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Civil War letters from Dedham brothers offer unfiltered look at history

"My Dear Mother: Letters to Dedham from the Lathrop Brothers" consists of transcriptions of the letters from three Civil War soldiers found in the archives of the Dedham Historical Society & Museum.
"My Dear Mother: Letters to Dedham from the Lathrop Brothers" consists of transcriptions of the letters from three Civil War soldiers found in the archives of the Dedham Historical Society & Museum.Dedham Historical Society & Museum

More than 150 years after they were written, letters home by three Civil War soldiers from a Dedham family have been transcribed for the Dedham Historical Society & Museum and published as a book titled “My Dear Mother: Civil War Letters to Dedham from the Lathrop Brothers.”

The letters were preserved by the Lathrop family for generations and donated in 1928 to the local historical society, where they became part of a valuable local archive used by scholars and other regional history enthusiasts. Now in book form almost a century later, they add a vibrant primary source to the record of America’s fiercest internal crisis.

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Published by Damianos Publishing of Framingham, the letters “tell of the fierce battles, long marches, camp life, and constant yearning for home and family,” said Stephen Brayton, vice president of the society’s board of directors.

The new book was reviewed online by historian Michael Chesson, who commented, “This volume belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares about the war that saved the Union and destroyed slavery, and would be a wonderful gift for a Civil War [buff].”

“And once we’re allowed to open to the public again,” Brayton said, “the book will be available for purchase at the museum.”

The transcription, which took three years, was largely the work of board member Stuart Christie and former director Vicky Kruckeberg. Working in the museum’s archive, the transcribers studied letters often written in the field or in otherwise difficult circumstances. The handwriting was at times hard to decipher, and a shortage of paper sometimes caused a soldier to continue a letter by crosshatching through an already filled sheet.

The transcriptions preserve the letters’ actual composition, including misspellings and missing punctuation. Sometimes the brothers sent photos home and drew maps of the armies’ combat positions.

After the three brothers enlisted, Brayton said, “John, Julius, and Joseph Lathrop wrote scores of letters home to their mother Marie and three sisters.”

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The letters describe the “horrors of the war,” Brayton said, along with routine camp life, frequent troop movements, and first-person accounts of routine skirmishes turning deadly as enemy soldiers — or comrades — were shot down or killed by saber stroke in front of scouting parties from both armies. They describe the fear of spending a night on a picket line when the enemy is near and participation in full-scale engagements, including the terrible Battle of Antietam in September 1862, which remains the bloodiest single day in American history.

All three were educated and competent writers. Second brother Julius described holding a position “so close to the enemy’s works that the bullets are flying closer than is agreeable.” While attempting to eat dinner in a fortified position near the line of fire on another occasion, Julius noted with gallows humor that enemy bullets whizzed between his plate and his fork, and asked his family members at home, “How should you like these little visitors?”

The oldest, John Lathrop, was a lawyer and a clear choice for an officer in a volunteer army. His letters cover the progress of the Army of the Potomac, the large Union battalion that fought in many of the war’s biggest and best-remembered battles, until early 1863. His letters include a firsthand account of the murderous battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., where Union troops waded through swamps and his company struggled to stay together while advancing through thick forests. Units from two large Union and Confederate armies blundered into one another, with withering consequences, and sometimes fired on other units of their own army.

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“Two of my men were struck,” John writes at one point in his battle narrative. “For a short time all was confusion. The bullets whistled over our heads, singing like very demons.”

While historians judge Antietam as a strategic draw, John described it as “a great victory.” He writes: “The next morning I took a look at the battle field. Dead rebels were in every direction. In the road where we were that night were over fifty. We could not move without stepping on them.”

John also recounts a mortal climax in an earlier skirmish: “just as the secesher had raised his sword to cut [a Union soldier], Reynolds fired blowing the reb from his horse as if he had been hit by a cannon ball He never moved …”

In the same letter, he describes picket duty: “Imagine yourself sitting down by the side of the road in the thick woods with several other fellows near by, not daring to speak aloud or make a fire, and even to light a match, and not knowing at what instant a bullet might hit some one of the picket, and you can see how we were placed …”

After contracting malaria, John was discharged in 1863.

Julius Lathrop served in the Western theater, fighting in campaigns less well remembered than those in the East. He rose to captain in the Army of the Gulf, and fought in the victorious Port Hudson campaign of July 1863 in Louisiana, the final battle in the Union campaign to take control of the Mississippi River. He never made it back to Dedham, however, dying in a later engagement.

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The third brother, Joseph Lathrop, also rose in the ranks and served as a cavalry captain. He had the bad luck to be captured in April 1865 at High Bridge during Lee’s retreat through Virginia, which proved to be the final battle before the famous surrender. However, he was released when the war ended and made it home.

“I felt like I knew these guys,” Brayton said, after reading the transcribed letters. “It felt like they were here with me, they lived in my town.”

The book is available from www.damianospublishing.com and from Amazon.

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox@gmail.com.