Letters Offer Glimpse Of Life During Civil War

By Paul Hadsall

CRANFORD – Married soldiers in the Civil War faced four key challenges according to historian John G. Zinn: distance, danger, finances and readjustment after returning home.

Zinn, the chair of the New Jersey Civil War 150th Anniversary Committee, talked about those issues in a program at held at the Cranford Community Center on Wednesday evening. More than two dozen area residents attended the talk, “Portrait of a Civil War Marriage,” which was based on letters written by William Lloyd of the 33rd New Jersey Regiment to his wife Mary.

Little is known of Lloyd prior to the Civil War, according to Zinn. He was born in 1842 and earned a living as a house painter prior to the war. In 1863, Lloyd married Mary Lane in Hoboken and enlisted in the 33rd New Jersey regiment.

While serving, soldiers relied on letters to keep in touch with family still at home. Zinn noted that during the 100 years between the Civil War and the Vietnam War, that never really changed. It is only now that the internet allows family members maintain a form of face-to-face contact.

Zinn read excerpts from three of Lloyd’s earliest letters following the regiment’s deployment. In the first, Lloyd mentioned how eager he was for any news of home and how he missed his wife. The others, written days or weeks later, showed signs of increasing despair because Lloyd had not yet received a response from Mary.

None of Mary’s letters to her husband survive, but eventually she did write back based on the contents of his letters. Lloyd rarely touched on the experience of battle, but he did describe getting sick as a result of field conditions. He also wrote about a time that he nearly drowned when he was traveling on a barge that suffered an accident.

Zinn pointed out that the federal government had not yet taken responsibility for notifying family members when soldiers died, so those back home were forced to trust often unreliable casualty reports printed by newspapers and hope for personal letters to reassure them that all was well.

Money was another concern for both soldiers and their families. While soldiers would receive a bonus for enlisting, once that was gone they had to rely on their salaries – and the Union army was constantly late paying them. To add to the problem soldiers who needed to send some of that money home, they were paid in cash. Often, company chaplains would volunteer to serve as couriers, but soldiers still had to worry that these men would be robbed.

Zinn, who has already written a number of books including a history of the 33rd New Jersey regiment, hopes to edit and publish a collection of Lloyd’s letters at some point in the future.

The Cranford Public Library and Cranford Historical Society will continue their Civil War 150 Project series with another lecture at the Cranford Community Center on Monday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. James Malcom of the Madison Historical Society will present the story of Heyward Emmell, a member of the 7th New Jersey regiment who kept a journal of his Civil War experiences.

Paul Hadsall is a former editor of the Atom Tabloid, the Clark Patriot, the News Record and NJTODAY.NET. He still contributes occasional articles.

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