1862: William Edward Caton to Parents

These letters were written by William Edward Caton (1846-1905), the 15 year-old son of William Penn Caton (1815-1886) and Elizabeth Steele (1819-1893) of Plainfield, Will county, Illinois. William mentions his sister Hannah Elizabeth Caton (1851-1922) in his first letter which helped me to confirm his identity. After completing his education at Grinnell College, William Caton married Marion E. Shaw and began farming in Henry and Adair Counties, Iowa. In winter, he supplemented his income by running a small writing school. By 1872, he had decided to leave farming and, during the next 14 years, pursued a variety of endeavors. He worked as superintendent of public instruction in Adair County, as editor of the Adair County Register, as a salesman of safes for Diebold and Norris, and, following a move to the Dakota Territory, as a grain dealer and Indian trader with his partner C.W. Beggs. He also briefly served as the superintendent of public instruction for the entire Dakota Territory.

Curiously, in 1880, William and his family were enumerated at Fort Bennett where William worked as a “Indian Trader” at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory (see Black Hawk).

William wrote these letters while attending the Western Union College and Military Academy at Fulton, Illinois. The school was established in September 1861 and William was one of its charter students. In March 1866, after the Civil War, the name of the school was changed to the Illinois Soldiers College where disabled veterans and their children, as well as orphans of Union soldiers, could receive an education.

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The Illinois Soldiers College in early 1870s, Fulton, Illinois


Fulton, [Whiteside county, Illinois]
January 9, 1862

Dear Father & Mother,

I have hardly got settled yet and have got no ink so I write to you with a pencil. My room out here looks very desolate for they have taken up the carpet but they worked it all up while I was gone so it is clean and nice. But the bed is awful hard to sleep upon [compared] to my bed at “home.”

I have got nicely started again in my studies and all right. How different it is here from home. It is all frozen here and snow on the ground and looks like winter. I got me two nice shirts in Chicago and I like them tip top. All the boys like my neck tie that Hannah gave me.

We had a lecture here last night from a Southern Union man who escaped from the South from Vicksburg and he said when [our] Union gun boats first came up there to reconnoitre, there was only one cannon in the city and 200 men and our troops might have taken it as easy as not. He tried to get way from the South on one of our transports but was taken and put into prison and condemned to death but he escaped and started for the City of Memphis with his wife and two little children. He got within 50 miles and that was the extent of the railroad and he could only get a pass out of the southern boundaries for himself, wife, & the two children—one 5 and the other seven years old. He had to leave the city so fast that he had no time to buy a hat for his little boy who had lost it and as for shoes, they were not to be had in the Confederacy and he started to walk 50 miles through the sun and dust under the hottest kind of a sun.

Well they went 7 miles the first day and at night stopped at a farm house and the little feet were all blisters and the little boys head too, but they started again the next day and got about 5 miles and the children were almost dead and his wife said she could go no farther. So they lay down under a tree expecting a messenger all the time to stop them. In a little while, they [saw] a buggy coming up the road and they thought they was caught surely, but it proved to be the mail carrier who agreed to carry his wife and the children 18 miles for $50.00 in gold and that was all he had but he gave it to him and they started on again.

After many narrow escapes, he at last got to Memphis and was safe. I will tell you more next time. Don’t forget the barrel. Send it as soon as possible. All well. Love to all.

Your affectionate son, — W. E. Caton



Fulton [Illinois]
May 7, 1862

Dear Father & Mother,

I guess you think that I have waited a long while since you wrote but I have had so much else to do that it was impossible even to write home. You can’t think what I have been doing, can you? Well, last week Monday, the Major told me that he wanted me and a lot of other boys to help him finish knapsacks so that we could have them by Thursday so 8 or 9 of us went to work & worked all day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & till [12] o’clock on Wednesday night or Thursday morning & we finished 80. Then on the next morning at ½ past 8, we started on foot for Morrison. We had some little boys with us not so big as Johnny Slater & they had to carry their knapsacks full & a 14 pound musket. Well, we went along on “rout step.” When we had gone about 2 miles, the little boys were tired & wanted to stop to get a drink. Well we stopped & after that for most all the way, I carried two muskets.

When we got half way there, a man stopped us on the road and asked us to walk in and get some milk & apples & he gave us all we could eat & drink. We left there & went “On to Morrison” and got to the fair ground where we camped. There were some ladies who got us some dinner. After dinner, all the boys went down to the creek and bathed which made us feel better. Then we came up to camp & pitched our camp—that is, put up the guard tent & fixed our bunks in the buildings. But I did not fix any for Capt. Anderson came to me & told me that I was appointed “Patrol” by the Major so I would have to be up all night. So I got a blanket off the quartermaster and put it in the guard house so that if there was any time that I could get any rest, I would have it.

Well, I was walking about the guard house about one o’clock in the morning when one of the relief guard that I had given permission to get a drink came running back saying that somebody had hit him with a stone. Just then, one hot ,e on the back of the neck and lots more were flying in every direction so I yelled out, “Relief Guard, fall in,” and started for the gate where a sentry was posted. He halted me and I gave the countersign and told him to pass the 3 men that followed me which he did and I led them out in the road. We seen the rascals running into the bushes [and] we started for them but the Officer of the Guard had woke the Major & he just came out then and commanded us to fall back on the rest of the relief; that the sergeant of the guard had ordered to come out there. The Major ordered us to load which we did, then two intervals as skirmishers and he gave me the lead so that I got the farthest post out. Then we laid down and waited for them to show themselves for they could not get around us unless they swam the creek.

Well I waited & waited [till] finally a woman came along and she said that she was going home from a visit so the Major let her pass. Then it was all quiet again except the tree toads which made the most unearthly noise that you ever heard. Well I had almost given up the hopes that the rascals would venture to pass the lines when I saw a man step out from the bushes and I jumped up and commanded him to halt. He turned & started for the woods & I did not like to shoot a man so I started on the run after him & would have caught him but the Major called to me to stop so I had to stop & the man got off into the woods, but he was badly scared for I heard him crash through the bushes like mad & the Major ordered Capt. Andrews to shoot him with his revolver which he did but did not hit him. We watched till morning but did not catch anybody.

The next day we went downtown & astonished the natives with our drill. The next night there was not anything uncommon happened and the next day we went home. “We had a splendid time.”

All the money that I had was what I borrowed of Glover & that was 2.00 for I had to buy my knapsack that cost one dollar and camp expense 1.00. I would give a receipt of all the money but I am almost and to death.

How are all of the folks & Aunt Sophronia & the Cousins? Tell Sarah to answer my last letter. Give my love to Robin, Charlie, & Hannah & tell the boys that I will sign them out as soldiers when I get home. Tell Mother that she need not be worried for I feel the best now that I have since I have been here. Now don’t forget to send me the money by Express as soon as you get this for I want to go to a picnic next Saturday & have not got a penny & have to borrow a postage stamp to send this letter with.

No do send it by Express for it will not get here in time if you don’t. The Schooling that I have sent for ended 2 weeks ago. Don’t forget, now don’t!

Yours affectionate son, — W. E. Caton



Western Union College
Fulton [Illinois]
June 2, 1862

Dear Father and Mother,

I received your dispatch on Saturday morning but as it rained the hardest kind here on Saturday, we did not have the picnic so I sat around but the rain stopped about 10 & I thought that I would go fishing so I and 3 or four other boys went up the river to the old saw mill where we had the awfullest kind of a time catching some frogs for bait. One of the boys fell in an old well and got wet all over but he found some frogs there and gave me one. Well, just then the rain poured down like a thousands of brick and all of the other boys went up and stood under the trees but I put my frog on the hook and threw him in when one of the biggest pike I ever saw took hold of my line and I almost broke my pole. But I finally landed him and as I could get no more bait, I thought I would go up and when I got to the College, I thought I would give my fish to Professor Soule. So I carried them to his room and gave them to him. As soon as I told him they were for him, he jumped off the lounge (for he had been sick all of the morning) and said, “I thought you was a gentleman before but I know you are now,” so I was glad that I gave it to him.

It is very pleasant out here now for the flowers are all in bloom and we have some in our room all of the time which the girls send to him, but poor “me” hain’t received one yet. Oh! dear what a time I will have when I get home. What buggy rides and boat rides for I am going to build one and something good to eat. Won’t it be nice?

We—that is the company—were out on the parade ground yesterday and had our picture taken for the lithograph that is to be put in the catalogue. Mr. Covert was to start for Chicago last night. I don’t know whether he did or not. I guess he did.

Give my love to all. Tell Mother not to be worried for I will be home by the 4th of July. So goodbye from your affectionate son, — W. E. Caton



W. U. C. C. C.
Fulton, [Illinois]
June 15th 1862

Dear Father & Mother,

I received your kind letter on Friday and you gave me so much encouragement for taking so much pains writing that I shall not scribble off my letter anymore. I don’t want to write but one a week.

Oh! you don’t know how glad I was that you said that I could have a blue uniform and I will give you a practical reason. Last Friday eve., Capt. Andrews, my chum Otis Glover, and myself received an invitation to spent the eve at Mr. Conger’s and I wanted particularly to appear to some advantage of possible for there were to be there two young ladies from Lyons College and one from this town besides. Miss Conger and a cousin of hers—a Lieutenant in the “Grand Army,” but the best I had was this “old gray” which looks as if it had been to the “wars” for the last year or so. But Glover and Andrews both had new uniforms so that made it worse for me. But I made up my mind to go so we got excused from Prof. Soule and went up there and had a first rate time. Both of the Lyon girls were good singers and so was Miss Conger so we had plenty of good music. But my uniform looked so bad that I did not enjoy myself as much as I might have done if I had had some better clothes.

I don’t know whether you know that Mr. Tousley had started a Military School at Quincy this state or not but he has and Mr. Soule is going down there to teach after this term.

Tell the girls that I shall try to be home on the Fourth of July so if there is anything going on, to get me a place. But I must close for it takes me an awful long time to write like this. So goodbye from your affectionate son, — Eddie

P. S. Send me the money as soon as possible. — W. E. C.


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