|Unit History Project|
Samuel Porter Letters
This project was suggested by Ms. Nancy Martin, Archivist of Special Collections at the University of Rochester Library. All the hand written letters in this project were transcribed and annotated (where possible) by myself. Any mistakes in transcribing and/ or notations are my responsibility. Some of the letters were already transcriptions when received and the errors were corrected but without the original letter, the corrections can not be considered final.
Since this project is a rather informal endeavor, a formal bibliography will not be included but rather a general description of works or sources used or consulted. (For a list of these works see below.)
What should be remembered when reading the civil war letters of Sam Porter is that Porter was a typical 19th century male of the upper middle class in Rochester, New York at the time of the Civil War. Overall his letters provide little new or insightful information about the war or the activities of the 108th New York, the regiment to which he belonged. In a large number of his letters the war simply provides a mailing address for the young Rochesterian. However such lack of information is not unusual in civil war correspondence. Throughout the four years of letters, he mentions three or four battles with some degree of detail and even then it is from the limited perspective of the combat soldier. The absence of detail could be attributed to at least two causes. Firstly, most of the men had little or no idea of the reasons or objectives for the various sorties that they were involved in, other than to stay alive and defeat the enemy – with a great deal of emphasis on the former. Once the battle was finished most were just thankful to have survived and felt little motivation or were unable to catalogue their experience. Directly related to this response was the widespread belief that the public, particularly family, needed neither to be cognizant of explicit combat details nor really desired to be exposed to the actual experience of the soldier in combat. These young men witnessed and perpetrated the unspeakable horror of war, the ‘incommunicable experience’ as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it, and the public then, as today, had no idea of what they went through.
What the letters do provide are quotidian vignettes of army life and glimpses into the life and views of the junior officer corps of the Army of the Potomac. To state that Porter was a ‘typical’ young man of his class and era does not mean that he was average. Throughout his letters, his commitment to the Union cause never wavers. He might, and often does, question the leadership of the war effort but never doubts the righteousness of the Union cause. The letters from the latter part of 1863 to the end of the war reveal a hardening attitude to the Rebels and generally a growing belief in the ‘hard war’ approach of Sherman and Grant. His letter of September 4th, 1863 illustrates his change of attitude when he describes how he dealt with a Southern family who had taken a U.S. Cavalry mount. Just what the ‘Union cause’ was for Sam Porter is not clear. Despite being raised in a well known abolitionist family, Sam is fairly reticent on the topic of slavery. Samuel Drummond Porter and Susan Porter, his father and mother, were close friends and intimates of the great black leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass but Sam makes no reference at all (in these letters anyway) to the Emancipation Proclamation and his view of Lincoln’s edict. In fact, later in the war, he took on a black man servant or ‘darky’ as he called him. There is no apparent contradiction here, at least from a 19th century perspective. Young Porter may have been raised in a liberal atmosphere with regard to black slaves and the inhumanity of slavery but it does not follow that he saw the black man as an equal human being. In one letter from Petersburg, he describes his mirth when watching fledgling black regiments react to artillery fire as if he were watching a minstrel show. So it seems safe to assume that Porter like a large number of abolitionists may have wanted the end of slavery but did not necessarily want the acquaintance of the manumitted. For Porter the Union cause was probably the restoration of the sanctity of the ‘Union’ which had been broken by the action of the Confederate States and, from the evidence of his letters, the end of slavery, if at all, was a secondary goal. Whatever the Union cause meant for Porter, his commitment to it was unswerving. He was wounded four times – three times in the legs and the other a severe shoulder wound. Other than the slight foot wound (his first at Antietam) any of the subsequent wounds could have been used to acquire an ‘honorable discharge’ yet each time Porter returned to duty, often before the wound was healed. On one occasion in 1864, Dr. Francis Moses Wafer, the regiment’s Canadian doctor from Queen’s University, reported that Porter’s Wilderness wound was ‘reopened and inflamed’ almost a month after his early return to duty.
While there is no question of Porter’s courage and loyalty or his determination to finish what he started when he joined the 108th New York at 19 years of age in August of 1862, a rather childish young man emerges when dealing with some of his fellow officers. For example, he is somewhat critical of Seward Gould, his friend who joined the 11th then the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. He sniffs that his friend is too young and will not survive the rigors of army life as Porter did. Seward Gould survived life in the army with flying colors and in fact rose faster to a higher permanent rank than Sam Porter did by war’s end. Two other officers, Ambrose S. Everett and John R. Fellman, Porter impugns with cowardice or incompetence but fails to mention that Fellman lost a leg at Gettysburg and Everett led the successful charge of the 108th New York at Morton’s Ford after Lt. Col. Pierce was severely wounded. Also his relationship with Francis Edwin Pierce was somewhat odd. Porter was quite sensitive to perceived slights, real or otherwise and nowhere was Porter’s sensitivity clearer than his unseemly squabble with (then) Major F. E. Pierce over promotion after the battle of Fredericksburg. The affair is covered in the letters and notes but ultimately Porter comes off as a spoiled child who wishes no longer to play and wants to be a staff officer so ‘father’ should try to arrange it ASAP. Later on, with the promotion affair still present in his mind despite his claim of being unable to hold a grudge, he decides that he’ll use Pierce for his own ends and get out of him all that he can – not exactly the shining image of selfless youth.
A large number of his letters deal with family matters mingled with rather imperious requests for his family to follow and fulfill. Nevertheless, the strength of his bond with his family remains paramount for him throughout the war. Probably the immersion in family affairs or just family content helped him to deal with the horror of what generally surrounded him. Conscientiously he reassures his mother or father or older sister, Mary, of his health and well being yet he was never healthy. When he returned to Rochester after the war, he was worn down , with recurring bouts of malaria and not really fit, but in all his letters he strives to maintain the illusion of robust health. Assiduously, he made sure the human contact with his family never weakened, even to the point of counting who sent how many letters and when and who owes who a letter. His concern for his family and friends shines throughout and a few responses from his family are included in this collection.
During the post–war years, Sam Porter appeared to make little effort to keep in touch with the old unit. After the war, some members of the 108th New York formed the Hancock Guards with Charles Powers at the head of the organization but Sam’s name is conspicuously absent on the member’s list. Unlike F.E. Pierce who became addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat and remained in the army, Sam Porter wanted to get back to his life, move on and leave the war behind him. He did attend the 17th Anniversary of the regiment’s enlistment in August of 1879 and even played a little baseball at the event but shortly afterward his health began to fail and he died in March of 1881at the age of 37. According to his wife, Mary (née Bush) he spoke very little about his army experience, especially the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his ‘Gettysburg wound’. He was somewhat more explicit with his cousin Porter Farley but not much. Mary firmly believed the ‘Gettysburg wound’ was the central factor for shortening his life but more than likely it was just general debility and recurrent malarial fever that eventually took its toll.
Similar to many letters from the war of 1861-65, Porter’s epistles are very much concerned with the present. Money issues and immediate needs are more important than battle news. Notably lacking is the element of self-analysis or self-doubt. When he has described all that he deems relevant, he usually closes the letter. The view is outward rarely inward. The validity of the war is not up for debate nor are the means of winning it. Sam Porter was a typical young man of his class and era and his letters are not unlike those of his Confederate counterparts. He was not perfect and should be appreciated warts and all. His courage and leadership in battle were never questioned and the men who served with him or under him respected and extolled these qualities. Like the many thousands of young men, north and south, the war took four years of their lives and mangled their innocence. They started the war with hearts touched by fire but by war’s end the flame was reduced to a smoldering ember in the ashes of their youth. Most of them tried to re-build the lost years and were quite successful while others clung to the one event that had shaped and gave meaning to their young manhood. Sam was one of the former and his letters reflect the civil war era and one of the young men who fought it.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [O.R.] provided a wealth of military information.
New York in the War of the Rebellion, by Frederick Phisterer is an excellent source for information on New York officers and regiments.
The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion provided medical history on various cases.
Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Soldiers and Sailors System website from the National Park Service is a valuable search engine for finding names and regiments.
Rochester History Quarterly available through the Rochester Public Library website is an indispensable source for historical data on Rochester NY.
The University of Rochester website provided historical information of the University during the Civil War as well as The Talking Stones project.
The Gen Web search engine helped clarify names and families mentioned in Porter’s letters.
New York State Military Museum and its unit history project provided a great deal of background on New York regiments.
The National Archives in Washington D.C. for pension and compiled service records.
Generals in Blue by Ezra Warner.
William F. Peck :History of Rochester and Monroe County New York, 2 vols.;
Semi-Centennial History of the City of Rochester.
Unit Histories (non alphabetical):
Washburn: A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N.Y. Vols. from 1862 to 1894.
T.G. Crooks: Rochester’s Forgotten Regiment: The 108th New York in the Civil War
Brian Bennett: Sons of Old Monroe: A Regimental History of Patrick O’Rorke’s 140th New York Volunteer Infantry and The Beau Ideal of a Soldier and a Gentleman.
Nelson Ames: History of Battery G. First Regiment N.Y. Light Artillery.
William Seville: History of the First Regiment Delaware Volunteers.
Charles Page: History of the Fourteenth Regiment Connecticut Vol. Infantry.
Edward Longacre: To Gettysburg and Beyond [12th New Jersey].
Francis Walker: History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac.
Oliver Hazard Palmer, (ed. Peter Leigh Garrett): The Civil War Diary of Oliver Hazard Palmer.
Francis Moses Wafer: Two Years with the Army of the Potomac or Events in the Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, The diary of a Surgeon, Francis Moses Wafer Collection, Kingston, Ontario (Canada),Queen’s University Archives.
This listing represents main works/ sources that were consulted and is not
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military