This extraordinary letter was written by Col. Freeman McGilvery (1823-1864), commander of the 1st Volunteer Brigade, Artillery Reserve, Army of the Potomac, to his brother. In the letter, McGilvery complains bitterly about how his military exploits— particularly at Gettysburg—were of incredible value to the Union Army but that he has not been adequately appreciated by military leadership. In addition to the content of the letter itself, which is not signed, the accompanying paper slip sold with the letter (in the same hand as the letter) identifies the writer as “Major F. McG Commanding 1st Brigade Reserve Artillery, Army Potomac.” McGilvery was, at the time of this letter, a Colonel (having been promoted earlier in 1863 from Maj. to Lt. Col. and thence to Col.), but the paper slip probably accompanied an earlier letter.
As depicted in the large amount of extensive material available on the internet about McGilvery and his exploits, he actually did accomplish all he claimed in the letter. For example, he really was partly responsible for the Union victory at Gettysburg by his initiative in directing Union artillery to help thwart Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd. Despite McGivery’s bitter words about lack of recognition, he was honored by Union leadership, albeit much of the acclaim taking place posthumously.
McGilvery was born in Prospect, Maine. Born with a love for the sea, he was a sailor and then a ship master. He was in Brazil at Rio de Janeiro when the Civil War erupted. He soon returned home and raised the 6th Maine Battery, which first saw action at the battles of Cedar Mountain and Sulfur Springs in Western Virginia. At the Battle of Antietam, McGilvery’s battery supported the attack of the XII Corps. On February 5, 1863, he was promoted to major and given command of the First Volunteer Brigade in the Artillery Reserve in the Union Army of the Potomac, which he commanded during the Chancellorsville Campaign.
On August 9, 1864, McGilvey was named Chief of Artillery for the X Corps. At the Battle of Deep Bottom, Virginia (August 16, 1864) he sustained a slight wound to one of his fingers. He ignored this wound, and continued with his duties until an infection caused the need for the injured finger to be amputated. On September 2, 1864 in Petersburg, Virginia, he died suddenly during the surgery from the effects of chloroform. Today in the Gettysburg National Military Park an avenue is named “McGilvery Artillery Avenue” in honor of him and his command.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]
Headquarters 1st Brigade
Artillery Reserve, Army of the Potomac
December 14th 1863
Your letter with acct. inclosed was duly received two days since. In reference to your regrets that I have not succeeded in gaining the object for which I entered the service, I consider the conclusion a little incorrect. Instead of a failure, I consider y military career a complete success. I believe it is admitted by all impartial superiors that I have ever served under that I have al[ways] done as much as my position required of me and more than once on great & important occasions have done much more than might have been asked of me.
I believe that on the evening of August 30th 1862 when all of our army was in retreat from Bull Run Battlefield & a great part of it panic stricken, I alone with but two guns held in check a rebel force of infantry for a sufficient length of time to prevent a most disastrous rout of our right which was jammed into a narrow road in such a manner as to be almost unable to move for nearly an hour during which time I was a mile in the rear without a single troop but the two detachments working my two pieces. And General Heintzelman knows this fact very well.
I believe that on the 2d of July 1863 by the handling of some 70 guns on the evening of that day, I prevented the enemy from breaking through our left-center and thus saved that part of our lines which if carried would have left the Army of the Potomac to the mercy of the enemy.
On the 3rd of July I placed the guns which fronted the terrific fire of the enemy & commanded the fire of the guns both against the enemy’s artillery fire and also his attacks of infantry, and if the Battle of Gettysburg was not joined by the Artillery Reserve, it would have been lost.
Without feeling conscious of all this I have said, what I have without any purpose of boasting or for egotism, “but to assure you that I consider my military career so far an entire success, but I do feel that I have been used very disgraceful[ly] and that I ought not to put myself in the cannon’s mouth of the enemy many more times to serve a party that have treated me as though I were no better than a cur. No man is called upon to sacrifice everything. I have acted the lackey to do the master’s work with nothing but cuffs long enough. I shall ask for a General Commission & hope I shall get but do not expect to get without paying for it, which I am willing to do but if I cannot get it I may or may not serve longer.
My address is as follows, Major F. McG. Commanding 1st Brigade, Reserve Artillery, Army of the Potomac