“The woods were set on fire by the bursting shells, and the conflagration raged.”
—General Ulysses S. Grant
Aug. 28, 1862, Gouverneur, N.Y.
Dearest Mother and Father:
Well I don’t want to cause you no distress at this time, but I feel compelled to take up arms with my fellow countrymen from St. Lawrence County in the cause of the Southern Rebellion. I draw my inspiration from the brave men of the 106th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who left Ogdensburg this very day for the long march into Secessionist territory. I have made my way to the recruiting station in Gouverneur alongside my dear friend, Amasa Aldrich. Do not fret and fear for my safety as I will take every caution possible and Aldrich and me will look after each other for as long as this affair should persist. I expect to return home before Spring.
From your son, John Ducharme
“Writin’ home already, John? We haven’t even signed the papers yet,” Aldrich exclaimed.
“Just want to let them know how I get by. Shoot, we’ll be home fore the winter snow melts, anyhow.”
“I have some questions for you, son,” the surgeon asked, “name, age, occupation, year born in.”
“John Ducharme, 24 years of age, farmhand, in the year of our lord 18-hundred-and-38.”
“Have you ever had fits? Are you subject to the piles? Are you in the habit of drinking? Have you ever had the “horrors”? Have you ever been sick?”
“No, sir. None of those.”
“That’s fine, son. Write out your name on this Volunteer Enlistment, then.”
“I saw that the surgeon wrote your name as John Durham on the roster,” Aldrich noted. “That you now?”
“Suppose it is. Suppose it is.”
“And that thirteen dollars a month sure will be a welcome compensation, won’t it, err, Private Durham!” Aldrich added.
Sep. 15, 1862, Utica, N.Y.
Dear Mother and Father:
Me and Aldrich are now part of the Army of the Potomac on our way to put down the Rebellion. We had ourselves a vote and Aldrich was elected our Sergeant. Our Captain is Thomas Osborn, a lawyer from Watertown and we are part of Battery D of the First Regiment, New York Light Artillery. Me and Aldrich have boarded a train set for Utica, and from there we make our way into Rebel territory with a stop in Washington City.
Your son, John Durham
Sep. 25, 1863, Washington
My Dear Mother:
I am much grieved by the news of Father’s passing this Spring. I am doubly grieved to report that Aldrich was gravely wounded this July at Warrenton, Virginia, fighting with valor with the Excelsior Brigade and General Spinola. By now, he has returned to Gouverneur to begin his convalescing. Do not look grimly upon his countenance as he would not want for anyone to pity him the loss of his leg. He gave of it freely in the fight to keep our Union together. As for myself, I suffer fearful bouts of digestive discomfort and lesions upon my skin that no remedy can heal. I have been subsisting on hardtack, or as we call them “worm castles” for all the maggots that infest them. We are to march down into Virginia, sure to see more action as the Secessionists have not yet come to bear. I do fear my three-year commitment will be extended should Mr. Lincoln not find a way to put a quick end to this.
Private John Durham
February 1864, Culpeper, Virginia
Well it is winter in Virginia now, where I find myself. I am encamped as part of General Meade’s force and right across the Rapidan River—would you believe— is the leader of the Secessionist Army, R.E. Lee, himself. There ain’t much to do in camp. We while away our days writing letters, having snowball fights and we even staged a dance in which half the men portrayed themselves as ladies. What a sight to behold!
“This was the most cheerful winter we have passed in camp,” Essex County surgeon George Stevens remarked after reading my letter.
“Cheerful, Doc, but dang boring,” I replied.
Battle of the Wilderness. Orange County, Virginia
May 1864, Orange County, Virginia
Been nearly two years now since I left Gouverneur that late August day. I find myself in thick underbrush and dense forest somewhere in the middle of Virginia. Only early in May and it feels like one of them hot summer days back home with ticks and flies thrown in for good measure. If the weather don’t kill us, the food just might. In addition to our ration of worm castles, the Army seems fit to feed us some sort of desecrated vegetables, made of corn husk and tomato skins and boiled into bricks. A couple of us took our rifles and made our way down to the banks of the Rapidan River, a few miles from our camp. There, we were able to bathe, fill our canteens and hunt. We got us some deer, rabbit and even one fox, all of which we’ll bring back to camp to feast on while we pass the time writing letters and playing dominoes. We hear word that we’ll be moving out soon and that General Grant himself will be here.
From your son, Private John Durham
“Let’s see what you have in your haversack,” old man Jellett demanded. Frank Wilkeson, a new recruit from down in Buffalo, and I opened our sacks for inspection. “You need to lighten your sack. Keep only three pairs of socks and underclothes, your tobacco, your shoes and a blanket. Cook yourself three day’s rations and prepare 50 rounds of ammunition. We’re about to come face-to-face with Bobby Lee, the King of Spades, himself. Be sure to fill your canteen at every stream, don’t wash your feet until the end of the march, cut haversacks from dead men and don’t burn the camp—we may need it again before the snow flies.”
We found ourselves camped upon the battlefield of Chancellorsville, fought only one year past. We lit our pipes and wandered about the campsite finding many a shallow grave of the fallen from that. What has been achieved? What has their loss won for their cause?
“Thursday morning in May,” I said to nobody in particular. “It’s as hot and humid as a St. Lawrence summer day.”
“Very hot. Both men and animals suffer much,” England-born Josiah Favill, from Brooklyn, replied.
“We’re about to engage the enemy in the hot fields of Virginia and I fear nothing,” I declared to the dusty sky above.
The battle raged across the open fields and dense woods of the Virginia Wilderness. The heat and humidity made more oppressive by the firing of artillery. Smoke filled the air; grass and trees burst ablaze. The screams of the men, both Federal and Confederate, could be heard but they could not be seen through the black haze.
“The woods are full of smoke, in many places on fire, and nothing can be seen for twenty yards ahead,” Favill noted.
“It’s getting dark, but I fear the fire will engulf us,” I remarked.
“Sleep will not come tonight, for sure,” I surmised to Favill.
Truly, it had not. It was but 5:00 in the morning and we were on the attack. Friday morning was even hotter than the day previous. Our attack on the Secessionist General Ewell’s forces proved fruitless and we were forced to return to our original position and dig in. We lost many a man in our failed efforts. We chased the rebels through the dense forest and found ourselves stepping over the bodies of the fallen—both Union and Secessionist. We took what we could from those who could no longer protest, as old man Jellett had commanded. Robbing from the dead to feed our bellies. As evening fell, the fighting subsided but the air was heavy with smoke, heat and humidity. The stench hung over us like a death shroud.
May 6, 1864, Hell
My Dearest Mother:
I believe I am dead from a mortal wound, yet do not know it, as I find myself in the very center of Hell.
It is Friday night and all about me is a scene of horror. The wind howls through the wood and mingles with the moans of suffering. The forest glows orange with fire and the dead roast in a pyre of their own making. Hell itself has usurped its place on Earth.
I forget now why I am even here. I envy my good friend Aldrich. To lose one’s leg in exchange for surviving the burning flames of Hell would be no sacrifice, indeed. We received word that General Grant has ordered us to disengage the enemy. This was something new, but under the leadership of General Warren, we are to move onto Spotsylvania Courthouse at around 9:00 this eve.
As we began our move south, we threw our hats in the air and cheered: “On to Richmond!” I do not know whether it was that we won this battle or lost. I do not know when this madness will end. I will follow my orders and march onto Spotsylvania Courthouse, where I will, once again, hear the screams of the fallen and smell the acrid air of their burning flesh. Oh, to be fishing Black Lake again, oh, to stroll the streets Gouverneur once more.
Your son, Johnny
May 30, 1865, Elmira, N.Y.
Dearest Aunt Ruth:
My heart aches at the sudden passing of Mother. Coming so soon after the loss of Father and that of so many of my comrades, I feel I can bear it no longer. I write to you now to inform you that I have mustered out of the Army of the Potomac. It has ended. I was in Washington City last week, where we put on a spectacle for the generals declaring our victory. I would have enjoyed it more had Mr. Lincoln been in attendance. Alas, he became a casualty himself only some weeks ago. What I thought would be a few months’ time marching thru the South and returning to Gouverneur a war hero has proved to be three year’s realization that man’s inhumanity knows no bounds. I am returning home to St. Lawrence County on Friday next having lost more than a leg as my good friend Aldrich has. I have lost my soul. I shall return with my carbine and my sabre, for which I had to pay the sum of nine dollars. The Army was kind enough to allow me to keep my haversack and canteen at no cost. My reward for returning home whole.
Yours truly, Private John Durham (ret.)
July 2, 1888, Gettysburg, Penna.
In this wheat field in southern Pennsylvania, you will find forever a remembrance of the deeds of thousands who struggled to keep our Union as one. Now, I am reduced to a block of granite upon which is written: “This battery held its position.” At Gettysburg, at Cold Harbor, at Petersburg, at Spotsylvania— at the Wilderness—we held our position. We kept this Union together. 4,500 men out of 400,000 from New York fought their last battle in the forest of Virginia, May of 1864 at the Wilderness. It will not be the last.
Respectfully, Private John Ducharme, United States Army, Battery D, First Regiment, New York Light Artillery
Author's note: John Ducharme was a real person. He was the great-grandfather of someone I know from Gouverneur, New York. After moving to Canton, to work at St. Lawrence University, I saw an ad for a historical writing contest in the local newspaper. This was my submission.
I knew a little about Ducharme, but researched his life, and the civil war connection to St. Lawrence County. Much to my surprise, Ducharme apparently served the Union Army at the Battle of the Wilderness in Orange County, Virginia, May 1864.
What makes this connection so relevant to me is that, for 11 years, I lived directly adjacent to the Wilderness Battlefield in Lake of the Woods. It is certainly possible that John Ducharme walked the very same earth I did so often in my own backyard. This is the anniversary of the Battle, and every year I would go out in the backyard, stare into the Battlefield and think "how in the hell did they do it? How did they march through those woods, forage for food, carry all that stuff, all the while being shot at? It amazes me to this day. And, to think, there is a direct connection between my old backyard—and my new. St. Lawrence County, New York and Orange County, Virginia. Linked in so many ways.
Pvt. John Ducharme: Thank you for your service.