Saturday, May 08, 2004

Civil War: Charles McDowell, a Canadian in NY 9th Artillery, 1865

Name: Lisa Saunders
E- mail:

To Nancy Wager McDowell from her husband Charles McDowell (A Canadian who enlisted in the New York 9th Heavy Artillery of the 6th Corps):

DURING THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG [Near Petersburg] January the 1-1865

Dearest Wife

Old Eighteen and Sixty Five has got around and I ain’t much sorry either. But time passes fast with us now. It soon will be spring. Now we have easy times. It is awful muddy now. The most we do is to get our wood and that ain’t very hard work. I wouldn’t care if it would keep muddy all winter.

There has been a good [many] soldiers buried around here. You may go any way you are a-mind to and you will see graves throwed up. When we went after wood the other day, we found a man's skull laying a top of the ground. He hadn’t hardly any dirt throwed over him.

I counted twenty- six ball holes in a tree about a foot through. This was done the time we took the railroad and they charged on us but they got badly whipped. Some of our regiment got taken prisoners last night. Co. M and some of the other company went out yesterday morning on picket. Our company didn’t happen to go, and about two O’clock this morning, we was waked up by the yelling and shooting of the rebs. They made a charge on them. I haven’t heard exactly how many of our regiment there was taken. They say thirty-five or forty-two killed, and five or six wounded. Our boys brought in a few of the rebs. They come on them by surprise.

There is a good many deserting from the rebs most every night and come over here. I think this war will end this winter. It looks more like it now than it ever did before since I enlisted, but we can’t tell this war business is very uncertain. But I find most every one thinks so. I hope so anyway. I would like to have it come to an end this winter.

You would have laughed to have seen us tumble out of bed when the rebs charged on our picket line this morning. We tumbled over one another pretty fast. We was soon in a line. We didn’t know but they would try our line of battle but they knowed better than to try that. If they had they would have had a nice time.

You said you would like to have me come home on a furlough. I would like to go home as well as you would like to have me come but I don’t know whether there will be any more furloughs given or not. I think it will be a pretty hard thing to get one. Isae Woodruff started for home the other day. He had a furlough for fifteen days. He has been trying for one ever since his father died and if it hadn’t been for his father dying, he couldn’t have got one.

You say we can afford it as well as any body. Well I think we could, but if we save the money that it would cost me to come home, we can have so much more to spend. You know we will want to go a- visiting some when I get there. We might happen to get back to Washington yet this winter.

When we get orders to move, we don’t stop to tell long stories. We hear Dunbar and them other fellows is coming back to the regiment. I hear that Lee has give Lucy all of his property to keep till we comes back, then I suppose he will take her too. I wonder if he washed his face since he has been home. Robert Trevor is most well. Old Jef Davis is at home now.

I helped carry Jef in when he was wounded. I couldn’t help but laugh and felt sorry for him to hear what expressions he made. He said it was too bad. He said there was a reb captain come up to him after he was wounded and commenced turning him over to search him. He asked him what he wanted and he said his money and Jef told him [he] would get it for him. He said he put his hand in his pocket and handed his pocket book and the captain took the money out and throwed the pocket book down and a boy came along and he gave him the pocket book for a drink of water.

He would almost cry when he told about that. He said he thought it was too bad after shooting him to take the last cent he had. He said they took twenty-four dollars and ninety-five cents, which he had worked hard for. And he said there was some more come up to him and said, “You are wounded, are you old fellow?” And Jef said, “Yes.” “Well,” they said, “we will be a long with the ambulances and take you to Richmond you dammed Yankees. We will give you Fishers Hill!” Now I bet you Jeff’s eyes stuck out then. And, he said, in about two hours he seen them going back pell mell as hard as they could run and the Sixth Corps after them. He said then he felt glad. This was about now he laid there on the ground till next day noon before we found him.

That is what hurts the men so, laying on the ground so long after they are wounded. They took lots of money from our boys that day. I could have made a thousand dollars if I had a-went around an got our wounded and killed and searched them, but I wouldn’t do such a thing but there is lots of them that does do it and the boys had lots of money then.

There is a good many of our wounded a- coming back to the regiment now. There was two come today that was wounded to Monocacy, besides a good many new recruits. There was one come a few days a go, just like John Tree. You know him. The one we had so much fun with when we was at Fort Foote. The boys had lots of fun with him and night before last we left and we ain’t seen him Since. I don’t think they will look for him much.

It’s a- getting so cold. I don’t know but we shall heft to set up tonight and keep a fire. It is a-freezing fast. But we had the good luck to make a haul on a couple of blankets the other night when we was guarding baggage. I find a man has to look out for himself here. If he don’t, nobody else will look out for him. My cousin was over to see us the other day. He is pretty sick of the war.

I think I must write a letter to Canada before long. I haven't wrote to them since you left. Don’t you think it is too bad it has been so long since I wrote? I feel most ashamed to write now. I shall heft to apologize pretty well. I must write within a few days. Anyway I have had three or four letter from them this summer. Uncle Hiram has been a- trading farms lately. As soon as my time is out I think I shall go and see them Sometimes when I get to thinking about my native land and what good times I have had there it makes a feeling come over me that makes me feel sad.

Little did I think when I left home that I would be gone for seven years. Oh how I long to see my sister Margaret and all the rest, and if I get out of this alive it won’t be long before I can see her. She thought [my likeness] an awful sight. She feels pretty bad about us. She is afraid we will never come home alive but I live in hopes that we will come out all right.

And I must tell you what we had to eat for News Years. We didn’t draw no rations yesterday and we hadn’t nothing for supper last night, only coffee and nothing for breakfast this morning only we got an order and went and bought some bread. So we had bread, beef and coffee, and drawed rations after breakfast. So we had hardtack, coffee and pork for dinner. ain’t that pretty good? It’s getting so cold I must draw my letter to a close hoping soon to get an answer. We expect to go on picket now every day but I hope not till it gets a little warmer. I have just heard that they only captured twenty- three of our men.

From your ever true and affectionate husband C McDowell

Notes: The above letter is one of about 150 Civil War letters I found in my mother’s attic between Charles and Nancy Wager McDowell and their families. Charles McDowell was born in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada on 15 Feb. 1837. His family later moved to Norwich, Ontario, Canada. As a young man he and his brother David McDowell moved to Geneva, NY where Charles married Nancy Wager 24 Dec. 1860 when she was just 15. Despite his father's pleas (John McDowell of Norwich, Ontario) Charles enlisted in Lyons, New York in 1862. He served in the New York 9th Heavy Artillery under Secretary of State Seward's son, William H. Seward Jr., of Auburn, NY. The regiment was nicknamed "Seward's Pets" because the Secretary of State frequently visited his son's regiment and often brought along Lincoln. In the letters I read of a remarkable devotion to one another despite war’s infidelities, scandals and ever-present threat of death as well as Charles’s devotion to his new country. I also gained new insight into a wife's role in the camp life, a Canadian family’s views on the war and their participation, hangings, prostitution, amputations, desertions, theft and murder among Union troops, personal contacts with Lincoln and Seward (of "Seward's Alaskan Folly"), battles of Cold Harbor, Jerusalem Plank Road, Monocacy, Opequon, Fisher's Hill, Cedar Creek, the Siege of Petersburg, Moseby's Men, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Among my family’s papers I also found photographs of most of the letter writers as well as Nancy Wager McDowell's obituary which reads: "MRS. MCDOWELL IS DEAD - SHOOK HANDS WITH LINCOLN. With the death of Mrs. Nancy Wager McDowell...the town of Sodus probably loses the distinction of having a resident who could boast of having shaken hands and talked with the martyred Lincoln…She was married in 1860 to Charles McDowell, a native of Canada, who came to America when a young man. Mr. McDowell was a member of the Ninth New York Heavy Artillery in the Union Army and it was while stationed near Washington that his wife had an opportunity to speak with the President. Mrs. McDowell passed nearly a year in that vicinity and many were the pies she baked for the soldiers stationed at the capital. Typhoid Fever caused her to return to Alton to the home of her parents…" ("The Record," Sodus, Wayne County, N.Y. September 18, 1931) Charles McDowell died 17 April 1913. Their two children were May Belle (born 4 Aug. 1871) and Gilbert (born 6 Mar. 1883). Gilbert’s children were Gilbert and Russell (grandfather).

The letters, along with background information and era recipes are found in my book: Ever True: Civil War Letters of Seward's New York 9th Heavy Artillery of Wayne and Cayuga Counties Between a Soldier, His Wife and His Canadian Family

If you would like to see pictures of Charles and Nancy McDowell and read more letters, please visit my website at

Letters & Postcards on E-Bay