The Letters of Lieutenant William Burroughs Ross
The Civil War letters of Lt. William Burroughs Ross (1843-1864) span two years, from September 4th, 1862 to September 27th, 1864. In more than eighty letters, Ross details his experiences in the 14th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, shedding light on the nineteen year-old’s perspective at the battles of Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Monocacy, and Opequan. Ross’s correspondence chronicles the social, political, and private aspects of war, giving insight into the everyday life of a Civil War soldier from a unique and personal perspective. Papers of the era began printing eyewitness accounts as soon as the war began, realizing that people were riveted by the firsthand accounts from the front. There is a story to be followed in Ross’s journey through the war, though brief. This is his story.
William Burroughs Ross, son of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Ross of Freehold, was nineteen years old when he enlisted into the 14th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry on July 28, 1862, and soon began training at Camp Vredenburgh. The longest single day battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Monmouth, was fought in Ross’s backyard nearly a century earlier. The men of Monmouth were proud of this distinction, and this pride no doubt played a part in their volunteer enlistment. The Monmouth Herald and Inquirer beckoned them: “Men of New Jersey! The hour has again come when your loyalty to freedom is to be tested. Treason and rebellion are at your very doors and you are called upon to resist and overwhelm them!” The Battle of Monmouth was a legacy for many of them; they felt it was their duty to pick up that torch and carry it further for the good of their country. Ross left Freehold by train on September 2nd for Fredericksburg, Maryland with his friend and regiment chaplain, Reverend Frank B. Rose. His first letter of September 4th, 1862 describes disappointment, as “they all thought they were going to Washington.” This is where the fighting was likely to happen in defense of the Capitol, and the men were anxious to share in the glory of its defense. He signs his first letter with instructions on how his parents can write to him, noting his wish to remain in frequent contact with them, as a youth who has left his home for the first time would be inclined to do. Requests for letters from home are perhaps the most oft-repeated requests of a soldier’s correspondence.
Upon landing at the Monocacy River, the regiment was quite rapidly moved to Elysville in advance of thirty thousand oncoming Confederate soldiers. Ross calmly relays on Sept. 6th that the soldiers expected to see action, but “nary one rebel did we see.” He speaks as plainly as a seasoned soldier despite imminent danger; one cannot yet determine if this is simply his demeanor, if it was bravado after the fact, or simply a naïveté about the undiscovered horrors of war. Seemingly cool in the face of the advancing Rebels, young William exposes a sensitive immaturity in lamenting the fact that no letters have yet come from his parents, though this is the third he has sent to them. He arranges with Reverend Rose to hand deliver his letters on a leave for home nearby to the Ross residence. He writes to his cousin of his pride in his soldier’s uniform, and that he will send her his carte de visite (a small carded photograph to be handed out to friends upon visits), taken in Frederick City. He is still happily lingering on the more superficial trappings of his former civilian life. Three weeks after he musters in, he claims to “like the business very much so far,” and is “well and happy.”
The only disappointment Ross expresses in his situation is that it seems unlikely that he will be paid that week. He is concerned that he does not have money for stamps to correspond, and asks his parents to send him some, assuming he will not receive his pay. The assumption proved correct, as the men were told the following week that there was no money in the treasury. It was a frustrating announcement, but certainly not the first they would hear of it. Union soldiers were supposed to be paid every two months at a rate of about $13 per month, but due to the complications of war, regular payment was rare. Ross notes, “The Col went to Washington to see about our pay I believe. Some of the boys say if they don’t get paid this month they will desert and go home…” If it was a big enough problem to have Colonel Truex advance to Washington on behalf of the men for this reason, the irregularity of pay was surely common knowledge.
In the midst of waiting to see action, politics and tactical strategy were hot topics of discussion. Though a fellow New Jerseyan, Ross describes relief at the removal of General McClellan, ”for now likely we will be doing something in the way of moving.” He refers to the failure of McClellan to pursue Lee’s withdrawing and split army after Antietam, which the Union War Department, the soldiers, and the country increasingly pushed for. McClellan’s pursuit was once again too slow and careful for the government and the public - they felt he should have struck while Lee’s forces were divided, and it is clear that Ross is in agreement. McClellan was ultimately relieved of command on November 7th.
The men felt differently about the President, however. While attitudes toward emancipation spanned the spectrum from unconditional support to total indifference and even resentment, most Union soldiers did seem to support Lincoln as a leader, looking to him in an almost familial way. Ross discusses the possibility that the men may not have a chance to vote for Lincoln’s reelection, though if they did, the first vote Ross would cast would be for “Uncle Abe.” An unidentified enlisted soldier is quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying
“… The rebellion is abolitionizing the whole army… time spent in the South
has forced Union troops to face this sum of all evils, and cause of the war…
you have no idea of the changes that have taken place in the minds of the
soldiers in the last two months…men of all parties seem unanimous in the
belief that to permanently establish the Union, is to first wipe out the institution
On the flip side, the Emancipation Proclamation was not welcome news to all. A New Jersey soldier and editor of the Monmouth Democrat newspaper, James Yard, comments, “All of the soldiers from different regiments seem to be down-hearted since the President’s Proclamation - they say they come here to fight for the union as it was…” and not for the freedom of African Americans. It was a segment of the population to be sure, but difficult to gauge the percentage.
Perhaps their positive sentiments were fueled by the easy rapport Lincoln had with them. He did not stand on ceremony, but rather stood eye to eye with the men, engaging them in conversation as equals. In a previously unrecorded moment in history, Ross gives a glimpse into a moment with President Lincoln that escaped the history books, and no doubt strengthened the dedication of these soldiers to their Commander in Chief. In an undated letter, Ross tells of a brief but impactful interaction between Lincoln and the troops on his way to Harper’s Ferry with General McClernand on October 2nd, 1862, where the iconic photographs of Lincoln and McClellan are taken in the tent near Sharpsburg several weeks after the Battle of Antietam. Ross says it was reported that Lincoln was on the train where he and a few other soldiers happened to be standing on the platform at that time, and the men caught wind that Lincoln was in one of the cars near to them. They offered three cheers to announce their support. Lincoln emerged from the car to interact with them and inquire as to what state they were from, to which they replied they were Jersey Blues. Ross says Lincoln asked if “we were going to let them blow up the bridge again, and we answered that we did not think we would.” The comfortable exchange between the President and the men seemed to go a very long way in their support, morale, and dedication to the cause.
By June of 1863, Ross’ letters became shorter and less concerned with superfluous descriptions of fun, such as burlesque parades accessorized with sticks and brooms, football matches or flirtatious comments about finding his wife amidst the ladies around town; he becomes more focused on troop movements and the business of war. He discusses the draft in New Jersey, saying “From reading the papers there will have to be some drafting in Jersey after all...it will be considerable fun when the conscripts come in for this regiment I think. When you write, tell me about the many men who have volunteered for our regiment…” This appears to be tongue-in-cheek, though other historians have noted the stigma attached to able-bodied men who did not volunteer or avoided the draft. As such, conscripts and substitutes were given considerably less respect than those men who volunteered for the cause.
Both Conscription Acts of 1862 and 1864 did not fail to take into account that almost all able-bodied men who were able to serve had already volunteered, but rather streamlined the loopholes, such as substitution and age restrictions. It seems to be a misnomer that the draft was commonly dodged - the honor that was necessary to survive socially in this era dictated that if you were an able-bodied male, you did not wait to be drafted. Some did use their wealth and influence to procure substitutes; this also was frowned upon as an unfair upper class advantage that was not available to the lower echelon of society. Substitution was banned in the final week of 1863, and a new act was put into place that outlawed all exemptions except for a select few occupations, such as physicians, ministers, editors and printers, and druggists. New Jersey appears to have had the lowest recruitment rate of any of the northern states, however, it was ultimately greater than the recruitment in the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri.
In Jersey Blue: Civil War Politics in New Jersey, 1854-1865, author William Gillette seems to focus on the downtrodden attitudes and negativity in the correspondence of Jersey soldiers; they talk of mud, mosquitos, inedible hardtack, heat, rain, grinding routines, and excessive strictness. In comparison to the bulk of the accounts put forth by Gillette, the positive, cheerful letters of Ross seem entirely other-worldly. As Ross continues to lament the absence of the paymaster, the Civil War was wreaking financial havoc on civilians as well, as the supply and demand chain was disrupted and the heads of households were no longer available to run things at home. This resulted in the creation of interest-bearing notes to encourage people to use the paper currency, which in turn would help to finance the war. It is a possible explanation for why his family was not as quick to send funds as Ross would have liked - Mr. and Mrs. Ross’s finances are not made clear, but it can be assumed that they were comfortable. Freehold was a relatively middle-to-upper middle class area during this time, and Ross’s letters describe a past in which there were many elegant parties attended, many fine clothes worn, and frequent cartes-de-visite captured to distribute among socialite friends.
Interestingly, the Northerners who saw clear to printing Confederate money may have inadvertently negatively affected the Northern soldiers during their time in the South. Counterfeiting helped to tank the southern economy, leading to one of the greatest periods of inflation the country has ever seen. When Ross was eventually able to secure funds from his parents or other loved ones, the money hardly could have gone far in a poor economic environment, making both the absence of the paymaster more deeply felt, and the value of the money less impactful. Ross notes that he is grateful for the gloves sent by his sister; these items were not part of his standard issue uniform, therefore, he could not likely afford to purchase them in the southern market.
The war was felt by all, not just the military. Initially, there was a great patriotic wave, and civilians dove into the war effort, including humanitarian aid. Ross writes home, “We have an average of 150-200 on the sick list every day, so anything you may send for the sick will be of great advantage to them…” There was clearly a grateful expectation of supplies that could not
be gotten by way of the government; this gap was filled in by those fortunate ones who remained home. New Jersey’s economy suffered due to the loss of southern business, contributing to widespread economic ruin. The ability to support the war effort from home was a great sacrifice for many as well, though they made it as much of a priority as possible. It is clear that, though relatively well-fed and supplied, the absence of his pay was a hardship, particularly for one who was unused to it though his letters rarely complained bitterly, but rather more practically. His requests were for necessities such as stamps or basic gloves as opposed to the fineries he likely was accustomed to.
Without realizing it at the time, Ross refers to the Battle of Chancellorsville, in which the Union army tried to encircle the Confederates of Northern Virginia. He says, “We have rumors of a great battle going on down to the front. I hope and pray we will gain a victory.” Little did he know the Union army would not succeed. Chancellorsville was a win for the Confederates, though they incurred the heaviest losses of almost any battle to date. He angrily notes that six of his regiment's companies have been ordered to Virginia; three to Winchester and three to Marrinsburg. “Col is very angry at having this regiment cut up so after taking such pains to have them so well drilled in everything. I asked him when he thought we would all get together again, he said not till our three years are up and we are ordered home,” he laments. The goal had been to split the army in two, but the effort failed. The war was slowly beginning to wear on him. Several months later he expresses his first wish to see the business done with: ”For my part I wish the Rebs would get up north and stir some of those Copperheads out of their nests. Perhaps if the war was carried to their own homes they would then realize our situation and make some effort to put this cursed rebellion down.” He begins a letter in July of ‘63 with, “I can tell you Mother we have seen something of war since I wrote you last. Yes indeed war with all its joys and sorrows…” Still, Ross’s letters continue to break through with the positivity of his spirited youth. He still claims, “I like this sort of life first rate. I think when the war is ended I will go soldiering again Somewhere. I like excitement and the Army is the place to find it. Of course there is a little bitter with the sweet but if a person always takes the bright side of this life he will come out cat bird.”
In September of ‘63, Ross writes to his mother to tell her how he came to be the clerk for General Elliott at headquarters. He wasn’t sure he wanted the position, but after realizing that a benefit was riding as opposed to marching, he warmed to the idea. He had his likeness done by a traveling artist, which he included in the letter. He asks his mother with boyish charm, “Don’t you think the Moustache looks fierce?” Despite experiencing battle firsthand and seeing the horrors of war, including a description of coming upon an empty house which had clearly just been used as a makeshift hospital (given the arm that had been left behind upon the table), Ross assures his mother that he sleeps very well, has plenty of blankets and enough to eat. He gives a fantastic account of General Truex, who jumped down from his horse during battle and
…with his sword in one hand and revolver in the other, he led our boys up,
telling them to give it to ‘em, and fire low, the balls all the time coming like
hail, after the boys got to the fence they laid down and fired, as the bullets
were whistling all around them, the Col would walk up and down behind
them, talking and encouraging them. I believe there is not a man in the
regiment but what would follow him anywhere.
By December of ‘63, Ross becomes sentimental for home. He tells his parents that he would like to see them as much as they would like to see him, though it is probably best for him to stay with the men. He notes that it has been two years since he had the pleasure of sleigh-riding in Freehold. He proudly announces that he has been promoted to Sgt. Major, and that his pay is now $20 per month. Despite saying that he felt he should stay, he did apply for a leave to come home. It was denied, though his cheerful demeanor did not express any grudge or negativity. He continued on through the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and writes his sister in May of ‘64:
I have seen sights so horrible to relate. I counted thirty eight dead
and wounded Rebels in a space not fifteen feet square, in some places
the dead lay three and four deep in the trenches where our men charged
the Johnnys, and the wounded in among them unable to get out, and
filling the air with their groans. Oh it is awful to think of, to see men lying
blown almost to atoms. I hope the war may soon end, you can form no idea
without seeing what a horrible sight a battlefield is.
After the Battle of Monocacy, he describes his place going up and down the line at the Colonel’s side, but assures his worried sister, Minnie, “I don’t think I was born to be shot or I would have got it long ago, as I have been where bullets flew thicker than hail.”
Though they were well-seasoned soldiers, the 14th was slowly reduced in number. With uncharacteristic melancholy, Ross describes their dress parade:
It was a sad sight, our line only being about one third as long as
when we left our pleasant camp scarce three months ago. No Captains
now stand on the right of Companies A & D, where the noble Conine
and Conover once stood, and the old colors all tattered and torn are
now guarded by but two corporals out of eight which bore them
in our first fight in the Wilderness. It is a sad sight to miss so many
familiar faces but perhaps it is all for the best. God grant that the rest
of us may be spared to return to our homes.
Stories of hats full of raspberries, stolen honeycombs, lovely ladies listening to his guitar serenades, and dreams of cooling off at the beach at Long Branch preceded the silence that would forever follow Ross’s last letter home to his parents on Sept 27, 1864. William Burroughs Ross was one of 644 killed in action at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19th, 1864. He was 21 years old. His parents buried him on Thanksgiving Day in the Second Presbyterian Church Burying Ground in Trenton on his first trip back home since he left on the train to Fredricksburg, though his remains were later moved to Maplewood Cemetery in his beloved Freehold. His experience in the war was certainly colored by his rosy attitude towards life, which seems to be lacking in many other letters of the era, though perhaps these are only the ones historians choose to highlight, as they show war for all its terrible qualities. Ross’s attitudes seem to be within those of his compatriots, denoting a common bond between the soldiers, particularly those from Freehold. If not for them, Ross would certainly have felt at least a bit homesick since he left Old Monmouth.