What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?
To write secretly on a pocket Handkerchief.- Dissolve alum in pure water, and write upon a fine white handkerchief, which, when dry will not be seen at all. But when you would have the letters visible, dip the handkerchief in pure water, and it will be of a wet appearance all over, except where it was written on with the alum water.
As far as I know, my great -grandfather never wrote a secret letter to anyone during the Civil War, but he did record his thoughts in his small pocket journal. For all five years he was involved.
One of the most dramatic was at the Battle of Gettysburg, an important turning point in the struggle and most revered. But you’d never know it from his comments. They seem so calm. Here is what he writes:
Wednesday July 1st
Had orders to move at 8 AM. Proceeded on the road to Gettysburgh–soon heard cannonading in that direction and on arrival found a part of our corps engaging the enemy, about 20,000 strong. A severe engagement followed. Our forces were driven back by superior numbers.
Thursday July 2nd
The Rebs hold the town with many prisoners and all the wounded. Have had a busy day in the hospital, that of the 2nd Dev. containing about 300 wounded. Am now in the Rebels clutches as they surround the town.
Friday, July 3rd
Passed over the battle ground of the 1st to look after the wounded. Found a great number. Spent the day among the Rebels. This has been the hardest day’s fighting. The cannonading was terrific.
Saturday, July 4th
This morning the citizens and prisoners of Gettysburgh were greeted with the welcome news that the Rebels had left town. Soon our skirmishers made their appearance and all seemed to feel greatly relieved. There has been no fighting today. Went to the hospital on the Baltimore pike.
Sunday, July 5th
Spent the day at Div. Hospital. News this morning that the Rebs have retreated. Many wounded Rebs came in today. Were ordered to follow the corps this evening. Rode till after dark then went to Mr Fahnertoes and spent the night.
I’ve read these entries since a girl. We were never sure what “Am now in the Rebels clutches as they surround the town” meant.
A couple of years ago, I contacted the historian at Gettysburg National Park and he wrote:
” Your great grandfather was indeed an assistant surgeon with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and was, for a few days, a prisoner under Confederate guard during the Battle of Gettysburg.
The 11th Pennsylvania, part of the Union First Corps, was involved in the fighting northwest of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Once the battle had commenced, temporary field hospitals were established in Gettysburg, the first being in churches and other public buildings. According to our records, most of the surgeons from the Second Division of the First Corps set up in Christ Lutheran Church on Chambersburg Street, where they treated wounded soldiers throughout the night and during the ensuing days of battle. It was on the steps of this church that Chaplain Horatio Howell of the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry was shot and killed by Confederate soldiers, a scene witnessed by your great grandfather. The town fell to control of the Confederate “Army of Northern Virginia” on July 1 when the Union forces retreated through Gettysburg and established a strong position on Cemetery Hill south of town. The southern forces withdrew from Gettysburg overnight of July 4-5 after which the many hospitals there fell back into control of the Union Army.”
History is so close sometimes.
So I’ll remember WF Osborn, a civilian who went to school in Chicago to become a doctor and eventually became a full surgeon in the Union Army. A native of Fair Chance, Pennsylvania, how did he feel about the battle and his capture 146 years ago today?
The letters are still around, but 50 years later he wrote from Gettysburg:
“July 3, 1913—My Dear Wife: Barring our honeymoon trip I am having the time of my life. Fifty years ago, three hours earlier, I was engaged in battle on Seminary Ridge. Now both sides are in smiles. Three cheers for a united country.
This July 4th, three cheers.