"This Letter is Written Literally Under Fire"

Union General William Francis Bartlett penned this letter to his mother, shortly after he arrived at the trenches near Petersburg, Virginia during the summer of 1864. Bartlett had volunteered for military service in 1861 and had been notably recognized for his leadership as he promoted through the officer ranks. By July 1864, he had already been wounded several times and had lost his left leg. Bartlett would the trenches of Petersburg and the war.

The spelling and grammar is original, though some paragraphs have been created for easier reading. Friends and fellow officers are mentioned in the letter, and "Nut" is probably a fond nickname for a younger sibling. 


Headquarters, first Brigade, First Division, Ninth Army corps.

Before Petersburg, Va., July 23, 1864. Evening.

My Dear Mother, — This is the first day since I left Washington that I have been able to write at all. Perhaps you will have thought that you ought to hear from me before this reaches you; but I have taken the first opportunity and have not forgotten your injunctions. I left Washington Tuesday P.M., reached here Wednesday P.M. Came from Fortress Monroe on despatch boat with General Ingalls, Chief Quartermaster of Army, with whom I dined at City Point, where his headquarters are. By chance found the chaplain at the Point, and sent for my horses. Ned and Billy were both looking finely. After dinner started for the front. Got as far as my Quartermaster's camp, and as it began to rain, I stayed there all night with him. I slept very well my first night on the ground. In the morning a black snake over six feet long was killed within a few feet of my bed. After breakfast, rode on up to Division Hospital, where I found Dr. White, and several old letters, among them the Nut's of June 6, which I found time to read to-day. Afterwards went to Burnside's Headquarters to report for duty. He was not in. I dined with some of the staff; saw the General later. He was glad to see me. I am assigned, as I supposed, to the command of the First Brigade, First Division. General Ledlie commands the Division. There are now six Massachusetts regiments and one Pennsylvania in the brigade, not numbering more than 1,300 men altogether, present for duty. If the regiments were filled up it would be one of the largest and best brigades in the Army, being all Massachusetts troops. I am trying to get C.B. Amory, of Jamaica Plains, formerly of the Twenty-fourth Regiment, who has been appointed Assistant Adjutant-general, transferred to this brigade. I shall use for present the staff that is here. . . .the surgeon, a Dr. Ingalls, of Boston, Fifty-ninth Regiment, who is very much of a gentleman. I slept last night and the night before at Division Headquarters with Adjutant-general Mills, Fifty-sixth. He was hoping that I would take the Division, but it seems Ledlie has withdrawn his resignation. 

The brigade is in two lines of breastworks, one hundred yards apart, in the front of the enemy's works and within two hundred yards in some places. Brigade Headquarters are two hundred and fifty yards in rear of the second line. Division Headquarters two hundred yards in rear of the brigade; so you see all are in easy musket range of the enemy. We are in pine woods, the trees not very thick. The Headquarters have to be protected by a stockade of logs against bullets, which are constantly coming through here. Four officers of the Fifty-seventh have been hit since I got here, one killed, three very badly wounded, in the second line. Our stockade does not protect us against shells, which fall in front and rear of us, but have not hit the Headquarters yet. some fall way in the rear of Division Headquarters, and some near Corps Headquarters, which are about one fourth of a mile in the rear of Division. We have a stockade to protect the horses, too, but one of the orderlies' horses and one of General Ledlie's were killed the other day. A bullet goes whizzing over my tent every few minutes as I write, and goes thud into one of the trees near, with a sound that makes you think what a headache that would have given you if your head had been where the tree was. The bullets patter like rain at times against the outside of this stockade of logs, the inside of which my elbow touches as I write. It is a continual rattle of musketry, sometimes welling into a roar along the line, and varied with the artillery and mortars. So you see we are liable at any moment to be struck, even while reading a paper or eating dinner. A bullet went through Dr. Anderson's table as he was eating breakfast this morning. You must be prepared to hear the worst of me at any time. God grant it may not come, for your sake, and for the sake of all I love and who love me at home. But you must be prepared for it. It is wearing to body and mind, this being constantly under fire.

People at the North who are enjoying themselves and thinking of nothing but making money, little appreciate what this brave army is enduring every day and hour for them, and how much more cheerful and hopeful they are than people at home. I wish some of the patriotic(?) ones at home who are making speeches (and money), would just come out here and spend a week, even back here at my Headquarters. They would not care to go down to the lines where the men are day and night fighting for their security and safety. 

I came over here this morning and assumed command. Tomorrow I must go down and examine the lines, which is of course dangerous; but trust I shall get back safely. I shan't go there any oftener than is necessary, but it is my duty to visit them occasionally. to give you an idea of the firing that is going on constantly, I will count the shots in the next minute. It is more quiet than usual to-night. Eighty-one, and one heavy mortar shell, which burst in the air between here and second line, but sounded as if it were in the next tent. "There!" at that moment a bullet went whizzing through between mine and the one next, just above the stockade (which is a little higher than your head when sitting), and struck down somewhere between here and Division Headquarters, near where the horses are. So you see this letter is written literally under fire. I am feeling very well, my leg is better in the saddle than it was before. I have got my valise, etc., and shall be quite comfortable in a day or two (under the circumstances), if I am spared so long. I intend to have this stockade built higher to-morrow, so as to afford me protection from bullets. If the rebs knew just where our Headquarters are, they would shell us out from here in three minutes; but fortunately they don't, and can only guess. They guess inconveniently near at times. As I may not have time to write, you can let Frank Palfrey and Ben see this letter, if you see them, and if the Nut chooses to copy it she can, and send it to Aunt.

There goes another bullet. Frank Palfrey will readily understand appreciate our position here. I hope I shall hear from you soon. The mail comes regularly every night. I will write as often as I can. Have other letters to write to-night, so will finish this. There is one pleasant thing to relieve the wear of this, — I have a good band here at Headquarters, and it plays at intervals through the day and evening, protected by a stockade. The rebs have the benefit of it as much as I do, but I can't help it. They favor us with a band sometimes. Tell the Nut and Miss Barnett that they just played "When Johnny comes Marching Home," and "Faust." 

"Thud;" there go two ugly bullets into a tree near by, one of them, George thinks, went through the upper part of the tent. How should you like to lie down and go to sleep with this going on all night? I expect to sleep soundly. I have for two nights.

With much love to all,

Ever your affectionate son,


Zip prrrrrr goes the last bullet you will hear, for I close this now. That one went over to Division Headquarters. Here's another before I could get my pen off the paper. Good-night.

July 24. Quiet night. I go now down to the lines. I hope I may get safely back. If not, His will be done. . . . Went through the second line. got back safely, thank God. . . . Bullets flying very lively tonight.



Francis Winthrop Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett (1878), pages 110-115. 

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Related Battles

City of Petersburg, VA | June 15, 1864
Result: Confederate Victory
Estimated Casualties