Posted on Nov 26, 2001

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, with more casualties than in all previous wars combined.

Those who lived through this national calamity were required to display extraordinary courage and endurance. Many did that and more, with little fanfare or recognition:

“We expect to have to fight our way in some places but our Regiment being 1060 strong we don't fear. Should anything happen to me you and Ned are authorized to pay what you know I owe even if it is necessary to sell out but I am in hopes that I will return Safe. Nearly all went to Confession to Father Mooney and are prepared for the worst, I write this at 7 and we march at 8 A.M. Good Buy All. Pray for Me.”

These words are contained in a letter to brothers James and Edward and sister Margret from Union Army Captain William Butler as he set out for battle in Virginia in 1861. His legacy to us is a collection of recently found letters that give a unique personal view of the war.

The documents are a gift to the College's Special Collections from distant relative Gioia Ottaviano of Schenectady. She had found them wrapped in a pillowcase in her uncle's Wisconsin farmhouse attic, along with Butler's sword. Most of the 150 letters and other documents between 1859 and 1864 are from Butler to his family.

William Butler was born in 1831 in New Castle, Ireland. We learn from a tattered indenture certificate that as a thirteen-year-old, he was apprenticed to merchant James Leara, of Clonmel, “to learn his Art, and with him (after the manner of an Apprentice) to dwell and serve from the first day of April 1844 unto the full end and term of seven years.” From this certificate, we also learn that William was the fourth-youngest son of Edmond Butler of Bohernagaul, in the County of Tipperary.

By March 1, 1859, we realize that Butler was living in New York City, since it was on this date that he joined the 69th Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Division of the Militia, as a lieutenant. Judging by his letters, at least two brothers and a sister were living in New York as well. Discharged that August, he reenlisted as a captain in November. Discharged once more in September 1862, the following month he reenlisted again. In January 1863, he began signing his letters “Major William Butler.”

The 69th Regiment, nicknamed the Fighting 69th by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was established in 1851 by Irish immigrants in New York City. During the Civil War, the 69th was known for the length of its service and number of engagements in which it was involved. It led all regiments from New York State in killed and wounded.

Butler's war letters begin in 1861, while sailing to Annapolis on a troop ship, then marching on foot the forty miles to Washington. Some months, he wrote almost daily, documenting everyday concerns of Civil War soldiers: life, death, health, clothing (boots especially), money, and liquor. These accompanying excerpts are transcribed unedited.

We know from his last letters that Butler was shot and wounded in battle near Petersburg, Va., on June 16, 1864, and, from an official notice, that on or about Aug. 15, 1864, he died in the U.S. Hospital in Annapolis, Md. But for readers 137 years later, his letters bring history to life. Says Ellen H. Fladger, head of Special Collections, “The letters make compelling reading for students and Civil War researchers alike. This is a fine, compact collection of primary source material.”

Civil War letter excerpts from William Butler

June 7, 1861

“I'm still in good health thank god no attack yet although we are sleeping every night with our clothes on and muskets beside the men after working nearly all day, finishing our food last night we were pretty sure of an attack. The alarm was sounded at 12 and 2 at night. If we were only allowed to rest at night we would soon have this place finished.”

June 27, 1862

“I have tasted of the new made Brandy. I think it will do very well. I think it has a little too much taste of rum but that I think won't hurt it. If I am not asking too much I would like that jar or any portion of it. Say if you can get four or six of them jars and make a small box, by the fourth of July in order to give my boys a drink on that occasion.”

July 7, 1862

“I see by the papers that the Irish Brigade had to take a good share of fighting, I am sorry for some of those I know who are killed or wounded.”

July 15, 1862

“I am in good health but the flesh is coming off a little. Some days here is terrible hot. This day is fearful.”

January 29, 1863

“I was in bed when the orders came. We left the Camp before 12 O'clock that night. Marched about six miles when the Cavalry met the Pickets of the Rebels. The Artillery soon began to work, Our Regiment was moved close to the Artillery but the good shelter from the firing by being placed in a wood but several trees and limbs of trees came down around us and our Regiment lost 6 killed and about 10 wounded. My horse acted first rate he never moved an inch and I assure you them big ones came as close to where I was standing as any one would wish.”

May 8, 1863

“A flag of truce was recognized from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. last night for the purpose of burying the dead and bringing in the wounded.”

May 28, 1863

“You could hardly know me with my coat white with dust and dirt and torn with bushes and laying down at night, and as for my bearded face and hair you would hardly see my eyes at all.”

March 12, 1864

“The guerrillas are keeping pretty quiet. It is not safe to go far from Camp without a guard. The principal duty I have is to visit the different Posts along the Railroad for Seven miles, every fourth day. Those guerrillas are sometimes seen in the miles between each Post. A few days ago they took two of the 155th Regiment who was coming to get three horses shod. They have not been heard of since and of course the horses are gone.”