In honor of Memorial Day
Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day to honor the dead of the Civil War, the deadliest war in U.S. history. The numbers of that war are staggering: at least 620,000 killed, millions injured, entire territories of our nation burned, blown up, devastated.
One of my ancestors, Captain Gavin Allen Lambie (his sister Jeanette Carter was my great great grandmother) fought and died in the Civil War in the 196th New York Infantry. A collection of his personal letters tell a moving story of the horrors of battle. I have a transcription of one letter written just after his regiment fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg. He was 30 years old when he wrote the letter on January 18, 1863. He died less than a month later, after the legendary “Mud March”.
The letter describes the battle of Fredericksburg in vivid detail:
“Since you received my last letter, I have seen the realities of war…our artillery opened with fearful effect…it seemed as though earth and heaven were coming together, such was the roar of cannon…I spent such a night as I never spent before and which I hope I never will again. The groans of the wounded and dying beggars all description, while the shot and shell kept flying over our heads…”
He goes on to describe the horrific night of the battle and its aftermath, and the return of his ragged regiment to their camping ground, where he composed his letter. He mentions that they had received marching orders for the next day. This would be the infamous “Mud March”, which ended up killing him.
In one sweet paragraph, he seems to be responding to an offer of a fruit basket. I found this particularly touching. Imagine…the unlikely delivery of a fruit basket sent to a Civil War battleground:
“In regard to sending me a box of fruit, I should like it very much, but as we are situated it might never reach me, for we don’t know one day where we will be the next…A great many boxes have come here lately the contents of which are spoiled and they feel worse than if they had not got them at all.”
He goes on to make some criticism of the Generals’ decisions, and how the men are treated,
“It is not what I suffer myself, but to see the way the sick are treated it is enough to make one’s heart sick. I tell you, when a man gets so low that there is no hopes that he will be of any farther service he is not thought of more than a wornout mule—that is, by those who are looking and seeking for promotion…”
The next day after writing to his friend, Gavin and his regiment left on the grueling “Mud March”. He died less than a month later as a result of illness from the march.
Remembering Gavin Lambie and all the others who have died in Amercian wars.
Here is the transcript of the complete letter. There are many more, including some written to his sister, Jeanette Carter, who was my great great grandmother, in the Google Books collection.