Education

Letter from Elijah Penny to his wife; March 31, 1862


Historical Context
When the American Civil War began in 1861, citizens of both the North and South had no idea how long the conflict would last. Many Northerners, including the Union army leaders, envisioned a three-month war that would quickly bring the South back into the Union. The assumption that it would be a short war, coupled with a surge in patriotism, led thousands of New Yorkers to voluntarily join the army. The men of the Penny family were no exception.



In 1860, the Penny family consisted of seven members: Elijah, Jane, Archibald, Alfred, Eugene, Charles, and Louise. They lived in the town of Southeast in Putnam County, New York. Elijah, the father, and the two older boys, Archibald and Alfred all volunteered to fight for the Union in 1861. The letters, census records, and military documents all provide a glimpse into one New York family's experience during this time of national unrest.
Essential Question
What impact did the Civil War have on individual citizens, families, and local communites?
Check for Understanding
How did the war impact Elijah and his family?
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Letter from Elijah Penny to his wife; March 31, 1862 , New York State Library, NYSL_SC11836_Elijah_Penny_letter_18620331
Document Description
Letter from Civil War soldier Elijah Penny to his wife, 1862.
Questions
  1. What complaints does Elijah have about the military?
  2. What does Elijah intend to do about the problems?
  3. Why can't Elijah leave the service?
Transcription
We are having a very heavy thundershower tonight. Fort Snyder Mar 31st/62 My Dear Wife I received your last letter on Tuesday and one from Alfred the same day and the next day along came Alfred. He is well and expects to remain in Washington several weeks. He left Archie well at Winchester. I think I shall see him this week as he promised to come here if I did not come to see him the first of the week. Today Dr. Burky promised to use his influence with the Col. to get me a pass over the bridge. I hope to get it as I want to see him and his Regiment very much. I expect we will be paid Tuesday or Wednesday. If we are and our Regiment is divided and used to fill up others I shall apply to the Secretary of War for a discharge or a transfer to cavalry. And as I have never joined anything else they must put me there or discharge me. I am not legally held in this regt. and have kept still so far in order to get my back pay. If I had my pay tomorrow I would cause charges to be prepared against the Officers of this Co. for violating the regulations of war and the orders of the war appointment. I do not join in the daily complaints of the men nor express any opinion on matters which agitate the camp. So spies can report nothing and the Officers do not suspect me of taking any particular interest in what is going on. It snowed yesterday and is raining today. It is cold and icicles are hanging from the eaves of the buildings. I miss my comfortable room and warm fire today. but no use talking we have to take things as they come when soldiering. My health is as variable as the weather. I take cold so easy that the least change affects me. I do not suffer much but grown thin and weak. Yet I think I will get along if I can keep out of the Drs hands. They practice on the system prescribed by law forty years ago and it wants the constitution of a horse to stand their doses. I give doses every day that I would not take if I had my senses. If we should stay here I must have two red flannel shirts if I can't buy them here I must send home for them. I will send home some money as soon as we get paid so you can live comfortable for the present. Tell Mr. Steinbeck I thank him very much for his compliments and good wishes and in retrun send him my very very best respect and highest esteem, not forgetting (his better best half) Mrs. Steinbeck & Family. I was not much surprised on hearing of Elliot's failure. It only occurred sooner than I expected. I have been thinking ever since we got here of writing to Mr. Steinbeck but somehow I cannot get at writing to anyone out of the family. I wrote to Eugene Friday and received a letter from my interesting correspondent at Towners. I hear that Hiram is freighting. I wish I was doing the same if I was and should keep perfectly [    ] I could earn a small farm in five years. Well, I am getting quite off the habit of [   ] for although there is plenty of whiskey to be had in camp I have not tested any but twice since I left N York and then our Leut. one rainy cold night when I was on guard called me in to his tent and we had some Brandy & peppermint. I did not think when I came here anything about trying to stop drinking only on account of the expense for in the way a soldier has to manage it will consume his whole pay. as a quart of whiskey worth 8 cts. will cost hime one dollar. so I concluded not to bother with it and now that I am all over the camp and in every tent several times a day and have it offered to me I do not drink because I will not buy it and consequently cannot return the compliment. At first the boys were alarmed and begged me not to report them. I assured them that I should not turn informer and if the officers wanted a spy they would have to get someone else. One corporal was a little tight today and reported himself sick. I told him to go to bed but he insisted on being put on the list to see the Dr. when the Dr. came he understood the case very well and ordered him a double dose of Castor Oil adn a mustard blister. He is doing very well. Jane don't believe or think out what Archie Alfred and myself will all be home in a [     ] but when the Lord only knows. There was forty things I wanted to say to you when I began to write but I have been scribbling along and forgotten half of them. There are some things in the comment that I wish you to keep to yourself for news come here very unexpectedly from the north. Tom is very jealous and he knows the men hate him and he is watchful. Come kiss me and say good night. Faithfully yours, E Penny