Reader shares letter from 'Grandpa Billy'
My great-grandfather was William A. Burns, Private Company A, 12th Regiment, Gregg's Brigade, South Carolina Volunteers, A.P. Hill's Light Division, Army of Northern Virginia Confederate States of America.
Grandpa Billy as he was and still is known to later generations fought in too many battles to list, was wounded in the leg and captured at Gettysburg, exchanged and later wounded in the head and captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania prior to which Gen. Grant had halted all exchanges. He waited out the war in Fort Delaware Prison, known as "the Andersonville of the North."
I mention all of the above as prelude to the story of his earliest experience as a raw recruit who had probably not ventured farther from his home on a farm seven miles west of York than maybe to Columbia to sell his cotton crop.
In August 1861, just after the great victory at First Manassas, he and many of his friends from the neighborhood around Beersheba Presbyterian Church in western York County volunteered to serve the Confederacy for the duration of the war and gathered at the mustering grounds of Lightwood Knot Springs near Columbia.
Grandpa Billy had a rudimentary education, certainly less than any of his present day descendents, but he was a faithful letter writer to his mother. We in his family are fortunate to possess a great deal of his correspondence from the War Between The States and some of the first of these has a connection to Charleston and the South Carolina coast.
His travel to and through Charleston by train and by boat to Beaufort was in preparation for his first combat experience at the Battle of Port Royal. He mentions the sightings of Forts Sumter and Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, followed by a description of Beaufort and later a tale of a shipboard tragedy. I quote from his letter of Oct. 20, 1861, with his original spelling and punctuation, or lack thereof, following:
"Dear mother I take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well and reached this place safe ... we left light wood knot on last tuesday and reached this place( Beaufort) on thursday about about two oclock ... we came to charlston on Tuesday eveing about six oclock and left there next morning at seven ... the boat drove out a mile or two and anchored and had to wait for the tide to rise ... wee saw the forts and island ( indecipherable) and wee could see sumter and castle pinkney very plain moultry is a good ways off I could not tell much about it. We was on the water two days and nights we run the rivers all the way ... we crossed a place they called the saint helena sound was all the place that looked like we was getting away from any land ... the white waves rolled up ... we passed several batterys on the way ... they say their is sixteen thousand men between here (Beaufort) and Savannah and there together four thousand there I am better pleased with this place than I expected I like the place very well the town is a very pretty little place and very fine people wee are camped just out behind the town a very pretty place for a camp plenty of shade about here ... ouster shells lying about here ... I have seen the orange tree and orange a plenty on them ... they is the bitur orange ... the water is tolerable good better than I expected ... they fishes just any amount of them I saw one this morning about two feet and a half long they ask a dollar and for it ousters just any amount lying along the side of the coast. ..."
(Note: Follows a request for news of home and then the tale of the shipboard tragedy on the way from Charleston to Beaufort)
"I will say that we had the bad luck as we came along to lose a man it was the knight the boat was runing he got up and walked off they thought he might have been a sleep he walked right over R. Chambers and walked out and was lost they stopped the boat and went out in a little boat but could not find him he belonged to P. Davies company his name was ranes
Direct to company A 12th regiment SCV
Beaufort post off
Write soon for I would … to here from home
Tell Edward (Cousin Sgt. Edward Burns who was home on leave with the measles) when he comes to bring some envelopes bring three or four bunches and some paper
W. A. Burns wee expect to move a few miles lower down"
Grandpa Billy wrote of many other adventures during his service and a lot of his correspondence was reporting on crops and asking about the crops at home and the relatives, farm hands, and his plow horse named Fan. His writing, spelling and punctuation improved a great deal over his time of service and he sometimes acted as a scribe for illiterate members of his company.