Monday, August 13, 2012

August 1, 1862: DeWitt C. Blair's Letter to John I. Blair

On August 1, 1862, Private DeWitt Clinton Blair, wealthy attorney from Belvidere, wrote to his father, railroad owner and financier John I. Blair, from Camp Aspinnall near Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  Blair was serving in the 22nd New York National Guard Regiment, "The New York Greys." 

"My Dear Father, I have received two letters from you & have read them with great interest.  I knew you were about to be taking a trip West & I have delayed answering until your return.  I take great pleasure in watching the progress of Rail Road matters.  I have examined portions of the Baltimore & Ohio R.R. & also the Winchester Road.  The track of the former is in a miserable condition.  The transportation is very great at this time.  When I awake from my slumbers at midnight, I can still hear the rattling sound of car wheels as train after train travels along, long down with grain & cattle destined I presume for Washington to feed the Army of the Potomac.  The Winchester Road passes along the flank of our Camp - between us & the Shenandoah River.  It is a small affair, the track consists of flat iron spiked to pieces of timber.  The Road has had more business than it could since the beginning of the War.  The 9th Vermont Regiment passed over the road a few days since on their way to Winchester I suppose.  We gave them three hearty cheers & they responded with a will.  Vermont deserves the praise of being the first in the field.

"Business of every character in this section of the country, except that which pertains to war, is dispensed with.  Mills are stopped & private dwellings lay in one mass of ruins.  You can form but a faint idea of the devastating affect of war, unless you are on the ground & witness the results.  It would be a sight for a stranger to visit this place.  The routine of every day life is interrupted by the sound of Martial Music & the tramp of armed men.  Our duties are various and often very laborious.  Our Company has charge of a Battery behind a line of entrenchments which we have just finished.  It was a very amusing sight at times for a looker-on to witness the degree of spirit manifested by Broadway Gents, as they tugged away with the shovel & the hoe.  Some of them were honest enough to admit that they would know how to make a living by the time they get home, a thing which before appeared very strange & unnatural.

"Our Regiment marches out to Bolivar Heights every afternoon through the hot sun & dust & these, with some three thousand other troops, go through a Brigade drill conducted by Brigadier General [Nelson] Miles.  We have Company drills in the morning & after that we are assigned to various other duties & so kept busy the whole day.  Rebel Cavalry still infest this part of the Valley & ram around in small bodies watching our movements & gaining all the information possible & stealing everything valuable they can lay their hands on.  Now & then a Rebel scout is caught within our lines & brought to headquarters.  Such specimens of living humanity is a rare sight.

"We had a lively time at two o'clock last night.  We were awakened out of our dreams by the roar of heavy Artillery & the whistling sound of shells as they passed over our Camp & exploded in the opposite side of the Shenandoah River near the foot of the Mountain.  It seems that our Battery in Maryland Heights discovered the Rebels playing their old game of displaying signal lights, so they opened fire just to remind them of the fact that we were wide awake.  That battery is a very important one.  It is just the key to this Valley.  It was that which stopped Stonewall Jackson from crossing here into Maryland.  It is held by one Company of the 5th N.Y. Infantry ["Duryea's Zouaves"].  If the Rebels should ever    succeed in getting hold of that, we would have to get out of this place in a hurray, as their Guns will carry more than a mile beyond our Camp.

"The line of earthworks which we have assisted in constructing in the rear of our Camp will extend, when completed, a quarter of a mile.  If our Troops are defeated in any part of the Valley, they can fall back to this point with safety.  The place where we are encamped is called Bolivar.  But we call it all Harper's Ferry, although the Ferry itself & the Village proper lies some two miles East of us.  The two places are so connected that a stranger could scarcely notice the difference.  Bolivar is considered healthy & I can see no reason why it should not be so, as it is situated on high ground.  But we have an unusual amount of sickness in the Regiment during our stay here.  The Doctors I understand have not succeeded in detecting the cause.  My own opinion is that the Limestone Water has as much to do with it as anything.  Most of the Regiment are accustomed to use Cistern Water & they don't seem to get used to this.  We have just met with a great loss.  Our Colonel (Monroe) is dead.  His disease was one that is very prevalent in the Army at this time, the Congestive Fever.  He was first taken when we were in Baltimore.  But he rallied & came over here some two weeks after we arrived.  He was a Noble Colonel, beloved by the whole Regiment.  We all felt that he was our mainstay in case of danger.  We have no confidence whatsoever in our Lieutenant Colonel (Aspinnall).  He is simply a Broadway Colonel, without knowledge or experience in the art of war.

"Our time of enlistment expires on the 1st of September [1862].  I suppose we shall be ordered home soon after that, unless the Government desires our services for a longer time or compels us to serve until such time as it may deem proper.  I have read your last letter with much care & notice particularly what you say about your business matters & the assistance which I may be to you in the future.  I have not enlisted for the whole war.  Three months experience as a common soldier will do for the moment.  When my time expires, I shall come home & take a rest.  If I ever go again, I should prefer going as an Officer.  I think I am as well qualified for it as some in our Regiment & that is not saying much in their favor.  I hope the people will respond willingly to the last call of the President.  If they don't, this Government will soon come to an end.  If the ranks are not soon filled by volunteers, I hope drafting will commence immediately, the sooner the better.  I get letters from A_____ & Mr. S_____ frequently [the two names were not legible].  I am glad to hear they are all well.  I wrote Marcus last week to send me a box of eatables.  I am expecting it this week.  Tell Charlie Vail to write to me often.  I always feel grateful for letters, however short.  Give my love to Mother & Marcus & all the Folks. I remain your affectionate son, D. C. Blair."

Private D. C. Blair returned to Belvidere when his enlistment expired in September 1862.  He missed being captured with other New York units when Harper's Ferry fell to General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Virginians.  Some of the 1880s biographies stated Blair fought the Irish rioters during the New York City Draft Riots, but the riots occurred in 1863.  Blair's law library in New York City was ransacked during the riots so one can guess that Blair might have fought the rioters as a civilian protecting his offices.  There is no record that he ever re-enlisted.

Copyright 1999-2012: Jay C. Richards    

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