My Journey to Civil War-Era Virginia

Bill Keeler.

This post was written by Bill Keeler, Processing Student Assistant. Bill is studying History with a focus in American History at George Mason University.

After finishing the Stephen S. Fuller papers, I have begun processing a new collection donated by George Mason University’s own Randolph H. Lytton. The collection is packed with so many incredible materials, so many that I am genuinely torn on what to share. Here are two items from the collection.

Private Charles Skinner of the 26th New York Infantry penned this letter on October 26, 1861. Skinner’s regiment, which was stationed primarily in Virginia, saw many key battles during the Civil War. Comprised of volunteers, the 26th fought in over a dozen battles throughout the war including the Second Battle at Bull Run and Antietam, the single bloodiest battle in American military history.

In his letter to “Sarah,” Skinner talks about how hearing from Sarah made him appear “like a new man.” The sustaining motivation to fight in the war often times came from a soldier’s home. Skinner also mentions that his fellow Union soldiers have been “whipped in almost every battle yet, but when the 26th Regt starts I think they will give up and say they don’t want to fight.” Still green, Skinner showed an enormous amount of confidence for someone who had most likely never experienced shots fired in anger. Initial motivators for fighting at the outbreak of the war was one of honor, adventure, and patriotism. Though, many more contributing factors went into enlisting, including societal pressures. Some men would be shunned by their village and deemed a coward when called upon and not answering said call. Others who would later be conscripted would not be treated the same in their regiments or at home, in comparison to those who enlisted. Private Charles Skinner was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.

The animosity felt between the Union and Confederacy is well-illustrated in Skinner’s letter. When commenting on the consumption habits of Virginians, Skinner stated that “Virginia people don’t know how to live.” This is representative of how the small differences between the Union and Confederate states drove deep. Also mentioned towards the end of his letter is how Skinner and his comrades were yearning for more liberties while deployed and how they were expected to get payed. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Federal government had a difficult time paying soldiers at certain points throughout the war.

The contemporary definition of honor and not being shunned upon return from war served as a motivator as the war waged on and soldiers were returning home with increased frequency. One of the strongest sustaining motivators was “the touch of the elbow,” or the idea that the man to one’s left and right was a bond that could not be broken. The illustration below shows the linear tactics employed by both the Union and Confederacy. The formations served two distinct purposes. The first one being that the weaponry in the 19th century was not nearly as accurate as weaponry utilized by militaries today. Lining up side-by-side and trading volleys in the linear formations provided each side with higher accuracy of their largely inaccurate weaponry. Secondly, the above-mentioned “touch of the elbow” provided comfort to the men knowing that the individuals to their left and right were standing with them in battle. It also reinforced that desertion during battle was not only unacceptable, but it was also punishable by execution. Below is an illustration of said formations.

These are just two items from the extremely robust collection. There are numerous items that I am excited to share as well as the processing…process!

The Randolph H. Lytton Historical Virginia collection (C0311) is currently being processed. Once it is completely processed, its finding aid will be available on the SCRC website and the collection will be open for researcher access.

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