1862: George Gettys Pilkington to Nancy (Reilly) Pilkington


How George Pilkington might have looked

This letter was written by George G. Pilkington (1842-1889) who served as a musician — a drummer — in Co. E, 126th Pennsylvania Infantry. George was the son of Thomas G. Pilkington (1812-1863) and Nancy Reilly (1808-1864) of Waynesboro, Franklin county, Pennsylvania. George’s father, Thomas, also enlisted with his son, though he served as a corporal in Company A. He is referred to as “Pap” on a couple of occasions in this letter. Thomas was wounded in action at Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862 and died of his wounds on 15 January 1863 in Emory Hospital in Washington D. C.

In this letter, George tells his mother how he heard of his older brother Wilson’s death. Wilson served in the 12th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry (41st Volunteers) and had survived the Peninsula Campaign only to be killed at the Battle of South Mountain — less than twenty miles from his home. George received the news from Jim Brotherton, a doctor from Wayneboro.

The members of Company E were recruited from Waynesboro after the disastrous Peninsula Campaign and were assembled at Camp Curtin in early August 1862. The regiment was moved quickly to the Union fortifications near Munson’s Hill in Virginia to help bolster the defenses of the nation’s capitol. It wasn’t until the 12th of September that the 126th Pennsylvania and the other regiments in Erastus B. Tyler’s Brigade began their march into Maryland in pursuit of Lee’s army. They did not arrive at the Antietam battlefield until 8 a.m. on the 18th — the day after the battle — where they were placed in reserve behind Porter’s Corps.

After Lee’s army crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, the 126th Pennsylvania went into camp one mile from Sharpsburg where it remained until the 16th of October. On that day, the division in which the 126th Pennsylvania belonged, crossed over the Potomac on a reconnoissance into Virginia. They crossed the river below Shepherdstown and proceeded as far as Leetown where they camped for the night, skirmishing with Confederate cavalry most of the way. The following day they retraced their steps and crossed the Potomac on the night of 17 October — a night described by Pilkington as “dark as pitch.”


Camp near Sharpsburg, Maryland
Tuesday, 21st [October] 1862

Dear Mother,

I received your letter of the 17th this evening but I was disappointed when I read it for I thought you had found Wilson’s ¹ body and heard that you was going to take it home and have a decent burial but I hope it may be found yet for I would like to have him buried in the Methodist graveyard. When I heard of Wilson’s death, I was in Boonsboro [Maryland] but on the way to the [Antietam] battlefield. Jim Brotherton stepped up to me and told of it. I never received such a shock in my life before. I felt as if something heavy had struck me on the head and with a sickening feeling I sat down on a step in front of a house. This is all I knew until I saw Jim Brotherton standing in front of me. The big drops of sweat was running over my face and the boys told me that I had fainted.

From the time of hearing of the death of Wilson until now, I have had no satisfaction or pleasure in the Army and yet the bad news is coming in. I heard today of Lydnaham’s sickness and I am sorry to hear it and very uneasy about him. But I hope he will soon get well. Pap was very angry about Doctor Herring attending Sid when Uncle Nelson told him. Uncle Welsh will tell you what he said if you ask him.

I got that bread and butter you sent and was glad of it for I was out of bread and crackers. I suppose you heard of our division crossing the river on Thursday morning [16 October 1862] at Sheperdstown, Va. Our company was on picket and could not go but Dan Singer, ² John Bell, ³ and myself went — we being the only three out of our company along. We had to ford the river which was no nice job. Going through Sheperdstown the Ladies held their noses shut for fear of smelling Yankees and they tried to plague us in different ways but we did not keep much account of them. We advanced on the Rebels on the other side of Shephardstown who commenced shelling us but they soon run when we began firing on them. The first day the shells flew around us thick — some bursting above our heads, others ploughing up the ground quite near us — but only several were wounded in the brigade.

That night it rained all night. We were without tents and me without blanket or anything to eat. The second day we run them 2 or 3 miles further, then started in the evening for home. We crossed the river that night and it was dark as pitch. Pap fell down on the other side of the river and hurt his soldier a little. The Rebels followed us to town that night and are now on the other side in force. I can’t tell you all about our march now for it is near roll call. I will write to Dock Gilbert and just as soon as I get time. No more at present but remain your son in obedience, — George

Write soon. All well.

¹ Wilson Reilly Pilkington (1838-1862) was George’s older brother. Wilson was killed on 14 September 1862 in the fighting on South Mountain in Maryland.

² Pvt. Daniel W. Singer was reported absent sick for much of his brief service and he deserted on 3 November 1862.

³ John Bell was the fifer of Co. E, 126th Pennsylvania. Musicians were typically exempt from picket duty so that is why Pilkington and Bell were able to follow the regiment into Virginia.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Nancy is in my direct ancestral line and this is an interesting bit of history and ties in some family stories of Wilson as well.


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