The Whitcomb letters reflect a portion of the Civil War service of George and Robert Whitcomb. The collection includes thirteen war-date letters from Robert (plus one post-war letter), five from George and two from both brothers, all but one addressed to their parents, Eli and Harriet or to their family. Among the remaining correspondence are six letters from Melvin Whitcomb and five letters from Catie (Brevoort) Brailey, a cousin from Delta, Ohio.
Robert's letters, in particular, provide an interesting commentary on several aspects of the war. First, while it would be hard to consider him the prototypical ideologically-motivated soldier, Robert can be quite passionate about his duty. Typical are his anger over deserters and draft dodgers fleeing New York for Canada, 800 a day by some reports, and the venom with which he talks about the rioters in New York City ("I hope that such men as refuse to come after they have been drafted will be hung or shot & if they had my position there would be no danger of either" 1863 July 23). He was adamant that the draftees who were assigned to the 169th would do nothing to besmirch the regiment's good reputation, and his long diatribe on draftees gives a distinctive, volunteer's view of the conscript.
Robert recognized and appreciated the fact that in his position with the quartermaster he had it much easier than the average soldier. On expeditions, he rode, while George and others marched, and during battles, Robert was generally held back. Despite this, Robert was very anxious to get the fighting done with and to end the war on Union terms. In one of his most moving letters, he describes the galvanizing experience of seeing Union soldiers paroled from southern prisons, walking skeletons, some of whom died when eating their first full meal. "We had ought to kill everyone [of the rebels] that we come for," he wrote, "for they hant human beings they are brutes… I wish you could see one load of them prisoners you would say kill every man in the Rebel army" (1865 March 7). His strong feelings for his fellow soldiers, and particularly for his brother, permeate several letters, and after his separation from George when George was sent to Florida, Robert's letters become more thoughtful, displaying a determined, and occasionally mournful or bitter streak. His letter of 1864 February 23 is particularly moving, in which he recounts the loneliness he felt and his fears for the expedition.
George's letters include some interesting descriptions of active field service, including a humorous episode in which five members of the 13th Indiana Infantry that were out picking blackberries ran into several Confederate cavalrymen. Not having their weapons with them, they grabbed cornstalks and charged at the cavalrymen, shouting, taking them by surprise and scattering them. They returned to camp with two bay mares and another horse worth, as George was quick to point out, $500 a piece in normal times.
Finally, the collection includes some interesting letters relating to the intriguing case of Melvin Whitcomb, who seems to have tried unsuccessfully to avoid the draft. In one letter to his father, Melvin begs for proof that he was under age, but in his next letter, written in February, 1864, he was in a conscript camp on Riker's Island attempting to resist the state's efforts to place him in the 98th Infantry. By the following March, with two years remaining in his enlistment, Melvin was living with relatives in Delta, Ohio, though it is a little unclear what his status was with the military. Robert, who all along sympathized with Melvin, wrote that Mel would never be able to take comfort, and would always feel guilty, suggesting, without saying it, that Mel was a deserter (1865 March 7). Mel began working on the canals, and may have adopted a false name, Eugene Hoyle to write home, though this is somewhat speculative. Regardless, Mel had returned to New York State by the summer of 1867, and was living in Robert's new place on Bald Mountain.