137 – The Civil War Letter

My mother had many eclectic interests, like books, cooking, gardening, sports, English language, and Italy. She also liked history and antiques. She had an eye for interesting and unique objects.

Growing up in Salina, Kansas, I remember accompanying my mom on visits to antique stores like Fink’s and Hindman’s. One of her interesting finds was a letter written by a Civil War soldier to his sister. She acquired it sometime in the early 1960s. I don’t know where.

We kids always called it “The Civil War Letter.” Over the years we would mention it occasionally.

The Civil War letter

After my mom died, the letter ended up with her papers in boxes and tubs in my basement. When I moved several years ago, I came across the letter. It’s now in a file folder in my desk, so I know where it is.

As I was writing about the Civil War in Indiana recently, I decided to re-read the Civil War letter. I was hoping it would offer some context and inspiration. And it did.

Dear Sister Beca

On September 24, 1862, Henry Elwell wrote to his sister Beca from his camp near Louisville.

Henry was in Louisville, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

Was there anything big going on in Louisville in late September 1862? Well, yes. Louisville was under threat of imminent attack.

With the Confederate army under Bragg preparing to attack Louisville, the citizens of Louisville panicked. On September 22, 1862, General Nelson issued an evacuation order: “The women and children of this city will prepare to leave the city without delay.”

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War
Evacuation from Louisville – Harper’s Weekly

By September 23, the city’s occupants anticipated an attack on Louisville within thirty-six hours.

A Border City at War: Louisville and the 1862 Confederate Invasion of Kentucky

Family news

As I continued to read, I began to wonder who Becca was, and sisters Lizzie and Mary. And why was Henry reporting to Becca on things at home? Why wouldn’t Becca know what was going on at home?

I realized that I was thinking about the letter differently than I had before. Who was Henry? Who were his sisters? What happened to them?

Who was Henry? Who were his sisters?

Why were Thomas Laswell and James Pickens at Henry’s parents’ house? My curiosity increased. I decided I’d try to find out about Henry and his family.

I started searching military units that were in Louisville in September 1862. Did Henry Elwell belong to any of those?

I got lucky. Henry Elwell was part of Company I of the 80th Illinois Infantry. The 80th had been organized in Centralia, Illinois and mustered into service on August 25, 1862. It was ordered to Louisville on September 4.

Henry was from Washington County, Illinois. He’d been in service for one month when he wrote to Becca.

Here’s Henry’s family in the 1860 census, just two years before his letter was written:

1860 Census – Henry Elwell and family

In 1860, Henry was age 17, Becca 19. Sister Mary was 12. Lizzie must be a nickname for Sarah, 7, or Martha, 6. Henry’s father is John C. Elwell, age 53. No mother is listed.

There’s no mention of Thomas Laswell or James Pickens, but there is a farm laborer Thomas Carrick.

Henry Elwell was born September 20, 1842 in Washington County, Illinois. His letter to Becca was written four days after his 20th birthday.

News from the front

Fake news! Henry was getting false reports. I thought his letter referred to Richmond, Virginia. But instead the Confederate army defeated the Union army at the battle of Richmond, Kentucky just a few weeks earlier.

On August 28, Bragg’s army moved west. At the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, Smith’s Confederate forces defeated Union General William “Bull” Nelson’s troops, capturing the entire force. This left Kentucky with no Union support.

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War

Preparing for the attack

On September 24, the day Henry wrote his letter, an attack was imminent.

Excitement in the city continued to run high. A dispatch dated September 24 read: “An attack expected to-night or to-morrow. Buell close upon enemy’s rear. Pontoon bridge being built to move over if necessary.”

A Border City at War: Louisville and the 1862 Confederate Invasion of Kentucky

Troops, volunteers and impressed labor worked around the clock to build a ring of breastworks and entrenchments around the city. 

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War

The Rebels are coming

Confederate General Bragg was marching, with Union General Buell in hot pursuit.

On that day, the Louisville Evening Bulletin stated, “Our present information is that Bragg, with his whole force, is marching rapidly upon Louisville, followed rapidly by Buell at a distance of several hours.”

A Border City at War: Louisville and the 1862 Confederate Invasion of Kentucky

Buell pressed his troops, and they arrived in Louisville just before Bragg’s forces.

Buell’s Army arrives in Louisville September 25, 1862 – Harper’s Weekly

The Union Army arrived in time to prevent the Confederate seizure of the city. On September 25, Buell’s tired and hungry men arrived in the city.

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War

A soldier’s lot

A Federal Soldier

A soldier in the Union army was most likely a slim young man a little over 5’8” tall with brown hair and blue eyes. He was probably a farmer and a Christian. 

Common viruses and infections included typhoid fever, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, pox (both small and chicken), scarlet fever, measles, mumps and whooping cough.

Camp provided a soldier’s first test of survival, especially for men from rural precincts. Verdant pastures became a muddy mess in no time under the feet of thousands of soldiers and horses. With little understanding of sanitation, camps were notoriously nasty abodes; lice were rampant, and dysentery, often caused by impure drinking water, killed more men than enemy bullets.

Once enlisted and encamped, a recruit soon learned that his time was no longer his own. Day and night, he was under orders, a shift that required constant practice and discipline.

Life of the Civil War Soldier in the Army

The 80th Illinois Infantry

Henry writes Becca that he’s a private in a regiment of infantry. That regiment was the 80th Illinois Infantry.

80th Illinois recruiting flag

The 80th was organized at Centralia, Illinois, and mustered in on August 25, 1862. Henry had enlisted on August 1, for a term of three years. He was just one month into his term.

After stopping Bragg’s attack on Louisville, the 80th Illinois pursued the Confederate army south through Kentucky and into Tennessee.

On October 1, the Union army marched out of Louisville with sixty thousand men.

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War

This army was under the command of General Buell. The 80th Illinois was part of this force.

On October 8, 1862, Buell and Bragg fought at Perryville, Kentucky. Bragg’s 16,000 men attacked Buell’s 60,000 men. Federal forces suffered 845 dead, 2,851 wounded and 515 missing, while the Confederate toll was 3,396.

Bragg decided to leave Kentucky and head for Tennessee.

Louisville, Kentucky in the American Civil War

Buell’s army pursued. The 80th was again in combat in Tennessee on January 21, 1863.

March 20, the Brigade of 1,500 men and two pieces of artillery, while on a scout, was attacked by John Morgan and 5,000 of the enemy; but they were repulsed, with heavy loss.

80th Illinois Infantry Regiment History

Confederate John Hunt Morgan is the infamous leader of Morgan’s Raid into Indiana and Ohio in 1863.

Henry will visit Becca

Why does Henry wonder if Becca will live to the end of the war? Was her sickness serious, or was she in some kind of danger?

Whatever the case, Henry promised to come and see her.

Henry’s prophecy

Henry’s words were prophetic.

Henry was last in combat against John Hunt Morgan’s troops on March 20.

Maybe Henry was injured or wounded in that action. Or maybe Henry had an accident or contracted a disease.

Henry Elwell died on April 11, 1863. He was in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 20 years old.

Henry’s body was returned to his family, and buried in Masonic Cemetery, Nashville, Washington County, Illinois.

The rest of the story

Henry was gone, but Becca kept his letter. What happened to her? What happened to sisters Mary and Lizzie?

Rebecca Elwell

Rebecca Sawyer Elwell was born July 28, 1840 on a farm south of Nashville, Washington County, Illinois. Her parents were John Craft and Amanda Tabitha Elwell.

On April 2, 1862, Rebecca married Hugh Morrison, a local teacher. A month later the couple moved to Salina, Kansas.

Henry had written his letter to Becca in Kansas. That’s why he included news of their family in Illinois.

Hugh Morrison

Hugh Hiel Morrison was born August 6, 1836 on a farm in near Rising Sun, Ohio County, Indiana.

Ed. Note: Rising Sun is where Joseph and Martha Jarvis and some of their children lived in the 1880s. Small world.

Hugh’s father was Rev. A.A. Morrison. His mother was Nancy Beaty Morrison.

Ed. Note: Newton Jarvis married Sarah Beaty near Rising Sun, Indiana in 1879. Small world.

In 1859, Hugh Morrison had gone west to the Territory of Kansas, settling in Saline County. He was one of the first residents of the town of Salina, Kansas.

In late 1861, Hugh moved to Nashville, Illinois for a one-year job as a schoolteacher. It was there that he met and married Rebecca Sawyer Elwell.

In May 1862, shortly after they married, Hugh and Rebecca moved back to Salina, Kansas. There they made their lifelong home. They were among the earliest residents.

The Morrisons claimed a farm on the southwest edge of Salina, which soon became enveloped in the growing town. Their land extends west of Ninth Street between Iron and Crawford Streets. It became the Morrison Addition to the town of Salina. The Morrison house was at 514 South Ninth Street.

Hugh’s sister Nancy married Robert Crawford, who claimed an adjacent farm. Crawford Street is named after them.

Hugh Morrison taught the first public school in Salina. He was a member of the Kansas State Militia during the Civil War and served on the Kansas frontier against Indian raids.

Hugh and Rebecca Morrison – Rolfe Studio – Salina, Kansas – ca. 1905

What about Mary and Lizzie?

Becca’s sister Mary Mahala Elwell married Richard Husband, and moved to Salina, Kansas sometime before 1870. They raised a family and lived in Salina for the remainder of their lives.

I don’t know about sister Lizzie.

What happened to the letter?

Rebecca Elwell Morrison died July 15, 1910. Hugh Morrison died May 28, 1917.

They left numerous children. In 1960, their daughter Myra Etta Morrison died. She was the last of their immediate family in Salina. She lived in the Morrison family home that had been there for ninety years.

Obituary of Myra Etta Morrison – Salina Journal – December 6, 1960

I assume that the Civil War letter was among the trove of documents left in the Morrison house when Myra Morrison died.

Sometime after 1960, my mom Mary Jarvis was browsing a Salina antique store. She undoubtedly knew the Morrison family, as she had lived in Salina since she was born there in 1921.

It’s now been 60 years since Mary Jarvis found a 100-year-old treasure in a Salina antique store.

And almost 160 years since Henry Elwell wrote his sister Becca. 160 years since Becca and Hugh Morrison moved west to Salina. Today I feel like we know them a little bit.

It’s a long way from a Union army camp in Louisville, Kentucky on September 24, 1862. A long time since Henry promised to visit Becca.

Rest in peace, Henry.


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