This letter was written by Pvt. James H. Ayres, a native of Ulster county, New York, who enlisted at age 20 in Co. F, 52nd Illinois Infantry at his Illinois residence in Fulton City, Whiteside county. HIs enlistment records indicate that he stood a little under 5’10” tall, had brown hair, gray eyes, and a florid complexion. James and the other young men of the 52nd Illinois were mustered into the service at Geneva, Illinois. was stationed at “Camp Sampson” and Cairo, Illinois, participated in the Battle of Corinth and the Battle of Pittsburgh, and died on 19 October 1862, aged 21. James’ brother, Alexander Ayres, enlisted with Company I of the Second U.S. Infantry and died in July, 1863, aged 19.
A collection of letters survive that were written by James during his year in the service. In 1861, these letters were generally optimistic and enthusiastic about the war and military service. After several months, however, James’ letters began to reflect his changing views about war after witnessing battles, prisoner exchanges, and soldier burials — described in some detail. On March 26, he wrote that “this war will be a lesson to a great many boys me for one included if I get out of this alive I will know better another time.” In the spring of 1862, James wrote that he was growing weary of the war, and had contracted the measles, which allowed him to temporarily leave the unit on a furlough. In the summer of 1862, James wrote home several times to discourage his younger brother Alexander from enlisting in the army, although Alexander later enlisted with the 2nd U.S. Infantry in Kingston, New York. On September 23, James wrote from Camp Montgomery near Corinth saying that, “We are having verry good time now, but it rains nearly all the time. This dose not hurt us — we are tough and constant.”
The next letter written home came from a family friend named William H. Balcom informing the parents about James’ death on October 19th from wounds he received on October 4th in the Battle of Corinth. Several more letters from Balcom discuss his efforts to send James’ belongings and the ‘fatal bullet’ back home, to secure the wages owed to James’ family, and to find out more details the soldier’s death. Another letter sent to the parents from March 31, 1863 includes a badly faded albumen print photograph of James H. Ayres’ grave taken by the surviving members of his company. See Ayres Family Letters.
[near St. Louis, Missouri]
November 30th 1861
Father and Mother,
I take my pen in hand to inform you that we have made a move. We left our camp in Geneva [Illinois] last Thursday. It was awful cold there. The ground was covered with snow. It snowed there last Saturday in [the] morning. When we woke up it was snowing like fun. We all picked up our duds and started for the town. We took possession of every publick building in town. Our company was stationed in the court house ¹ which made us very comfortable. We staid there until we started for this place.
We have got very nice quarters here. The picture at the head of the sheet is our camp and it is a good one. There is about twenty thousand troops stationed here in this camp but there is about forty-five thousand in and about St. Louis. That is what they tell me. You can see nothing but soldiers on every side. Our camp is three miles from St. Louis.
We had good times on the road. We were cheered all along the road. Handkerchiefs and flags were flying from every house and when we got to St. Louis, there was a company of cavalry ready to escort us up to camp. We got in camp just dark. I can not tell how long we will stay here. We may stay till spring and we may not stay three days but I hope we will a month or two. We are kept very close martialed. ____ is very strict but I am well satisfied with it. It is better than working on a farm this cold weather. When it is cold or stormy, we can sit by the stove unless we are on guard. Then we have got to take it — wet [or] dry — but we have got rubber blankets which will keep the rain off.
We got one month’s pay before we left Geneva and the boys make it fly now but the most of them will soon be out of money again. But for myself, I spend some but I intend [to] keep some of it. It is hard work to do it though for when a fellow lives on beef and bread a spell, when he sees pies, cakes, and apples come around, it makes his mouth water and he can not help buying some.
When I get my gun and all the equipments, I will send you a soldier’s likeness. There is some reports that there is an expedition going down the Mississippi from this place and if it is so, we may be in it. If we are, we will no doubt see some hot times before we get back. No more at present. Answer as soon as you get this.
Yours, — J. H. Ayres
Address James H. Ayres, Co. F, 52nd Reg. Ill. Vol., Benton Barracks, St. Louis in care of Capt. N[athan] P. Herrington
¹ The Kane County Court House was completed in 1857 on 3rd Street in Geneva, Illinois. It was an ornate, three-story limestone structure capped with a large cupola. It was destroyed by fire in 1890.