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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

"Anxiety and love..." - A Pittsburgh mother's worrisome letter to a son on the war front

In early October 1862, the men of the newly deployed 155th Pennsylvania Infantry found themselves encamped at Camp McCauley, within close proximity to the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. While the regiment had missed the fight at Antietam just a few weeks before, they soon discovered the hardships of camp life on the war front. Chilly autumn conditions were accompanied by a lack of supplies, which included proper clothing, tents, and blankets. An abundance of cordwood and fence rails, however, were used as fuel for campfires around this time.

When word of poor camp conditions reached home, many mothers felt a natural sense of dread and concern for the welfare of their distant sons. Among them was Rhoda Ogden Breed of Pittsburgh's Oakland community. Her son, Lt. Henry Atwood Breed, served in Company F of the 155th, and managed to maintain a healthy line of communication with those he had left behind. In a letter dated October 5, 1862, Rhoda wrote to her son of happenings on the home front, as well as "protestations of anxiety and love" that she had felt as Henry was camped nearly 200 miles away.

Sabbath Eve October 5th, 1862

My beloved son Henry,

I am at home alone and thinking about you as I do much of the time. I thought it would not be wrong for me to write to you. The reason I have not written before is, others are writing almost daily so I did not, you know how it is I am always busy or tired or something. I hoped we should get a letter from you yesterday and felt disappointed that we did not. I feel very anxious to hear that you have a tent at least to shelter you a little, and to hear that you are cold somewhere, it is so cold at night now, it seems as if you must suffer with cold.

You must give explicit directions about any thing that you want done, all about your flowers. They are beautiful, and lying on my lounge I can smell their perfume, or in the sitting room or up in Sallie’s room. They smell delightfully, but when I walk around and look at them and feel as if I should not have them again in such profusion, I try to send up a petition for the welfare of him who planted the flowers. And the fruit, how I do want to send you some, but your father says it would all rot before you could get it and you know I can’t send it without his help. If I could I should try to get some to you. At any rate, the sickle pears and grapes are in perfection now. We had an opportunity to send a basket of them to Richard last week. We have only one girl Hattie, John has gone to Washington to get his brother. I suppose your father wrote about it to you. So you see our family is small. Ogden is staying with us. Mrs. Hood could not take him in when he came back for they had moved the Dr. office into the house, so I told him to stay here until his parents came. We expect them in a week now.

I wish I knew what your father has written. Will has changed his business and is in the city, boards at Mrs. Chaplains. They have a house rented in Allegheny near Mrs. Tiernan’s. I suppose you know that Mr. Johnson has accepted the call and will be here in three or four weeks. The Sewing Society have commenced operations in the afternoon at present. Oh! I must tell you that Annie Arthurs is very sick. Indeed she was taken with a violent headache and vomiting and almost paralytic fit. She was taken a week ago last Saturday. I heard of it Wednesday. Thursday could not go in but went Friday. When she heard my name she told her aunt to let me come up. She did so, but I should not have known her. Her face is one sided, her hair shaved off, and she looks dreadfully, but they think she will get well. She asked about you and so did Mrs. Laughlin. Every body asks about you. Did you know Will Atwood has been sick with a fever but is better and they think out of danger. His poor mother was nearly crazy about him.

I am as well as ever and I think a little better but I never expected to live to have my children scattered at this rate. I want Sallie to stay. If we all keep well and have a good visit you know she can come very soon if we want her. I sleep in your little bed with a feather bed on it. I could not bear the hard bed, but it was lonely over on my spring mattress.

You know I told you that I wanted to give you your sword and sash if we could sell fruit enough. I think we have sold about ten dollars worth. Fruit is so abundant this year that it brings but a small price. We had a bushel of peaches on one tree. They were very fine and we put them up, then those at the end of the house were not very good so I have dried them all. I think a bushel and a half. The rest we have eaten, and we have had real comfort with them, only you had none. I suppose you have some fruit or have you none at all.

Monday evening -

I wrote so far last night intending to finish this morning but I found that the sickle pears must be done up today, so I went to work and put up in wine and sugar a kettle with the skins on and one kettle fell. I paired or took the skins off. I got through about one o’clock, came upstairs to rest and write to my dear boy. In a few moments Miss Albree called. Before she left Mrs. Wilcox called. They both inquired about you. Mrs. Wilcox said Anna had received a letter from you and she had told her to answer it soon. She said their company were all to go to Harpers Ferry last week. Mary Moorehead is at Frederick. Mr. Stanton has given her a pass to go to any of the hospitals in the United States. She took stores and comforts for the sick. Her mother told me this. Mrs. Dilworth was here too. She has had a letter from Will. He is at Frederick and wants money. Her husband is away but she sent him fifty dollars. So you see I was busy until six o’clock, then we had supper from that till seven. We wished you had some of it. Beefsteak, potatoes, tomatoes, pears. Then Mr. Merick called, said he had heard nothing from Clark since he was there Tuesday morn.

I think I shall send this today. We had a letter from Sallie last night. She is very anxious about you, as we all are. She is too anxious to enjoy her visit much. We read that the President has been as far as Harpers Ferry. Did you see him? I hope he saw all who had no tents. The papers are as full as ever of rumors, but not much news. George Edwards is dismissed from the service as he held the position that is dispensed with, but he will not leave the service. Your father can tell you better than I can for know I don’t understand about it. Now my dear son, I must close this long and awfully written and blotted epistle. I need not go over this page with protestations of anxiety and love, nor need I tell you of my prayers for your health or safety. You know it already. I hope you pray for yourself and cast your self into God’s Fatherly care and protection for we only can take care of us. We have had very little rain since you left. A nice shower last week. The weather is beautiful today.

Your affectionate mother,

Rhoda O. Breed

I came in to bring this and one to Sallie, but thought I would see how Annie Arthurs is. I saw her and she is better and they think she will soon be well…"

Lt. Henry Atwood Breed, with fellow members of the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, ca. 1903 (Under the Maltese Cross: Antietam to Appomattox - Campaigns of the 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers)

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