WWilliam Graham's War Between the States

Fort Schuyler

Union Soldiers in Washington, DC Hospital

William was hospitalized for nine months from December 1862 to August 1863. His letters indicate that he was suffering from what we now call typhoid fever, probably as a result of poor sanitation during camp duty near Antietam. After an initial placement in St. Paul's Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, he was eventually transferred to Fort Schuyler located on Throgs Neck at the eastern entrance to New York Harbor.

During the Civil War, Fort Schuyler held as many as 500 prisoners of war from the Confederate States Army and military convicts from the Union Army. It also included the MacDougall Hospital, which had a capacity of 2,000 beds.

Disease Among Civil War Soldiers

Field Hospital
Army field hospital - Not exactly sanitary

Disease was the biggest killer of the war. Of the Federal dead, roughly three out of five died of disease, and of the Confederate, perhaps two out of three. About half of the deaths from disease during the Civil War were caused by intestinal disorders, mainly typhoid fever, diarrhea, and dysentery. The remainder died from pneumonia and tuberculosis. Camps populated by young soldiers who had never before been exposed to a large variety of common contagious diseases were plagued by outbreaks of measles, chickenpox, mumps, and whooping cough.

The most significant cause of illness was the shocking filth of the army camp itself. An inspector in late 1861 found most Federal camps 'littered with refuse, food, and other rubbish, sometimes in an offensive state of decomposition; slops deposited in pits within the camp limits or thrown out of broadcast; heaps of manure and offal close to the camp." As a result, bacteria and viruses spread through the camp like wildfire. Bowel disorders constituted the soldiers' most common complaint. The Union army reported that more than 995 out of every 1,000 men eventually contracted chronic diarrhea or dysentery during the war; the Confederates fared no better.

December 21, 1862
St. Paul's Church Hospital
Alexandria City, Virginia

Dr. Bell,

Honored Sir, I make a faint effort to write you.

About a week ago last Wednesday [probably November 10, 1862 based on his December 9, 1862 letter] we broke up camp and marched into Virginia. Well the 2nd day we marched I was taken sick. I marched along with the Regiment as long as I could. Then they carried me in the ambulance.

Well, I got along till we came to Fairfax Station. From this point, the doctors sent the sick and lame down here on the cars. Well after lying in an old depot a day or 2, 3 of the sickest of us got into the hospital. Thanks to the Lord for it.

I have got the camp fever. Now I am not considered dangerous, but my head aches and [unintelligible]. I have no money but one Sherming? company dollar and it won't pass here. I wish you would send me $2 or $3 in United States money. I want to send to my Regiment for my last descriptive [probably his entry in the Company Descriptive Book]. Then I can draw all my money if the Lord spares me.

Tell father he must feel perfectly easy about me for I have every thing done for me. Try and send word to my sister where I am. Write soon if you please. Give my respects to Mrs. Bell.

[New page] The 107th is gone on down in Virginia. I don't know where.


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia was under military occupation during the Civil War. The occupation of the church sanctuary occured in February 1862 after the arrest of the rector for refusing to say a prayer for President Lincoln. Immediately thereafter, the St. Paul’s sanctuary was closed and was used for the duration of the War as a hospital for Union soldiers.

St. Paul's Hospital
St. Paul's Church while in use as a hospital in 1862

The objective of the march into Virginia was to reinforce the Union lines along the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. For those that stayed on their feet, the walk would last for five days.

From near Antietam, Maryland to Fairfax Station, Virginia is about 60 miles. From there to the Fredericksburg area is a little over 40 miles further. 100 miles in five days means the army was walking 20 miles a day - not exactly a record. However, for a large army with all its baggage and the need to fortify a new camp each day - remember Virginia was enemy territory in large part - this was a pretty good pace.

The 107th Regiment would spend the next month at Fredericksburg. Near the end of January it would participate in the mud march. After that fiasco it remained in camp at Stafford Court House until the end of April. Stafford was about 10 miles north of the Union lines on the Rappahannock River.

Ambulance Crew Drill
Ambulance crew drilling to get it right during the Civil War
Fairfax Station
Fairfax Station during the Civil War

'Camp fever' was the term was used for all of the continuing fevers experienced by the army, especially typhoid fever. Camp fever was the cause of one quarter of disease deaths among soldiers. 

Typhoid fever is a disease that is characterized by diarrhea and a rash with many other symptoms ranging from severe headache to delirium. It is caused by the bacteria Salmonella tyhpi.

This bacteria is spread by food or drink that is contaminated with fecal matter, cooks with this disease readily pass this disease onto others. After the bacteria is ingested it travels to the spleen to multiply. Then the disease manifests as a fever and diarrhea which can lead to dehydration.

During the years of the war, Union records show that almost 30,000 soldiers died from this particular disease. The squalid conditions of many camps as well as lack of understanding about bacteria and disease transmission lead to this high number of deaths. Fecal matter as well as dead bodies contaminated streams causing the disease to spread.

Treatment of the day consisted of the few trained doctors giving a mixture of mercury and chalk to the afflicted. America at the time lacked the proper medical professionals to handle such a large scale illness. Also used were opium, morphine and quinine to treat the diseased.

I am not completely clear as to the origin of the Sherming Company Dollar. It probably represents one of the many ways the populace tried to deal with the currency situation brought about by the Civil War.

In 1862, day-to-day commerce became strained by a shortage of coins. At the time, paper money was not backed by gold or silver. Only faith in the central Government gave the bills any value and the Civil War put significant strain on any faith that had existed. Coins were worth more than their paper equivalent and were subsequently not spent on goods that could be bought with paper.

The financial issues resulting from coin hoarding became worse when financiers found they could use paper money to buy silver coins, sell the silver coins to foreign markets for gold, and then buy paper dollars for gold at discount prices. The coin shortage could be life-threatening for a society where one cent bought a newspaper, the average salary was twelve to fifteen dollars a week, and a private in the army earned about thirteen dollars a month.

People tried many different unofficial methods to alleviate the coin shortage. Among those methods, some businesses issued promissary notes and others issued Civil War tokens.

Fort Schuyler (convalescing from illness) 

Dr. Robert Bell 

Have been waiting for a letter from you. Thought that could get one here easier than the other places I have been. Was quite unwell for some time after I came here. Thankful to say that I am a great deal better although digestive organs are weak yet. 

Like it better here than when first came here. But we are kept like convicts. We have like 10 acres within the guard lines.

But we may be thankful we are as well off as we are for we have plenty to eat and comfortable places to sleep with good medical care attendance. They grant us once in a while a pass of 24 hours but that is all. 

Don’t think I will get a furlow this spring. It will be a while before I return to my regiment even if I continue improving. I would like to go home to see you all this spring. I would like to see father. But if I can not it will not be my fault. 

I would like to have you write me and tell me how the people feel about the draft and how they are on the war in general. The war is an eyesore to the soldiers in the field as far as I can see here. For my part I don’t know what to think of it. It looks dark to me. 

We were mustered in for pay and it is the opinion of everyone that we will get it before the 20th. If so, I will try to get a pass and get to the city and send the money to you by express. If you want me to buy anything for you send word what.

There is some of our boys quite handy at making rings. They sell them and make money. I thought I would have a couple made for you and Mrs. Bell. I know you have no taste for such trifling things but please accept this black one to remember me by and Mrs. Bell the white one. Tell her she must not put it in hot water for it might turn yellow. You will find them enclosed in this letter. 

Tell father how I am. I was thinking if he had some good liquor it would be good for him. If you think so send it to him without asking him. This is all.


Fort Schuyler, during the American Civil War, included the MacDougall Hospital which had a capacity of 2,000 beds. It can be safely assumed this is where William received his medical care.

Another Washington, DC hospital for Union soldiers?

Fort Schuyler also held as many as 500 prisoners of war from the Confederate States Army and military convicts from the Union Army. This is most likely why William felt kept like a convict at Fort Schuyler.

View of Fort Schuyler in 1924

Fort Schuyler was a location where units heading to war would rendezvous and be outfitted and trained before being deployed. From January 1863 until July 1865, the Fort was garrisoned by the 20th Independent Battery, New York Volunteer Artillery, a unit originally recruited to fight in the war. Duty at the fort was reported to be a dull assignment as the men took the roles of guards and hospital stewards, not artillerymen.

William's discussion of the military draft was probably related to the action in Washington, DC the day before. The Enrollment and Conscription Act was passed by Congress on March 3, 1863.

There was no general military draft in America until the Civil War. The Confederacy passed its first of 3 conscription acts in April 1862, and scarcely a year later the Union began conscripting men. Government officials plagued with manpower shortages regarded drafting as the only means of sustaining an effective army and hoped it would spur voluntary enlistments.

Rioters and Federal troops clash in July 1863

But compulsory service embittered the public, who considered it an infringement on individual free will and personal liberty and feared it would concentrate arbitrary power in the military. Believing with some justification that unwilling soldiers made poor fighting men, volunteer soldiers despised conscripts. Conscription also undercut morale, as soldiers complained that it compromised voluntary enlistments and appeared as an act of desperation in the face of repeated military defeats.

Conscription nurtured substitutes, bounty-jumping, and desertion. Charges of class discrimination were leveled against both Confederate and Union draft laws since exemption and commutation clauses allowed propertied men to avoid service, thus laying the burden on immigrants and men with few resources. Occupational, only-son, and medical exemptions created many loopholes in the laws. Doctors certified healthy men unfit for duty, while some physically or mentally deficient conscripts went to the front after sham examinations. Enforcement presented obstacles of its own; many conscripts simply failed to report for duty. Several states challenged the draft's legality, trying to block it and arguing over the quota system. Unpopular, unwieldy, and unfair, conscription raised more discontent than soldiers.

Under the Union draft act men faced the possibility of conscription in July 1863 and in Mar., July, and Dec. 1864. Draft riots ensued, notably in New York in 1863. Of the 249,259 18-to-35-year-old men whose names were drawn, only about 6% served, the rest paying commutation or hiring a substitute.

The first Confederate conscription law also applied to men between 18 and 35, providing for substitution (repealed Dec. 1863) and exemptions. A revision, approved 27 Sept. 1862, raised the age to 45; 5 days later the legislators passed the expanded Exemption Act. The Conscription Act of Feb. 1864 called all men between 17 and 50. Conscripts accounted for one-fourth to one-third of the Confederate armies east of the Mississippi between Apr. 1864 and early 1865.

March 13, 1863
Fort Schuyler

My dear sister,

I this day received your kind and welcome letter. I am glad to hear that you are getting better.

I received Mr. Scobey's letter the other day and answered it the same day. He told me that he had been purchasing more land. I am glad to hear that he is doing so well. I don't see what is to hinder farmers from getting rich when they are getting such high prices for everything. Mr. Scobey could sell his apples at the rate that they sell here–three for 5 cents - and not very large at that. Tobacco costs about 3 times as much as it did before I left home.

I am happy to say that my health is pretty good. I have a very good appetite if I had only the right kind of food to satisfy it. I have a touch of the dispepsy [dispepsia]. But upon the whole I have great reason to thank the Lord for his tender mercies towards me. I can get around and enjoy myself pretty well considering.

You speak about my coming home. Well there is nothing that would suit me better. But there are no furloughs given here at this hospital. If I was at New York  I would ask for General Wool for a furlough. That is my only chance. So you can see how it is. They will not be able to send me [back] to my Regiment this month.

We expect to be paid off this month some time. But it is hard telling. I have not received a cent from Uncle Sam since I left Elmira, so it is about time. I am willing to take greenbacks yet if they would only pay me with them. But the Lord knows whether they will be worth as much next year or not [unless] the People stand up manfully and support the government. For I don't see as the Rebels are willing to accept any conditions on less [than] all they asked in the first place.

There is no other way only to either turn out bodily and whip them or give it up at once. This half way work is played out, sending half enough to have them slaughtered. The people ought to either support the president or turn out bodily against him. For my part, I am hurt tired of the war. But if the people say fight I am with them.

Oh sister, I am glad that father's health has been so good this winter. I would like to see him this spring. I'm very glad to hear Isaac Corwin is getting better. But I am afraid he never will be as well as he once was.

Now sister I am sorry to hear you mourn about him [father?] and if he and I should both die I fear you should mourn yourself to death. Now I have learned that anything that I have placed my affections [unintelligible] on, I have always been disappointed. Now I don't blame you for thinking a great deal of him, but you must learn to be a woman and shake off trouble. Maternal affection is enough. Beyond that, never let your mind run. Now this advice is from the bottom of my heart.


Andrew Scobey seemed to have done quite well in his land dealing. According to the 1860 Census, his property was worth $9,000, not a bad sum in those days. In the 1894 business directory for Schuyler County, New York he is listed as a "retired merchant farmer".

The Union experienced substantial inflation as a result of deficit financing during the war. The consumer price index rose from 100 at the outset of the war to 175 by the end of 1865. However, this less than a doubling in prices was significantly less than what the Confederacy suffered. Prices there increased almost 40 times between 1860 and 1865.

Inflation of butter
"Family butter at 70 cents, eh? Not so long's I've any cart-grease left!"

Inflation tends to fall on those who are least able to afford it. One group that tends to be vulnerable to a sudden rise in prices is wage earners. During the war years, wages adjusted for inflation declined as the goods they could purchase decreased. In the North the real wage value declined almost 20%. In the South the decline was almost 90%.

Since William had many more months yet to spend in the hospital, one might wonder whether he was being entirely honest about his health. An upset stomach won't keep you in the hospital. Maybe the dispepsia is associated with the 'bad' food. There was a family story that his early death 12 years after the war was in part due to the poor food he received while convalescing.

Interesting regarding 'no furloughs'. According to historical records, about 16% of patients at Fort Schuyler were lost by desertion and failure to return from furlough.

Greenbacks were the new paper currency put in circulation by the Union in 1862. They were originally issued directly into circulation by the U.S. Treasury to pay expenses incurred by the Union during the American Civil War.

William speaks perceptively of the difficult task that will be before the nation in the next three years. The arduous fight with the Rebels would test this country as it has never been before or since. In a little over two years, he himself would be participating in a full bore attack by the Union forces - with no half measures - upon the heartland of the South.

His advice to his sister regarding 'affections' is certainly different than the norm regarding male/female relations in many places today. I wonder how typical it was in 1862.

He says that a woman should not expect to feel affection for a man. Her affection for her children is sufficient. In describing his own disappointment in placing his affections on a woman, he appears to be saying the same for men toward women. Love between man and woman is a phenomenon not within his experience and therefore not to be achievable by others? He is quite a pessimist it would appear.

March 26, 1863
Fort Schuyler

Mr. A Scobey,

I received your very welcome letter yesterday. There is nothing that pleases me more than to hear from my friend and to know how the people feel about the war.

You understand me to have changed my mind in regard to the war since I enlisted. I did it as mentioned to support the principles of the Republican Party for putting down the rebellion. But now I can see no party. Party strife is going to ruin us. I am afraid I believe in crushing the rebellion by all means and doing it Napoleon fashion.

The rebellion can be put down in a short time, even if half our generals should prove traitors, if the North could agree and keep united and sacrifice half of what the rebels sacrifice. But if our love of gain is so great that after spending all the blood and treasure that we have spent and [we] cry peace when we know that peace can be got on no other term- only a destruction of the union- then I say that we do not deserve a free country nor free institutions. Neither would we have them long.

We might let the South go now to get rid of [them?] But it would only involve us in ten thousand wars. Indeed sir, the people have either got to give the government their united support or else we are whipped. It seems to me that anyone ought to be more or as much interested in its welfare as me.

We had a squad leave here today for the regiments. The doctor would not let me go this time. He said I could go the next time. My health like the Lord is very good at present. I weigh 164 pounds. But I am not strong yet. I can get no furlough here. They give none to anyone unless they have been in the service over a year and got wounded besides. I can get a 24 hour pass and if I could get a chance to see General Wool I would beg a furlough. I might go home on the pass and go and see Col. Van Valkenburgh and get him to write to Gen. Wool to make it all right. But it is risky business. I would like to go home a week or 2 before I go to the Regiment. But I don't know as I can till I get away from this place.

I am very sorry to hear that father is sick. Tell sister Libbie to write to me how he is. He has had very good health all winter so near as I can find out. He generally gets a cold about this time a year and gets over it when the weather gets warm.

I think sir you have a good deal of confidence in the success of our arms for you told me you have bought 30 or 40 acres more land. I am very glad to hear that you are doing so well these war times. Yet I suppose that it is good time to buy land and if you could only sell your apples as they sell them here you could soon pay for it–from two to three for five cents.

This is all. Give my respects to Mrs. Scobey and Libbie and all.


Has the Republican Party of Lincoln weakened its support for the war? Not exactly sure to what he is referring with regard to party strife. Perhaps it is the 'conservative movement' referred to in the Harper's Weekly article, "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" of March 7, 1863. Then again he may be referring to the split in the Democratic Party. The March 21, 1863 Harper's article reported a meeting at the Cooper Institute in New York City where leaders of the Democratic Party voiced their support for vigorous prosecution of the war. These Democrats were in opposition to the Copperhead movement in their own party and its attempts to divide the North.

Copperhead delegation

William believes a united North with greater sacrifice by its people is crucial to putting down the rebellion. His denouncement of the 'peace movement', then associated with the Copperheads, indicates where he stands regarding the party strife. His belief that making peace with the rebels at that time will open the North to a future of ten thousand wars is an interesting perspective. He is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent person who understands, despite his rudimentary education, the significant stakes at issue in this war.

Although other patients are permitted by the doctors to return to their regiments at the front, William's doctor still does not believe his health is strong enough to give his permission. Interesting that based on his height from the enlistment document and his weight revealed here, I find his stature is virtually the same as mine.

General Wool
General John E. Wool

There is still the frustration regarding his inability to get a furlough. As it worked out, he never received one during his three years in the war. It says something about his strength of character, despite the lack of a furlough and delay in receiving his pay, that he was still such a strong supporter of the Union war effort.

General John E. Wool is a most interesting figure. In the early days of the Civil War, Wool's quick and decisive moves secured Fort Monroe, Virginia, for the Union. In May 1862, Wool's troops occupied the navy yard, Norfolk, and the surrounding towns after the Confederates abandoned them, He was then promoted to the full rank of major general in the regular army. In January 1863, he assumed command of the Department of the East, and led military operations in New York City during and after the draft riots the following July. Shortly thereafter, on August 1, 1863, General Wool retired from the army following more than fifty years of service. He was the oldest general officer to execute active command in either army during the war.

Colonel Vav Valkenburgh
Col. Robert Van Valkenburgh

Col. Robert Van Valkenburg was in command of the recruiting depot in Elmira, New York and organized a number of regiments early in the Civil War. Van Valkenburg was elected as a Republican to Congress during the war. He served as Colonel of the 107th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, and was its commander at the Battle of Antietam.

Interesting that William sees Andrew Scobey's acquisition of more land as an expression of confidence in the Union forces. There is no animosity toward Scobey, who improves his circumstances during the war, while William contributes his health and the chance for a long life.

This is the last letter of which I am aware written by William during his period of hospitalization. Since he was hospitalized until August 1863 when he returned to his regiment, this means more than four months of letters from this period may still exist in the possession of unknown persons. Alternatively, they may not have survived the intervening years.

H Graem © 2012