The Sylvanus A. and Rachel Wheat papers consist of 125 letters, covering 1848-1880, as well as an undated religious tract. The bulk of the collection is correspondence between members of the Wheat family during Sylvanus' service with the 144th New York Infantry, documenting Wheat's movements and observations on his duties and camp life, as well as the home-front experiences of his wife and siblings. Of the 60 letters written by Sylvanus during his military service in the Civil War, he addressed 48 to his wife, Rachel, and 11 to his sisters. Sylvanus was the recipient of a total of 58 letters: 30 from Rachel, 16 from his sisters, 6 from his brothers, and 4 from various cousins.
Just two items in the collection predate the Civil War, and both contain poems lamenting the death of Althea Loveland, the sister of Rachel (Loveland) Wheat. These items are dated September 21, 1848, and July 26, 1849. Sylvanus Wheat wrote the latter letter, in which he confessed that Althea "was if possible more lamented by me than any other person."
The letters documenting the war begin in mid-October 1862, and open with Wheat's travel to Washington, D.C., and his discussion of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's raid on Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in which he noted that rebels had taken the city and "murdered some" (October 13, 1862). Wheat soon moved to Camp Bliss in Arlington County, Virginia, where he stayed until February 1863, and from there, he frequently wrote home about camp life, duties, politics, health, the destruction caused by war, and other observations. He sometimes described picket duty, which he performed when he was healthy. On December 9, 1862, in a letter to his wife Rachel, he described several days of this duty in the snow and noted that "the officers could not see our fire which is forbidden by army regulations, although we had a rousing big one.” He also complained of the heavy load of supplies that they carried (December 14, 1862), and described the bivouac shelter that they built (December 22, 1862) while on picket near the camp. Another frequent theme in the letters is the destruction caused by war. On October 24, 1863, Wheat wrote to a sister about the "gloom" of "splendid mansions," abandoned and left in ruins near Camp Bliss. On December 9, 1862, he described the buildings and fields stripped and ruined by "rapacious soldiers," and noted that "distrust and hatred are visable on the countenance of all the inhabitants."
Wheat sometimes requested that his family send him tools, so he could improve his living conditions, and in several letters he gave accounts of his efforts to make his surroundings more comfortable. On November 25, 1862, he described elevating his tent by three feet with poles, allowing him and his tent-mates to walk around in it without stooping. On January 3, 1863, he requested that family members send him an axe, calling the ones provided by the Army "miserable soft things." In return, they requested small souvenirs from the war, such as pinecones and acorns, which they found highly desirable and crafted into ornaments and baskets (December 18, 1862). On December 27, 1862, Cordelia Wheat asked that Sylvanus send her a few small rocks or stones from the "sacred soil of Virginia."
In February of 1863, Sylvanus Wheat described leaving Camp Bliss for Camp California, which was located slightly west of Alexandria, Virginia. He noted the large number of "convenient articles" that had to be left behind, such as kettles, cans, cupboards, and a stove and washtub, but remarked that they had made two black walnut bedsteads (February 18, 1863). There, he suffered increasing health problems related to his lungs and throat. By April, Sylvanus Wheat wrote from the U.S. General Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, shortly before receiving a discharge. On April 1, 1863, he described a night during which he and other patients tried to soothe the sickest among them; he also gave an account of an extensive examination, which involved both medical and personal questions (April 3, 1863). In his final letter before leaving for home, he expressed fears that he would die upon release from the hospital (April 5, 1863).
Several letters refer to the Dakota War, which Sylvanus' brother James and sister-in-law Almira reported on from Lenora, Minnesota. On February 5, 1863, James wrote that he expected the "Indians will make a fuss next Spring in Minnesota. The militia here is organizing and getting ready to do something if necessary." Almira also wrote, expressing worry that James would be drafted to protect settlers from the Dakota (October 24, 1863). A few post-Civil War letters provide news on the children and farming activities of Sylvanus and Rachel Wheat and their children.