Letters from the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus men who were serving in the Union Army 150 years ago give us insight into what these ordinary Americans went through to preserve the United States and, ultimately, end slavery.
Families might take the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to dig deeply into the roots of the area for a sense of those who came before and the role they played in the great history of this country.
By December exactly 150 years ago, more and more men from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties were stepping forward to fill the volunteer regiments New York state was calling up. The Jamestown Journal recorded for all time the events of the day when friends and family accompanied 28 volunteers from Clymer on their trek to Westfield where they joined their company to begin a long journey as soldiers in the Union army.
It was a scene that played out thousands of times in small towns and large across the North as well as the South that year.
The men carried haversacks filled with socks and clothing made by ladies of the town, the reporter for the Journal wrote.
"Then came a scene which imagination can more easily conceive than thought describe. Tear-dimmed eyes spoke the feelings of the heart; the firm pressure of the hand and hearty expressions for welfare of the departing soldier told plainly that the pulse of true patriotism beat high in the bosom of the people of southwestern Chautauqua.
"'You shall hear from us when we get in the field,' the noble fellows said, and every heart responded in silence, 'We will follow you if duty calls'.
"Then the last goodbyes were spoken. Three waves of the hat, given in silence, seemed to awaken more feeling than cheers three times three would have. The band struck up the soul stirring notes of Hail Columbia and our volunteers were gone."
A letter from the 112th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment published in the the Jamestown Journal in December 1862 talked about the coming of Thanksgiving Day. The regiment was in Virginia.
"We do know that the feast at the table made vacant by our absence this day will bear evidence that we are missed and the cause of our absence deeply regrettable. ... How many homes has this cruel war bereft of sons and husbands since the last Thanksgiving day. And how many that were then present are now arrayed in habiliments of war, in defense of country, in defense of kindred, in defense of home. Many. Too many."
A letter published Dec. 26 from Chautauqua County's Company K, 49th New York Volunteers, reminded families back home of the realities of war, describing the third day of the regiment's involvement in the Union disaster at the battle at Fredericksburg mid-month:
"This was the hardest day of the battle. The cannonading was very rapid and the shells fell thick around us - 10 of the 49th Rgt. were wounded within an hour after we took our position."
For the most part, the Confederate and Union soldiers had Christmas day off that year.
In one of his superb books on the 154th New York Volunteers - a regiment of men from Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties - Mark Dunkelmen wrote of Christmas 1862 when the 154th was in camp near the Rappahannock River near Falmouth.
The men had the whole day to themselves. Newell Burch bought three pints of hardtack for his Christmas dinner, Dunkelman wrote, but Alva Merrill reported his fare to be much better in a letter home. Merrill and Horace Howlett had pork, potatoes, apple sauce, sugar and molasses candy.
"After dinner I went on over to the river bank and sat and looked at the rebel pickets and at our pickets," Merrill wrote home. "I was just a good rifle shot from them. It looked just like little boys at play. I sat and thought of home and those I left behind me."
After that interlude, the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus boys had a tough road ahead: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and on and on. Many of them died.
The Chautauqua County Historical Society has the muster rolls for Chautauqua County. They are available at the McClurg Museum in Westfield and online at mcclurgmuseum.org, under "collections" and then "archives." The rolls are listed by town. Information on New York Civil War muster rolls and regiments is also available at the state military museum web site at dmna.ny.gov/historic. Mark Dunkelman's books are also available online.
The journey into those years is humbling.