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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Personius Letters (CL 105)

by Kimberly Richards,
former Chemung County Historical Society Archivist

CL 105, officially known as the Personius Brother’s Letters, offers researchers a rare glimpse into the lives of three brothers during the American Civil War.  Not only can researchers learn about the daily life of a soldier in the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, or their duties while on assignment, but these three brothers also provide their thoughts on war and life at home.  These letters offer researchers a rare look into the personalities of siblings and how they related to their family, and each other, during a time of war.

Out of the 151 letters currently found in the Booth Library Collection (Chemung County Historical Society), Charles contributed the most with 99, Walker comes in second with 35 and Daniel contributed only 17.  All letters that appear in this article retain the original spelling however punctuation has been added to allow for readability.  More letters probably exist, especially when Walker and Charles both refer to letters they mailed home for dates not currently in the collection.  While all three sets have their own distinctive voice, Daniel’s letters probably provides the least information, because there are so few and because he enlisted late into the war.  

Walker V., Charles W., and Daniel V. were born in Tompkins County to William and Julia Personius.  Walker, the oldest, was born in 1836, Charles was born in 1840 and Daniel followed in 1846.  Walker enlisted on August 22, 1861 in Millport, New York, he was 25 years old.  On September 16, 1861, he signed the Muster-In Roll for Company G, 50th Regiment, N. Y .S. V. and became the Company’s captain.[1]  Charles followed his brother a year later and enlisted as a private on August 25, 1862 in Millport, New York at the age of 22.  Daniel enlisted as a private at the age of 18 on January 21, 1864, almost nine months to the day before Walker Mustered-Out on September 20, 1864.  Both Charles and Daniel finished out the war together, and Mustered-Out on June 13, 1865 in Fort Barry, Virginia.

On July 22, 1861 after the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, Congress authorized President Lincoln to accept 500,000 volunteers to serve three years in the army, and all over the north men started filling the ranks.  In New York State, Governor Edwin D. Morgan appointed the former state engineer and surveyor, Charles B. Stuart, to raise and command a regiment of infantry.  This regiment became the 50th New York Volunteers, also known as “Stuart’s Independent Regiment,” and became a part of the Army Corps of Engineers.  The regiment formed in Elmira, New York with Stuart supervising and many of the boys from the area quickly filled the ranks.  Three brothers from Caroline, New York, heeded their country’s call and enlisted with the engineers.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers has had a long and distinguished career, starting in June of 1775, when they formed at the request of the Continental Congress.[2]  Despite the fact that Congress separated the Engineers from the main branch of the Army in 1779, the unit disbanded at the close of the American Revolution (1775-1783).  The engineering corps existed on and off until March of 1802 when President Thomas Jefferson reinstituted the Corps and entrusted the engineers to oversee the newly formed Military Academy at West Point, a post the engineers kept until 1866.  The Corps of Engineers were responsible for military and civilian work projects, including construction of lighthouses, harbors, canals, and roads as well as coastal and defensive fortifications.  West Point was the only engineering school in the country during the first half of the nineteenth-century and in that time, the top students from each class were placed into the Engineering Corps after graduation.  It was after the Civil War (1861-1865) that the academy broadened its focus beyond engineering.[3]

The 50th New York Engineers formed out of a need for combat engineers during the Civil War.  General George B. McClellan “detailed the Fiftieth New York to act as sappers,[4] miners, and pontoniers[5].”[6]  The regiment became responsible for laying pontoon bridges, constructing roads and building fortifications.  In a letter written from Camp Lesley in Washington D. C. to his parents, dated November 29, 1861, Walker described some of the process that went into building fortifications.  He wrote:

My company has been across the East Branch 2 days this week and go tomorrow to build Gabions and Faciens.  Gabions are wove out of whicker like a basket without a bottom.  They are three feet long and 2 across.  They are placed on fortifications and filled with sand.  Facines are bundles of poles 18 feet long 9 inches square and bound with wire every eighteen inches.  These are used in building forts and also used in advance of the army to through in swampy places for the army to cross on.[7]

As a result of their specialized knowledge and training in engineering, and the army’s need for repairing roads, railroads, telegraph lines and laying pontoon bridges across strategic points along southern rivers, the 50th Engineers participated in every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula to Appomattox.  Among its achievements were field fortifications at Yorktown and Petersburg; pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and in the Peninsula; Antietam, Gettysburg, and Wilderness-Spotsylvania campaigns; and corduroy roads in Virginia and Maryland.[8]

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the 2,170 foot pontoon bridge built across the James River approaching Petersburg, Virginia in June of 1864 “was the longest floating bridge erected before World War II.”[9]  In a letter written to his parents on December 19, 1862, Charles explained a little about the process of handling pontoon bridges.  He wrote:

In handling a bridge there is a great deal of order about it.  The company is divided [off] into squad of so many into each squad some are lashers some are chessmen and some balk carriers and siderail carriers and boatmen and so on.  Each has his own part of the work to perform and does no other.[10]

The 50th also came under heavy fire at times and all three brothers noted skirmishes between the engineers and the confederates.  In a letter dated March 26, 1865, Daniel wrote:

Thare has been hard fighting yesterday and thare will bee more.  We did evacuate for Stedan and battery number ten and eleven and the [?] that are in front of Petersburg. . . the rebs found it out and they made a brake and ran through and two divisions of the ninth Corps made another behind them and captured about two thousand of them. . . .[11] 

The brothers also sent home news of causalities.  In a letter dated February 25, 1863 from Harpers Ferry, Charles reported:

It is just six months ago to day since Hiram [Vandermark] and myself enlisted to serve our country and since that time there has been a good many changes in life.  Two of this company have died and one has deserted and gone home and there is now three sick in Gen. Hospital, one at private house and six or seven sick in camp.[12] 

Out of a roster list of 4,555 enlisted men and officers, compiled during the course of the war, the 50th New York Engineers lost nineteen enlisted men to wounds and 206 to disease along with two officers, bringing the total lost during the war to 227.[13]

After reading the three sets of letters, it is difficult to fully grasp Daniel’s thoughts on the war.  His letters in general are rather short, he sometimes mentioned the duties he performed, however he usually states that he has nothing to tell his parents, except that he is well.  Charles and Walker both mentioned that Daniel liked soldiering and noted when he was on guard duty.  Many of the seventeen letters written by Daniel are on the same sheet of paper and researchers can find notes for three or four days together.  This seemed to occur because he either forgot to finish, or mail, a letter because of guard duty, or he would just add to a previously written letter to fill up a sheet of paper.  It is clear that Daniel’s schooling was limited, based on poor spelling, however all three brothers used very limited punctuation and it is not uncommon for one sentence to continue for an entire page or two.  After receiving a letter from Daniel in 1861, Walker wrote his parents that, “I like to receive letters from Daniel though it takes a Philadelphia lawyer to read them on account of the writing and spelling.”[14]

Walker and Charles’s letters described many of their experiences during the war, and included their opinions on various issues from politics to local gossip.  Walker’s letters are more official in tone and provide detailed information on the health of the company, duties carried out by the men under his command, and encounters with the rebels.  Walker considered his letters as a journal and when asked if he was keeping a diary stated, “I do not nor have not since I entered the service.  I thought my letters would be sufficient as I intend to write of every move I made together with the date and all incidents of any importance.  If they are saved they will be a sort of diary of themselves.”[15]  Walker holds true to his statement and spends time chronicling his Company’s movements throughout Maryland and Virginia.  However, Walker’s letters are not all business and he does express his thoughts on his daily duties.  As Captain of Company G, there were parts of his job that Walker enjoyed, such as testing the soldiers on Guard Duty.  Walker related this story about “Grand Rounds” with a Sergeant.  He wrote:

I then went on to No. 23.  He did not chalange proper.  The Sergeant and my self run his beat twice then we talked to him about letting us run his beat.  The Sergeant told him he should not hold his gun in the way he did to the Officer of the day and said let me show you how.  The darn fool gave him the gun.  We had him then.  He first said he did not care for he was a going to have his discharge from the Regt.  I told him he would never be discharge for I should take and handcuff him and tomorrow he would be court martialed and shot.  Then he begun to cry and beg for us to let him off.  …He got [done] crying and I made him sware that he never would let any one run his beat nor let any one take his gun away from him and that he would read the duties of Guards ten times each day.[16] 

There are also jobs he disliked, such as sitting court-martials, while stationed at Headquarters in Washington, D. C.  The same week his wife Ellen was visiting him in Washington he wrote to his parents, “I am still engaged in that plaged Court Martial.  Yesterday there was sent up some 20 cases for trial which will be business for 2 weeks.”[17]  Along with information on his duties, Walker also included thoughts on other topics, such as local politics back home or thoughts on the Federal elections.  He also had strong opinions about the war, which came out in a letter dated September 28, 1862 in a discussion on the upcoming passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He wrote:

I suppose now Greely and his Dam patriots are satisfied as the order has been issued Liberating all slaves in disloyal states after the first day of January 1863.  The result of his proclamation is nothing.  It will embitter the feeling between the north and south, it makes it, liberating the slave, the issue and cannot accomplish it.  Only by conquering the disloyal states which would be the result without this Proclamation.  So you see nothing is gained by but we may lose it, by making the feeling stronger between the north and south by making slavery the issue and there by causing a division of feeling [in the] north.  Politics should be left entirely out in the prosecution of this war.  Every man, woman and child [in the] north should be untied in restering the country to its former prosperity and the upholding of the laws, but we cannot expect every person to unite in making the abolition of slavery the issue in this war.[18]

Despite his strong feelings, Walker never complained about his situation and tried to find the positive during his time in the army.

Out of the three brothers, Charles can be described as being a very light-hearted person, with an excellent sense of humor.  In a letter written to his parents on April 17, 1863 from Camp Carroll Maryland, Charles joked,

The Paymaster was expected this afternoon but as usual failed to make his appearance but I think he will be around in the course of a week.  Indeed I would like to see one just to know how they look if nothing more.  I have often heard of them and my curiosity is greatly excited for I think they must be some great guns but perhaps I look through a magnifying glass when viewing them.[19] 

In all of Charles’s letters, he would mention the status of family and friends, serving with the engineers, or on occasion other regiments if they were stationed in the same area.  He always included information on Walker and Daniel, such as this from a letter dated April 26, 1864:

Daniel is no better yet.  In the forepart of the day he feels pretty well but in the afternoon he has quite a hard fever but nights he has not much fever.  The Dr. gives him pills and hot slings[20].  He takes about eight pills and three slings per day so far.  To night when he took the sling it made him sick at the stomach and he threw it up before he got a rod away from the Dr’s office but I am in hope he will be better in a few days.[21]

After reading his letters, from around the same date, it is clear that Daniel did not relay all this information to his parents and he only told them that he had been complaining for a few days, but was feeling better.[22]

Charles’s letters contain a great deal of his thoughts and opinions on just about everything and anything, from his attending the local religious service, the price of commodities in the south compared to Ithaca, continuously pointing out how their father has never written to either of the brothers and, he even goes so far as to ask his mother if his Pa enlisted without telling them.[23]  He also offers thoughts on boyhood friends getting married and even jokes about his bachelor status.  On February 17, 1865 Charles wrote this to his mother, “Still if I was home I should improve the sleighing without doubt and some of those young Ladies up there would have more than one fine ride and you would not be for plaguing me long about being an old bachelor of twenty five.”[24]

Like Walker and Daniel, Charles enjoyed the life of a soldier, and seemed at ease with the fact that his brother was his senior officer. Charles took matters in stride, such as when Walker sent his tent-mates Richard (Personius) and Hiram to Fairmont, Virginia to work on a bridge, without him.  In a letter dated May 11, 1863 from Camp Carroll, Maryland Charles wrote “We have heard from the two boys that went to Fairmont they got there safely and have completed the Bridge.  I would like to have gone with them but the Capt did not see fit to send me so I content myself by remaining behind and will stick tighter to him than a woodtick wherever I can find him.”[25]  However, unlike Walker, Charles had no problem conveying his frustration at times about the war.  In a letter dated April 3, 1864 he wrote his parents about the tough conditions on a march from Alexandria, Virginia to a camp near Rappahannock Station, Virginia.  He wrote:

It is in such times as this that my Patriotism all dies away and one is tempted to curse the Government and every thing connected with it and I imagine the Veterans did not feel very proud of their enlistment stripes just then and it has rained and snowed half the time since we have been here.  I tell you it is tough times among the jerseys.[26]

Like his brother Walker, Charles was passionate about his views and at times could be poetic.  In a letter written in February 25, 1863, from Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Charles articulated his thoughts about the war.  His statement, eloquently written, could be applied to any war.  He wrote:

And so it goes sometimes on excuse and sometimes another and consequently there is nothing gained while there is untold sums expended for our support.  But what is wealth compared to human blood and human life.  Thousands and thousands have left their quiet and peaceful homes and all the many privileges and comforts which they once enjoyed to enter into the service of their country little thinking that it might cost them and alas many have left never more to return.

With the forces which we now have in the field we ought to be able to crush out this mighty rebellion and so end at once this suffering of humanity.  More vigor should be used.  More generals brought into the field that are in favor of terminating the war instead of prolonging it.  More fight and less play is my motto for thereby would be a great many more lives be saved because there is so many dying off of Camp feveres and other diseases which a soldier contracts in the Army from exposure.[27]

Despite his thoughts, Charles carried out his duties to the best of his abilities and on February 16, 1863 he was promoted to Corporal and then to Sergeant on March 4, 1864.

The Personius letters offer researchers a unique opportunity.  Through the three brothers, one can learn about the various duties performed while in the field, as well as explanations on the various techniques used by the engineers.  Researchers can track the movements of Company G as they travel with the Union forces during the war.  These letters also offer a glimpse into the relationships between the three brothers and their family back home.  Through their writings, each brother has his own voice, helping to make the past more realistic.


[1]A Record of Commissioned Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates, of the Regiments which were Organized in the State of New York and Called Into the Service of the United States to Assist in Suppressing the Rebellion Caused by the Secession of Some of the Southern States from the Union, A.D. 1861, as Taken from the Muster-In Rolls on File in the Adjutant General’s Office, S.N.Y., Vol. II, (Albany: Comstock & Cassidy, Printers, 1864), 324-325.

[2]U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website:

[3]U. S. Army Corps of Engineers website and the United States Military Academy at West Point Website:

[4]Sappers - someone who is a military specialist in field fortification work.

[5]Pontoniers - someone who manufacturers a flat-bottomed boat or portable float used in building a floating temporary bridge.

[6]Ed. Dale E. Floyd, “Dear Friends at Home . . .”: The Letters and Diary of Thomas Owen, Fiftieth New York Volunteer Engineer Regiment, during the Civil War, (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, 1988), xi.

[7]Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, November 29, 1861, Camp Lesley, Washington, D. C.

[8]Floyd, “Dear Friends at Home . . .”, xiii.

[9] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

[10]Letter from Charles W. Personius to William Personius, December 19, 1862, Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

[11]Letter from Daniel V. Personius to William Personius, March 26, 1865, New Poplar Grove Church.

[12]Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, February 25, 1863, Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

[13]Full roster list was printed from the Civil War Soldier and Sailor System, provided by the National Parks Service at:  A copy of this roster is in the vertical files, as well as the service record for the 50th NYSV Engineers.

[14]Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, December 25, 1861, Camp Lesley, Washington, D.  C.

[15]Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, November 26, 1862, Odd Fellows Hall, Harpers Ferry Virginia.

[16]Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, December 10, 1861, Camp Lesley, Washington, D. C.

[17]Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, February 2, 1862, Camp Lesley, Washington, D. C.

[18] Letter from Walker V. Personius to William Personius, September 28, 1862, Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

[19] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, April 17, 1863, Camp Carroll, Maryland.

[20] Sling - an alcoholic drink that is served hot or cold and that usually consists of liquor, sugar, lemon juice, and plain or carbonated water.

[21] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, April 26, 1864, Stevensburg, Virginia.

[22] Letter from Daniel Personius to William Personius, April 27, 1864, Stevensburg, Virginia.

[23] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, April 20, 1863, Camp Carroll, Maryland.

[24] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, February 17, 1865, Poplar Grove Church, Virginia.

[25] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, May 11, 1863, Camp Carroll, Maryland.

[26] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, April 3, 1864, Rappahannock Station, Virginia.

[27] Letter from Charles Personius to William Personius, February 25, 1863, Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

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