SELWYN EUGENE BICKFORD (1833-1887) was a 29-year-old resident of Lowell, MA, when he enlisted in the Civil War on August 26, 1862, as a 1stLieutenant. He was commissioned into Co. G, 6th Massachusetts Infantry. He was mustered out on June 3, 1863 and mustered back in July 1863 when he was employed as a clerk at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where he wrote this letter. Bickford became an astute observer of the war and devoted his extracurricular activities to enjoying civilian society and identifying business opportunities in the south. After the war, he settled in Virgina.
In this 12 pp, 7 ¾” x 9 ¾”, May 10, 1864, Fortress Monroe, VA, highly detailed letter, Lt. Bickford wrote to his friend, William Henry Anderson (1836-1902), a Lowell, MA, lawyer of the preparations going on for General Benjamin F. Butler’s launching of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, which was an abject failure. The Campaign involved a series of battles fought at the town of Bermuda Hundred outside of Richmond, VA, during May 1864. Butler, commanding the Army of the James, threatened Richmond from the east but was stopped by forces under Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Bickford had high hopes for the campaign and felt that Butler would have a strong chance of becoming president if the campaign were a success.
In his superb account, he provides information about colored troops landing, 30,000 of Butler’s troops traveling down the James enroute to Richmond, amassing of ammunition, supplies, vessels and steamers, boats and barges. As the campaign was underway, he writes that “heavy cannonading could be distinctly heard here.”
In small part, “…Lieut. Freeman is on duty at this Post on board the Revenue Cutter Morris. He does not know me, and I did not recognize him until someone spoke of him and my attention was attracted by the name. Where is that pretty piece of folly, his wife? “…Your old friend Leathers has just arrived from Little Washington, No. Ca., driven hither by the evacuation and burning of that town. He reports the place to have been needlessly set on fire by the 17th Mass. Vols. The old gent lost some of his clothes and evidently has had a hard time. He spoke of hearing the noise of cannon and of seeing ‘grey-backs’ disporting themselves rather unamiable; in a manner that showed that he regarded himself as a hero. Great is Leathers. I informed the captain what a wretch he had got in the person Thissel, and he will have him under strict surveillance.
“…I went over to Norfolk a week ago, and had a fine time. Called to see a Lowell lady, who is living in Portsmouth – and had a fine time. She entertained me with mince pie and cider…I got acquainted with a Quaker female over there by the name of Smith. She is from Philadelphia and is a teacher in the Colored School. By Jove, she is got up in a style well calculated to trap the unwary. The staid Quaker dress, when done in nice silk, looks lovely, and when wit and beauty were compounded with it, and all with a fellow in an ambulance, riding over a rough road…it’s overpowering…
“The seven A.M. boat from N.[orfolk] on Wednesday last brought me back here just in time to see the embarkation of the Colored Troops here, and the passage by, the next morning, of Gen. Butler’s army, numbering 30,000 men, on its way to Richmond via James River. People outside this department are entirely in the dark, in regard to Military movements here. Even the Saturday P.M. Baltimore American – a paper noted for its early and reliable intelligence – both in its dispatch and editorial columns, stated that no credence whatever could be given to the rumor that Gen. W.F. Smith had landed with – his troops on the James River, when it was a fact well known here that he had done so…
“The whole matter has been managed admirably. Gigantic preparations have been in progress here, for several weeks, and troops have been gathering, and Quarter Masters and Commissary Stores piling up here in tremendous quantities. All the old canal boats and barges that were at the North have been dragged from their hiding places, and brought down here to load with ammunition. Vessels and steamers have been constantly arriving here, and Wednesday there was more shipping in Hampton Roads, than in Boston Harbor. In what manner, and where the blow was to be struck, no one could tell.
“Camp Hamilton, was made the depot for the Colored Troops, but all others, went to Yorktown, and from there, spread up the Peninsula. Last Tuesday, a feint was made at West Point on the York River as all the papers have stated. On Wednesday night last, all the troops at Yorktown were embarked on transports, and passed by here to the Rendezvous at the mouth of the James, off Newport News about four o’clock Thursday morning.
“The General and his staff left the fort for the field the evening previous. That day they went up the river without meeting any obstruction, and landed safely at City Point, where the ‘Flag of Truce’ steamer stops. The next forenoon, the forces started for Petersburg. Reliable information as to their success, at this time is not to be had. That it was a complete surprise to the rebels is beyond a doubt. Our first report was, that Petersburg was evacuated and we held it, next that we obtained possession and were driven out, and last that we did not know anything about it. All this business is transpiring within less than a hundred miles of here, and I wish to go up, so much I can’t keep quiet.
“Boats arrive here several times a day from City Point but they either don’t know anything or are not allowed to tell. There has been some severe fighting we know, but no sick or wounded have yet been brought here although the hospitals are all ready for them. All days Sunday and yesterday heavy cannonading could be distinctly heard here. What an enormous loss of life must attend this campaign and what an interest we have at stake. What is in store for us as a nation, if we are defeated? I am confident we shall succeed as far as the valor of our troops is concerned, but how often we have been disappointed in the management of our Generals?
“Nearly all the 10th Army Corps from Charleston is with Butler, including my old Brigade. The 40th Mass., famous at Olustee are there, and the 4th Mass. Cavalry, and a host of veterans who are famous. If it is in the power of man, General Butler will enter Richmond first and, if he does, there is no question about his chance for the Presidency. The whole thing is mapped out, and has been, this two months. The General has everything staked on this move and I have faith that he will win.
“Of all the papers published, the New York Herald has the most connected and complete account of the operations here. Let Richmond be taken, and in two weeks it will be overburdened with goods for sale. All the prospective wants of that region, have all been anticipated, and the stocks are in Baltimore ready to ship at a moment’s notice…
“If we are, by any chance, defeated before Richmond, gold will go up to 200 and over, and all commodities will rise in proportion…
“Lt. Bruce called me a few days ago, and wished to be remembered to you, when I wrote. I like him very much. He is twice the agreeable chap he ever was at Lowell. He is now Inspector General on Col. Steere’s staff – Colonel Comd’g Brigade – and I think now at Yorktown, although I am not positive, as recent movements may have changed their whereabouts…”
Minor binding margin mark on left of each front page and two small margin stains, but overall in excellent condition and very readable.
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