The Old and New Letters of William Persons

( Wm. Persons was the brother of my great grandmother. This poem includes excerpts from his letters home during the American Civil War. )

dear pa and ma i take my pen and bid you goodbye
tomorrow i leave this camp and regiment forever
and go aboard a gunboat for the Mississippi river
so don’t feel bad there is not as much danger
on a vessel as in the field
i have a nice new Enfield rifle
it is a great honor to join a Mann. o war
and i am determined to have a brush with the rebbles
the company cast lots to see who would go

dear ma, I cannot write what is on my heart
so I will write you in my head
I am sick with the grip and can barely stand
I don’t know how I will do aboard a gunboat
the regiment drills day and night
we are brave in outward appearance
but all lose weight and gain creases around the eyes
sleep comes dear when it comes
my socks are worn through as am I
I lost a tooth in a soldier’s fight
do you remember the Palmer’s oldest boy Grayson?
he and I are constant companions now, even more
though we must be careful

we left rikers island on the 28th of february
took a steamboat to Amboy and then by rail to Philadelphia
the train running like destruction
with heavy report of cannon when we arrived

the train shook so hard I almost broke my elbow
we quartered in an abandoned mill
with rats running over us all night
I have an open sore on my leg that won’t heal
I sometimes think I can hear you playing the spinnet at night
and hear the frogs out by the lake

we left Philadelphia for Baltimore
most of the inhabitants were nigers and wenches that i saw
we left at dusk and as the cars moved off we were stoned
one man spit on Lt. Van Dyke but took leg
when he drew his sword to smite him
Baltimore is a rotten city all that keeps them from rebellion
is two regiments in their midst and the guns of fort henry

Baltimore is full of scoundrels
a man who said he knew you and pa
said he could arrange a leave for me
if I would sign some papers
I was sore tempted but told him no
Grayson said he was a bounty hunter
with the home guard and was trying to make me run

we arrived in washington and are all laid in one room
thicker than hair on a cat
we lay one night on the ground in the snow
it was a tough time but its all over now

we were poisoned this week by rebble infiltrators
I was sick to perdition but made it through
Grayson and I were beaten
by men from another regiment
after an argument over a package from home
though that wasn’t the real reason
he is my only real friend here
but will stay with the regiment
when I go on the gunboat
I am bound up with fear
but determined not to let everyone down

we have had some splendid victorys this week.
the capture of Fort Henry, which was a snug fight,
the rebbles fought desperately and our men
had the worst of it, but they took it.

the country near the Mississippi is splendid
I watched a hawk catch a snake in a cornfield and I was near back home
our gunboat is the USS Mound City
she is covered with 2 1/2 inches of iron, the boys call her Pook’s turtle
she is a fine affair though she floats low at the stern
and her boiler sits up high and unarmored God knows why
it gets so hot inside and the coal dust is so thick
I cannot think that Hell itself could be much worse
we never stop coughing and there is little sleep
under the deck tarpaulins at night

the reports [from Shiloh] are so various
i know that our army came near being destroyed
and all that saved us was two wooden gunboats
which Providentially were there
our men went down to the river
and then boats opened fire [over them]
and mowed the rebbles down
they winned the day in our favor…

today we fought a rebble boat toe to toe
their vessel only a few boat lengths away
I was on deck as our boat moved terrible slow
trying to get into position against the current
I could see some of their faces as we came about
they looked ragged and near starving
one boy maybe fifteen stared at me for the longest time
and I had a strong feeling that I knew him
I heard last week that cousin Jimmy, uncle David’s oldest
volunteered for a rebble and is serving on a gunboat like mine
I pray to God it wasn’t him. they fired first
I could not move, I just stood there
captain Reynolds had to almost knock me over

our gunboats run the rebel blockade
down to Pope’s army and so transported troops
of his across the river so we had them surrounded.
the enemy ran away at the time for it was at 10 o clock at night
but they were too late as Popes men
were ready to receive them.
they made up a line of battle but then stacked their arms.
their retreat was in such haste
that they left tables set with victuals on but “Alas to Feast”

we fired at the rebble boat for what seemed all eternity and they at us
until their boat lost steering and swung astern of us
we fired for her boiler and she took a direct hit
their boys flew in the air like cotton dolls
the fire was so hot we could not get close
we saved the few who could swim
many were scalded and blinded
when I close my eyes I still see them

as I write this a terrible knowing has come over me
that I will not survive this war and that I have seen my fate today
I cannot burden you or anyone with such thoughts
and will post my regular letter when we pass a northbound boat

now time hastens and i must go
your beloved son wm. Persons

Note: William H. Persons was killed aboard the USS Mound City in the Mississippi river June 19, 1862, along with 94 of his comrades and eight officers. The boat exploded from a direct hit to the boiler.

3 responses to “The Old and New Letters of William Persons

  1. A very good long poem. Skillful, powerful.

  2. Pingback: The Old and New Letters of William Persons — The Little Planet Daily | Mist and Mold

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