Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Frederic and William Speed Papers, 1857-1874

James S. Schoff Civil War Collection

Finding aid created by
Shannon Wait, January 2011

Summary Information
Title: Frederic and William Speed papers
Creator: Speed family
Inclusive dates: 1857-1874
Extent: 224 items
The Frederic and William Speed papers contain letters written by Frederic Speed who served in the 5th and 13th Maine Infantry Regiments and as assistant adjutant general, and his brother, William Speed of the 24th Michigan Infantry Regiment, who was mortally wounded on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1984. M-2161.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Frederic and William Speed Papers, James S. Schoff Civil War Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The papers are arranged chronologically.


Speed, William

Rank : Capt.

Regiment : 24th Michigan Infantry Regiment. Company D. (1862-1865)

Service : 1862-1863 July 1

Speed, Frederic

Rank : Adj.

Regiment : 13th Maine Infantry Regiment. Companies F and S. (1861-1865)

Service : 1861 April 24-1866 September

William Speed was born March 27, 1832, the second child of John James Speed (ca. 1803-1867), who was an executive of the American Telegraph Company, and his wife, Anne Sophia Morrell (1829-1881). Born at Caroline, Tompkins County, New York, William Speed relocated to Detroit in 1852, where he worked as a lawyer in the office of Hon. Jacob M. Howard. In 1862, he enlisted as a captain in the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Company D, which formed part of the Iron Brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac. The regiment fought at the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, and at the latter, Speed was mortally wounded on July 1, 1863. The 24th Michigan was notable for suffering the most casualties of any regiment at Gettysburg, with 89 killed or mortally wounded in action, 218 wounded, and 56 captured during the three-day span of the battle.

Frederic was William's younger brother and the sixth child of James and Anne Speed, born September 22, 1841, in Ithaca, New York. After spending a few years with his family in Detroit, he moved to Portland, Maine, where he enlisted on April 24, 1861, as a private in the 5th Maine Infantry, which he had helped to raise. He was soon promoted to sergeant-major, and then received a commission as lieutenant. After fighting in the First Battle of Bull Run, he requested and received the appointment of adjutant in the newly raised 13th Maine Infantry Regiment under General Neal Dow. Speed and his regiment served at the Siege of Port Hudson in the summer of 1863, and upon Dow's promotion to brigadier-general, Speed was appointed assistant-adjutant general, at the rank of captain. In the spring of 1865, he was stationed in Vicksburg, where he was making preparations to receive and transport over 11,000 freed Union prisoners of war from Andersonville and Catawba prisons. Stepping in for an absent superior, he approved the overloading of the SS Sultana with 2300 ex-prisoners. The ship's captain supported a quick patching of the steamboat's boiler in lieu of a full replacement, which would require three days. On April 27, 1865, near Memphis, Tennessee, the Sultana 's repaired boiler exploded and the ship caught fire. Approximately 1800 passengers on the ship died in the flames or drowned. Speed was court martialled and found responsible for his role in the tragedy. After his discharge from the Army in September 1866, Speed practiced law in Vicksburg, and in 1871, he married Esther Adele ("Della") Hillyard, with whom he had five children. He died in 1911.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Frederic and William Speed papers contain 212 chronologically-arranged letters and enclosures, spanning 1857-1874. The brothers wrote the letters home to their parents, John and Anne, and sisters, Anna, Charlotte ("Lottie"), and Cornelia ("Nell"), primarily during their Civil War service.

The collection contains approximately 30 letters written by William Speed, who served with the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry until his death at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. William's correspondence opens with a single prewar letter, written on the topic of his travels to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York (August 27, 1857). In his next several letters, Speed debated enlisting in the war, first determining not to volunteer until "a greater necessity" existed (December 11, 1861), and then regretting not signing up at the outbreak of the war (June 10, 1862). Speed began his service in August 1862, and wrote home regularly to report on movements, engagements, and camp life with the 24th Michigan. He provided details of his daily activities, including the hardtack and other foods he ate (November 29, 1862) and the two-man shelter tents in which the regiment slept (October 4, 1862). He also took a particular interest in recent battlefields, describing visits to South Mountain and Antietam in Maryland (October 12, 1862). Of the former, he wrote that "curiosity seekers" had nearly picked the site clean, but noted that it "must have been a terrible battle." He also described the "headboards" that marked Union graves and a mass burial site for Confederate soldiers nearby.

William also wrote about two of the major engagements in which he served. He gave accounts of the Battle of Fredericksburg in two letters, dated December 15, 1862, and December 29, 1862, in which he described being heavily shelled by the Confederates after General Solomon Meredith disobeyed orders an moved the troops in broad daylight. He also provided details on the topography of the battlefield, the bravery of his company, and the physical and mental fatigue experienced by the soldiers after the battle. On May 10, 1863, he described the Battle of Chancellorsville, in which his regiment crossed the Rappahannock River in pontoon boats, and commented, "Oh! These were fearful moments. The balls flew about like hail." He also wrote about a collaborative raid with the 8th Illinois Cavalry to stop smugglers near Falmouth, Virginia (May 27, 1863). Speed left no record of his Gettysburg service as he was mortally wounded on its first day, but several posthumous items pay tribute to him, including letters by the Detroit Bar (July 12, 1863) and the Union Lodge of Strict Observance (July 27, 1863).

Letters by Frederick Speed form the bulk of the collection, spanning June 19, 1861, to May 29, 1874. Young and very ambitious, Speed wrote frequently about his efforts to prove himself and to earn a regular army commission. These efforts included regularly filling in for the unit's adjutant (July 14, 1861); constructing a barricade, about which Speed noted, "Major General McClelland [sic] expressed himself as well pleased" (September 22, 1861); and taking an active part in picket duty, which he considered very dangerous (September 9, 1861). After joining the staff of the 13th Maine Infantry in the position of assistant adjutant general, Speed described steamboat travel to and arrival at Ship Island, Mississippi, which at first awed him with its shells and wildlife but later struck him as a "prison," after several months of service there (May 5, 1862). Speed also grew discontent with his supervisor, General Neal S. Dow, from whose staff he resigned in November 1862, calling him "the most intensely selfish man I ever saw" (November 3, 1862).

Speed saw action in several battles. During the First Battle of Bull Run, he took pride in his regiment's bravery, but lamented the "black track" of destruction and ruin they left behind and called the war "revolting" (August 3, 1861). He participated the in the Union forces' capture of New Orleans, which he described in a letter of August 1, 1862; he noted that he found the soldiers unlikely "to give up the city without the death struggle" (September 9, 1862). He wrote about the heavy Confederate casualties at the Battle of Plains Road (May 22, 1863), and the numerous aspects of the Siege of Port Hudson, including several bombardments, heavy attrition caused by disease, and the meager food sources of the Confederates (June 16, 1863). Also mentioned are skirmishes at Vermillion Baylor (October 13, 1863) and Carrion Crow Bayou (November 7, 1863).

Frederic Speed took an interest in African Americans, and frequently commented on issues related to them. He discussed abolitionism in letters to his sisters, and criticized southerners for being "little better than babes, they are so helpless" without their slaves (January 28, 1864). On July 19, 1863, Speed applied for permission to raise a "negro artillery regiment" and opined that 50,000 African American troops could be raised easily. He also reported that "negro regiments give their officers much less trouble than white ones" (August 28, 1863). He described a "day of jubilee" celebrated by newly freed African Americans in Mobile, Alabama, on July 4, 1865, writing, "My heart beat strong for their welfare and I too could not be but glad, with them."

A few items in the collection relate to Speed's role in the transportation of Union ex-prisoners of war back to their homes. On April 5, 1865, he commented on receiving and making arrangements for 11,000 prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba prisons, noting, "Those from Cahaba are well and hearty--those from Andersonville are more dead than alive." His role in the Sultana disaster is not referenced in the papers until over a month after it occurred, when he requested information and defended his actions to a commission that found him partially responsible (May 28, 1865). He also wrote about his desire for a court of inquiry to investigate the matter (May 28, 1865), his desire to resign after the matter had resolved itself (June 9, 1865), and his "depression" over his role in it (June 27, 1865). In a few scattered postwar letters, Frederic Speed shares family news and describes his interest in starting an ice business in the South.

Subject Terms

    • Alexandria (Va.)--History.
    • Baton Rouge (La.)
    • Bull Run, 1st Battle of, Va., 1861.
    • Butler, Benjamin F. (Benjamin Franklin), 1818-1893.
    • Chancellorsville, Battle of, Chancellorsville, Va., 1863.
    • Detroit (Mich.)
    • Dow, Neal, 1804-1897.
    • Fredericksburg, Battle of, Fredericksburg, Va., 1862.
    • Gettysburg, Battle of, Gettysburg, Pa., 1863.
    • Ice industry.
    • Port Hudson (La.)--History--Siege, 1863.
    • Sherman, Thomas W. (Thomas West), 1813-1879.
    • Ship Island (Miss.)
    • Steamboat disasters.
    • Vicksburg (Miss.)
    • Weitzel, Godfrey, 1835-1884.
    • Speed, Frederick, 1841-1911.
    • Speed, William, 1832-1863.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letters (correspondence)
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Frederic and William Speed papers [series]
    Box   28, Schoff Civil War Collection  
     August 27, 1857-December 15, 1862
    Box   29, Schoff Civil War Collection  
     December 29, 1862-May 22, 1863
    Box   30, Schoff Civil War Collection  
     June 3, 1864-May 29, 1874