Letters from P.E.I - John J. MacDonald and the 28th Regiment Mass. Volunteers.


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Transcribed by Bill Norin, bpnor@ca.rr.com


Did you know many Islanders fought during the American Civil War? For some, it was for the adventure, for others it was to earn money to raise their families, and others yet, had their own individual reasons. One such gentleman was John J. MacDonald, grandson of Donald and Mary (Campbell) MacDonald of East Point. While he and his wife were living in Boston, due to circumstances outlined below, both were Islanders. Here is their story, unfolding through letters of the day!


John J. MacDonald and the 28th Regiment Mass. Volunteers

All of our immigrant ancestors, bar one, settled in various mainland Canadian provinces. Donald, son of Angus, unlike his brothers and sisters' moved to the picturesque province of Saint Johns, today called Prince Edward Island. He homesteaded at East Point, the eastern most part of the island. There he and his wife, Mary Campbell, gave birth to a son Angus who bore him two grandsons, Angus and John. The former gained considerable prominence as the first Rector of Saint Dunstan's College in Charlottetown, a Catholic University which today goes by the name of the University of Prince Edward Island. His younger brother, John J., eloped with Winnifred Boswell, a young protestant girl. Her parents were so angered with their marriage that they threw her and her clothes out into the street when she returned home to seek her belongings. Having little other choice, Johna and Winnifred moved to Boston, where John started a dry goods store on Hannover St., in the downtown area near the Hay Market, Paul Revere's home, and other prominent "Bean Town" addresses. When the Civil War broke out John was an early enlistee in the 28th Regiment of Mass. Volunteers.

In the spring of 1862 John wrote the following letter to the Boston Pilot:

"Letter From the 28th Regiment
Hilton Head, S.C., March 12, '62.

Dear Sir,

The kind interest so unmistakably manifested by the many friends of the 28th regiment while in Massachusetts has not probably ceased with its departure from that State, but now that we are actually established on secession soil, that interest must rather be increased. With the view, therefore, of gratifying the friends of the regiment in Massachusetts and elsewhere, I shall take the liberty of furnishing you with a few lines concerning it which you will please give through The Pilot.

I shall begin by informing you that our passage from New York to this place was a remarkably prosperous one not a single accident having occurred during the passage, and what is worthy of special mention is the orderly and quiet manner in which so large a body of men reconciled themselves to their close and crowded quarters on board the Ericson. The good order which prevailed among the men drew forth the praises of the ship's officers who have had large experience in the transportation of troops. Although a safe passage, it seemed anything but a speedy one to many who suffered from sea-sickness, and many others who were impatient to plant themselves on the soil of that State which was first to offer insult to the glorious banner of the Union. In a word, the boys were anxious to reach their destination, and be on hand to participate in any engagement which might take place in this direction.

The line of our encampment is very pleasantly situated, and if it were not for the strong winds which prevail and the loose sandy surface with which the ground is covered, the situation would be much more desirable.

What first surprises the visitor to Hilton Head is, that a place possessing so many natural advantages and of so much importance in a commercial as well as military point of view, should show so little evidence of civilization or improvement. Since the capture of the island by our troops a great deal has been done towards preparing the place as a military depot. A warf and several buildings have been erected, and among the most important of which is a spacious hospital now in course of being completed. The only building of any note which our troops found here is now occupied as the headquarters of Gen. Sherman. It makes a rude, clumsy display of architecture and shows visible signs of neglect by its former occupant.

The strictest discipline now prevails in our camp, and as a natural consequence the men are rapidly acquiring an efficiency in the art of war which will speak for itself when the time arrives to test it. Col. Monteith and Lieut. Col. Moore show an almost paternal interest in the comfort of the regiment, and are ably seconded by Major Cartwright and Adjutant Sanborn. Their diligence and efficiency in the promotion of good discipline has inspired the men with confidence in them and the zeal which they manifest for the comfort of the men has rendered them justly popular.

The absence of a chaplain in the regiment is a subject of much regret, and now which calls loudly for the consideration of those to whom the deficiency is attributable. We are in hopes that the important omission will soon be supplied.

An association known as the "Monteith Literary and Aid Society" has been organized in the regiment, with Col. Monteith as patron. It has for its chief object the protection, by a monthly assessment of each member, of the widow and family of such members as may lose their lives in the discharge of their duty. It further proposes to forward the remains of such deceased members to their friends.

It seemed strange to many of us to find ourselves transported in the short space of a week from the frosts of February to what would pass very well for a Boston June; for, such is the difference between the temperature of our quarters at Governor's Island, New York, and at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Our regiment with several others of infantry and the Massachusetts cavalry were reviewed a fews days since by Gen. Sherman, who, I am happy to have say, complimented the 28th, in an especial manner for their soldierly appearance, the cleanliness of the man, their arms and equipments. Our regiment is the strongest in the brigade, and Col. Williams of the Massachusetts Cavalry, now setting as Brigadier General, has paid us some handsome compliments. The cavalry under Col. Williams are encamped about fifty yards to the right of our line, and their worthy Colonel has acknowledge that he finds it as much as he can do to keep his up to the standard of our regiment.

It will be gratifying to the friends of the regiment to learn that an excellent state of health prevails amongst us - there being but three sick in the hospital. This fortunate state of things may be accounted for by the superior and healthy composition of the men taken in connection with the excellent sanitary regulations of the camp, which are strictly enforced.

The internal arrangements of each company seem to be conducted by persons who know and, do their duty, and the 'Mayhew Guards' (Co.K), of whom I can speak more particularly, are making rapid improvement under the command of Capt. Cooley, Lieuts. Ahern and Hilian. I think I am speaking the sentiments of nearly every man in the regiment, when I say, that nothing would please them better than an order to advance and assist in the taking of Savannah. If anything of importance takes place amongst us, I shall be happy to keep you advised, and, in the meantime, I remain, dear sir, respectfully yours,

Sergeant MacDonald, Co. K
28th Regiment Mass. Volunteers."

The 28th was posted on several islands near Charleston where it became a part of the 1st Brigade of General Stevens Division. Their ultimate aim was to capture this city for the North.

Three months later, a letter to his beloved "Clemmy" revealed the nervousness and anxiety of a foot soldier who would enter his first battle the very next day:

"Hilton Head, S.C. Head Quarters
28th Mass. Volunteers.
31st May 1862

My dearly beloved Wife,

I wrote you a letter yesterday which you will probably receive some time before this reaches you. I promised to write before leaving for our next expedition and as that will be tomorrow at 6 oclock A.M. I avail myself of a brief time to write you. You will see that I am not forgetful of you. I do not know my dear when I shall have a chance of writing you again and I have a great many things to say and no time to say them. When I write you next I shall probably have some exciting news to give you and I trust in Almighty God I may be spared to do it.

This evening I received from the hands of our Colonel a present of a magnificent revolver worth $40, and I expect very soon to have something to do with it. Our Regiment has been honored with the high compliment of being selected by General Hunter and his body guard a compliment of which we might well feel proud.

The statement contained in the Boston Herald relative to the death of Col of 46 New York was exaggerated. There was but one man of our regiment implicated in it and he was entirely blameless in the matter. It was the stupidity of one of their own men which caused the mans death. I was in to see him after his death and his wife appeared to take it very easy. Every man in the regt. is a German. Before he died he exonerated the man belonging to our regt. from all blame, but enough on this subject.

I trust you will get the money I sent you, soon. I wish I could write all I would say tonight but it is impossible. Be of good cheer until you hear from me again which I hope will be from the City of Charleston. A mail has just arrived but it brought me no letter. It brings rather unfavorable news from the North but I hope that there now there has been a victory at Richmond which will be a settler on this rebellion.

My thoughts crowd upon me so fast and the excitement produced by the preparations for tomorrow that I fear I can very imperfectly fulfil the duty which I have undertaken. But you know, my own dearly beloved Clemmy, all I would say. You know that whole quires of paper might be covered with the expression of love which to death I shall bear for you. And Oh! our dear Children. I would give worlds to see themselves and you tomorrow before I leave. Pray for me as I do now for my safety that I may be spared to return safely to you.

And now dearest 'Harriette', that name by which I first addressed you and by which I learned to love you. Good Night. Praying that if we are not destined to meet in this wicked world again, that we may meet in Heaven and promising to write you at the earliest possible moment.

I am My dearly beloved Clemmy
Your faithful loving Husband"

Three weeks later Henrietta received the following note from Capt. Sanborn, the company commander:

"In Camp, 28th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
James Island, 17th June 1862.

Mrs. J. J. McDonald,
E. Boston.

Ms. Madam,

It becomes my painful duty to inform you that your husband was dangerously wounded, in a severe engagement with the enemy yesterday. Our regiment was under a very severe fire, while attempting to storm a battery, so much so, that we were obliged to retire, and to leave our dead and wounded on the field. At the time he was wounded, he was detailed from his Company, and attached to Company "C" as Color bearer, and when he fell, was nobly carrying the "Stars and Stripes" to the front. One of my Company, (Private John Maher) was with him until the Regiment had retreated, and until he was ordered by a superior officer to his Regiment. If living, your husband is now a prisoner with the 'enemy', as the field of battle is held by them. Should this be so, you need have no fears of his good treatment. As soon as I hear any further news from him, I will immediately advise you. Accept, Madam, my sympathy.

Most Resp'y yours
Chas. H. Sanborn Capt.
Co. 'K' 28th Regt. Mass. Volunteers."

After what must have seemed an eternity of waiting and wondering, she finally wrote to the company commander and received the following reply:

"In Camp, 28th Reqt. Mass. Volunteers.
Hilton Head So.Ca.
9th July/62

Mrs. John J. McDonald
117 Maverick St.
E Boston.

Dr Madam,

Yours of the 28th was duly received. Since writing you, a 'Flag of Truce' came in from the enemy, and from them we received a list of their Prisoners. I am sorry to inform you that your husband's name did not appear on that list. He is without doubt, dead. It is impossible to receive his remains, if it were, I should consider it but a simple act of duty to the family of a brave man, and a good soldier. Had your husband lived, he would in a few months have been a commissioned officer, which his talent and good deportment merited. I did not see your husband on the field, after he fell, as he was attached to the Color Company. He was shot through the side and shoulder, by a discharge of grape shot from the fort. Had I known at the time of our retreat of his loss, I should have brought his body from the field. Enclosed I send letters directed to him. I send packages for him to you by Lieut McGee formerly of Company C. who goes home, having resigned. He was well acquainted with your husband, and may perhaps furnish you any information, that I may have overlooked in my letter. There is Bounty and Pension due you, as well as abt $30. It will be some time before you receive it, as certain forms have to be gone through with. I will facilitate matters as much as possible.

Madam, I deeply sympathize with you in your affliction, and I trust that all possible happiness and prosperity may be for you and your children. I have the honor to be,

Most respectfully yours
Chas. H. Sandborn Cap. Co. K.

Any information which you may wish, and which I can give, I shall be most happy to communicate".

The Battle of Secessionville took place on James Island, S.C. within five or six miles of Charleston. The Union troops had mounted their offensive consisting of eight companies and landed 6,500 foot soldiers. They were met and repulsed by a "reb" force of only half as many men. Capture of Charleston, the North's ultimate purpose, was thus delayed. According to a military report by General David Hunter, Commander, the attack was made by General Benham in violation of instructions. The Yanks lost seventy men of whom twenty were killed or mortally wounded. Clemmy and her children returned to Prince Edward Island where she was taken in by Rector MacDonald, her brother-in- law, and there she raised her two daughters.


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