This page presents transcripts of letters written by Sergeant John Gross Helfrich during the American Civil War. To read more about his life, read his biographical sketch here.
1 February 1863
Fort Taylor Key West, Fla. }
February 1st 1863
Yours of the 13th ult. is received, and its contents perused. The many facts, and details occurring with you, and as stated in your letter, was of no little interest to me, and proved to be both gratifying & interesting, as it was so long since I last heard from you by letter. Enclosed in your last I found five Dolls. which came very acceptable and just at the right time to my relief, as my financial resources were very near expended, and no sign of the paymaster yet, however it was rumored a few days ago, that we would be paid about the middle of February, how true it is I do not know. I for my part can get along without pay until March, when we will have six month [sic] due.
I am under many obligations to you, for the kindness in sending me said present. You will therefore accept my heartfelt & sincere thanks for thus remembering me. I am pleased to see stated that you have received the boxes I have sent to you.
It always afords [sic] me great pleasure and delight, when I am the recipient of a letter and see stated (as in your last,) that you were then all collectively and individually in the full enjoyment of health and happiness around the family fireside, spending the long cold winter evenings, no doubt sometimes in discussing the incidents and facts, relative to this horrible rebellion. It is my wish and prayer that the time may not be far distant when the rebellious monster will have to yield and succumb [to] the heroic and victorious army of our nationality. And when those who survive the dangers connected with the great object in view, may again be permitted to return to parents, brothers & sisters, wives & kindred left behind, when responded to their country’s call. I was glad to learn from your letter, the whereabouts of brother Reuben. I had written to him a number of times, viz. to Schnecksville & Allentown, but received no answer. Will you please state in your next what company & regiment he belongs to? So that I may be able to write to him.
You asked in your letter whether I would sell the box containing my mathematical instruments, also the price of them? The cost me six dolls. but I think you had better kept [sic] them, as one of the boys may need them, and ought to make use of them now.
Those instruments are at your disposal, but I would advise you to keep them if any of the boys may want [one?] when you may not be able to get as good a sett [sic] and at more expense. I am happy to see stated, that the boys & especially sister Sarah, are making good progress in their studies at school. Such news are [sic] indeed gratifying to me, who has the proper education & welfare of brothers & sister at heart, inspire & encourage them in their work, for they, as most children, may not fully know how to appreciate the value of their time ere it is to [sic] late. Why do not Louis & Wm. sometimes write to me? They must be fully capable to do so, if they would only try. If the boys have not inclination and courage enough to write, you must try it Sarah; for I should be very happy to see your handwriting & composition. And I should also like to receive a letter every week from some of the family. I will see now who will be the first to write?
How is cousin Peter A. Gross, [and] also his parents, getting along? I have not heard anything from either for a long time. I would have written to both Nathan & Reuben Gross heretofore, but [there are] many friends I have to write to, and as you live close together, they no doubt hear & see my letters always. I thought it unnecessary and almost impossible for sure to write to each of my friends individually.
I have no particular news to communicate this time. Being very scarce with us, and such as we get through the medium of news papers [sic], will be not new or interesting to you, as you can get the papers before we can. We have the New York papers up to the 24th of Jan. and the Allentown papers of which I get the “Register” & “Friedensboten” up to the 21st of Jan.
The Sanitary condition of the men is all we can desire, having been good ever since we are here. Of the two companies in the fort there is not a single case of sickness—and also the other four companies [sic] quarters in the barrack have but a few sick, and those I am happy to say are not of a dangerous character and no doubt will soon be over it. The wether [sic] is very fine and plesent [sic], the thermometer averaging about from sixty-five to seventy-five degrees. Key West, Fla. Is located at Long. 4⁰30’ North and Lat. 80⁰40’30” West and ten feet above the level of the sea. You also desire to know the amount of my wages per month? My pay as Sergt. is $17.00 which together with the extra pay I receive amounts to $24.50 per month. I have at present 5-month regular & all my extra pay due. Must now close for the present.
I am well, and hope this may find you all the same.
John G. Helfrich
Comp. C 47th P.V.
To Peter Helfrich & Family
23 February 1863
Hilton Head, S.C.
Feb. 23rd 1863
As I am at leisure this evening I will inform you of my getting along and whereabouts. I am yet, thank God, in the land of the living, and in the full enjoyment of health and happiness, hoping that you and all the rest of the family are enjoying the same blessing. We arrived at this place on the 20th inst. From Beaufort, S.C. from which place, I have last writen [sic] you. Since my last I had the pleasure to see Brother Reuben, as well as most of my old friends and acquaintances who are attached to the 176th P.V. You can not imagine the pleasure it caused me to speak and see my Brother, we had a long talk about home and family affairs, and but to [sic] soon did the time for his return to his regiment come, when we had again to part. Nearly all the officers of said Regt. paid us a visit among whom were Dr. Kern, Dr. J. P. Cornett, Capts. Hecker, & Schadt, John Culbertson & many others.
The camp of the 176th P.V. was located on St. Helena Island, about mid-way between this place and Beaufort, and they told us that they were pleasantly situated, and camplife [sic] seems to agree with them every week as they look robust and healthy.
This afternoon our Regt. again received marching orders to be ready to leave at day break [sic] in the morning for Key West, Fla. from which place we have just arrived on the 10th inst. Four companies of our Regt. are at Tortugas yet and from what I understand from reliable authority it is the intention to send two more companies to the above named place.
Col. Good, I understand, is to have command of the post, a position for which he is well fitted, and I am confident that he will give satisfaction to the authorities, as well as honor to himself and his command. It is the intention of the government to reinforce Key West, the 90th N. Y. Vols. at present stationed there are to remain, also another N.Y. Regt. whose number I have not learned, is to be sent there shortly.
This will be my last letter from this place for the present, unless our orders should be countermanded which is not at all likely to be the fact in this case.
I have no news of any consequence to communicate to you this time, the expedition that is about to be sent out from this place has not sailed yet, it appears however to be a formidable one, and woe to the place it is to strike the blow of justice & the day for its maturity will not be far distant any-more [sic].
Our men are very healthy at present and in fact everything is getting along [finely?]. The paymaster has not yet made his appearance. The boys all look for him anxiously, as we are nearly all out of money. The last of this month will make us six month [sic] pay due. The weather is mostly cool here at present making it rather uncomfortable for us, as we have not made the necessary arrangements preparatory a cold spell, which is also necessary for a soldier to attend too [sic]. Must close now, for the present. Soon more.
Your dutiful Son,
John G. Helfrich
47th Regt. P.V.
To P. Helfrich & Family
22 March 1863
Fort Jefferson Tortugas, Fla. }
March 22nd 1863
Dear Brother [Reuben Helfrich],
I will herewith inform you how I am, and how we are getting along down here at this place of banishment or more proper punishment, as all the criminals and convicts of the army are sent here.
* Analysis: This phrase has been misinterpreted by several historians and genealogists over the years as indicating that the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry had been sent to Florida as a form of punishment for having performed poorly under fire or for committing some other type of inappropriate action; however, this interpretation is incorrect. The 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were repeatedly praised for their day-to-day military bearing and discipline at multiple duty stations during the regiment’s early years, as well as for their valor under fire in multiple military engagements in the months leading up to their orders to garrison Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Florida. Sgt. Helfrich was simply expressing his lack of enthusiasm to his brother (a fellow Union soldier serving with a different Pennsylvania regiment) for being assigned to guard Confederate sympathizers and soldiers, whose support for the Confederacy they both viewed as treasonous, and for having to perform this duty in an inhospitable environment far from the main theatres of the American Civil War.
If there is any such thing as being out of the world, I surely believe that we are, because there is but very little communication with the habitable world, and there is no such thing as getting news; while new, being always a couple weeks behind time.
But above all, we are getting along as well as circumstances will permit, very few, are on the sick report at present hoping it may continue so, during our entire stay at this lonesome place. I myself have I believe never enjoyed better health [than] at present. A slight Diarrhoeha is all our sickness at present, which I attribute to the water we drink.
We are now daily drilling heavy artillery tactics, and are getting ere long, quite proficent [sic] in manoeuvering [sic] these [sic] heavy death-dealing monsters—of which this fort when finished will mount upwards of 500 of the largest Calibre & latest improvements. The fort with its armament & the 47th Regt. for a garrison can safely be call[ed] a great stronghold and impregnable, in structure.
The “Band” and 4 companies of the Regt. are at Key West, and form the garrison of Fort Taylor. The 90th Regt. N.Y. Vols. are also there yet.
Messers. Phaon Guth, Edwin Hauser, H. Savitz, Alfred Diehl, Chas. Resh, & Sergt. M. Miller are I think the only ones here that you are acquainted with. They all belong to Comp “K”. All are well at present myself included. Hoping this may find you the same.
Remember me kindly to William H. Kuntz, Dr. Kern, J. Cornett, and all the rest of my acquaintances.
John Gross Helfrich
Co. “G” [sic] 47th Regt. P.V.
Fort Jefferson Fla.
To R. Helfrich
10 May 1863
Fort Jefferson Tortugas, Fla.
May 10th 1863
Yours of the 15th ult. is recd. From its contents I learned that you were then all enjoying the blissful hours of health and happiness. Such news are [sic] indeed gratifying to one sepperated [sic] from home and the society of parents and friends. I have just received a letter from brother Reuben. He writes as being well, and in expectation of taking an active part in the assault upon Charleston, S.C. Did I tell you in a previous letter, that I met & seen [sic] him at Beaufort, S.C. a few days before our leaving that place?
If my memory serves me right, I did.
Yesterday we again followed the remains of one of our companions in arms to their final resting place. His name is William Eberhard, he joined our company at its organization, was a quiet & exemplary young man, always ready to perform his duty manfully unless prevented by sickness to do so. He has been suffering from “Phthisis Pulmonalis” (Consumption) for the last six or eight month [sic], and all remedies that medicine, and friends, could devise were applied but to no apparent benefit. Consumption had selected him for one of its many victims. The usual military honors due his rank were paid at the Grave. A squad of eight men & a corporal fired the customary salute.
In a former letter I gave you a description of the fort and Island. You may perhaps wonder, as to how, as where we manage to bury our dead. This I will try to explain to you. The seas is interspersed in this locality with a great many small islands, commonly called Keys. From this number a very fine one called “Bird Key” has been selected as a burial place. It is about a mile and a quarter distant from the fort. Small boats serve the purpose of “Hearse” and small carriages for the conveyance of the corpse, and relatives and friends of the dead.
The sickly season is now fast approaching us, and perhaps ere many days or weeks pass by, the strong arm of an epidemic will swing the lash of chastizement [sic] over our heads. When many who have thus far been spared from the enemys [sic] bullets and sickness may fall victims to its horrible ravages. In order to meet such obstacles with firmness and [illegible], a man must know how to take care of the bodily machine, upon which the vitality of our fast decaying structure depends, and above that, and all, he must consider that he is a being possessed of body & soul, which according to the laws and ordinances of Almighty God must be once & forever happy, or forever miserable, according to his deeds & transactions through life.
We collectively as a regiment, have great reason to be thankful for the many favors and kind protection which has been so plentiously [sic] poured upon us, in the past, hoping, and trusting, that if it is [the will of Providence, that the same guardian angel may accompany us through the rest of this our earthly pilgrimage, and at the end of this horrible rebellion, he may bring us to our homes, within the circle of Parents, Brothers & Sisters, friends & kindred, once more to behold & enjoy their pleasant society.
Upon wishing for the speedy restoration of peace and tranquility, in our land, I do not wish to be understood, that I am at all tired of the war or that I regret having offered my services to the Government. Not at all! For my part I do not wish this war to come to a close before every rebel lays down his arms, and offers obedience to our laws & constitution, let it cost whatever it may, in time, treasure, & blood.
Upon our side as soldiers in the field, everything looks bright and encouraging, for our unfailing success, over the Southern rebels & Enemy of the Government. But the way things look north, I am afraid by the time we are through with the southern rebels and opposers of freedom, we must turn around and purge the north from the offscouring of humanity, that are ever since this war commenced, using every available influence in their power to cripple the efforts of nation and Government to subdue this wicked rebellion, which has now cost the life of thousands of its citizens rallied to support it.
By referring to our Allentown papers, we see almost weekly of peace meetings being held by a certain class of “cutthroats” who are daily giving aid and comfort to the enemy by poisoning the minds and feelings of the good citizens of the country, with all sorts of treasonable language against the Government, and President Lincoln, and by telling them to resist the “conscription act” that it was a war for the negro, and unconstitutional and they could not make them fight for such a cause. Another trick of theirs is that they go through the country, telling our heretofore lawabiding [sic] citizens not to pay their taxes. Now the best way to get rid of such traitors at home is to hang them at the first tree, if that course would be pursued I am confident it would have a salutary effect.
Must now close, by yet saying that I am well, hoping you are all enjoying the same.
I will remain as ever
Your dutiful Son
John G. Helfrich
Co. “G” 47th P.V.
Fort Jefferson Fla.
To Peter Helfrich & Family
P.S. Remember me kindly to all inquiring friends especially to my Grand Parents. The Pay master [sic] has not yet paid us a visit.
J. G. H.
14 September 1863
Fort Jefferson, Tortugas, Fla., Sept. 14th 1863
Yours ever welcome, and most favorite epistle of the 30th ult. has just reached me. It was indeed gratifying to me, to receive such pleasant and cheering news from the parental fireside, as many an anxious day & week has passed by, since the receipt of your last. It affords me special pleasure to see stated, that you were then all in the full enjoyment of health and happiness; which is indeed the richest and most perfect blessing that can be bestowed upon us ungrateful and unworthy beings. It likewise pleased me much to hear from your letter, that my aged grand parents [sic] were so well, and it is my wish, and hope, that they may continue so, respectively, until this their earthly pilgrimage is ended, which end, is awaiting us all sooner or later.
You say that you received no letter from me since the 16th of June last. The one I received from you just previous to this last, bore the date July 8th 163 [sic, 1863], and was promptly responded to by me. Can it be possible that it was lost? Or has it been detained at some one of the Post Offices? This latter assertion may be correct, as mail communication between us seems to be very irregular of late, on account of steamers not coming in to the warf [sic] at Key West during the sickly season, but take, and drop the mails at “Sand Key light house,” some 8 miles from the former place where I know that great delays have some times [sic] taken place.
I am glad to see stated that brother Reuben has arrived home safe. It is now also some time since I last heard from him by letter, having written to him repeatedly and received no answer. I hope that I may soon hear from him now, from home; stating at the same time wheather [sic] he has any desire to reenlist again, as I understood that a great many men from that Regiment would.
It has been very healthy at both this place, and Key West, thus far, not the slightest sign of Yellow fever, Cholera, or Small-pox have appeared yet, and I hope that if it is God’s wish, we again be spared from those dangerous and fatal deceases [sic], which are so likely to make their appearance during the Summer season, at thease [sic] places. We have at present but very few sick, and those to the best of my knowledge are not very dangerously ill, so that in a few days, they can again be about.
We have at present showers almost daily, which gives us plenty of rain water. The temperature of the hot air is thereby also made very pleasant. The “Band” has arrived at this place on Sunday the 6th inst. We were all very happy to see them. They intend to stay with us several months. All look hearty and seem to enjoy the best of health. They play extraordinary [sic] well, and indeed their preasants [sic] and sweet music aids much to enliven the lonesomeness of “Dry Tortugas.” All wish to be remembered to you, also to Brother Reuben, Messrs. Gross & others of their acquaintances whom you may chance to see.
Will you please inform me of the whereabouts of Mr. Milton R. Schaffer (Son of Nathan). I have written to him both to Wernersville Berks, Co. and Orefield Lehigh Co. and up to this date, have received no answer yet. If you see him, or Reuben may happen to see him occationally [sic], Please tell him the above facts.
Yesterday a schooner arrives [sic] from the north with commissary stores, and to day another arrived with 9 Head of beef cattle, a lot of sheep, Government stores, &c. This goes to show that “Uncle Sam” is not going to starve us, or has forgotten us the least. On the 4th inst. we spent the 2nd anniversary of the organization of our (“G) Company”, however, I did not join until the 11th of Sept. having left home the day previous. A little less than another year will bring our term of service to a close, but what will happen before that time arrives, God alone knows.
Let us hope for the best, All will be right. Remember me kindly to all inquiring friends & acquaintances. I will remain as ever your dutiful Son.
John G. Helfrich
Co. “G” 47th P.V.
To Peter Helfrich & Family
11 November 1863
* Note: This letter appears to be missing one or two pages.
Fort Jefferson, Tortugas, Fla.
Nov. 18th 1863
Yours of the 1st inst. came to hand several days ago. From the contents of which I learned that you were then all enjoying the blessings of good health. Your letter (as all previous letters did) contained much valuable information which proved to be of much interest to me, and moreover, gave satisfaction to the wish and desire to hear from home. My thoughts were, I confess pretty often directed homeward during the past three weeks….
I do not know whether I told you in my last that I had no intention or desire to re-enlist for the present. I will first try and serve out the time already agreed upon, before I enter upon a new contract with “Uncle Sam.” I shall come home as of enlistment is expired.
If at least, I am spared that long.
Remember me kindly to my “grand parents [sic].”
My best wishes and respect to you all.
In the meantime I remain as ever your dutiful son.
John G. Helfrich
Comp “G” 47th Regt. P.V.
Fort Jefferson Fla.
To P. Helfrich & Family