1865: McClain to Parents

The author of these two letters may have been a member of the Independent, U. S. Colored Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. Hezekiah F. Douglass—better known as “Douglass’ Battery.” It was in existence for only a brief time late in the Civil War but had the distinction of being the only federal unit to serve entirely under the leadership of black officers.

A history of the Battery states that it “officially joined Fort Leavenworth’s garrison in February [1865, and] it comprised 140 officers and men, although not all of these soldiers actually were available for duties; fourteen men were sick, six were under arrest, five were absent…and two were performing special, extra, or daily duty. The battery was armed with ten guns—two heavy, six field, and two mountain—and it had eighty-three horses to transport them. February was a deadly month for the unit, with four men dying from pneumonia or ‘congestive chills’ over a span of two weeks. Other diseases also caused problems. In March several men were admitted to the hospital with mumps…” The battery was known to have Parrott rifled guns not only because they were photographed with them, but they were ordered to turn in four Parrotts and a mountain howitzer to the Ordinance Department in May 1865. The Battery was mustered out of the service on July 22, 1865.

The author did not sign the first letter and the second one appears to have been mailed under the signature, “J. W. McClain.” I searched military records high and low  under this name and variations of it, but could not find anyone by that name who would have been at Fort Leavenworth. If the letters were written in 1865, I also found it pretty unusual that they would have been written on patriotic stationery which, at this late date in the war, was not so popular. Checking the roster of Douglass’ Battery, however, I was surprised to find a Black soldier with the Irish-sounding surname of McClain, though he appears on the roster as “William R. McLane.” This soldier enlisted on 27 February 1865 and mustered out on 22 July 1865.

The author of these letters mentions “Old Robison’s family” living within ten miles of Fort Leavenworth. His letters also imply he is a relative newcomer to Kansas without any apparent former military service. Census records show several Black families by the name of Robison (or Robinson) living in Leavenworth, or adjacent counties. In fact, another enlistee named George W. H. Robinson joined the Battery on 16 December 1864. I think it’s possible this soldier might have visited the Robinson family and then opted to enlist with the Battery as it was recruiting at the time of his visit.

Independent Battery, U. S. Colored Light Artillery in front of the guard house at Fort Leavenworth. The two guns featured in the foreground are Parrott rifles.


Fort Leavenworth
February 21st [1865]

Dear Father,

I received yours the 20th and I was glad to hear from you and I wish you would send me some papers for I would like to read some of the Ohio papers again. But we will start for Fort Scott tomorrow. Then I think that we will go to the Gulf of Mexico or Tennessee or home. I think that we will be home in three months. I like Kansas very well for what I have seen. I heard from the Second Battalion. It had a fight yesterday—one killed and five wounded. [They] killed & wounded 7 and took ten prisoners.

Why don’t Orange write? I have wrote to [him] five letters and I han’t received but one. Why don’t Net write too? Tell them to write.

We are going to Kansas City and I don’t think we will go any further. We will stay there all the rest of the time. I am going into the artillery to form a battery to go with the regiment. I am well and in good health and full of fit. There is a good many sick and good men are dying in the regiment with lung fever.

We are gay, hoping all that we can get where we are going across the plains. About that note, I carried it till it wore out and I throwed [it] away. Give my love to John and Net. So goodbye, Father and Mother [unsigned]



Ft. Leavenworth
March 24, [1865]


I once more take the opportunity to inform you that am yet on the land of the living hoping that these few lines may find you all in good health for mine is a little broken but nothing more than the mumps so that I am on the sick list but I feel as well as ever I did. All the difference with me is I tend sick call and eating [   ] instead [of] drill.

We have our guns which makes some more work for us. We have got our outfit in full—horses, harness, guns, and ammunition. The guns are steel ten-pound parrott weighing nine hundred each. They are rifled and using nothing but long balls or shell. The bore is about three and a half inches. We are expecting to leave here everyday—perhaps about Saturday if not before. Where we are going, it is more than I can say, but without doubt we are going to New Mexico or at least will start for there. But perhaps we are better off here than we shall be on the march, but not so well suited.

I hope that we may get out of this [place] for the weather is the most irregular here of any place that I ever saw. One day it is warm enough for July and the next cold enough for January. Them that want to live in Kansas may for all of me for I think they are two chances for one to die where there are but one to live.

Old Robison’s family lives about ten miles from this place so that I don’t wonder at him dying for it is enough to eil [?] on one man, then why shouldn’t eil a rogue.

This is all at present but as I was a going to say if every sick person felt as I do, they should draw double rations for they have nothing else to do but eat. I have today full men’s rations.

Mr. R. H. McClain, I received your letter but it was so old that was hardly worth calling[it] a letter. But still I [was] pleased to hear from you, let it be old or new, for it is seldom that I hear from any of you.

As you said you would like to have my advice about soldiering, you had better stay where you are of you know when you are well off. Write if you please.

— J. W. McClain

Direct as before to the battery.



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