Eyewitnesses to the Civil War

In a letter dated January 19, 1863, Captain Isaac Plumb, Jr., a Civil War soldier of the 61st New York Infantry of the Union Army who fought in many major battles of the war, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor, wrote, “it may sound very unpatriotic and unsoldier-like in me, but I must express my honest opinion.”  With those few words, the Plumb Family Papers become extraordinarily valuable—what researcher does not want the creator of an archival collection to tell their own truth rather than what that creator thinks their audience wants to hear?  The collection documents Captain Plumb’s extended family and dates from 1767 to 1929, but its particular strength lies in the letters to and from Captain Plumb during his Civil War service, just before his enlistment in 1861 until his death resulting from a wound at Cold Harbor in 1864. He wrote to and received letters from his parents, brother, uncles, and cousin’s husband regularly, and in those letters, all the correspondents, not just Captain Plumb, express their “honest opinions” about politics, philosophical ideas, and their experiences.

From this collection, researchers will see how one New York family felt about the presidential election of 1860, the South seceding from the Union, the start of the Civil War, slavery, race relations, and the value of the sacrifices made by both the Union and the Confederate. The Plumbs are keenly patriotic, and ready to fight for their country to maintain the Union. However, in vivid detail, Captain Plumb describes his loss of faith in his superiors, his real feeling about African Americans, the terrible waste of battle, and an overall disillusionment with the war. He does not protect his family from the horrors of the battlefield, despite the effect his descriptions must have had on his family, worried continually about his safety. Yet despite their fear of the fate of Captain Plumb, the lives of his family do go on; and these letters of calm amidst the chaos of war are equally illuminating as those written from a muddy army camp or a devastated battlefield.  In these letters, researchers see the home front—a landscape of women and older men; witnesses to a changing world; and the steadfast loyalty to the Union and the fight to end slavery, a sentiment increasingly at odds with that of their family member on the battlefield.

Captain Plumb was wounded during the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor with two apparently superficial wounds, but these wounds became life threatening as infection spread. He had been taken almost immediately to Campbell Hospital in Washington, D.C., and he was fortunate to have family rush to keep him company and send reports homeward. These letters describe the hospital, the efforts by the doctors and nurses, and the “mood” of Washington, D.C., as well as how Captain Plumb received his wound and how he was recovering. He died on July 4, 1864, nearly three weeks after receiving his wounds. The collection contains his wallet, as well as the contents of the wallet at the time of death. Here, a researcher will see Captain Plumb’s unsteady handwriting as he requested company at the hospital; a single playing card; and telegram tape, folded up into a tiny envelope.

Captain Plumb’s physical life may have ended on July 4, but his memory lived on in his family and they document their love for him by erecting monuments, painting portraits, and writing about him in letters to each other, long after his death. Despite the family’s obvious pain at the time of Captain Plumb’s death, they do not seem to think that he died in vain—their patriotism and belief in the cause is evident for years following the conclusion of the Civil War.

Selected items from the Plumb Family Papers will be on exhibit in Firestone Library’s Main Gallery in Spring 2013. We invite researchers to follow these conversations between a family from the North who loyally supported their government on the home front and maintained faith despite the disillusionment of their family member on the battlefield; and one unique soldier who described his experiences honestly: camp life, battles, political and military philosophy, and the hope for the eventual healing of both soldiers and the country.

Portrait of Isaac Plumb, Jr. Not to be reproduced without the permission of Princeton University Library.

One thought on “Eyewitnesses to the Civil War

  1. Pingback: Isaac Plumb (1842-1864), Portrait, 1864. | A Republic in the Wilderness

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