1862: Thomas C. Zahniser to William Caldwell


   How Thomas might have looked

This letter was written by First Sergeant Thomas C. Zahniser (1835-1862) of Co. F, 57th Pennsylvania Infantry. A family history states that Thomas was a school teacher “till the breaking out of the war when he enlisted (6 October 1861)  in a company of Volunteer Infantry. The following June he lay in the field hospital with fever and was captured by the Confederates at the Battle of Charles City Crossroads. It is thought that he died before the prisoners reached Richmond, but he was never heard of again. He was a generous and popular comrade and being a fine penman was much in demand for addressing home letters for the other soldiers. He was prominently active in temperance work both before and during his service as a soldier.” [Source: The Zahnisers, a history of the family in America]

Thomas was the son of David Zahniser (1795-1874) and Nancy Ann Coulson (1795-1850) of Mercer county, Pennsylvania. He wrote this letter to his brother-in-law, William Caldwell (1819-1890) — the husband of Eleanor Zahniser (1829-1917).

The letter was written from the camp of the 57th Pennsylvania during the late stages of the siege of Yorktown.


Headquarters, Camp Winfield Scott
April 29, 1862

Brother William,

I received your long letter last night dated the 20th. I have written four letters to you since you wrote me at Washington. I wrote one a short time ago. And as we don’t know here what a day or night may bring forth, I thought I would drop you a few lines this morning in reply to your last favor although I have nothing particular to communicate.

The work of preparation is still going on. I think I told you about our skirmish but if I did not, I presume you have heard it often enough for we have seen it in most of the papers. 2 men were wounded in our regiment — one in our company & one in Co. E. 2 wounded and 2 killed in the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. Since then we had one killed with a shell on picket. There was quite a skirmish the other morning before daylight. Our regiment was out in line of battle but was not called on. The rebels tried to take one of our rifle pits but they did not succeed in doing it. The Massachusetts boys took 18 prisoners and one piece of artillery. They were the only ones engaged in it. Our loss 2 killed, don’t know how many wounded. Their loss must of been heavy. Not a day passes by but what we capture one or more. Some come over on their own accord. The picket lines in some places are not over 300 yards apart. They keep a constant firing between them. The batteries exchange shots night & day.

A balloon reconnoissance is made every day viewing the rebel batteries. The have 3 tiers of batteries which mounts 800 guns. They are strongly entrenched. Language fails me to tell you the amount of work our Army has dine within the last 2 weeks in the line of making roads, breastworks, rifle pits, batteries, bridges, &c. The rifle pits are nearly completed. They extend from one end of the lines to the other — a distance of 7 miles. They are 5 feet deep and 12 feet wide. Roads are being made along hillsides and through the woods in every direction towards the enemy. They are cut through places as difficult and rugged as Sandy Lake Hills and graded as level as a floor, 24 feet wide. Many cannon balls have been dug up which no doubt was shot at the Battle of Yorktown [during Revolutionary War days]. It matters not what kind of weather we have — fair to foul, rain or shine, night or day — thousands are at work all the time. There is a fine stream saw mill in this vicinity which is kept running all the time. Logs are cut and hauled with Secesh property.

Our regiment have done but little fatigue duty. We are kept mostly on picket or to support the batteries. We scarcely get a nights sleep. Night before last we were placed in rifle pits. Last night we stood under arms from 3 o’clock till morning. Tonight we go on picket. Ours is a soldier’s life — “days of danger, nights of wakin’.” But we do it cheerfully, at least the most of us. They are some old grannies among us who had better be at home. Last night there was heavy cannonading but have learned nothing in regard to it. I would not be surprised if this battle was not fought for 3 weeks. McClellan is busy viewing the roads ad breastworks. He is a nice-looking man — wears a private’s coat. He feels confident of success and will do it with as little loss of life as possible. I hope it will be so. But it surely will be a big fight.

The weather has turned in fine after a week of inclemency. Today it is nice and warm. The woods are green. I presume ‘ere this, the farmers would of planted their corn but I guess there won’t be much corn planted in this vicinity. Oh! the desolation! the desolation! of this country. No one can form an idea till they see it.

In regard to the war news, you know as much about them as I do. The Battle of Pittsburg Landing [Shiloh] was bloody & nothing gained by either side. It was nothing but the hand of Providence saved Grant’s Army. At Corinth will be another desperate battle. Halleck will command in person. Has not his Department of the Army done much to quell this mighty rebellion? McClellan laid the plans and he executed them. Such skill, engineering, bravery & energy as exhibited at Island No. 10, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Donelson, never was known in the annals of history. There are Halleck and Foote, Burnside, Buell, Grant & Pope have covered themselves with immortal fame in quelling this cursed rebellion. It is reported that McClellan received a telegram that New Orleans was taken. If we are successful here and at Corinth, then Jeff may hang his bacon.

Our rations are as usual. We have hard bread all the time. We will be mustered in tomorrow for 2 months more pay & will be paid for the last 2 months this week. I will send the most of mine home. So if you have any notion of coming here and help us through with the fight, we will give you a good percent of carrying our money home. I have enough of money to do me a couple of months. But most all of the boys are out.

As in regard to the hay, I leave you to settle it as you would for yourself (which I think you will). I am well satisfied with what you have done. But as in regard to the boards, I expect to get but little benefit from them. It seems that 3 or 4 have got some of them and no one knows at what price or how much & the rest is going to waste. But of course you know nothing about it. But if you could find out who all got and how much so collect the money no difference who they are. I will pay you for your trouble. By your own statement you sold the hay for 27 dollars. I owe Thompson [Zahniser] over 10 dollars & McKean 45 dollars. In all 55. I think that I will send home 25 dollars which with what is coming will pay off all my debts. I may only send 20 dollars at present, but William, if you could collect the money before the 1st of June so as to pay McKean’s note, I wish you would for he wants the money. Act with Davidson & VanBuren as you would for yourself.

The boys are all well. Mr. Zahnizer is helping to cook. James Zahniser & Lew Suplee send their respects to you. I wish you would wrap us some molasses and send them to us but if God is willing, I hope we will be at home next spring to help you make some. I saw John Bromley yesterday. He, James Michael, & Archie are in the 83rd [Pennsylvania] Regiment. George belonged to the same company that D. McBracken did. John looks well. I was glad to see him. As I write, the unearthly screaming and bursting of shells are ever on my ear. We are all anxious to know the result of this battle. I have no doubt as to the result for I think our Army will be half slain before they will suffer a defeat. Two Ohio Regiments were disgraced for their cowardly conduct at Pittsburg Landing but the Illinois & Indiana boys did well. I can’t think of much more. I will quit for the time being.

May 1st — As I stated in the beginning, we did not know one day what we would do the next. So it proved. Before I closed this letter, after dinner on the 29th, we were ordered to to pack our knapsacks & move about ½ a mile. Our Brigade moved together. The object is to promote health. It kept us quite busy till night to fix our tents. We were called out the next [morning] at 2 o’clock double quick for about 4 miles to some batteries which we guarded till night and then we were taken to a more advanced one and stayed in it till 6 this morning. They tried to shell us out through hte night. We were expecting an attack and was ready to give them a welcome reception.

The night was cool, dark, and rainy. They used 3 pieces — one threw shells and the other 2 balls. About 3 this morning they fired very rapidly. Some of the trees as thick as my leg was cut square cut off. Our batteries were silent & the pickets were ordered to fall back to the pits on their approach without firing so as to decoy them out, but they did not make their appearance. The trees are all more than ½ sawed down so that they can all be felled in a few hours which will be the prelude of the conflict.

We were mustered in a few hours ago for 2 months more pay. There are 4 months due us now. I think we will be paid soon.

I feel quite fatigued and will not write much more at present. I hope that we will get a nights sleep tonight. Today it has drizzled all the time.

The mail goes out early in the morning so I will close this tonight. When I write you again, I hope to tell you of the taking of Yorktown. The capture of New Orleans is still confirmed. Now in conclusion, William, I want you to write me often. Write to the same as we would talk about if I was with you. What you are doing, how oats, corn &c. you put in and in what place &c.  Write all the little items. Give my respects to all the friends.

Thomas C. Zahniser to Wm. Caldwell

Give my love to the children. I hope I will see them all again. William, I want you to get some postage stamps and send them to me as soon as you can for we can’t get one for love or money. I will be compelled to send this without paying it. I received a letter from D. Zahniser the 29th. James Zahniser sends his respects to you and says that he would like to swap a few yarns with you over a long neck bottle, but always looks back with pain to the time he separated you and his old friend at George R. Suplee’s butchering.

I want you to attend to my little affairs till I get out of  debt. I will send my money by mail. You can get the stamps with my money. Tell [my sister] Eleanor to write. It is getting dark and I am sending a thought homeward. Give my love to all. A. Hunter had a fit last night while going to camp but is better [and] able to go round. As I told you in my last to address your letters:

Thomas C. Zahniser
Company F, 57th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers
Hamilton’s Division
Washington D. C.

All letters to this Army are addressed to Washington and then are packed and forwarded.

I remain as ever your affectionate brother, — Tommy

To William Caldwell & Family

Davidson has not written to me about the hay deal with him. Mind that Andrew Elbert pays that money, the mean scamp. Write soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s