Letters Written by Captain William Harkness

Letters written by Second Lieutenant William Harkness to his parents and brother James.

Sunday October 26th, 1862

Camp of the 89th Regiment Illinois Volunteers

Dear Father and Mother,

It is Sunday and as in all probability we will not have any meeting on account of the inclemency of the weather I thought I could not spend my time better than to write a long letter home. Yesterday morning I received four letters from Kendall, one

from Narvey, Tina, John Dunn and Stewarts, and a few lines from Maggie. They were all very acceptable, as it had been some time since I heard from home.

We have marched a great deal since we have been here. In fact, we have been on the move all the time. We started from Louisville on the first of this month. We marched nearly every day passing through Shelbyville, Frankfort, Lawrenceburg, and from there to Perryville where the great battle took place. From there to Crab Orchard. I think I have sent home an account of the whole march up to Crab Orchard. We expected to overtake the enemy but were disappointed. And on Monday morning we took up our return march, returning over the same road as far as Perryville.

That place is still filled with wounded soldiers. Both the Union and Rebels. Our Regiment stopped a short time there and I walked around the village. Every house seemed to me to be filled with wounded men, there being about one thousand wounded Rebels and seven or eight hundred, Union. Such vast armies passing through the country back and forth makes provisions very scarce. In fact, every thing eatable is either bought at enormous prices or stolen by the soldiers. It is entirely against orders for any soldier to leave the ranks while on a march. Yet they do it by the hundreds and scour the county for miles around in quest of chickens, potatoes, honey, bread, anything in fact. Thus they can eat. They all draw their regular rations but it is rather tiresome living on hard crackers and coffee which is about all they get while on a march. While in camp they get plenty. Beef, pork, salt, etc. While I was in Perryville, the first time, I saw common sized cheese sold for ten dollars apiece. Then the one who bought them sold them out again, charging $1.00 for a piece not much larger than my hand. As a general thing when the men have money they don't care how fast it goes.

I hardly know where we are at present, but they tell me that we are about 16 miles southwest of Lebanon. We are encamped in an open field a short distance back from the road. There are a great many troops all around us. We arrived here last Friday evening having marched every day since Monday. Last Thursday I think was the hardest day's work I ever did in my life. The road over which we passed was very rough and stony over the mountains and hills. A good deal like Newcomb. Friday was not so hard. We went slower and the road was better. On Saturday morning our tents came up with us and they were just in time for it has been by far the worst night we have seen. It commenced raining while we were putting them up and in the evening it turned into a cold freezing snow. What we would have done in such a night laying out, I am sure I cannot tell as this morning the ground is covered with 4 or 5 inches of snow and very cold. Our tent is round, about 12 feet across the bottom, running to a point at the top where there is a small opening. We built a fire in the center, which makes it quite warm only rather smoky. I do not know how long we will remain here. Probably not more than a few days. We are on our way to Nashville, Tenn., something over a hundred miles from here. What the objective is (in) going there, I cannot tell as all our movements are kept very still. I am getting so that I never care where we are going but make up my mind to obey orders whenever they are given and ask no questions. I like the life very well having been very healthy so far and if I do not see any harder times in the future than I have seen so far, I will get along very well.

I would like to know how things are getting along up there. How do you get along with the farming operations? I suppose that by the time you get this you will begin to think about husking. What prospect is there for help? Is Narvey to help you? And tell me all about it. How did my wheat turn out? Was there much of it spoiled? Maggie thought it was hardly worth threshing. I hope it was not quite as bad as that. I also heard that you have had a very hard time getting hay owing to the wet weather. It is strange that there should be so much difference, as it has been very dry here. I hope, however, that you succeed in getting enough for winter.

I must, however, bring this letter to a close hoping it will find you enjoying better health than you have been doing for some time. I hope you will answer this as soon as you can as I look for letters with more anxiety than I ever did for anything before in my life. Give my respects to all inquiring friends.

From you son,

Wm. Harkness

Sunday morning September 6th, 1863

Camp in Look Out Valley

Dear Father and Mother,

I have just half an hour to write before the mail goes out. I have written one to Maggie, but as she is not with you now, you can have no chance from her letters to hear from me. And as I know you will be anxious to hear from me while on the move I will send you a line hoping it may reach you soon.

As no doubt you are aware, we are now in Alabama, across the Tennessee River. We are now stopping in the above named valley which is about 20 or 25 miles southeast of where we crossed the river and within a few miles of the line between Alabama and Georgia. Our destination I think is Rome, which is about fifty miles from here. We are moving very slow, lying still more than half the time. We were here all day yesterday and will be here all day today. I am enjoying the best of health and we are all in splendid spirits. In fact, I never enjoyed better health in my life and that is saying a good deal, as I have always been very healthy.

I learn from some of the letters that the boys have had from home lately that you have had a very hard frost, which has hurt the corn a good deal. I hope it has not spoiled yours after all your hard work to raise it. That would be very discouraging indeed but such things are beyond our control and we must not murmur. I have been looking for a letter from you for a long time. I hope you will write to me as you tell me more about the farm business in your letters than all the rest put together. And as now I understand you have a hired man, perhaps you will have more time to spare.

This is a very short letter and written in a great hurry. You may find it hard to read. When I have more time I will write a longer and better one. For the present, I must stop.

From you son,

Wm. Harkness

Camp on the south side of Look Out Mountain

September 12th 1863

Dear Father and Mother,

As the letters I send to Maggie now go to Rockford, I know you will be anxious to hear from me. I will write to you. We are now, as the date of this letter will show, on the south side of Look Out Mountain which we crossed day before yesterday. It is a very high mountain and from the top we could see a great distance over the surrounding county. We have lain here since night before last. It is about 25 miles from here to a place called Rome. Where I suppose we are going. We may have to fight them (the Rebels) before we go much farther. I hardly think they will make much of a stand however as Bragg and his army has done nothing but run ever since we have been after him.

I have not had a letter from any of you for sometime. The mail is very uncertain from here and I can't get letters sent off very often. I will send this as soon as I can but when that will be I cannot tell. I am enjoying very good health and weigh 135 lbs., which is more than I ever, weighed before at home in summers. The 36th passed us yesterday. We saw all the boys; Elder Haigh and Henry Haigh stopped and ate dinner with Joseph and Ben Haigh of our company. Four brothers all together are not very often met with in the army. They seemed to enjoy the visit well.

Excepting Taylor, I have not a single relative in the army to my knowledge. I get along very well however and do not wish to come home. I'll stay till the war is over which I think cannot be very long now. I am expecting a letter from you every day.

From your son,

Wm. Harkness

This leaves me well; hoping it may find you the same.


November 5th, 1863

Dear Brother,

I have just received your letter of October 28th and will pen a short answer to it immediately. I think when I wrote to you last I had command of Company D. I had command of that Company just one month when the first Sergeant returned from Illinois where he has been recruiting. And as he will soon be made a Lieutenant, he took command of the company when I returned to Company H. I did not stay there long, however, as the Captain of Company B has been sick ever since the battle and last week obtained a leave of absence to go home to Chicago. So I was again assigned another Company and am now in command of Company B. It is a fine company and I think I will get along very well. I am at present one of the members of a court martial and have spent the greater part of every day for over two weeks attending it. I think we will get through in about a week now. It relieves me from all other duty and for the last three times the Regiment has been on picket it has happened to be very rainy weather so I have found it better being in a house attending court than to be with the Regiment on the picket line.

I am glad to hear that Pletcher is doing so well. He is one of the finest boys I every knew. Such boys are scarce. This is the place to find out what men are. I don't know as I can tell you much about what we are doing as the truth of the matter is as far as I can see we are doing nothing at present but watching each other. That is the Rebels and us. Nearly every day there is more or less cannonading from both sides, which does no good nor harm as I can see.

Hooker, with a large force is on our right and has an occasional brush with the enemy. The only way there is of crossing the Tennessee river here is on a long pontoon bridge which the Rebels have injured quite often by sending down large rafts loaded with stone and railroad iron. Our men keep a steamboat there all the time ready to catch the rafts and push them ashore. When the stone and iron is thrown off, the logs (are) taken to a steam sawmill (and) made into plank and lumber for the use of the army. They have built a lot of new pontoon boats from the lumber so obtained. I have understood that the raft that did the most damage came down in the night and was loaded down level with the water with R.R. iron and our lookouts did not see it till it struck the bridge.

I had a long letter from Sarah yesterday. In case you do not hear from someone else I will tell you a little of what she wrote. She had received a letter from Mary Howe of Crown Point, full of news. Foster Breech's wife died and he married another a good deal younger than himself. Then she died and he married her mother, so he is now living with his third wife and his mother at that. John Hammond and his wife are both dead. Young John Hammond is in the army. Warren is dead. Tom is still living there and married. Eliza Fenton and Harriet Barker were both married on the same day. Their husbands are in the army. Waterman Howe is living in St. Louis with his second wife. Mrs. Dike and Mary are both dead.

This leaves me well; hoping it will find you the same.

From you brother,

Wm. Harkness

Camp in the field.

December 29th,l863

Dear Father and Mother,

I received your kind letter day before yesterday and I can assure you I was glad to hear from you all as it had been over twenty days since I had heard a word from home. As you say, we ought to be thankful that we all have such good health. You have all been very healthy since I left home and I can say that with one exception (while at Murfreesboro) I have never seen a sick day. There are very few that can say that. It is the same with Maggie and the boy. They also have been very healthy so that I see no need of being downhearted or discouraged.

I suppose you have learned from the letters I have sent from time to time and also from the papers where we are and have been. We are now within about three miles of Strawberry Plains, a station on the R.R., northeast from Knoxville. We have been here a little over a week in a very good place for a camp. Plenty of wood and water. We live almost entirely on what we forage, corn meal and flour which we bake ourselves the best way we can, plenty of fresh meat, we draw coffee and sugar from the government. So we manage to live very well for soldiers. How long we will remain here I can not tell. The cars run from here to Loudon, on the Tennessee river and then steam boats from there to Chattanooga. So we will soon have our regular communication for provisions if we should stay here which I doubt however.

I am still in command of Company B, and get along well with my men, although I expect to go back to Company H in about a month, as one of the Sergeants has been promoted to a Second Lieutenant, and when he returns from Illinois, where he is now, I suppose he will take command and the Captain may be back by that time too.

I am sorry that your corn is so poor after all your hard work but according to what you say and what I hear from others, it is much better than the majority of corn up there and the price is so high that people will get about as much for the crop after all.

I think you have got along very well in money matters and you must have calculated very close to get along so well. Of course, you did right in selling the colts as it costs too much to keep them idle when corn is so high. You did not tell me for how long you had let out your farm. I hope Henry will succeed well and do well on the place so that you may have more for your share than you had the last time you let it out.

Now about Margaret leaving you. As you say, there has never been a hard word passed among you that I know of, and if your family remained as it was, then no doubt, she would have stayed with you. But now it is very different, not that I blame any one, not in the least of course. I think it is the best thing you could have done to let Smith have the farm and the best thing he could do to take it. But as Maggie had lived there before this change took place and made it her home without ever having a word, it was to prevent any cause for disturbance that I advised her that she had better make her home somewhere else. Not to make hard feelings but to prevent them. I think it had better be so than to wait till a disagreement should arise and then find it necessary to part. No hard feelings exist to my knowledge as yet and I sincerely hope none will arise from this move.

Sincerely hoping that you will understand why I have given her this advice. I remain

Your affectionate son,

Wm. Harkness

Please write as soon as you get this even if it is very short. I am anxious to hear from you.

Strawberry Plains, Tenn.

January 6th, 1864

Dear Brother,

I received your letter dated December 7th, some time ago and will proceed to answer it now, I am glad to hear that you are all prospering so well and although you say that the corn crop is light, the price is so much higher than usual that it will bring in as much money after all.

How large an addition are you putting on your house? Is building very expensive up there now? Please tell me in your next letter.

How much corn will there be for my share on my place do you think?

And how does Allen get along? I suppose he is doing well is he not? Write all the particulars concerning the above questions.

We are encamped at the R.R. station called Strawberry Plains. I do not think we will stay here much longer however but will probably return to Loudon or somewhere else down the river.

The weather is quite cold here now and we have had a slight snow this morning. The first we have had this season. It looks quite wintry considering where we are and the kind of houses we have to live in.

I expect to go back to Company H, in a few days as the officers of Company B, are coming back.

My health is still very good. I never was more healthy in life. You asked me to give you a description of the last battle. I have tried several times to do it in letters but I can't. I must refer you to the papers and even they come far short of what it really was. One must see such things to know what they are.

You must excuse this short letter on a half sheet of paper as I have very little paper and can't get it here.

From your brother,

Wm. Harkness

Pages five and six of a six page letter

The First four pages are missing.

The next day after the battle we lay still as the rebs had fell back and it was not our orders to follow them further in that direction. It was another very wet day. We spent it the best way we could trying to keep dry. When it became dark we built up good fires to make the rebels think we were going to stay all night but instead of staying we quietly left and marched nearly all night knee deep in mud and water having to wade cricks which were roaring like rivers owing to the heavy rains. Sometime after midnight, we stopped and rested and then started again. It would take me some time to write all the particulars of that hard march from the gap to Manchester. The night before we reached the latter place we marched all night after marching all day and being on picket the night before. It was very hard, yet we lived through it. But a more tired and muddy set of men I don't think ever was seen than we were when we arrived near Manchester, about daylight and lay down on the wet ground for an hours rest. The next day I was sent back to Murfreesboro in charge of about thirty men who had become unable to stand the marching. The distance was thirty miles. A large train of wagons went back with all the extra baggage, knapsacks, etc. It was all thrown away before we got half way, as the roads were almost impassible. Thousands of dollars worth of property was wasted on this trip. It was Tuesday when I started and I did not get back till the next week Wednesday. After dark we had a hard time. I had a horse to ride so it was not quite so hard on me. I found the Regiment here as our Division is stationed here for the present. I think we will stay some time.

Wm. Harkness

Today is Sunday and we are on picket. I have written this letter sitting on the ground in a large tent, with the paper on my knee. So if you find some crooked marks know the circumstances.

Letter written by a friend of William Harkness to William's father Andrew. Apparently the friend did not know Andrew's Christian name so he mailed the letter to William's brother-in-law Henry Smith.

To Mr. Henry Smith

Lewis P.O., Kendall County, Ill.

Chatihoochia River Bridge

Saturday August the 22, 1964

Dear Friends,

Having heard of your son William's death I feel somewhat at liberty to write to you as William always was a particular friend of mine. Still we have been apart for nearly two years (with) only an occasional visit. It was in June last when I saw him in Kingstown. Then he was well and very fleshy. I stayed with him over one Sabbath.

And thinking that I might give a word of consolation is why I write. Still I would not wish to intrude or say anything to wound afresh and also what I have to say is plain and if I was capable, I would (speak) in his praise. I talked with most of the boys in his company and (they) all gave him to me very high praise, and to well they might for he was a brave man and a good soldier for his county, and I feel sure also, for his lord and master. When I talked with him, he seemed to be full in the faith and (I) believe now is resting with his little one in heaven. He spoke to me of its death. (He) still seemed to bare it with a christian patience and while speaking of his bereavement he reminded me of my blessing so far and too of my obligation to my master, to which I will try to heed his words.

In this (letter) I will send a stanza that I found, that I think will be very appropriate for your ______ of him, judging from conversations that I have had with him. I found these words near Atlanta, and thought it might suit if I would send them. And (I) beg (your) pardon for this intrusion and (I) will not bother to ask an answer to it.

I beg an interest in your prayers in my behalf. I am not in the same army corps that William was for he was in the 4 corps and I am in the 15 corps. Still we are near together. Still at all times it is not so that we can or could (?) find others. Give my love to all and excuse all mistakes from your true friend.

The reason I am so bold is William and me promised to do so. Not knowing your given name I will send it to Henry Smith.

George Sherman

Last Modified on 2012-12-29 13:40:57-0600 CST by Elmer Dickson