Uncle Samuel A. Gray: Part II – A Letter from Civil War Camp

Larry Pearce, his grand-nephew
12/30/03 rev. 2/27/16

What follows is a transcription of my Great-great Uncle Samuel Alexander Gray’s (1842-1919) original letter to his mother, Elizabeth Leslie Gray (1818-1895), from a Civil War prisoner of war parole camp near Alexandria, VA. This prized possession was copied to me by Roberta Welsh after a conversation we had at one of the annual Gray Reunions. Samuel’s words speak for themselves, from tender to angry, and we point out that he had excellent penmanship. One Internet site devoted to Civil War terminology gives this explanation of the term “Parole Camp,” referred to by Samuel:
Early in the war, both sides of the conflict could not effectively handle the massive number of prisoners. They agreed to let the prisoners take an oath not to fight anymore and were released to their prospective commands. The system was complex, cumbersome and expensive. It was abandoned after U.S. Grant learned many Southern parolees were simply right back in the fray months later and after the slaughter at Ft. Pillow in Tennessee by Forrest’s troops.

We’re not certain of when General Grant took this action, but Samuel’s letter is dated at the top July 26, 1863, about three weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, and actually says in flowery cursive handwriting, “Parole Camp near Alexandria, VA.” As he continues, notice some of the archaic expressions and spellings, albeit perhaps some improper grammar, and realize that not all the words are discernable. I am keeping the punctuation and capitalizations as they appear. I’ll interrupt occasionally in brackets to comment:

Dear Mother,
It is with the greatest pleasure I seat myself to write you a few lines to let you know how I am. I am well and expect to be exchanged soon. I have not heard from the Regiment since the battle of Getties Burgh. I heard they was all captured and I am affraid it is over [the war?] for if they was any of them to the four [the front?] we would hear something of them. I have not heard from Brother [Robert? Had he been writing from home since he wouldn’t have joined for another year yet?] since the Battle of Getties Burgh O but I would like to hear from him. I heard through a letter from James A Bateman that the Captain J. McPmean [Further research in Bates and other sources may reveal who these men are.] has got home. The day before he left he was at Parole Camp near Wes__ [West Chester?]. I begun this letter on the 24.[space]

[This ends the first page. At the top of the second is a second and final location in Pennsylvania. Was this where the letter was finished? If he began on the 24th, then why did he begin with the date of the 26th? Could he have been going to Alexandria and wrote the final date above the salutation has an afterthought? Could the reference to West Chester be part of the previous sentence that my copy does not show? Above all, we wonder why the references to Northern parole camps. Since Samuel fought for the North, was he first taken to Annapolis, where the main southern POW camp was, then moved to Alexandria for exchange, and eventually transferred  north to West Chester before his release? Wikipedia suggests that much of the parole system was on the “honor” system, and this seems to fit what Samuel experienced. We continue:]

West Chester, Penna, near Philadelphia
he [lower case] was on his way to Anapolis Md. he [lower case] told me to tell Robert if he could get word to David to let him know where James is for he did not intend to write for he does not know how soon he may go on to Annapolis Md. I had a letter from Mary Ann today. They are all well but the baby [period?] it [lower case] is very hot weather here now and has been dry for about a week. We [lower case] had affal wet wether the first of the month. I think we will be exchanged the 6 of next month. I did not receive any letter from home last week. I was badly disappointed for I look for a letter from Annie [Norris, Robert’s future wife, or another?] every Sabbath day. So when you mail them on Thursday they get here on Sabbath unless they are delayed on the road. I will be looking for one tomorrow and I hope I will not be disappointed again. I would like [new page] to see you all and I hope if it is the will of the Lord to spare my life I shall be home in the inside of a year. [Apparently sending and receiving mail in camp was not much of a problem. In fact, one would do well to receive a letter on the East Coast these days that was mailed from Pittsburgh three or four days earlier. But, Samuel seems to be rambling and jumping back and forth at times, talking about the weather amid all the news. Toward the end of this page he even seems angry that he hasn’t received mail. He has heard news from a James Bateman and been requested to tell his, Samuel’s, brother Robert to tell David where James is. Is David James’ brother? And who is Mary Ann? We know that Samuel’s sister is Martha Ann, but we don’t know when she married or had children. Who is Annie that he so desperately wants to hear from? A girlfriend? Remember that his brother Robert married Annie Norris. At the end he seems homesick but reverent and patient, referring to “the will of the Lord to spare my life” and “I shall be home in the inside of a year.” Then, in a rather unusual turn, Samuel writes:]
Dear mother I have got a prescription I will send you and in case your cough should come back on you I want you to try it. I got it from a New York minister. he [lower case] sais it cured him when he was very far gone. he [lower case] sent it free of charge and says it is his wish to help the afflicted as he was so much benefited by it. This is the Prescription
Extract Blodgetti …………….3 ounces
Hyphosphite of lime …………1/2 ounce
Alantin (Tusa?) ………………1 Draehm
Extract Cinehma ………………2 Draehms
Mecinin (Tusa) ………………1/2 Semple
Loaf Sugar ………………… .. 1 Pound
Truse Port Wine ……………. . ½ Pint
Warm Water …………………. 1 Quart
Compound and mix the 5 first articles all together and put them in a bottle. Then put in ½ pint water and shak. Then put in the other 1 ½ pint with the sugar dissolved in it. Then all the wine. let [lower case] cool and it is ready for use. [end of page]
Directions for useing it
Dose 1 large table spoonful 4 times a day. it [lower case] will cost between 2.00 and 3.00 dollars. I was disappointed today. I thought I would get a letter from home sure but I did not. but {lower case] I got one from John Sweeny. he [lower case] has been having a fine time since he last wrote to me. he [lower case] has been to Ohio with Tresners and went and came through Pittsburgh and he was home over night. I am sure they would be glad to [“hear of” is crossed out] see him but Wilts was unfortunate he was of [out?} on pass the day they started so he did not gett going. I am sorry for him for I am sure he would be speted (spited?) or at least I would have been if I had of been in his place. Oh that I wish this cursed war was over. when[lower case] any of you writes tell me if James Hill got back safe. I believe this is all I have to write at present. give [lower case] my love to all the rest and to Uncl Williams to. nothing [lower case] more but remain as ever. Your affectunate son
[signed and underlined] Samuel A Gray

I hope to get the opinion, and perhaps interpretation, of Samuel’s recipe from a registered pharmacist. How touching of a young man in a war zone to think of his ailing mother back home in such a way. Remember that most of our modern over the counter medicines, let alone prescriptions, were unavailable then. This must have seemed like a miracle cure to Elizabeth, if she prepared it, or had it prepared by an apothecary, and actually used it. Samuel then expresses his disappointment again at not receiving a letter from home and does relate news from someone, who is apparently a friend, about a trip to Ohio via Pittsburgh. Toward the end of the letter, Samuel’s penmanship seems to worsen as he is difficult to read. I’m assuming he uses periods to end sentences, although I can’t see many. He seldom uses a capital letter to begin a sentence. But, the most interesting thing is how, when he runs out of space at the end of a line, he continues single syllable words onto the next line without the benefit of a hyphen. Also, some words are difficult to read because of folds in the original paper. I am touched as he cries out, “Oh that I wish this cursed war was over.”

In Part III we’ll hear from the descendants of Samuel Alexander Gray in Missouri. We’ll find out how he married and settled and raised a family, moving westward. We’re fortunate to have a family narrative upon which to rely, despite some questions, but we are also thankful to have had a personal visit from Samuel’s side of the family at a recent Robert P. Gray family reunion. All of that and more in the final part of this series and an article based on a newly discovered book.

Return to PART I

Works Cited

Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1994.

“The Civil War.” The 1988 Information Please Almanac. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

“The Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C.” 1/13/03

“Parole Camp.” Wikipedia. 27 February 2016                   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parole_camp


“Parole of Civil War Prisoners” and “Conscription in the Civil War.” 1/13/03

“The Pennsylvania Enlistment.” 5/5/03

One Response to Uncle Samuel A. Gray: Part II – A Letter from Civil War Camp

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