We often hear that letters were important to soldiers serving on the field. The following excepts are from letters George P. Jarvis wrote to his sister Leonora Jarvis during the war when he served in the 3d Ohio. The complete transcripts of all eight of his letters are in Billy Yank & Johnny Reb Letters under the Ohio section. The complete letters are interesting reads. I am only citing excepts from various letters that illustrate how much he treasured staying in contact with family back home through letters. I hope you find this first hand evidence of "letters being important" enjoyable and informative.
George P. Jarvis (1842-1920). Raised in in Athens County, Ohio where his father had a mercantile business in the unincorporated town of New England. (No, not the region in the North Eastern US.) He enlisted for three months in the 3d Ohio, then reenlisted June 1862. Wounded Oct. 1862 in the Battle of Perrysville Kentucky, he returned to his unit in late Dec. 1862 when stationed at Murfreesboro Tennessee.
Letters from home are considered a good source of news; also he mentions that he has enclosed a letter from a confederate soldier that was left behind when then they skedaddled. Letter #1:
May 13th 1862
Having nothing else to do this morning, I thought I would drop you a few lines. The weather is very hot here now although it is only May and the Devil only knows how hot it will be next month. I think, however, that six or eight months will close this thing up [the war] . . . I wrote to Charlie Collier some time since but as yet have received no reply. Haven’t had a mail for three weeks and can’t tell what is going on. About all the news we get is from a Nashville paper — a kind of a would-be Secesh if it dared to sort of a paper — and one don’t have much comfort in reading it. . . The enclosed letter is one that I picked up. The writer, it seems, was a member of Hindman’s Legion [CS Arkansas units led by Thomas Hindman that Jarvis’ unit routed] — the same we shelled at Bowling Green. It seems from his letter that they were not whipped, they only ran to prevent such a catastrophe. He is wrong as regards the number killed as there was not a person killed during the whole cannonade. It will give you a pretty good idea of Southern intellect. But I have been stretching this out longer than I at first intended and will have to close. So good bye all with kind regards to everyone.
Circumstances sometimes make writing a bit difficult Letter #2:
Murfreesboro, Tennessee September 4th 1862
Dear ones at home,
It has been some time since I wrote home but be assured that it was not a lack of interest on my part that caused the delay, but we have been on the move almost all the time and it has been impossible for me to send a letter even if I had written one. I will give you a brief account of our march and troubles. . . My postage stamps were all stolen from me by some rascal night before last and I would like some more if you can send them just as well as not. I would say something about our movements and force but are not allowed to do so. I will write again soon. Give my love to all.
As ever, your affectionate son & brother, — G. P. Jarvis
Being on the march can make it difficult to keep them up to date with what he is experiencing. And that his postage stamps were stolen also doesn’t help. Remember, postage stamps functioned as small change during the war, so the thief was likely stealing them for the money value. But For Jarvis the frustration is that it hinders his ability to stay in touch with his family. For more information on this see my post “Letter Writing and Postage Stamps Importance to the Civil War Soldier” May 9, 2020 in the blog archive, where I discuss the need to use stamps as money because of the coin shortage during the war.
Mail Delivery is not always the best – grumbling about delays Letters #4 & #5:
May 18th 1863
Dear ones at home,
Not as yet have I heard from you, but if I don’t get a letter tonight, I shall be disappointed, and I’ll give Uncle Sam’s mail carriers thunder for I think they have had sufficient time to have forwarded a letter to me since I wrote you last. But it will come some time and if it does not come tonight, I shall not despair. Suppose I should be at home soon. Would it not surprise you? . . . Now do not make up your minds to see me for this is only my opinion, but just consider me as absent till my time is out and then if I get home before, why! you will be disappointed, that’s all.
June 22d 1863
Dear Ones at P. G. C.
I take upon myself the duty of answering your kind letter of the 4th and 7th ulto. received yesterday. You can’t guess how much pleasure they afforded me, they being the first of a late date I had received from home since I left Murfreesboro to go on that confounded trip into the bowels of “Dixie.” I had you — when I was at Nashville — direct to that place without reference to Company or Regiment from the fact that I did not know what moment I would leave there nor where I would go, and I thought by so doing I could get the letters sooner and it has proved I was right. The letters remaining in the office are advertised each morning and as soon as I saw my name in the advertisements I wrote to the postmaster where to forward them to. Don’t you think I was rather cute?
Jarvis has some interesting comments in these two letters about delivery issues. You can’t blame him for grumbling about delays since he really values the letters from home. Yet circumstances on the field often made mail delivery to the soldiers difficult. The second letter shows an interesting point that evidently a list was put out to units about letters that the army mail service wasn’t sure where the addresses was located. Interesting, as I had not heard about this approach to letter delivery, but it does make sense.
Constantly changing circumstances sometimes mean rewriting is necessary Letter #7:
October 3d 1863
Your kind note of 14 Sept. came duly to hand last evening about ten o’clock. You have no idea how glad I was to hear from you for I had not heard a word for nearly a month. I have written just as often as I could send letters and even oftener. Two or three letters I have written and kept a few days and then burned them up because I had no opportunity to send them. And by the time I would get an opportunity, they would be stale and I would write again. I have not written much account of the fight [Battle of Chickamauga] because you will get it in the papers much sooner and more correctly than I could give it to you, and I have not been on the field at all, but have been in the rear all the time where we get nothing but exaggerated reports till we ourselves get a paper containing an account of the battle. And even if I had been there, I could only have described first what came beneath my immediate notice.
Jarvis takes keeping the family updated seriously, so as things are often changing, he updates letters if he can’t send them out. And evidently, he doesn’t want his discarded letters to be found and read by someone other than his family. Yet he is also honest in that he realizes his perspective is often limited and may not be the total truth of what has taken place.
1) Do you think Jarvis’ action in letter #7 in getting rid of old letters that he didn’t get sent out and so had to update by rewriting is in part due to his finding that confederate soldier’s letter he mentions in letter #1? He doesn’t want his feelings, concerns and perspectives being read by someone other than his intended readers, his family.
2) Explore the issue of stamps being worth money by also reading the blog I mentioned in comments on letter #2. Today if you took in a stamp to a store would they accept it as change? No. Especially the “forever stamp” which has a constantly changing value.
3) Look at the envelope pictures. They are marked “soldier’s letter”, but they were not "free". The family had to pay the money due to redeem them at the hometown post office. And remember “3 cents” back then was of much greater value then 3 cents is today.