Prepared for: Dr. Charles White
Prepared by: Scott Laidig
August 1, 1998
In 1861 the seminal event in the United States gathered momentum as eleven Southern States attempted to secede from the country, resulting in a great Civil War. During the years following, the lives of every American family changed. Those changes are chronicled in thousands of books, essays, and articles written by participants, observers, and historians who seek to understand the reasons for the war, how people reacted to it, and why the North won or why the South lost. But few except descendants of participants or professional historians have had the opportunity to read the personal letters and evaluate the perspectives of an active Civil War soldier.
This essay provides a window into the thoughts, perspectives, attitudes and opinions of a soldier who fought in the war and left a legacy of twelve unpublished letters - letters that are probably unread outside his family. This collection of correspondence provides a wealth of materials for students of the war over 130 years later.
In August 1861 the oldest of three brothers of an Illinois family volunteered for service in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms to defend the Union. A short time later a second brother enlisted to serve his country, and, in 1862, a third brother joined the Union Army. For the family the war would be a story of triumph and heartbreak, life and death, opportunity seized and opportunity lost.
The men were the brothers Follett - John, Mell and William. Both John, the eldest, and William, the youngest, have left a written record of their service in the form of letters to John’s wife, Hortense, and their parents, Mr. And Mrs. A.H. Follett.1 Through those letters this paper investigates the attitudes of John from soon after his enlistment in Galesburg, Illinois until early April, 1863, just prior to Grant’s final push to capture Vicksburg. That final date was selected because it marked the end of a period during which John and his unit, Company H, 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, saw no significant combat. Subsequent letters reflect John’s exposure to intensive fighting and harder times, such as his participation in Nathaniel Banks’ inept Red River Campaign. John’s letter of April 5, 1863, therefore, marks his end of innocence as a soldier – and provides an excellent place to pause and evaluate his perspectives toward the war and his life as reflected in his first twenty months of experience.
Why did he enlist to fight? What was his position toward the Union cause? How did he react to his fate? This essay will also compare John Follett’s experiences and attitudes, as reflected in his letters, to the generalities about soldiers made by the well known historian James I. Robertson in his marvelous book, Soldiers Blue and Gray. Another historian’s book, Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage, speaks of the Civil War notion of courage, and especially the differences between the courage of the soldiers and the expectation of courage among the civilian populace. How does John Follett compare to Linderman’s conclusions? John Follett’s letters provide a rare glimpse into the mind of an ordinary Union soldier. But how ordinary was he?
For the most part, the letters in the Follett Collection appear to have been written in pencil. They were often very difficult to transcribe, especially so because the punctuation of the writers has either faded into oblivion over the years or the writers simply did not use punctuation in the modern sense. Indeed, the years have made many parts of certain letters largely illegible. Computer enhancement of certain parts made transcription possible. Misspelled words abound and misuses of capitalization occur frequently. For example, William could not start a word beginning with an "S" without capitalizing it, regardless of its position in the sentence. Also, the style of the handwriting is considerably different than modern cursive. The small form of the letter "d" seldom has a stem that extends higher than the level of an "a" or "o;" the double "ss" also had a different written form in the 1860’s. The combination of these factors confuses the amateur transcriber, and certain words and phrases in various letters remain utterly undecipherable.2
The typical letter was probably four (handwritten) pages long, many are short while several extend to 10 or more pages. The paper used is of uneven quality, sometimes lined but often very plain. Many scraps of paper were used as partial pages, and both John and William used every possible part of the paper; indeed, their propensity to break words at the end of the line, regardless of where syllable might break, caused many aggravations for the transcriber. 3
The majority of the letters, some 27 of the 40 total, are from John; they are distributed throughout the war years.4 A complete listing of the Follett Collection is provided as Appendix A. As mentioned at the outset, this paper covers only John’s twelve letters from his enlistment to just before the fall of Vicksburg, April 1863.
John’s brother Mell Follett enlisted in 1861.5 There are no letters from Mell in the collection. However, a very tender, interesting and insightful letter from the father, A.H. Follett to John’s wife Hortense, describing Mell’s condition in Chattanooga in 1863 is part of the collection.6It is the only letter written by the father.
William Follett joined for service and was enrolled August 11, 1862, at Cambridge, Illinois; a Captain Wainwright mustered his entire unit into service in Peoria on September 20, 1862, almost a year to the day after John began his service. William, or "Bill" as he often signs his letters, was 27 when he entered service, four years younger than John. William stood two inches taller than John, and he had light hair, was married, and his profession was marked "farmer."7 William never used a middle initial in signing his letters, and the muster roll shows neither a middle initial nor middle name for him. John, on the other hand, usually signed his letters "John M. Follett" and once wrote out his middle name, suggesting a certain pride in his full name. As would be expected, John often expresses interest in both William’s and Mell’s well being.
A Soldier’s Life: Induction to Missouri
John Meacham Follett was born in New York State, but at the time of his enlistment he lived in Galesburg, Illinois, a small Knox County farming community in the middle of the state. At enlistment, John was 30 years old; he stood 5’9" tall with brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. On September 19, 1861, he was joined for service and was enrolled in Knox County by his Company Commander, Captain James A. McKenzie. Days later a Captain Pitcher mustered his entire company into service on September 21 at Camp Butler.8 His unit became Company H of the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
The muster roll shows John was a "miller," and his letters mirror that he was a highly literate and fairly well educated one. His vocabulary was extensive and his spelling generally good, though often humorous to 20th Century readers.9 But the true value of the letters is in the fact that John was at once a good observer and a plain talking philosopher, and he often shared both his opinions and his experiences with his wife and parents.
There is no doubt about the reason John joined the army and fought so long. Although he probably was a Democrat,10 John was fighting to "save the Union." From the very outset until the last letters that reflect on the accomplishment of the Union forces, John’s love for his country comes through again and again in his invariably straight forward expression. From time to time , however, John has to encourage his wife as to the value of their cause.
The first letter, dated November 13th, 1861, finds John in Missouri. Perhaps because of his age, John started the war in a responsible position, serving as sergeant of the guard at a brigade hospital in Ironton, Mo. His comments about the hospital reflect what terrible places we know them to have been, "There are quite a number of sick in here about twelve more died since I came into camp. It is a nasty place but it is the cleanest hospital any where around so they say."11 John also reports that his commander takes keen interest in the cleanliness of the camp, "I air my bed clothes every day as all do by order of Col. Hovey. We are obliged to sweep our rooms every day and mop once each week." Also in this letter John reports on the status of his friends "George Jacks, Ike and Abb," whose names appear in many letters. Also in his first letter John establishes a consistent pattern of expressing his love and affection for his wife and daughters, Fanny and Flo. This tone continues unabated for the entire series. Typical are these lines:
"Well Hortense how do you get along? I tell you it is hard for me be away from you and Fanny and Flo Aint they nice girls. I am real proud of them I tell you and you too Hortense I love you all the time. We must get along as well as we can till I come back and then we will have a jolly good time."
His closing sentences are uniformly expressive, following what may have been typical in the 1860’s, but surely unusual by contemporary standards, "I am as ever your aff (sic) husband." All in all a very interesting letter, and mentions of capturing enemy soldiers and hassling local citizens of dubious loyalty were also included!
John’s second letter follows the mode of the first, and it is interesting because of the references to food.12 Hortense had sent some cakes and pies, perhaps through the mail but more likely via an unknown friend, Mr. Smith. John mentions sending back some iron ore samples using Mr. Smith, so perhaps Smith had visited John’s unit from home. At that stage of the war it is possible the postal service had not yet been overwhelmed, but given the spotty delivery of regular mail that is mentioned in latter letters, it seems unlikely that pie and cake would have gotten through from Illinois. Along with cake and pie, however, John refers to the death of another soldier, evidently someone who died because of illness, as opposed to wounds.
John’s third letter, dated January 28, 1863, is to his parents, written while he was at "Fort Hovey,13" probably so named for "Colonel Hovey," his regimental commander. Its exact location in Missouri is unknown. In this letter John makes first mention of possible fighting, which would have involved Confederate forces under Jeff Thompson and Sterling Price, both of whom are identified in subsequent letters. John also remarks with great pleasure at having received letters from both his parents and his wife. Clearly, as James I. Robertson observed, mail and morale were inseparable companions during the war. In this letter we also get a glimpse into the overall mail situation, since John mentions having written but the previous letter in the collection was written more than a month before this one (of course, it could have been misplaced after having been received, but given the extent of the Follett Collection, that alternative appears unlikely.) John also mentions that his unit is using "Austrian muskets."
His next letter is to Hortense, written one day later.14 It reflects the excitement the first possible contact with the enemy. His letter also suggests a possible marital problem that needed addressing, "I guess Hortense, when I get back we will try to be more contented let us be when we will than we were before (sic)." Although the sentence structure is confused, the message seems clear. John suggests that he may be able to come home, and he also expresses dissatisfaction with McClellan, "I think Jim _____ will do something. I know him, and I know he is ________. He will accomplish more in one month than McLellan (sic) will in six. Now see if he don’t." Unfortunately, it is not clear who John thinks will do better than Little Mac, but clearly the rank and file in the West had their opinions about the East’s most important (in 1862) general. He adds a short note dated January 30th, and reports that Abb is on picket duty and Ike and Geo are well – a common account in his letters. It is apparent that "Abb, Ike and George" are his best friends in the army.
The next letter is written February 15th, 1862, a Sunday afternoon.15 It contains reference to U.S. Grant and possible operations against the Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky. John also writes of his faith and in God and in his cause,
"My fate is in the hands of a higher power than my own. Have faith and hope for the best all the time. I could not bear up under this separation if I had not the strongest faith. I know all will be for the best, let come what will."
In this missive home, John discusses the marching his unit has done in preparation for combat operations:
"I intended to have finished this letter yesterday, but I had to go over to Ironton to sell some coffee, soap and grease for the company, and to day we have had to march out seven miles and back with our knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, and cartridge boxes on, so as to get seasoned to marching. We have got to do it every morning till we go.
Pshall Pshaw I can march thirty miles a day like a book."
The 30 miles covered each day are impressive for a Union force; however, the units from the Midwest such as the Army of the Potomac’s "Iron Brigade," composed of men from Wisconsin and Indiana, along with Illinois regiments were probably the pick of the Union forces. John, however, was one of the older soldiers in his company, and given his sergeant’s duties, he probably had additional responsibilities along the march. In this letter John again refers to his unit receiving new firearms, rifled muskets. He also writes of going to Ironton in order to buy supplies for his unit – coffee, soap and grease. He enthusiastically reports hearing good news from Ft. Donelson, but also expresses his fatigue, "We hear good news tonight from Fort Donelson. I hope our boys will clean out the rebels. Well I must stop writing for it is late and I am tired." John reports that his unit will be marching south and knows that will wear heavily on his wife, "I am glad it is warm for we have got to march from here next wednesday (sic) for Bloomfield. I suppose you will not like that but I do. There is a general movement south now and I want to do my share." This passage is exactly as a reader of Gerald Linderman’s book would expect to read from a soldier at this time and place. The 33rd Illinois had yet to engage in serious fighting, and John’s eagerness to join in the fight was altogether normal for most the men.
Finally, this February letter confirms that John’s poor attitude towards McClellan continues, "We received news by telegraph last night that Springfield was taken by our troops, and that Price was retreating. Good. I think this war will be ended in two months now McLellans (sic) power is broken, and he no longer has supreme command." He closes the letter in a style that will become familiar to the reader, "I shall be glad when I can again kiss my wife and children and I think I will never leave them so long again. Good night my dear one. Yours as ever, John M. Follett."
March 11, 1862 finds John’s unit occupying the former campground of the Confederate unit of William Hardee, and thus the name of the camp is Camp Hardee.16 John mentions the first fighting done by his unit and he complains of his lack of pay – a common gripe of citizen-soldiers throughout the ages! He makes first mention of his brother Mell Follett while discussing a Union casualty whom he had befriended. However, times have not been especially good for John and the 33rd since his last letter,
"We had a hard camp at Greenville. We had to lay right down on the ground and a
herd hard bed it was I tell you. We have been living now for five days on short rations. No sugar, coffee nor bread. We have bacon and flour & salt and some beans and manage to keep from starving. We mix up flour, salt and water in a batter and fry them in grease, and get along very well. As soon as our other trains get along which will be in a day or two we will have enough to eat again."
Despite the hard times, John maintains a positive attitude and encourages Hortense as well, "
Get Give my love to all, keep up good courage and don’t get down hearted for I will be at home in a month or two, see if I aint." There is a good chance that John’s prophecy about a visit home came true. The last letter written in 1862 was dated April 25th, and his next letter in the series is dated February 1863. While there is no information to prove whether or not John was granted leave, and his letters are silent on the subject, it appears highly likely that he did go home during the interval between letters.
On March 26, John again writes to Hortense.17 His words reflect the great joy of a soldier who has received that most precious of wartime commodities, letters from home,
"I received your kindest and best of letters Monday evening, and I will tell you I was glad to get it. I also got one from you last
weelweek which you commenced at fathers, and that I answered but I suppose the letter did not go out till to day. The one I recd Monday night a was dated March 19th and was written just one week ago to day. It is doing very well to get a letter in so short a time way down here. Our letters will go to the knob in the morning, and this letter will probably go out with the train. I hope so that you may hear from me as soon as possible.19"
Clearly his spirit is soaring. Later the letter describes the various training drills that his unit must perform,
"In the first place we have company drill an hour and a half. Skirmish drill dito (sic), in the forenoon, Battalion drill an hour, Sergeants drill half an hour, and squad drill dito (sic) in the afternoon, making
four 5 hours of hard work for part of the time we drill in double quick time (on the run)"
But the description of how John’s company passes its spare time is humorous while simultaneously displaying good unit, and personal, morale:
"I must tell you about some fun we have just been having… After all that is all through and we have eaten our supper we feel like play and I tell you we get up all sorts of fun. Now while I am writing they are tossing Geo Jacks up in a blanket. About twenty men take hold of a big, strong blanket and a light one gets on it. Then all the men count 'one, two, three' and up the fellow goes. They throwed (sic) Geo about twenty feet up, and caught him nicely. It is fun. How would you like it? Another thing is 16 men lock arms, and brace themselves 8 then get on their shoulders and lock hands. 4 then climb up in the center and get on them, and then two boys get on top. That’s fun I tell you. We do anything to kill time. Play ball, gool(?) checkers or anything and everything that can be played."
This letter is one of John’s longest and most valuable to the Civil War historian. John discusses his rations, pay, and camp life. Written a few days before the great battle at Shiloh, at a time when Union fortunes in the West were high following the Confederate surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson, the letter demonstrates that many Union men thought the war would be short and they would be home soon.
The next letter in the sequence is written from Pitman’s Ferry, Arkansas on April 25th, 1862.18 It is a poignant document. Full of details of the difficulties endured during his unit’s march, John nevertheless is reluctant to share his miseries with his wife, "Some of our best men are sick but I am happy to inform you that I and all the boys you know are well. I do not complain of my hardships. A soldier has no business to complain." His closing remarks are typical of John’ correspondence,
"I have no time to write more. Write as often as you can. I will write again from P. I would like very much to see you and the children. Wont it be a happy day when I get back? Good by (sic) my dearest wife, John."
Those passages are in keeping with John’s previous letters, but his opening paragraph reveals much about the 33rd’s travails during its movement south:
"I have an hour to spare and hasten to improve it by writing to you. We left Camp Lippincott at Reeve’s station last saturday and marched all that day in a pelting rain and stopped at night, wet and cold, but as soon as we could put up our tent and get some hot coffee, bacon and hardtack we felt better. We stand ten miles from where we started for two days, and it rains all the time. Our train of provisions consisting of
six six mule teams an (sic) 200 waggons (sic) and 6 mules on each waggon was stopped by the flood, above the St. Francis, so we were put on half rations. That was sunday and we are still on short rations. We have marched this far at the rate of 15 miles per day through the mud, and the rain with no coffee sugar rice and only half enough hard bread, bacon and beans. We waded through twelve creeks and rivers one day coming just 15 miles. Our Quartermaster forced all the citizens along the road to take their teams and help draw our tents provisions ect. (sic) As it is some of our mules are dead and others about gone up. We arrived at this place la (sic) yesterday about 1 marching 12 miles between 8 & 1 through the mud and had to put up our tent in the mud & while it was raining, but we went out and cut brush and laid under us put our rubber blankets on it and though we were wet to the bone we slept well till morning."
More than six months pass before the next letter, which finds John’s unit back in Ironton, Missouri. There is no definite information about visits home. John often mentions his great desire to see his family, but no specific mention is made of his visiting Galesburg.
The Campaign for Vicksburg
Before the campaign started in earnest, John had time to visit Ironton, Missouri, and his letter of February 21, 1863, discusses the visit.19 There is one short section of the letter that seems to suggest John may not have been home during the period since his preceding letter,
"I came to town this morning after I wrote to you, and have been here all day. I have had my hair and whiskers trimmed, bought some socks, claimed some shoes, and filled myself with apples, bread and milk and other things too numerous to mention. Geo Goddard, Serg’t Barnes and I are staying with an old friend of ours and will stay all night. It
seim (sic) seems curious to sit at a table and eat. Oh how I wish I could be with you once more and enjoy your company again, but it cannot be at present."
Had John been home, he probably would not have mentioned it being "curious" to sit and eat. But there is much more to this correspondence, interesting information that is also informative to Civil War students 135 years later. John reports having marched more than 400 miles since January 14th, often without rations or adequate shoes. The passage is interesting because John’s unit was probably training, or simply staying fit, in preparation for the campaign that U.S. Grant would open within a few months,
"We shall start in a day or two across the country to St. Geneviene, fifty miles from here and from there will probably go to Vicksburg. You must not worry about me. The same power that has protected me so far will still protect me. As for me I wish to go where there is more fighting, and less marching. I have had enough of the latter. One last march from Van Buren to Stein(?), from Stein(?) back to Van Buren and then back to West Plains, and from there here has been the hardest of the war. It is true I suffered more last summer some days, but I have endured more since I left VB than in all the rest of my life. It rained or snowed as often as every third day while we were out and we had to poke along through the mud day after day at the average rate of fifteen miles per day. Since the 14th of Jan we have marched over 400 miles, slept sometimes without tents, and marched some days without rations and at the same time carried 40 lbs on our backs. I have worn out three pairs of shoes in that time and a part of the time my feet have had nothing between them and the rough stones."
Nevertheless, John’s commitment to his cause remains high, and he remains steadfast in his unwillingness to complain about his circumstances:
"I do not tell you all this to make you feel bad but to show you what I can (and am willing to) endure for my country. I am glad you feel as I do about my having to come to war as I did. I think it will be an everlasting disgrace to those who have to be conscripted if it has not already.23"
Reflecting exactly what we would expect of a Civil War soldier based on Gerald Linderman’s work, 20 John remains committed to his faith and his courage and eagerness run high, "You must not worry about me. The same power that has protected me so far will still protect me. As for me I wish to go where there is more fighting, and less marching. I have had enough of the latter."
The next letter, written March 28th, 1863, is relatively short but significant.21 John mentions many of the men from Galesburg whom he knows (though many were in other units.) John clearly understood that his unit was part of a great army that would be assaulting Vicksburg. Since he had not seen intensive combat during his time in the army, it is understandable that he would attempt to encourage his wife to maintain a positive outlook toward the war effort. In writing the words, he may have been also building his own intestinal fortitude and strength,
"We arrived here Thursday night and had not been here a half an hour before Erastis & Major Hotchkiss came to see me. I was glad to see them and the rest of the burg(?) boys I tell you. Wm Henry, Lawyer Harrison (who says he knew "Dr. when I was a lad") Lawyer M.M. Clark, Robt Avery, John Burlingame, Lyman West, Henry Losey and a lot of the boys from the burg have been to see me, and I have been to see them. I tell you I feel almost as though I was at home. If I could only see your good face once in a while I would be contented. I am well Thank God and hope I shall keep so. I am going to take good care of myself and try to live through this summer if I can. You must not worry about the big battle that is to come off here soon. The Lord has preserved me so far and I have faith in him (sic) yet. Dont let your courage fail, and be sure of this Hortense that if we do have a battle I shall try to act as you would have me, and you and the children shall never have cause to be ashamed of my memory. I shall need all my courage but I shall think of my dear ones, and do my best."22
John takes time to reflect upon the coming of the Southern spring, "Everything looks lovely here. Every tree is in full leaf and flowers are in full bloom. Enclosed I send some flowers. I
A dont (sic) know what kind. Also two laurel leaves." His ending sounds very familiar by now, "Oh dear I wish I could be with you but I will wait patiently. Write as often as you can, kiss the children for me and believe me to be as ever your own affectionate, John M. Follett."
The next letter, dated April 5th, finds the 33rd at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana.23 John remains anxious concerning the impending battle, "When I wrote that I did not expect to write you another before the battle but there is no more prospect of a battle now than there was days ago." His words show that the Collection is missing many letters, "I wrote you a letter a few days ago and sent it to Galesburg by Erastus which I suppose you have got by this time.24" John again displays his anxiousness to join the fight and his ambivalence toward marching,
"You say mother, you were in hopes I would stay at Pilot Knob, I was glad to get out of Mo myself. I would rather be where there is more fighting, and less marching. I am glad we are here and I hope we shall soon have the pleasure of taking Vicksburg. It will be honor enough for my life time."
John is obviously very aware of the importance of Vicksburg. In less than a month, John and thousands of other men would be very actively involved in the most spectacular campaign of the war, Grant’s final push to seize the Confederate fortress on the Mississippi. John continues to reveal a dedication to his cause, and he is obviously proud of his family’s service, even if one of his brothers has become discouraged,
"Our relatives are pretty well scattered about in the army that’s a fact, but I guess they are doing their share _____ A.H. Follett & Loren E. Follett’s sons, I am glad to learn that Bill stands it so well, but am sorry to hear that Mell is discouraged. I "went down to stay" when I enlisted, and if I have my health I will stay till (sic) we whip the rebels if it takes ten years."
Nor does the continued lack of progress over the past two months that John was around Vicksburg seem to have a negative effect on John’s morale or his respect for his Army Commander,
"We are only 12 miles above Vicksburg and we can hear the cannons boom, boom, boom, day, and night occasionally. Grant is having another canal dug and we have got to go down some day this week and dig our share,"
If there is any doubt of the importance of letters to John, the following two passages should eradicate such an idea, "Now Mother I will answer your letter. I do like the size of your letters first rate I tell you, I dont know what I should do if you didnt write to me." Later, when encouraging his sister to write more to her soldier-brothers, John says,
"Now Miss Ellen, you say you do like to write to your brothers and you are so foolish as to think they like to have you write to them. Well I hope you will always be just so foolish, for I like to read letters from you all. You must remember that any little thing which interests you will interest me and all you have to do is to write it to me. You say you wonder if you will ever be able to write as good letters as Mothers. Mother does write good letters and she is hard to beat and the reason why is because she writes all the little things. If you live as long as she had may be you will write as well. You can keep on writing to me any way for your letters are welcome. Enclosed you will find some moss such as hangs on every tree in the woods in these parts. It is for you. I want all of you to write as often as you can and I will do the same."
Earlier letters have revealed John’s interest in nature, and this correspondence continues in tendency,
"You say Chess Vail sent you a Peach blossom from Louisiana. Well I will send you an apple blossom from the same state but lower down also a bay leaf (the short one) and a laurel leaf (the long one from the same place, a rose and juniper sprig from Miss. I was over there day before yesterday and also some Louisiana silk which I picked myself…. Enclosed you will find some moss such as hangs on every tree in the woods in these parts."
John has often displayed a strong belief in God and a fatalistic attitude toward death, but in this letter he also invokes the Bible to explain why the secessionists were losing the war,
"The old fellow who owned this plantation left about a 100 acres unpicked last fall. I sleep on about $25.00 worth which I took out of a
bail bale(?). We tore down his cotton gin house and made floors for our tents. He had 600 niggers and they were all gone, his land 10,000 acres is laid waste, and he is ruined. Verily the ways of the transgressor is (not will be) hard "He that doeth wrong shall (he may repent but the punishment comes first, - end is certain) receive for the wrong which he hath done" He is receiving the reward of his disloyalty and I think the south at least will be convinced that there is punishment in this life for wrong doing."
All in all, this April letter to his parents and sister provides a snapshot of both the man and the soldier who was John M. Follett. He could have been the role model for the soldiers in Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage. Older than the average Union recruit, John almost immediately received additional responsibility as acting sergeant of the guard. He is a fatalist, believing his welfare in combat is mostly in God’s hands, though he does take strict measures to ensure his health in camp. He probably had not traveled a lot before his enlistment for his awe of nature and its beauty in parts of the country with which he is unfamiliar are plain for all to see. He certainly is deeply committed to his wife and family, and very respectful to his parents. He encourages his wife to maintain her commitment to their cause even though the war has brought them separation and family hardship.
John’s view toward soldiering is also consistent with James Robertson’s study of the soldiers in the war and presented in his Soldiers Blue and Gray. John is sure of his cause, which he deems unquestionably to be a righteous one. Hospitals and the conditions therein horrify him, yet he tries his best to assist his comrades who are sick and wounded. He frets about marching and yearns for combat, though he remains completely unaware of the horror of war. He complains about pay and about officers who fail to give him passes to see friends and relatives. Yet, he writes not a single derogatory word about Grant’s activities around Vicksburg in the period February to April, 1863, when many were losing patience with and faith in Grant.
Was John M. Follett an ordinary Union soldier? Probably, but by the standards of 1998, his letters reveal him to have been an extraordinary man.
The People in the Letters
Several famous generals from U.S. Grant to George McClellan are mentioned in John’s letters. A list of these famous historical figures is given below in Table 1. Also included in many letters are references to relatives, friends and neighbors from Illinois who are otherwise unknown to history and shown in Table 2. To the extent possible, the identification, unit and place of residence of these relatives and friends was established using the letters themselves or by using the Illinois State Archives and History Data Systems, Inc. websites.25 Their use in this research has been invaluable. Various regiments mentioned by John Follett are found in Table 3.
Table 1. Famous People
John likes him very much
John spells "McLellan"
Rains, James E.
Table 2. Ordinary People.
Possibly Hortense’s father
Carries letters home
Possibly Lewis Follett’s wife
Relative of John, author of last letter in Collection
Table 2. Continued.
Captain, resigned 7/63
Visited 33rd in Feb 62
Lieutenant, resigned 7/63
* All units are Illinois Volunteer Infantry except as noted and all residences are Illinois. All ranks are private except as noted.
Table 3. Units Mentioned
17th Illinois Vol Infantry
Col Ross commanding
1st Brigade, 14th Div, 13thArmy Corps
33rd’s chain of command for Vicksburg campaign
1st Indiana Vol Cavalry
Often worked with 33rd Ill.
21st Illinois Vol Infantry
Often worked with 33rd Ill.
33rd Illinois Vol Infantry
John’s regiment, Col. Hovey commanding
38th Illinois Vol Infantry
According to Historical Data Systems, the 38thsaw much more combat than the 33rd. Note 26
- The unpublished letters of John M. and William Follett, and assorted others, hereinafter referred to as the "Follett Collection," are shown in Appendix A. Most letters are addressed to Hortense Follett, John’s wife. There are no letters addressed to either brother, so we can speculate that Hortense and her descendants saved the letters. The letters came to light at an estate sale in Nebraska, probably but not certainly in Omaha. They were found in a box of miscellaneous things and were not sold as "Civil War letters." Their continued existence is surely an accident. The Follett Collection is in the personal possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf Breeze, Florida. Images of each letter and a transcription of each letter is available on-line at http://www.cwresearch.org/letters/.
- The letters are often very difficult to read, and for the most part they were written using a pencil. One of the problems in transcribing them (one of many problems) was the writers’ use of punctuation. Part of the problem could have been the quality of the paper, and part the use of a pencil. Often, there appear to be "periods" when we would expect "commas," and "commas" when we would expect a "period." And often there is no apparent punctuation! But John’s spelling is very good, and when he is not rushed, his letters are easily read, though some were obviously hurried and the handwriting difficult to decipher (to see an example of the difference, see the website at http://www.cwresearch.org and compare JF611208 with JF650506.) Computer enhancement of the graphic images of the letters aided transcription by permitting legible copies of the letters to be printed. In one case, computer enhancement brought out writing that was almost invisible to the naked eye.
- Each letter is typically written on a single piece of paper, in landscape format, folded in the middle, but written on both sides, a procedure that translates into four pages.
- John M. Follett, Ironton, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 8 December 1861, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida. At the start of the war, John Follett did not number his letters, but obviously many never reached their recipient. We know from reading the letters that eventually in 1864, both John and Hortense started numbering their letters in order for each to know when they may be missing some from the other. Since the early letters were not numbered, and we do not have all that were, we have decided to use the date of the letter as an identifier for the entire Follett Collection. Thus, John Follett’s first letter of 8 December 1861 becomes JF611208. When viewing the letters on the Internet, such identification of the Collection makes it easier to find the letter of specific interest.
- Muster and Descriptive Roll of Company A, 42nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, uncertified copy, obtained from Secretary of State, State of Illinois. Illinois has a very good Internet website that can be used to investigate information about that state’s Civil War soldiers and units: http://www.sos.state.il.us/depts/archives/.
- A.H. Follett, Chattanooga, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 21 November 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- Muster and Descriptive Roll of Company C, 112th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, uncertified copy, obtained from Secretary of State, State of Illinois.
- Muster and Descriptive Roll of Company H, 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, uncertified copy, obtained from Secretary of State, State of Illinois. For additional information about the 33rd Illinois Vol. Inf., see the website at http://home.rootsweb.ancestry.com/. For individual soldiers, see http://www.sos.state.il.us/cgi-bin/civilwar. For example, search under "Follett". A complete history of the 33rd’s assignments as recorded in Dyer’s Compendium is presented as Appendix B. A history of the 33rd Illinois, and every other Illinois regiment, can be found at the website and is attached as Appendix C.
- John M. Follett, Matagorda Bay, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 13 December 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida. This letter provides a wonderful description of a Midwesterner’s first view of the Gulf of Mexico, and some humorous, though phonetic, spellings.
- John M. Follett, New Orleans, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 16 January 1864, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida. In this letter John expresses his unrestrained respect for John McClernand, a Democrat politician from Illinois who was appointed as a general by the Republican Abraham Lincoln. One of the famous "War Democrats" whose favor Lincoln clearly sought (others included Ben Butler and Nathaniel Banks) McClernand was popular with many Illinois men like John Follett, but U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman could not abide the man, and Grant fired him during the siege at Vicksburg.
- John M. Follett, Ironton, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 13 November 1861, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Fort Hovey, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 18 December 1861, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Fort Hovey, to Parents, 28 January 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Fort Hovey, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 29 January 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Fort Hovey, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 15 February 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Camp Hardee, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 11 March 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Camp Hardee, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 26 March 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Pitman’s Ferry, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 25 April 1862, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John M. Follett, Ironton, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 21 February 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage. New York: The Free Press, 1987. Linderman theorizes that the concept of "courage" changed after soldiers had been exposed to prolonged combat. John’s words here reflect the fact that his unit has not yet been involved in major battles. In fact, John was probably never exposed to making a frontal assault or siege warfare. Thus, his words about courage never get past Linderman’s description of the citizen’s view, or the view of soldiers early in the war.
- John M. Follett, Milliken’s Bend, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 28 March 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- John’s attitude is straight from Linderman.
- John M. Follett, Milliken’s Bend, to Parents, 5 April 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
- Another indication that many of John’s letters are missing from the Collection. Since the previous letter in the collection was dated March 28th, several have been lost. Later in the series John began numbering his letters, and many in the sequence are missing. Given that the Collection was not found organized, but rather represented pieces literally thrown into the proverbial shoe box, the missing letters could simply have fallen out inadvertently.
- Illinois Civil War Project: A project to put Illinois Civil War Rosters, History and More on the Internet. http://www.sos.state.il.us/depts/archives, and Historical Data Systems, Inc, [database online, subscription based]: http://www. civilwardata.com.
- Historical Data Systems, Inc, [database online, subscription based]: http://www. civilwardata.com. Search under "regimental dynamics."
Dyer's Compendium, Pt. 1 (Campaigns etc.), Union Regimental Index -Illinois, available on-line at: http://www.sos.state.il.us/depts/archives/.
Follett, A.H. Chattanooga, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 21 November 1863, Follett Collection in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Ironton, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 13 November 1861, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 8 December 1861, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 28 December 1861, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Parents, 28 January 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Hortense, Galesburg, 29 January 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Hortense, Galesburg, 30 January 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Fort Hovey, to Hortense, Galesburg, 15 February 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Camp Hardee, to Hortense, Galesburg, 11 March 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Camp Hardee, to Hortense, Galesburg, 26 March 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Pitman’s Ferry, to Hortense, Galesburg, 25 April 1862, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Ironton, to Hortense, Galesburg, 21 February 1863, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Milliken’s Bend, to Hortense, Galesburg, 28 March 1863, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M., Milliken’s Bend, to Parents, 5 April 1863, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Follett, John M. Matagorda Bay, to Hortense B. Follett, Galesburg, 13 December 1863, Follett Collection, in the possession of Scott Laidig, Gulf, Breeze, Florida.
Historical Data Systems, Inc. Civil War and Genealogy Database [on-line subscription based] website: http://www.civilwardata.com/.
Illinois Civil War Project: A project to put Illinois Civil War Rosters, History and More on the Internet. History of 33rd Illinois Infantry, http://www.sos.state.il.us/depts/archives. Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage. New York: The Free Press, 1987.
Robertson, James I. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988
Appendix A – The Follett Collection
The Follett Collection includes the following letters that are referenced in this essay. The Collection uses the following notational rules. First and last initials of the authors name (John Follett = JF), followed by the date of the letter, year-month-day, followed by the addressee and the place from which the letter was written:
Fort Hovey, Mo.
Fort Hovey, Mo.
Fort Hovey, Mo.
Fort Hovey, Mo.
Fort Hovey, Mo.
Pitman’s Ferry, Ark.
Milliken’s Bend, La.
Milliken’s Bend, La.
Following "Follett Collection"Letters Not Included in This Essay
Port Gibson, Miss.
Matagorda Bay, Tx.
Matagorda Bay, Tx
Deerans Point , (state unknown)
New Orleans, La.
Brasheur City, La.
Mt. Vernon, Ky.
Sommerest (sic), Ky
Lenoirs Station, Tn.
Mt. Sterling, Ky.
Little Rock, Ark.
Resacca (sic), Ga., announces Wm’s death
USS Pittsburg, off Rodney, Miss.
All the letters may be viewed by visiting the website at http://www.cwresearch.org. A transcription of each letter is provided, but that actually letter also may be viewed by "clicking" on the image of the letter that appears besides the text list of letters.
Dyer's Compendium, Pt. 1 (Campaigns etc.)
Union Regimental Index--Illinois
33rd REGIMENT INFANTRY.
Organized. at Camp Butler, Illinois., Sept. 3, 1861.
September, 1861, Department of Missouri.
March, 1862, 2nd Brigade, Steele's Army of South East Missouri.
May, 1862, 1st Division, Army South West Missouri, Department of Mo.
July, 1862, 1st Division, District of Eastern Arkansas., Department of Mo.
Nov., 1862, 1st Brigade, 1st Div., Army South East Mo., Department of Mo.
March, 1863, 1st Brig., 14th Div., 13th Corps, Department of Tenn.
July, 1863, 1st Brig., 1st Div., 13th Corps, Department of Tennessee.
Aug., 1863, 1st Brig., 1st Div., 13th Corps, Department of the Gulf.
June, 1864, District of LaFourche, La., Department of the Gulf.
February, 1865, 1st Brig., 1st Div., 13th Corps, Military Div. of the West. Miss.
June, 1865, Department of Mississippi
Mustered out Nov. 24, 1865.
History of 33rd Illinois Infantry
Prepared by the Illinois Civil War Project: A project to put Illinois Civil War Rosters, History and More on the Internet.
The Thirty-third Infantry Illinois Volunteers was organized at Camp Butler, Illinois, in the month of September 1861, by Colonel Chas. E. Hovey, and mustered into the United States service by Captain T. G. Pitcher, U. S. A. September 20, moved to Ironton, Mo., via St. Louis; Remained at Ironton during the winter, with occasional scouts into the country. On one of these the battle of Fredericktown was fought - Company A on skirmish; March 1862, moved, with the command of General Steele, southward, passing into Arkansas at Pitman's Ferry, and marching, via Pocahontas and Jacksonport, to Batesville, where it joined General Curtis' army; thence, via Jacksonport, Augusta and Clarendon, to Helena.
July 7, at Cache creek, or Cotton Plant, several companies participated in a battle with Texas rangers, in which Company A rescued and brought off a field piece belonging to our cavalry. The rebels had a large number killed, and were pursued for some miles. According to our official report one hundred and twenty three rebel dead were found on the main battlefield, and a number were killed in the pursuit. Seven were killed and fifty-seven wounded on the Union side; none killed in the Thirty-third.
During July and August were camped 20 miles south of Helena, and engaged in eight expeditions up and down the river.
September 1, was moved up the river to Sulphur Springs, and thence to Pilot Knobb, where it arrived in the middle of the October, 1862.
November 15, was moved to Van Buren, Ark., in Colonel Harris' Brigade, Brigadier General W.P. Benton's Division, of General Davidson's Corps. Made winter campaign in southeast Missouri, passing through Patterson, Van Buren, Alton, West Plains, Eminence and Centreville, and returned to Bellevue Valley, near Pilot Knob, about March 1,1863.
The Thirty-third was then ordered to Ste. Genevieve, Mo., where, with the command, it embarked for Milliken's Bend, La. Attached to the First Brigade, First Division, Thirteenth Army Corps, it was engaged in all its battles, participating in the battles of Port Gibson, Champion Hills, Black River Bridge, assault and siege of Vicksburg, and the siege of Jackson.
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