This letter was written by Sumner Davis Aspinwall (1838-1912), the son of John Aspinwall (1795-1882) and his wife Betsey Carpenter (1800-1842) of Brookfield, Worcester county, Massachusetts. By the time of the 1860 US Census, 21 year-old Sumner was working as a wheel wright—a trade he learned from his father—in Elizabeth, Union county, New Jersey. He wrote the letter to his younger sister, Lucy Aspinwall (b. 1843), the wife of Levi Sherman (1832-1904) of Brookfield, Massachusetts.
One of the first to answer his country’s call, Sumner mustered into Co. G, 2nd New Jersey Infantry on 28 May 1861 and did not muster out until three years later, on 21 June 1864. In this incredible letter, Pvt. Aspinwall describes the “Battle of Salem Church”—sometimes referred to as the Battle of Banks’ Ford. Those familiar with the battle will recall that after Sedgwick’s VI Corps occupied Marye’s Heights on 3 May 1863, he marched out on the Plank Road to join up with Hooker at Chancellorsville but was delayed four miles west of Fredericksburg at Salem Church by Wilcox’s Brigade of Early’s force during that fateful Sunday afternoon and night. After fighting again near the church on the morning of the 4th, and with Confederate troops advancing on his rear from Fredericksburg, Sedgwick was forced to withdraw his Corps to Banks’ Ford.
[Note: This letter comes from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]
Camp at White Oak Church, Va.
May 13th 1863
I received your letter and was happy to hear from you and I feel in better heart to know that you remember me with such interest at home. I can assure you the night after the battle of Sunday, I thought of you at home and in the still hours of that night when my dear and wounded comrades lay around me. Oh my mind wandered back to my home and I thought there might be at that moment prayers ascending to Heaven for me. Many are the homes that will be made desolate on that Sunday [3 May 1863]. My comrades were shot down by my side and one young man in front of me was shot dead—many that seemed like brothers to me.
One young man ¹ was killed who use to board with me in Newark and enlisted with me. I have been writing to his friends in Brooklyn. His brother was killed in the Brooklyn 14th and I have been writing to his sister. It is her only brother—all have been killed in the war. I tell you, Lucy, when we are in the battle, it is nothing to what the suspense is when we are in line waiting to go in. Then our thoughts turn to our homes and the thoughts of the future. I thank God that I have been preserved so far and I do not know how soon we will enter another battle.
Six days my regiment was to the front and the last to leave the field forming the rear guard. After the reverse ² on the right, the enemy threw all their forces upon this Corps (Sedgwick’s). We only had a small place to retreat—the enemy nearly surrounding us. This Corps lost more than any other in the army. The loss is four thousand, seven hundred and sixty-nine. This Brigade lost six hundred and most of them were killed and wounded. The enemy suffered more heavy than we did. I saw them mowed down fearfully by the artillery.
My regiment has now been in in eleven battles—the battles of West Point, Gaines Hill, Charles City Cross Roads, Malvern Hills, Bull Run, Antietam, Crampton’s Pass, Fredericksburg 1st, Fredericksburg 2nd, Six Days, Golding’s Farm, and Sunday near Wilderness Church. I do not think there is many regiments that can show many more than this. The Governor of New Jersey presented the four old regiments of this Brigade with a banner for gallantry at Crampton’s Pass [Crampton’s Gap] just before the last Battle of Fredericksburg. There is a report that Stonewall Jackson is dead.
Lucy, write to me often for you have no idea how I love to hear from home. Please send me a paper once in a while. How does—-I have forgot her name—I mean Mr. Sherman’s little girl—-do? You have never written about her. I am sorry to hear that Mother is sick. I hope she will be better before I write again. I received a letter from Oliver last week. He has moved to No. 10 Bristol St., New Haven. Carrie has been sick but she is better now.
I wrote you a long letter last week all about this move from the time we started until we returned and enclosed twenty-four cents for some stamps. We have a noble doctor in our regiment. He was to the front all the time doing all he could for the wounded instead of being so far to the rear that the wounded would die before they could be carried there like some. We have also a noble man for chaplain. He was at the front all the time doing all in his power for the wounded and the dying. ³
I have nothing more to write this time. Give my love to all. Your brother, — S. D. Aspinwall
[P. S.] The two years and [the] nine months regiments are now going home and I do not think there will be anything done for some time again.
¹ The soldier was most likely Corp. Frederick A. Curtis, an apprentice to hatter Nicholas N. Joralemon (1795-1868) of Newark, New Jersey (at the time of the 1860 US Census). He is the only enlisted man from Co. G that was killed that day. However, I cannot find that Curtis had a brother killed in the “Brooklyn 14th” (Brooklyn 14th Militia, 84th New York Infantry).
² A reference to Stonewall Jackson’s surprise flank attack on the Union right’s XI Corps.
³ It appears that Luther Foster Halsey was serving as the Assistant Surgeon of the 2nd New Jersey Infantry at the time of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Halsey initially served with the 7th New Jersey but was transferred on 9 March 1863 to the 2nd New Jersey to fill a vacancy. The Chaplain would have been Robert R. Proudfit (1835-1896), an 1861 graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary.