By Earl Hendry
In the Civil War, the famous “Lightning Brigade” of colonel — and later general — John T. Wilder (of postwar Roan Mountain, Cloudland Hotel, Tweetsie Railroad and Cranberry Mines fame) included the 72nd Indiana Infantry Regiment and other regiments from the Hoosier State. We have gained access to many of the common soldiers’ letters about army life under Wilder and we will offer these from time to time as a new way of looking at the war — as historians have typically reported on that monumental struggle, from the viewpoint of large army units or high level commanding officers.
The following letter was written home by William “Grindstone Bill” Relph, who served in the Union Army under Wilder. Relph got his nickname for carrying a large heavy grindstone to sharpen knives, bayonets and hatchets all the way to camp, on his back, in one day. At this time Wilder’s outfit was known as the “Hatchet Brigade,” as he had his men equipped with long-handled hatchets for various uses, including combat!
Relph had mustered in to Company C of the 72nd on Aug. 16, 1862, and, at the time this letter was written, he had only been in the army some 25 days. Although his regiment would become mounted infantry in 1863, and would start carrying deadly Spencer repeating rifles, at this time they were foot infantry and still carried the old single-shot muskets. His spelling and grammar are generally corrected for ease of reading.
Salt River Ky.
Sept the 12th – 1862
Dear Mother, It is with pleasure that I seat myself in my tent to shelter from the rain and address you this letter. I am in good health and have been ever since I have been in the army. I suppose you will be uneasy about me but remember I am not a coward and I am determined to avenge the death of my two brothers-in-law, which was caused by this rebellion, and to uphold the flag of my country. We have had no very heavy engagements yet, but I expect before this time tomorrow, many of our brave boys will bite the dust. I have been playing the scout and had the pleasure of emptying a rebel saddle but don’t know if he lives yet or not [this man likely was a scout or part of John Hunt Morgan’s rebel cavalry]. I expect that you and Jennie write to each other; I write to her every day. She is dear as life to me — if I could see my wife and baby once in a while, I would be satisfied [His wife Rebecca and baby Louisa Margaret Relph] but I must be contented. I pride myself in being a soldier but it cost me a great deal. My corn is in the field and I don’t know if it ever will be gathered. My wheat stood in the shock until the last of August and I sold my hogs for half price. I had to take less for my team on a year’s time than I paid for them in [cash] money, but I don’t care for that, if I can only see my country once more in peace. It has and will cause the life of thousands of the brave sons of liberty, altho the tide of battle has been against us for the last 4 weeks, I shall not be discouraged and we will whip them out yet. There is a heavy battle within 25 miles of us today and has been since yesterday morning. We can hear the cannon roar and know the work of death is going on as we laid [slept] on our loaded rifles last night and today are cutting down all the corn near us [and trees] and building breastworks [Sleeping on loaded arms indicated that action was expected at any moment. They cut down the corn to make a clear field of fire.] We sent half of our brigade to reinforce the brigade which is [now] fighting and the news from the telegraph says the battle is on our side. The rebels have begun to retreat — our boys are half crazy to get into a fight. We have been cut off and surrounded but got out with losing but 3 or 4 men; our General says he “doesn’t intend to be driven north.”
My captain is a Pennsylvanian and a brave boy he is. He was born and raised in Lewistown and knows Bellfonte as well as I do [Relph was born there]. He is a great friend of mine and tells me everything that is going on. He is a telegraph operator and so he knows all the news. One of the boys from our regiment was shot through the hand; two men came to him when he was at the spring and wanted to buy his revolver. He gave it to them to look at and one of them cocked the pistol and pointed it at him — he grabbed the pistol and it went off and our boy struck him with his left hand and knocked it from his hand and the two [enemy men] ran, but the shot brought some cavalry to the alarm and captured them. They will be hung or shot tomorrow. This is all I have time to write, so I bid you all goodbye.
Author’s Note: If you feel this “soldier’s letter article” is worthwhile or know of any in your family — from either Union or Confederate side — that you think would be willing to contribute, please let us know by writing to Judge Earl R. Hendry, P.O. Box 220, Roan Mountain, TN 37687.