The writings of Civil War soldiers—diaries, letters to family and friends, or updates sent from the front to the editors of community newspapers—have been a boon to family history researchers and professional historians for more than a century. Filled with flashes of insight about hardships suffered and the many indignities of war, these rare documents have the power to transport readers back in time—directly into the hearts and minds of the young men who witnessed firsthand the obliteration of former neighbors by cannon fire and the interments, far from home, of drummer boys claimed by disease before they could grow into manhood. With record keeping during the early days of the war abysmal at best, and abridged in latter days by overwhelmed quartermaster staff, a single letter home was, and still is, all too often the only account of what actually happened to an individual soldier after he disappeared from muster rolls.
Still other missives and journal entries provide glimpses into happier moments, and are excellent sources for information about the daily lives of soldiers, the movement of troops and timing of events.
The envelopes which carried the thoughts of the men who served with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry bore an image of a soldier, garbed in the uniform of a Mexican War-era militiaman, standing at attention while guarding the American flag, or the image of a Civil War-era uniformed soldier standing casually with his bayonette-fixed rifle held against his body in the crook of his right arm. Inscribed at the top were the words:
The Forty-Seventh, we are the crew,
To raise the Stripes—Red, White, and Blue.
McClellan*, now, who takes command,
Will lead us down to Dixie’s land.
Pennsylvania’s Reserve Corps
Plainly saw her flag was tore.
Old Jeff, may ride Jackass or mule,
We are bound to catch him, his neck to pull.
* Note: The name of the high-ranking officer referenced on envelopes for the 47th Pennsylvania was modified with changes in Union leadership or was replaced with a colonel’s name as was done on the image above.
“Fraternally Yours, H.D.W.”
One of the 47th Pennsylvania’s most prolific scribes was Henry D. Wharton, a native of Sunbury, Pennsylvania. The words you see on the home page of this website, “reports of artillery shook the earth,” are his.
A former editor of the Danville Intelligencer, Wharton was employed as a compositor with his hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American, at the time of his enlistment.
Wharton’s words sparked feelings of pride among Pennsylvania residents, helped his neighbors and friends better understand what was happening and why, inspired his fellow newspapermen to call for better treatment of Union soldiers by their leaders and those they were sworn to protect, and calmed worried mothers. More than 150 years later, his letters and those of others from this period serve as stark reminders that America’s freedoms have been hard won, and have come at a price so dear that every falsehood uttered during heated political rhetoric and every vote not cast by average citizens during local, state and national elections stains the memory of those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
“Weather Sultry & Mosquitoes Again at Work”
In contrast to the often lofty prose of Henry D. Wharton’s letters, the individual, often dry diary entries made by Henry J. Hornbeck transport readers back in time and into uniforms of average soldiers. A near daily diarist during his Civil War service, Hornbeck was a native Allentonian and son of U.S. Congressman John W. Hornbeck and Allentown Postmistress Maria (Martin) Hornbeck.
Auditor for the Borough of Allentown in 1874 and then Deputy Prothonotary from 1878-1881, Hornbeck ultimately ended up becoming the longtime Chief Bookkeeper for a firm co-founded by one of his former commanding officers from the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was eulogized by area newspapers at the time of his passing as “an esteemed citizen.”
Hornbeck’s diary entries provide brief, but important details regarding the deaths of fellow soldiers, the regiment’s integration, and interactions between members of the regiment and the local citizenry of the cities and towns where they were stationed, and also illustrate the annoyances, sorrow, pride, and levity of small town men serving far from loved ones and the familiar comforts of home.