This collection is primarily made up of typescripts of letters that Thomas D. Willis wrote to his parents and siblings while serving in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment between August 1862 and June 1865. The Willis family also received a small number of letters from John McKee and Walter G. Wilson, also of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and a family friend who encountered Willis during his hospitalization in late 1864.
Thomas D. Willis sent letters to his parents and two of his siblings, Julia and Seth, throughout his Civil War service, writing less frequently as the war went on. From late August 1862 to early April 1863, he discussed his pride in the regiment, his close friendships with a group of other soldiers, and life in camps in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; and Nashville, Tennessee. He described his daily schedule, meals, equipment, and marches, where he noticed the effects of the war and the graves of soldiers who had died along the road. After arriving in Nashville in November 1862, the regiment became involved in a controversy over their expected and assigned duties. Willis reported that he and others had enlisted to serve as bodyguards for General Don Carlos Buell; upon learning that they were to become a regular cavalry regiment following Buell's removal, the members of the regiment laid down their arms and refused to serve, believing that they had been enlisted under false pretenses. In the absence of obvious ringleaders, Willis and several other men were randomly chosen as representatives at a court martial. Willis described the poor conditions during his imprisonment and expressed his growing discontent with Captain William Jackson Palmer and other military leaders, whom he accused of acting as despots.
After his release from prison in early April 1863, Willis returned to the front, where he continued to describe camp life in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. He mentioned several skirmishes and at least one major engagement with Confederate troops. He noted that the civilian population, including both Union and Confederate sympathizers, had suffered because of the war. His letters also refer to health problems, often related to dysentery, and he was hospitalized with a large open sore on his hip in late 1864. Willis described his treatment in hospitals in Nashville, Tennessee, and Jeffersonville, Indiana, and discussed his appointment as a wardmaster for a branch hospital. Willis wrote infrequently between late 1864 and the spring of 1865, when he anticipated his return home. Along with the Willis family's incoming correspondence, the collection includes typescripts of 2 letters that Willis's mother wrote in August 1864; she discussed life at home, Copperhead politicians, and the presidential election of 1864.
The materials were transcribed by Scott Willis, a descendant of Thomas D. Willis, around 1978.