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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

"You are becoming used to the dying and the dead..." - A Pittsburgh Pastor's Wartime Letter

By the summer of 1863, Lt. Henry A. Breed of Company F, 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, had seen nearly three seasons of campaigning with the Army of the Potomac. His regiment, which was comprised of mostly Allegheny County men, suffered heavy losses during its first engagement at Fredericksburg in December 1862, but continued on to fight the following spring at Chancellorsville, and most notably at Gettysburg in July 1863. Throughout his time serving with the Union army, Breed maintained a healthy line of communication with those back home in Pittsburgh, including friends, family, and the pastor of his church. Breed's family was heavily imbedded in the Third Presbyterian Church congregation in downtown Pittsburgh, and likewise were longtime parishioners. As such, Breed kept in contact with the fellowship's newly appointed "spiritual instructor" Rev. Herrick Johnson.

Henry Atwood Breed, ca. 1894

Shortly after the Gettysburg campaign, Breed received a letter from Pastor Johnson, in response to correspondence that had been mailed some time beforehand.

"“Pitts. July 28, 1863

It was not my purpose by any means, Henry, when your letter reached me to defer an answer so long. I thought to send you back grateful acknowledgement at once, but on account of the multiplicity of my cares and duties, I have deferred it from time to time, until now you have probably almost forgotten that you ever wrote me. Be assured, however, that my silence is no indication of a wain of interest. Again and again it has been my purpose to send you some word of remembrance, and very often have you been in my thought. My heart goes out to all the young men representing my congregation in this sad yet noble contest for the very existence of the government. I pray God to bless you all. I feel that you sustain to me a near and dear relation, as a part of those over whom I have been set as a spiritual instructor and guide, though some of you I have never so much as seen. I share the pleasure and pride of those who have known you from infancy when reports of your good and brave deeds came home from the battlefield, and I thank a merciful and loving God for every assurance of your safety.

We have just heard the sad intelligence of Charlie Preston’s death. His father and mother left this morning at 2 o’clock with the hope of securing his body, to perform for their lost boy the last sad rites of affection. You are becoming used to the dying and the dead, and this incident may not affect you as it does us, who are so far away from the field of carnage, but my dear friend, will you not accept from your Pastor a word of counsel and admonition in connection with this afflictive providence. Suppose it had been you, Henry. Make the supposition. Bring it clearly before your mind. And then ask yourself if you are fully prepared to be placed where he is, your young comrade in arms, Charlie Preston, with all the results of life, your condition, your hope, your character fixed forever. Oh, my dear friend, be a soldier of the cross while you are a soldier of the Union; learn in the camp to stand up for Jesus, and if God in his providence shall call you from the midst of the battle, you will be ready. Not otherwise. Many loving ones at home pray for you. I count it a privilege to do so also.

There is nothing of special interest to communicate from this quarter. Richard with his wife, joined the church last Sabbath, and I baptized their little blossom the day previous. Richard is going to be a valuable addition to our church, I hope, in more ways than one. He is grand on the melodeon at our social service and in the Sabbath School. I go to Canonsburgh next Tuesday to attend commencement. The boys there were foolish enough to invite me to address their literary societies, and I was foolish enough to accept, so the past two or three weeks have seen me very busy in the way of preparation.

Next Thursday week is Thanksgiving you know, and I propose while giving thanks to say a few things on the war. Your mother and sisters and brothers are generally well I believe. Mrs. J writes with me in kind remembrance. Write me soon, please, and write me freely. I shall always be glad to hear from you.

Yours Very Truly,

Herrick Johnson"

Rev. Herrick Johnson, D.D. (Herrick Johnson, An Appreciative Memoir by Charles Edward Robinson, 1914)

The "lost boy" mentioned by Johnson, "Charlie Preston," had been a fellow Third Presbyterian worshiper at the onset of the war. Charles Seymour Preston had attended Pittsburgh Central High School prior to 1861, and was an active member of the Pittsburgh Zouaves; a pre-war company that joined Daniel E. Sickles' famed "Excelsior Brigade" shortly after the start of the conflict. Preston enlisted as a private, but ultimately rose through the ranks to serve as first lieutenant of Company A, 74th New York Infantry.

Lt. Charles S. Preston, 74th New York Infantry (My High School Days: Including a Brief History of the Pittsburgh Central High School from 1855 to 1871 by George Fleming, 1904)

At the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Preston was shot in the upper left arm. This wound, though not life threatening, sent Preston home to Pittsburgh for recuperation. It was at this time that the young officer presented a gift to Rev. Johnson - the bullet that wounded him. Although Preston missed the heavy fighting at Gettysburg, he rejoined his command shortly after. He was killed shortly after at the battle of Wapping Heights, Virginia on July 23, 1863. Before departing for the front, Preston reportedly told friends he would "never return from the war." Lt. Henry A. Breed, however, came home in October of that year - discharged on a surgeon's certificate.


Fleming, George Thornton. 1904. My High School Days: Including A Brief History of the Pittsburgh Central High School from 1855 to 1871 and Addenda. Pittsburgh, Pa: [Press of Wm. G. Johnston & Co.].

Riddle, D. H., Herrick Johnson, and Henry Kendall. 1869. Dedicatory Services of the New Edifice of the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Penn'a: With Some Account of the History of the Church From Its Organization : Together with a Full Description of the Present Building and Its Appointments. Pittsburgh, Pa: [Press of W.G. Johnston & Co.].

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