Saving history, one letter at a time…
These letters were written by Selwyn Eugene Bickford (1833-1887), a 29 year-old resident of Lowell, Massachusetts, when he enlisted on August 26, 1862, as a 1st lieutenant, and was commissioned into Co. G, 6th Massachusetts Infantry. He was mustered out of service on June 3, 1863. In July 1863, Lt. Bickford was mustered back into the service and employed as a clerk at Fortress Monroe in Virginia where he reported to Capt. Charles Baker Wilder, Asst. Quartermaster and Superintendent of Contrabands. His fighting days behind him, Lt. Bickford became an astute observer of the war and devoted his extracurricular activities to enjoying civilian society and identifying business opportunities in the south. After the war, Bickford settled in Hampton, Virginia, and engaged in the dry goods and furniture business.
Selwyn was the son of James Bickford (1793-18xx) and Millie B. Holbrook (1799-18xx). As a young man, Selwyn worked as a clerk for Selwyn Bancroft, a West India Goods merchant in Lowell. He also attended Phillips Academy in Lowell in the mid-1850s and was married in 1857 to Harriet A. Kittredge (1833-18xx) whom he divorced. Years later he married Caroline Matilda Van Allen (1842-1914).
Lt. Bickford wrote the letters to his friend, William Henry Anderson (1836-1902) — a lawyer who resided in the boarding house of Nancy P. (Wood) Giles, the widow of Joseph B. Giles, at 51 East Merrimac Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. Anderson was a partner with George Stevens (1824-Aft1880) in the firm of Stevens and Anderson located in Barrister’s Hall at he corner of Central and Merrimac. Anderson was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire, the son of Francis D. Anderson. He graduated from Yale in 1859. After a brief residence in Natchez and New Orleans where he found employment as a private tutor, Anderson came to Lowell and was admitted to the bar in 1862 and practiced law with George Stevens. In October 1864, he married Mary Hine (1840-Aft1902) of Springfield, Massachusetts.
The second letter was written upon hearing of the failed attempt by Union troops and cavalry to cross the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford, Raccoon Ford, and Robertson’s Ford. The objective was to threaten the defenses of Richmond and distract the Confederate army sufficiently to allow for a cavalry raid into Richmond that would liberate prisoners held at Libby Prison and Belle Island. Unfortunately Ewell’s men thwarted the crossings and the Union troops turned back.
The third letter was written just as General Benjamin F. Butler was launching his May 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign which turned out to be an abject failure. Lt. Bickford had high hopes for the campaign and for the success of Gen. Butler whom he respected. Butler’s mother operated a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts — most of her boarders laboring in the textile mills. After attending Waterville (now Colby) College, Butler returned to Lowell, read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1840. He practiced law in Lowell for many years where he got involved in politics, becoming a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. He had strong ambitions to rise to the Presidency and Lt. Bickford suggests in this letter that if only he might have a successful campaign and take Richmond, the prize might be his.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Fortress Monroe, Virginia
Sunday, August 16, 1863
My Dear Friend Anderson,
I acknowledge the receipt of yours of the second inst. and wished it was much longer. It seems from your communication that Mr. Oldham had not at that writing paid that heed to your epistle that I supposed he would, but he may, ere this, have found that strait and pleasant path leading to your office. I must confess that I was somewhat astonished that Keyes should have condescended to play so mean and knavish a trick upon you. I should be very strongly tempted, if I were you, to show him up if occasion should offer, and indeed to make one, if none soon presented itself. By the way, if whose gift is the place that you want? It would provoke anyone to see $600 for 6 mo. clip away in that manner.
I see by the [Lowell] Journal that George P. Lawrence has been appointed a Pay Master in the army. Was it some of More’s engineering that did it for him? I received the Auditor’s report in due time, and thank you for your promptness in attending to my wants. I visited Mr. Bickford the Monday after the 4th — the day that I left Lowell. I staid just twenty-two minutes by my watch. The call was on a matter of business and was conducted with as much formality as would have been the case had we never met before. No expressions of regard, or remark, or hint about our peculiar position were indulged in by either party, yet from it (the call), I have heard both by letter and conversation that matters are looking towards a “reconstruction of the Union.” As before, I think the less said about the matter, the better. I am willing that you should know all about it, but would rather you would say as little as possible — and that, you know well how to do — whenever inquiries are made of you. No arrangement has been made between her and me, nor have I in the least changed my decision since the day we separated. I took the step advisedly, and though the trial has been and is a very hard one, I have not for an instant regretted it. I heard more about my domestic affairs the four weeks I spent in Lowell, last June, than I ever did before put together.
I think that Mr. Chase and his wife, and Mr. Sargent at Burbank Chase & Co.’s have not always shown the kindest disposition towards me. Mr. Chase told Martin when he was at home two weeks ago that “I was smart enough, but that I had too much to do with the women — that women were killing me. Pleasant death enough, chum, but really, I do not think it was proper of him to say the above. Of course, I’ve to take things as they come, but I get mad very often at what I hear. Because I’ve always done as I pleased, without taking advice of people that would like to give it, is why certain ones bother me. But never mind. Please post me up a little when you can handily.
What have you done or what do you intend to do for a vacation this summer? As I sit at my table here from morning till night, I very often think of you at yours. I never was the victim of quite so confined a life before. Today commences the second moth. As I told you when we parted, I intended to drive for the chief clerkship here. Well, I have as good as got it. The old clerk, who was a soldier as well as an Irishman, and also now proprietor of sundry lumber establishments in Pennsylvania, has got a gang of negroes in the woods about three miles from here, and is busy getting out ship timber. It is the policy of the Government to get all that is possible from the abandoned farms and plantations in this vicinity and Capt. [Charles Baker] Wilder has the supervision of the doing it. This brand — lumbering — is just beginning to attract attention and bids fair to be very profitable. So Mr. Haffey — the clerk — will probably have $100 per month and attend to it. This business commenced last Monday morning. Ever since I came here, I’ve had the control of all the “books and papers” and Friday the cash was handed me and I was told to take care of that. The affairs are complicated from having to do with so many missionary societies, and different individuals who send donations of money, tools, clothing &c. to this Department, and expect to have it applied to such uses as they dictate. So an account has to be kept of the whole matter.
Well, while affairs progress so swimmingly on that side of the question, the other has its phases. In the first place the question of salary is pending and its settlement may send me “kiting.” The life which I shall have to live here is anything but attractive. No society and none of the common luxuries which everyone has in New England. Three of us occupy a room about seven feet wide and ten long, sleeping in berths placed on the side, as in a steamer. A pine unpainted table is all the furniture we indulge in, for with our trunk there is no room. We are not far from the water and two windows in the room give us considerable air or we could not live here this hot weather. In the office, I have a very good room, and the sun does not come into it.
Rising at 6½, breakfast at 7, and then I go into it, for the room and office are in one building, and stay till about one when dinner, back again, and supper at 6. In the evening I take a sail or a bath and read awhile and then to bed. The countersign is out at nine and after that no one is allowed at large. Now you see I am not intending to lead any such kind of life as this unless I am well paid for it, and then only for a short time — say 6 months or a year.
Well, the captain is a tall, grey-headed man, skin[ny] as a sapling, and as stiff as a mackerel — good companions, both those — and family imbued with the idea that he, and he only, can accomplish anything. He speaks cross and sharp always, and has a little of the “____ in mode” as any person that I ever had anything to do with. I’ve nearly had a settoo with him already for snapping at me, for nothing riles me up as quick, and if I stay here, shall certainly object to the style. Now you see, my stay here will all depend upon the question of pay. I am going in for a good price, if he give it me, well and good. If he does not consent, I shall depart hence immediately. The business will be determined this week.
The bustle and activity of this place has in a great measure departed since active operations commenced at Charleston. Now there are only about three thousand troops in the “Department of Virginia” when a year ago there was two hundred thousand. Almost every day there are troops stop here on their way south. I’ve seen three regiments of colored troops here within the last ten days. If you wish for a commission in one of those, I can put you in a fair way of getting one. But from what I have seen, I judge that the standard of culture &c. is even less among these troops than the white volunteers. The fat that you are commissioned in the Regular Army is the greatest inducement offered by that branch of the service, which is more than counterbalanced by the fact that most of the officers very soon after being commissioned are detailed for duty in the “army spiritual” by rebel bullets or barbarities. If you still feel inclined to serve your country, I will unite with you and try and raise a Light Battery.
If I leave here, I think I shall go to Washington and prospect a week or two. It seems that John Barnum has done himself a good thing at last. I had a letter from him a day or two ago telling me of his good fortune. I do not know as I can write any more at present. I hope I may hear from you soon. If I leave here, I will write you immediately.
Please keep rather still about my movements. Do you visit Mrs. Tucker as much as usual? Please remember me to them.
Very truly yours, — Selwyn E. Bickford
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
Fortress Monroe, Va.
February 9, 1864
My Dear Friend,
Your last with the releases came promptly to hand, and if there is anything that gives me satisfaction, it is that very same promptness for which you are so remarkable. I sent them on their way immediately and ‘ere this, they have given satisfaction, or the reverse.
It is now some time since I have written you in the old fashioned style, and many things have happened meanwhile. I heard with much pain and regret that you were in very poor health again, by way of Lt. Coburn, who is quite neighborly, calling into the office for a social chat two or three times a week. He got his news from Miss Lawson, I presume. Your letters confirm the news, and if it continues, I should advise a change of climate, or something to break up the “chills & fever” which are your torment. It would be only necessary for you to say the word and produce your documents, for General [Benjamin F.] Butler to take good care of you, and I have the faith that he would place you in a position where you would make quite as much money as you do in your present location. I am daily astonished at the quantity and quality of the Lowell people who come here for business. They are, as a general thing, those whom, when I was a resident of the place, I used to think were fixtures there. Business men and men of means. To be sure, there is a smart sprinkling of boys who come to wield the pen, thinking that it is a smart thing to be a clerk at a distance from home and hoping that the halo around the head of our Commanding General may shed some radiance on their lives, and who willingly put up with poor quarters and scant meals for the sake of the privilege. But these form only a tithe of the swarm that come here.
There is avast field here for them to work in, and much money can be made here. Some ladies begin to come here and I have had one call upon me, which I am exceedingly proud of. Mrs. Billings and her John came in to see me a few minutes on Sunday. Yesterday Capt. Weymouth called, and Mr. Stone of the “Courier.” I am making as much at home as I can with my conveniences, while he stays at the Point. I never knew much about him at home, but he appears like a very fair sort of a man. Charles Kimball came out here and went home again. I offered him by permission of the Captain $75 per month and his board. He had a rough time coming out here and arrived in a nasty driving snowstorm and was, I think, disgusted with the place. With his family, permanency of a situation, was very much to be desired, and that, in this business I could not assure him, and he decided to return. So much for him.
Now that the matter is blown, I have to say that it was on the Mayor’s assurance to him that I was told that Keyes was not to have the “State Aid” another year. It was to be offered to Kimball and was held out as an inducement for him to remain in Lowell. How the matter was finally arranged, I do not know. I felt rather cheap to have him come out here at my instigation and then about face and go home. But the situation that I offered him was here and ready for him just as stated, and all the inducements that were held out to him when he started were the same when he arrived.
I have got my office fixed now so that it is good enough and I am not ashamed to have anybody come into it and have had a bully office desk made just according to my taste. The first of January the Captain told me he would pay me a hundred dollars per month and my board, without my even insinuating that I wanted it. He knew very well, however, that I could have a commission for the asking and I think he did it to head me off. But for all this success, I don’t like the job very well, and you need not be surprised to hear that I am out of it. I am tied to the desk from early in the morning until late at night, and it is very tedious. The pay is not any object. I wish to be my own master a little more. I do not dare to think of going to Washington at present, but should be extremely glad to have you come here. You could pass a week or ten days here quite profitably. If things go along well, perhaps I can get away by the 1st of April.
We have been very much interested for the past two days in the success of the reconnaissance toward Richmond by our troops at Yorktown. A large force — say twelve thousand — has been pushed as near there as possible. The thing has been managed very quietly and I presume that few Northern people dream of it. The object was if possible to dash into Richmond, liberate the prisoners, do all the damage possible, and return. They have not been successful. The rebels got knowledge of the affairs and were prepared. That game cannot be tried again at present. I do not see but what we shall have plenty of work in the field next summer.
Things about here look like business. Recruiting among the Negroes goes on brisk. Officers, however, are not very plenty. The Second Cavalry now encamped at Camp Hamilton is short of ten or twelve [officers]. A nice chance for aspirants for military glory. Gen. Butler reviewed the First and Second [Colored Troops Cavalry] Regiments last Sunday. I was over and saw it. The troops looked well for new ones. Lieut. Coburn and Spaulding were very energetic in their efforts to have the affair a credit to their Corps.
I heard that the City Hotel people had a “hop” Christmas Eve with Mr. Reed for Floor Manager. Was that so? And how is Alice now that she has returned from Boston? Please give her my compliments. John Kimball is clerk in the Adjutant General’s Office, inside the Fort, and boards at the Post Office. Has $75 per mo. I am told.
Are you acquainted with a fellow by the name of Bennet who is the General’s private secretary? How is Mrs. Holbrook and Watson, nowadays? Has she “cooked out” that diamond ring yet? There will be no lack of interest on your part, I presume, in the case of Kate Zymends and others. Can’t you give me particulars? How often do you go to Boston?
Feb 10, 1864
I paused here yesterday, being interrupted, and can’t now add any more for business presses. I saw A. R. Brown at the Adj. Ben’s Office this A.M. I wish to hear from you as soon as possible.
Yours truly, — Selwyn E. Bickford
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
Fortress Monroe, Virginia
May 10th 1864
My Dear Anderson,
Your last letter of the 4th inst. reached me yesterday and I hasten to reply. As usual, I found it full of good things, and when I finished it I felt almost as if I had paid Lowell a visit. Your “local” [news] in very interesting, and far ahead of the Courier and News. To be sure, the “City Hotel” is a mine, well repaying the working, by almost any one, and when a superior artist like yourself opens that store of richness, the developments well repay attention. One thing that makes it interesting to me is that it retains so many of my acquaintances. How well Mrs. Giles’ boarders stick to her. Certainly the “festive board” — unless there has been a late marked improvement — cannot be the reason for this adhesion. What is it? The desirable location or the attractiveness of its female boarders? I acknowledge the latter; what overpowers you?
I was very glad to know that Alice [M. Wheeler] proposes to be a maiden awhile longer for of course matrimony is so uncomfortable in the summer months, if one has a proper regard for its duties. She is a woman of discretion. The report was sent to me as official, that she was to be immediately married, and I hardly expect to ever see her again as Miss Alice, even if she now has indefinite notions of her wedding day. How does she look now? Is she as smart, and good looking as she was when I was at home?
So Bowles and Josie [Giles] are still together, are they. Pray, what do you think of their attachment? I always liked Bowles better than you did, but for all our intimacy, we never “opened up” much, and I was as much surprised as anyone when I learned he was married, and this flirtation with Josie, I never said anything to him about — simply taking matters as they presented themselves without any remark.
Lieut. Freeman is on duty at this post on board the revenue Cutter Morris. I see him almost daily. He does not know me, and I did not recognize him until someone spoke of him and my attention was attracted by the name. Where is that pretty piece of folly, his wife?
Last week I saw a lady looking at me and on approaching I found it was Rebecca Porter — as was — Mrs. Coop, as is. Don’t you remember her as one of Abbie’s crowns at French’s. Here she is, stout, buxom, and with a shady mustache — tell it not in Goth — and a daughter of three years of age. Dusty, wasn’t it? I hardly knew how to address this matron whom I used to tease and torment years ago.
Your old friend Leathers has just arrived from Little Washington, North Carolina, driven hither by the evacuation and burning of that town. ¹ He reports the place to have been needlessly set on fire by the 17th Massachusetts Volunteers. The old gent lost some of his clothes and evidently has had a hard time. He spoke of hearing the noise of cannon and of seeing the “grey-backs” disporting themselves rather un___ably; in a manner that showed that he regarded himself as a hero. Great is Leathers. I informed the Captain what a wretch he had got in the person of Thissell, and he will have him under strict surveillance.
I wish I had known the facts that you mentioned a few weeks ago. I went over to Norfolk a week ago, and had a fine time. Called to see a Lowell lady who is living in Portsmouth and had a fine time. She entertained me with mince pie and cider, which I appreciated. I got acquainted with a Quaker female over there by the name of Smith. She is from Philadelphia and is a teacher in the Colored School. By Jove, she is got up in a style well calculated to trap the unwary. The staid Quaker dress, when done in nice silk, looks lovely and when wit and beauty were compounded with it, and all with a fellow in an ambulance, riding over a rough road, where one spends half his time in the middle passage, half way between the seat and the top, it is over powering.
I’ve got a lovely female cousin over to Norfolk now, so I am in better luck than I was. A little capital of that kind, here where ladies are scarce, gathers more very soon. Of course I went to the theatre at Norfolk and saw Miss Mary Mitchell ² in “The Belle of the Faubourg” and “The Wandering Boys,” both good pieces to display hers and several of the ladies, magnificent pedals, but not worth a “cuss” otherways.
The seven A.M. boat from Norfolk on Wednesday last brought me back here just in time to see the embarkation of the Colored Troops here, and the passage by, the next morning, of Gen. Butler’s army, numbering certainly 30,000 men, on its way to Richmond via James River. People outside this Department are entirely in the dark in regard to Military movements here. Even the Saturday P.M. Baltimore American — a paper noted for its early dispatch and editorial columns — stated that no credence whatever could be given to the rumor that Gen. W. F. [“Baldy”] Smith had landed with his troops on the James River, when it was a fact well known here that he had done so sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning.
The whole matter has been managed admirably. Gigantic preparations have been in progress here for several weeks and troops have been gathering and Quarter Masters and Commissary Stores piling up here in tremendous quantities. All the old canal boats and barges that were at the North have been dragged from their hiding places and brought down here to load with ammunition. Vessels and steamers have been constantly arriving here and Wednesday there was more shipping in Hampton Roads than in Boston Harbor. In what manner and where the blow was to be struck, no one could tell.
Camp Hamilton was made the depot for the Colored Troops, but all others went to Yorktown and from there spread up the Peninsula. Last Tuesday a feint was made at West Point on the York River as all the papers have stated. On Wednesday night last, all the troops at Yorktown were embarked on transports, and passed by here to the Rendezvous at the mouth of the James, off Newport News about four o’clock Thursday morning.
The General and his staff left the fort for the field the evening previous. That day they went up the river without meeting any obstruction and landed safely at City Point where the”Flag of Truce” steamer stops. The next forenoon, the forces started for Petersburg. Reliable information as to their success at this time is not to be had. That it was a complete surprise to the rebels is beyond a doubt. Our first report was that Petersburg was evacuated and we held it; next that we obtained possession and were driven out; and the last that we did not know anything about it. All this business is transpiring within less than a hundred miles of here and I wish to go up so much I can’t keep quiet.
Boats arrive here several times a day from City Point but they either don’t know anything or are not allowed to tell. There has been some severe fighting we know, but no sick or wounded have yet been brought here, although the hospitals are ready for them. All days Sunday and yesterday, heavy cannonading could be distinctly heard here. What an enormous loss of life must attend this campaign and what an interest we have at stake. What is in store for us as a nation if we are defeated? I am confident we shall succeed as far as the valor of our troops is concerned, but how often we have been disappointed in the management of our generals?
Nearly all the 10th Army Corps from Charleston is with Butler, including my old brigade. The 40th Massachusetts Cavalry, and a host of veterans who are farmers. If it is in the power of man, General Butler will enter Richmond first, and if he does, there is no question about his chance for the Presidency. The whole thing is mapped out, and has been, this two months. The General has everything staked on this move, and I have faith that he will win.
Of all the papers published, the New York Herald has the most connected and complete account of the operations about here. Let Richmond be taken and in two weeks it will be over burdened with goods for sale. All the prospective wants of that region have all been anticipated and the stocks are in Baltimore ready to ship at a moment’s notice. The Jews abound in these adventures, and worm their way in where Yankee shrewdness fails. Hooked noses and “sheet per sheet.”
Today is my birthday. Thirty-one according to Thos. B. Robert’s [should be Robert B. Thomas] Almanac [otherwise known as The Farmer’s Almanac]. I feel old age creeping on apace, and that I have turned the “corner” and am on the latter half of my life. What the past is worth is certainly little, but I am hopeful of the future. Perhaps you may seem moralizings, and if so, pray consider the “day.”
Your investment in 10/40’s was noted, and I wondered why you did not take 5/20’s even at 6% premium. Nineteen years bonds are long enough, ain’t they? And if so, one hundred dollars at six percent, is equal to one hundred and twenty dollars at five, is it not? I had the satisfaction of receiving ninety-four dollars yesterday in return for fifty-four of coupons. As you say, the devil will be to pay among the money bags soon. Have you set your house in order? I am blessed if I can see the way clear to do so in mine.
If we are, by any chance, defeated before Richmond, gold will go up to 200 and over, and all commodities will rise in like proportion. I wish for your opinion as to these government securities. Do you consider them safer than anything else? I think I shall get my 5/20 for 103 pct. But if they drop to that, they will go much lower. I see that Naumkeag stock is up to 112 again. I always fancied that, and if you will remember, was about to dip into it when you advised me that they had no surplus and no stock to work on either. I think something yet might be done in it. It is a small corporation and its affairs are well managed. The point is to find out whether there is now much stock on hand and if there is any surplus, as there has been no dividend I think since 1863 in January.
I am trying my hand now in Tobacco. Another fellow and I invested a 1000 dollars. I think the stock is as good as the money no matter what turns up and we hope to make 20% on it.
I am glad to hear that your pile is increasing and hope it will continue to do so. If I was as handy to a market as you are, I could turn my hand oftener than it is possible here and realize much more profit by so doing. I am always glad to have you do your “financial articles” at length for I value your opinion. Please always write fully.
Lt. Bruce called on me a few days ago and wished to be remembered to you when I wrote. I like him very much. He is twice the agreeable chap he ever was when at Lowell. He is now Inspector General on Col. Steere’s staff — Colonel commanding Brigade — and is I think now at Yorktown, although I am not positive as recent movements may have changed their whereabouts.
Please give my regards to Alice [Wheeler]. Write soon. Yours truly, — Selwyn E. Bickford
¹ The fall of Plymouth [N. C.] led to the Federal evacuation of [Little] Washington, N.C., on the 28th of April, 1864. On the evacuation, the town [Washington] was burned by Federal troops. [Union] General Palmer, in an order condemning the atrocities by his troops, used these words: “It is well known that the army vandals did not even respect the charitable institutions, but bursting open doors of the Masonic and Odd Fellows’ lodge, pillaged them both and hawked about the streets the regalia and jewels. And this, too, by United States troops! It is well known that both public and private stores were entered and plundered, and that devastation and destruction ruled the hour.” (Official Records, XXXIII, p. 310.)
² Mary Lomax Mitchell (1833-1908) was a mid-19th century actress who performed in theatrical productions from New York to California. She made her stage debut in 1855 as Topsy in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Later in 1855 Mitchell appeared in Albany, New York, as Celia in “As You Like It.” During her early career she played leading ladies in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1866 she married actor John William Albaugh and together they played leading roles. She was the sister of actress Maggie Mitchell.
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