concern you, and remember that the eye of God is always upon you, and His ear ever open to the cry of the needy that call upon Him in sincerity. From your loving Mother
As Jane Fisher was writing the previous letter to her sons, sister Rebecca was doing the same thing. Rebecca's letter, for the first time, mentions hearing from their cousins who are also serving in the Federal Army. These cousins are the sons of Alexander Fisher's sister Mary who married a Pennsylvania newspaperman named William Schuyler, editor of the widely-known GRIT newspaper..
Oct. 23rd. Dear Boys,
Mother is writing to you so I thought I would pencil a few lines by way of letting you know that I think of you once in a while. We have no paper at home so we had to hunt up an old copy-book, and now if you can read this you will do well for I am writing in an awful hurry. I staid at home to-day while the rest went to church, but it did seem very strange to see them come back and neither of the boys with them. O how I should have been pleased if you could have been here to take dinner with us. I wonder what you have been doing today. It did not seem much like Sabbath did it? Thank you for your pictures. They are quite good. I took possession of yours. [Note: Soldiers often had their photos taken by photographers who set up shops near the camps. These photos, unfortunately, do not appear to have survived within the Fisher family.]
School goes on as usual, nothing new I believe. I have joined Mr. Couch's singing class, don't know as I shall continue to go though.
Mr. Parks has gone to Centralia. He made a sensation among the girls of Amboy to judge from appearances. He would be greatly flattered if he know how much they all seem to regret his departure.
I had a very good letter from Cousin Lewis [Schuyler] last week. He is at Bermuda Hundred. His brother Adam hunted him up and they had a very pleasant visit together. [Note: Bermuda Hundred cannot be found on today's maps. It was an important staging point for the attacks on Richmond, Virginia, from the southeast approaches. It was located near Hopewell, Virginia on the James River.] It snowed here last Thursday night. The Coppers had a grand rally here last Thursday. Some of them "rallied" so hard they could scarcely get home.
The Union party are to have a meeting tomorrow. Mrs. Coates and her mother have gone to Philadelphia. Did you get the letters I sent you last week?
I hope you have gotten over your colds, rather an unpleasant beginning in soldering, eh. Tommy, I shall have to stop now and go to bed for I am awful sleepy. I shall write soon again. Good night my darling brothers.
Go to Page 6
Copyright 1993 Thomas H. Fisher, Tallahassee, Florida 32312
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