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Reading 2: The Letters of J.W. Reid

Private J.W. Reid of the 4th South Carolina Infantry wrote several letters to his family between July 23 and July 30, 1861, from the vicinity of the first Manassas battlefield. The following is a compilation of four letters excerpted from Reid's book, History of the Fourth Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers (pp. 23-28), first published in 1891 and reprinted in 1975 by the Morningside Bookshop, Dayton, Ohio.

I scarcely know how to begin, so much has transpired since I wrote you last; but thank God I have come through it all safe, and am now here to try and tell you something about the things that have just happened. As you have already been informed, we were expecting a big fight. It came; it is over; the enemy is gone. I cannot give you an idea of the terrors of this battle. I believe that it was as hard a contested battle as was ever fought on the American continent, or perhaps anywhere else. For ten long hours it almost seemed that heaven and earth was coming together; for ten long hours it literally rained balls, shells, and other missiles of destruction. The firing did not cease for a moment. Try to picture yourself at least one hundred thousand men, all loading and firing as fast as they could. It was truly terrific. The cannons, although they make a great noise, were nothing more than pop guns compared with the tremendous thundering noise of the thousands of muskets. The sight of the dead, the cries of the wounded, the thundering noise of the battle, can never be put to paper. It must be seen and heard to be comprehended. The dead, the dying and the wounded; friend and foe, all mixed up together; friend and foe embraced in death; some crying for water; some praying their last prayers; some trying to whisper to a friend their last farewell message to their loved ones at home. It is heartrending. I cannot go any further. Mine eyes are damp with tears. Although the fight is over the field is yet quite red with blood from the wounded and the dead. I went over what I could of the battlefield the evening after the battle ended. The sight was appalling in the extreme. There were men shot in every part of the body. Heads, legs, arms, and other parts of human bodies were lying scattered all over the battlefield.

I gave you the particulars of our fight as best I could under existing circumstances. I still have a strong presentiment that I will be home again, some time. It may be a good while, and there is no telling at present what I may have to go through before I come, if I do come, only that I will have to encounter war and its consequences.

Yours as ever,
J.W. Reid

Questions for Reading 2

1. As Private Reid recounts, the battlefield was a terrifying place for the men who fought in the Civil War. How do you think these soldiers mustered the courage to stay and fight in such a situation? Do the letters of Reid and Ballou in Reading 1 give any clues as to what they were relying on to protect them or to keep up their bravery?

2. Private J.W. Reid wrote his letters following the battle. How did this affect the tone and content of his letters? How does the composite of his letters compare to the letter of Major Ballou in Reading 1?

3. Which of the two letters in Readings 1 & 2 do you feel conveys a more accurate representation of what the Civil War was like for the common soldier? Why? What would you change about the less accurate one to make it more realistic?

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