Benjamin C. Lincoln papers  1861-1865
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Collection Scope and Content Note

A fervent patriot and devout Christian, Benjamin C. Lincoln was also a remarkably regular correspondent. The Lincoln papers contain 437 letters written by and to Benjamin Lincoln between 1861 and 1865, including letters to and from his fiancée, later wife, Dora, letters from his brothers, Sam, Alfred, Irving, Ernest and Eugene, and from friends, Fred Gage, H.O. Walker, Charles H. Mann, Sam Hall, Amy Halliday, and Rev. Samuel Winkley, among others. The high literary quality of much of Lincoln's writing is matched by the quality of his friends' writing. Ideologically, temperamentally, and literarily they are a well matched set. There is a gap in letters written by Lincoln between November, 1863 and October, 1864, caused in part by his visits home. This period, however, is represented by letters to Lincoln, through which some of his activities can be reconstructed. The correspondence ends shortly after Ben's death at the Battle of Natural Bridge in March, 1865.

The collection is a valuable resource for examining the effect that the war had in shaping the relationships of friends, relatives and lovers. Throughout the separations imposed by military service, Lincoln remained in close contact with his fellow members of the Pine Street Chapel Association (many of whom served with him in the 39th Massachusetts Infantry), and his relationship with his brothers remained intimate. The early letters between Lincoln and his then-fiancée Dora provide a depiction of the pain of separation and the psychological hardships placed on these devout and devoted people, and the entire correspondence provides a fascinating portrait of the vicissitudes in their relationship up to and following their marriage in November, 1864. Lincoln and Dora discussed their relationship almost obsessively, whether it was going well or poorly, and the frequency of their letters makes for an unusually dense coverage of the course of one war-time love match. Dora's tendency toward depression was a problem throughout their relationship, and culminated in what appears to have been a mental breakdown early in 1865, probably over the stress of renewed separation from her husband. The collection also includes a wrenching letter from Julia M. (1864 November 21), mourning the loss her fiancé, Sam Lincoln, and several letters from Amy E. Halliday (see especially 1864 November 25) coping with the loss of her fiancé, James Schneider, an officer in the 2nd U.S.C.T.

The military content in the Lincoln papers includes far more on camp life than combat, with a few notable exceptions. During Lincoln's time with the 39th Massachusetts, the regiment was stationed in a comparatively calm part of Maryland or in Washington, D.C., and thus lacks first hand descriptions of skirmishes or battles. Lincoln's letters contain speculation on his own religious convictions, as well as on the spiritual and moral condition of his fellow soldiers, and there are comments on the hostile local citizenry, on his duties as a clerk, and occasionally on the war and the military itself. Once Lincoln receives his commission in the 2nd U.S.C.T. in September, 1863, however, the letters contain more of general interest. The collection is a significant resource for studying the attitudes and activities of a white officer in a "colored" regiment, particularly during the six weeks during which the regiment was filling up at Camp Casey, and during the period in which they were stationed at calm Key West. Lincoln was not always immediately forthcoming in his letters with descriptions of his experiences with his African American troops, partly for fear that Dora would think that he was ignoring her if he discussed anything other than their relationship. Lincoln does, however, provide good descriptions of racial tension surrounding the regiment as it was forming, and some spirited accounts of religious attitudes among the troops, along with several good accounts of their Methodist-style worship. In all, Lincoln's correspondence provides an excellent portrait of the motivations of a white soldier for seeking a commission in a colored regiment, his racial attitudes, and his experiences in camp and, to a lesser degree, in the field.

Equally valuable from the military point of view are the numerous letters from friends and relatives in the service, including those from Ben's brother Sam, a private in the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry and later as a civilian employee of the Quartermaster's Department in New Bern, N.C., and from a friend, Samuel Hall, of Co. G, 39th Massachusetts. Sam Lincoln's letters are filled with information about his regiment, and about life in the garrisoned town of New Bern. His position as a former soldier become civilian makes for an unusual perspective on Union-occupied North Carolina. Letters from Lincoln's other brothers create an impression, somewhat less fleshed-out, of the stresses endured by the members of the Lincoln family during the war, the losses they incurred, and their attempts to cope. The 15 letters from Charlie Brown, initially also a member of the 39th Massachusetts Infantry, but later an officer in the 7th U.S.C.T, are particularly noteworthy. Brown was one of Ben's closest personal friends, as was his wife Ellen, and his writing ability combined with his candor make his letters a particularly important resource for the study of one of the most active "colored" regiments in the Union army. Brown provides a description of the rout at the Battle of Olustee, of engagements near Jacksonville, Fla., and the Battle of New Market Heights, and comments throughout on life in the 7th U.S.C.T.

The 22 letters from Lincoln's civilian friend and fellow Bostonian, H.O. Walker, are also uniformly lively and interesting. A fiery abolitionist and an early advocate of arming African Americans, Walker was a man with strong opinions on the war who seldom demurred from expressing himself. Included among his best letters are a long discussion of electoral politics, radical Republicans, Frémont, Lincoln, and Johnson (1864 June 24 and September 8) and a detailed description of a public meeting held at Cambridge on the subject of conscription (1864 July 26). "We must have black troops," he wrote, "and a limitless number of them too -- paid and treated like their white brothers" (1863 September 5). The four letters from Rev. Samuel Winkley provide an interesting insight both into the powerful force that religious convictions held for some soldiers, but also the bonds of friendship and mutual assistance that tied Winkley and his former Chapel Associates, even across the separations of war. Winkley's letter of September 5, 1863, includes a fine discussion of the duties of a Christian chaplain, written with regard to the African American soldier.

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