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LaForge Civil War Diaries and Correspondence: July - September 1863

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 07:00

In this period we see Abiel settling into what will be the pattern of his duties for much of the next year: escorting groups of men from one location to another, centered around the headquarters near Washington. He suffers from some physical complaints that may or may not be related to the dysentery that took him out of action. But all in all, he's living quite a pleasant life for a wartime soldier, including regular stops in Washington for cultural entertainments. At some point I really do intend to do a separate post summing up all the plays and other performances he sees, and the books he mentions. A bit harder would be drawing up a bibliography if random literary references. Abiel helps me out in often putting such references in quotation marks (other times I can identify them by the sudden shift in register, though he can be quite poetic on his own at times). But even with the aid of Google Books, there are some passages that I'm quite certain are quotes but where I can't track down the source or inspiration. In some cases, he may have paraphrased them enough to make the original hard to find. In other cases, it may simply be that even with vast store of data on the web doesn't contain the relevant text. But when I can track them down, it reminds me what a miraculous time we live in for research!

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

July - September 1863

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved


1863 Contents

  • January 11, 1863
  • January 26, 1863
  • February 15, 1863 - The Wonderful "Care Package"
  • March 2, 1863
  • March 20, 1863
  • April 30, 1863
  • May 27, 1863
  • June 26, 1863
  • August 3, 1863
  • August 25, 1863
  • September 24, 1863 - A Night at Ford's Theater
  • October 20, 1863
  • October 30, 1863
  • December 10, 1863 - Transporting Prisoners to Washington and Some Sightseeing

[Battle at Gettysburg began July 1, 1863. Vicksburg and Port Hudson fell the same week.]


Head Quarters - Convalescent Camp

August 3rd 1863

Dear Sister,

I must tell you before anything else that this letter will be poorly written, for I was sick all yesterday and last night, and feel weak and nervous but in good spirits. Perhaps my being unwell will save me from getting a scolding for not sooner answering your letter, which I should have done long ago if I had been a good boy, as you have often advised me to be.

I am glad you appear to be enjoying yourself so well. I really believe you have the secret of true enjoyment which is a contented mind, taking the world as it comes and being pleased with whatever providence sees fit to grant you. Any person who is possessed of such a mind will do well and be truly rich in any situation. But I don't want to go into a lecture on this point.

There been a great change in our situation since my last to you. Then the Rebs were making successful headway into Pennsylvania. Johnston showed every symptom of being able to raise the siege of obstinate Vicksburg. Port Hudson showed herself a "hard nut to crack." Now, how different! Lee has been beaten and his army driven South again with heavy loss. Vicksburg with thirty thousand and Port Hudson with seven thousand men have surrendered to our brave troops, and at last the "Mississippi" is open.

Morgan, the great thief and raider, with his four thousand cavalry has been captured. Bragg, with the boasted army of Tennessee, has been obliged to abandon the stronghold of the west Chattanooga and has started like all the rest for the South. To ruralize I suppose. [Note: A bit more of Abiel's wry humor, I think.] All this taken into consideration, I think that [at] no time since the war commenced has the cause of freedom looked so hopeful. All honor to the brave soldiers in the field! At this rate, the war will be over before my time is out.

Things go on here pretty much the same as usual. It is so confounded hot that one does not feel like doing anything. I was over to Washington every day but one last week. Tuesday I went over in command of one company of the Invalid Corps 87 men. [Note: the numeral is in quotes and I'm not certain whether this is a count of men or a company unit designation.] Wednesday, in command of two Companies Invalid Corps 157 men. [Same note as for the previous.] Thursday, Colonel Baker, Chief Detective of the U.S.Army, sent for me to ask what my opinion was in regard to certain matters and things, in regard to the manner in which this camp was organized and conducted. They evidently wanted to get some evidence against Colonel McKelvy, but they chose the wrong person for that. But I gave them some information which I rather think they did not want. [Note: It's clear throughout many entries that Abiel had a high opinion on Colonel McKelvy and that the sentiment was returned.]

You say Perry's family is nearly all unwell. How strange! They were so well when I was up there that I thought they were not going to be sick anymore. But it appears the hope was delusive. Is Perry so unwell that he cannot write to me? He has not informed [me] whether he received the $45.00 I sent him yet. I wish you will let me know in your next if he has.

Janey, you must have to make Mattie send her likeness to me before long, for I begin to want to see her again. She don't know what to make of pretty niece eh! Well, you must tell her it don't mean nees but a relationship. [Note: I'm trying to remember how old Mattie is--I believe fairly young.]

I wish you had some of our ripe peaches, apples, watermelons, mushmelons, plums, which are now becoming abundant. Oh you can't imagine how their blackberries have been here! A thousand men were out gathering them some days but they seemed inexhaustible. They were ripe July 15th, but there is still a abundance of them yet. There was also an abundance of huckleberries, but they are all gone now. We have been feasting since fruit has got ripe, I assure you. I have often wished I could exchange some of it to you for some of your pickles and milk. But that of course cannot be done. [Note: Passages like this always remind me of the rhythm of seasonal produce in older days. I'm imagining the soldiers gorging themselves on ripe fruit for as long as it's available, not having a way to preserve it as the folks back home would have.]

I am up now at 5 A.M. nearly every day. About as early as you get up, is it not? At five P.M., walk half a mile and take a bath. Doing pretty well ain't it? I expect to go down to Annapolis, Maryland this week some time with some men. I am not sure yet, however. I received a letter from John Clemence, informing me of the death of his mother, of whose kindness to your brother I have told you so much. God rest her spirit, for she was a good Christian.

James Liverman, Perry Wells, and Jerome Remington were here now. You see I have some old acquaintances, even in convalescent camp. The enclosed letter was written by Eliza Bubier to her brother, who refused to obey an order of Colonel McKelvy on the ground that it conflicted with his oath of Parole. He said he would write to his sister and abise of decision. [Note: I'm not entirely certain how to render "abise of" but the sense as seen below would seem to align with "abide by her".] She returned this patriotic reply, which I send for your perusal. Her name should be remembered long. An editor saw it and printed [it].

Give my love to all, and do not neglect waiting so long as I [did]

Your loving brother

A. T. LaForge

Chief Orderly

[ENCLOSED NEWSPAPER CLIPPING - The original text is left as transcribed]

CONVALESCENT CAMP NEAR THE CITY. We read almost daily of Camp Convalescent. The limited knowledge which the community generally have acquired of this necessary government appendage consequent upon the war, bears not the slightest analogy, as respects its extent and operations, to the reality of this very eligibly located and indispensable institution.

It is located across the Potomac, In Virginia, only a short distance from Fort Albany, and about three miles from Arlington, the estate of the Confederate general, Lee.

Being required to make a business call there a day or two since, we availed ourselves of a letter of introduction to Col. McKelvy, the very efficient and polite commander, to acquaint ourselves somewhat, superficially, with the extent, operations, and system inaugurated by those charged with the various supervisory functions.

Some idea of its extent may be inferred from the fact that there are now, comfortably and without any crowding, over eight thousand soldiers accommodated there, recuperating from wounds and diseases contracted in the arduous service of their country. Many more could find equally comfortable accommodations. Many towns and cities, possessing every form and attibute of a finished place, do not possess as large a population as is now temporarily located at Camp Convalescent. A post office is established, under the control of Captain Thomas H. Marston, where all the mail matter received and sent off receives due and proper attention.

About one hundred hospitals, each capable of accommodating about one hundred and twenty patients, are admirably and judiciously arranged; walks and shady groves surround the encampment, serving as a resort during the heat of the day for the very large number of convalescents seeking reinvigorating air.

The cooking appendages certainly present a perfect model of judicious arrangement and economy of operation. Though it may appear incredible, yet it is so, that the entire cooking for all the inmates can be done at one time with comparatively a small outlay of labor and fuel. The arrangements for roasting meats, baking bread, and all other requisities for the men, are as admirable as it is capable for the ingenuity of man to invent. The bread, of which we partook, will vie with any made in the city.

Two mammoth dining saloons, each capable of accommodating seventeen hundred, are an attractive feature of the whole arrangement.

The admirable order, system, and scrupulous cleanliness, everywhere marked, speak well for Col. McKelvy and those acting under him.

The knowledge on the part of the thousands of brave ones encountering the vicissitudes of the war campaign, that their Government is so provident for them in the event of wounds or sickness, must serve as a strong incentive to persevere in the path of duty.



A TRUE FEMALE PATRIOT.- A convalescent paroled soldier, at Camp Convalescent, took exception to the orders emanating from the proper authority, requiring him to assist in some necessary work, on the ground that it would conflict with his oath of parole. He wrote to his sister, residing North, relating his grievances, and received from her the following response, which does credit both to her head and heart:

JUNE 2, 1863

MY DEAR BROTHER WILL: Your letter of the 26th of May was received by me to-night. I am most truly sorry that you are so unpleasantly situated, but while I grieve that you are in trouble, I must say that I think your refusal to obey orders puts you in a false position. If ordered to do that which you conscientiously think you ought not to do, it seems to me the proper way would be to obey the order under protest. But I certainly think you are mistaken in the construction you put upon your oath of parole. The officers of Government surely know the extent and linmitations of that oath better than one unversed in the law of nations can do, and you ought to be very clear on the point before you take such a stand, subversive as it must be of all discipline and efficiency in the army. You well know that your sister Eliza would be the last person to advise you to violate your conscience, but in this case I think that you are making a point where none is involved. All this I say with the kindest feelings of sympathy for your trouble, on the supposition that it is only the supposed violation of your oath which causes you to resist the orders. There are certain recognised principles of law which regulate this whole matter, and those in authority are supposed to be thoroughly conversant with those principles. If they violate them the blame rests on their shoulders, not on yours. It would be exceedingly impolitic for the Government to inaugurate such a course if it were really forbidden by the law of parole, and I cannot believe they would do so. I trust the next letter will tell me that all trouble is over, and that you are cheerfully embracing every opportunity to show your devotion to your country and her cause. Building fortifications is not pleasant work, I can well believe; yet it is necessary work, and if I could serve my country best by digging, I would dig with all my heart.

Your affectionate sister, ________ __________

[Note: An interesting conundrum. When a captured soldier gave his parole, he was released on the understanding that he would refrain from fighting. It seems a reasonable question whether digging fortifications would violate that parole, given that it was an activity that active duty soldiers performed regularly. From one standpoint, his sister's argument "your officers know the law better than you do; obey them" isn't entirely tenable. On the other hand, her suggestion that, having made his objection, he was absolved from the responsibility if he really was in violation of parole, is a useful face-saver all around.]


Head Quarters Convalescent Camp August 25th 1863

Dear Sister,

I hope this letter will find you better than Sally Ann's of the 18th--which I just received--left you. It seems so strange to hear of your being sick who have always been so well that I can hardly believe it. Poor girl, you have over-worked yourself in your benevolent desire to aid others in distress. It is part of your kind nature, and I cannot scold for well I know how pleasant it is to have your thoughtful presence in a sick-room. How very light have you made moments when I have been sick that would otherwise have seemed as ages! And can I then deny to others the same blessing which I myself have enjoyed? fails.. I fear not. And I must say I very much doubt my ability to do so, even supposing I had the will. For I well remember to your other qualifications you add that of obstinacy, and that I may say very strongly developed, judging from the manner in which you have often resisted me in certain things which I will not mention. For fear you will make a mistake, I will state "it was not in eating pickles" when I was up there. [Note: I have no idea whether "not in eating pickles" is simply a private joke between them or has some conventional meaning.]

"O golly," you must not be sick because I am not up there to take care of you. I wish I was. I believe it would do you good to see me. Don't you think so? I would like to have it in my power to see if it would not. I would not be slow in trying the experiment. I guess you must kiss "Josey" a few times see if that won't do you good.

Then another reason why you should not be sick is because one sick person in a family is quite enough, and I have been sick nearly a month. My face is so thin that the boys make fun of me, but "good gracious," if you could see me eat now you would not think it could stay thin long. And I am determined it shan't be so long, for I have good backing in my appetite, which is good enough to eat dead things. I did not go to bed at all (only nights) during the whole time. The diarrhea was my disease. [Note: As Abiel isn't referring to this as dysentary, it isn't clear whether he's downplaying the severity or if it's a more ordinary complaint. One has to wonder about sanitary issues in the camp.]

I went down to Fortress Monroe last week. There was a small squad of men to go down, and as the doctor thought it would do me good, down I went with them, and it did do me good. I came back by the way of Baltimore and stayed part of a day at old McKims. Five or six of the old detailed men were there. That girl I used to flirt with is married, which is a great load off my mind. For you see it leaves me free to make proposals for my dear, good, kind-hearted, Janey. She is the best girl I have met in my travels anywhere. I could just kiss you now if I had a chance with a good will, and mother too, if she were present and was going to tell. [Note: As I discussed in a previous entry when I finally looked up that various relationships and dates, Janey (Joseph Potter's sister) is significantly older than Abiel, and one must believe that even as direct a flirtatious comment as this was probably intended entirely in fun. Though I sometimes wonder if Janey thought it quite as entertaining as Abiel did.]

I received a letter from father the other day. He is doing well--has taken up a quarter section of land with 120 acres of prairie [and] 40 acres of wood land. He has not money to enter it, although he is getting large wages, but cannot get his pay until his employer gets back from down the river, where he has been running lumber. It will cost him $12.00 to enter his land and I enclose an order for Perry to send him that amount in "Green backs." I would send him a hundred if I could only get him past so he could not move away by so doing. [Note: The first Homestead Act was established in 1862 and the Wikipedia entry suggests that a quarter section (160 acres) was the standard allotment. Abiel's father would need to file an application, improve the land, and reside on it for five years to receive permanent title. The $12 is presumably the application fee. I get the impression, across a number of references, that Abiel's father was not a particularly successful farmer and spent a lot of energy pursuing the "next sure thing" and being supported in various ways by his children.]

We have just had a most refreshing shower. It has been dreadful dusty before, and the change is so agreeable that I think if you could enjoy it, it would do you more good than all the doctor medicine in the world.

Sincerely hoping this will find you better than Sally's left you,

I remain,

your loving but anxious brother,

A. T. La Forge

Chief Orderly

P.S. Janey, if Susan is still sick, please write immediately, for I am most anxious to hear. If better, write also immediately, for I want to feel easy. Kiss all for me. Yours A.T. LaF--

Chief Orderly


Headquarter Convalescent Camp, September 24th 1863

Dear Sister,

I believe we are laboring under the same misunderstanding. You think it is my turn to write, and I rather think it is yours, for you must have got my letter after I did yours. But of course [you? I?] don't know that. Such being the case, I think I will end the matter by taking the initiatory, for I want to hear from you, as you was quite unwell the last you wrote.

Your letter came just in time to prevent my taking a very gloomy journey. I was just starting for Fortress Monroe and feeling badly enough, as I had received Sally Ann's but a short time before informing me of your serious illness. (I don't think I ever appreciated all your kindness before. At least, I never knew you was so good, or had so many virtues. I assure you, sister Sally's letter made you almost a saint in my eyes.) And naturally [I] felt very much depressed. When your letter came--and I don't know--but I felt a good deal better. At any rate, I got ready to start off with a quiet [quite] better will than I had before. In fact, I rather think the men would have found me a poor commander if I had not heard from you before I started.

It was the third time I had been to "Old Point" with men. I had 260 convalescents and a sergeant with ten guards. I started from Alexandria on the steamer "Black Diamond." I being in command of the boat, of course, felt quite important, but believe I did nothing to be ashamed of--which is saying a good deal, for a person as vain as myself. Don't you think so?

I had to stop at Point Lookout, which is about half way. And when we arrived at 3 O.C. A.M. to take 38 of my men belonging to the 2nd and 12th New Hamshire Regiments ashore, I had to go about 1/3 of a mile to their camp, wake up the adjutant, and get a receipt for them (always when we deliver men anywhere, we have to get a receipt for them, like the one enclosed), and return to the boat.

Day was breaking when I went back, and you don't know how well I felt. The little birds were just beginning to sing. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the sea, causing the "waves to murmur gentle music on the sandy beach." I never saw so beautiful an awakening of nature or one that brought to my mind so forcibly the boundless love of God. [Note: the quotation marks suggest that Abiel has taken this phrase from somewhere, as he often sets off lyrics and such in this way. A quick Google search doesn't turn up any exact match, and it's hard to tell whether slight paraphrases point to some common source or simply to a natural similarity of expression. One item in Google Books quoted in "Honey from the Rock: Spiritual Refreshment from the Rock of Ages" edited by Ivor Powell has a similar phrase: "the gentle murmurs of waves falling upon a sandy beach" as an example of music found in nature. Although the various passages in this modern collection aren't attributed to sources, it may be that Powell is adapting some much earlier text that Abiel was also familiar with.]

Point Lookout is situated at the mouth of the Potomac [and] is in the district of Saint Mary's in Maryland, and before the war, was quite a noted "watering place", the conveniences being excellent for sea bathing. I believe none but Southrens [i.e., Southerners] came here. It is now used for a camp of rebel prisoners of war.

I got to the Fortress about 2-1/2 P.M. I had the alternative of getting rid of 222 men before 5 O.C. or staying there all night. The last I very much disliked to do, so I got rid of the men, got my transportation back, had my guards on board and everything ready to return just in time, when I remembered having left my overcoat and haversack at the provost marshall's. My overcoat cost $12--I could not leave that! So off I jumped, expecting to be left. Run up to the Provost, got my things, run back hard as I could tear, got on the boat, and it was fifteen long minutes before we started. I declare, I was almost mad!

We came back by the way of Baltimore--had a beautiful sail up the Chesapeake. I went to bed, but could not sleep it was so warm. My guard slept in the "forward cabin" while I slept in the "aft cabin". I had my meals on the boat (supper and breakfast) 50 cents per meal. Arrived in Baltimore about 7 A.M., went around through the city until 3:50 O.C. P.M., then came on to Washington where we arrived in time for me to go to Ford's theater and see the play of the "Naiad Queen". [Note: presumably the same play mentioned in this source in 1859, featuring John Wilkes Booth.] The scenery is most magnificent but the plot of the play is not much. The hero, a robber, spends all his money and, to get rid of his trouble, jumps into the Rhine to drown himself. Instead of drowning, he finds himself in beautiful castles under the water, surrounded by beautiful "nymphs". He falls in love with their mistress the "Naiad." She gives him lots of money to return to earth and ornament his palaces for their nuptials. He fulfills the first part of the agreement, but instead of going back to the Queen, he marries a being more of earth, earthy. Then the Queen is mad. She gets her female soldiers. They come out in beautiful uniform and train on the stage. When they get ready to make war on the faithless lover, she repents and gives his earthly true love to him, and "blessing them ascends to heaven." The gorgeousness of scenery makes up for the want of a good plot and is a beautiful play. I got back to camp safe next day and received the congratulations of Colonel McKelvy for doing my duty so well, which made me feel better than all the rest.

Tell William, when he gets another pair of new boots, to come down again, as there is plenty of new things to see and it wants new boots to see them, eh? How is Miss 'Melia? Is she the same kind-hearted, handsome, lively, piece as ever? Don't let her know I have written to ask you. It is getting so cold here now that a fire is comfortable.

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