Seneca B. Thrall:

Union Letters


    Seneca B. Thrall enlisted on August 19, 1862 at the age of 32. He was commissioned into the Field and Staff of 13th Iowa Infantry on September 17, 1862 as an Assistant Surgeon and resigned on April 4, 1862. He lived in Ottumwa, IA and was originally from Ohio. 
    These letters are from an old, typed family transcript purchased at auction. All of the letters were written to his wife, unless otherwise noted.


December 3, 1862 (Abbyville, Mississippi)

December 9, 1862 (near Abbeville, Mississippi)

December 14, 1862 (near Abbeville, Mississippi)

December 24, 2007 (Holly Springs, Mississippi)

December 28, 1862 (Holly Springs, Mississippi)

More letters written by Seneca Thrall (page 4)



Abbyville, Mississippi

Wednesday Morning

December 3, 1862

    I wrote to you on the 1st we expected a severe battle, but the Rebels evacuated their fortifications on the Tallahatchie and Monday eve at sundown our Division marched forward 8 miles to their old fortifications and to the river and halted till morning. They had the best and strongest fortifications our men and officers say that they have ever seen them have. They are supposed to have 40,000 effective men. We could not have taken the place (it is so said here in camp), but Gen. Steele from Helena, Arkansas marched in south and cut their southern rail road connection, and Gen. Sherman advancing from Memphis to flank them, and near at hand, and we in front.

    We have a very large army, I think 50,000, but had they remained and we attached, our loss would have been terrible, and we would certainly have been defeated. As from my own view of their position and entrenchments, I do not think it possible that we could have succeeded. They destroyed the bridges and it took all day yesterday to fix a bridge and cross our Division of the army (Gen. McArthur's) and we are now waiting for the rest of the army to cross and come up with us. We are at Abbeyville, a small village on the railroad. Gen. Grant has his Head Quarters here, came in late last night.

    It commenced raining about 4 o'clock Tuesday morning and rained all day yesterday. We were up and got breakfast in the rain by the light of our campfires and were in the rain all day and nearly all night. This morning is clear, beautiful and pleasant day. I have my tent up, had it up about 1/2 hour, a stove just at the mouth of my tent (camp stove), my bed clothes, overcoat are hanging out in the sun to dry, and will be al right by night again unless we have to march which we may do at anytime. Any moment the drums may beat the call to "fall in". I was eating supper Monday eve, not thinking of moving, when the drums sounded, and when they sound to "fall in", now everybody has to spring.

    The Rebels burnt the depot here with a large amount of army stores, as tents, provisions, guns, etc. They were burning when I got here. Several hogshead of sugar and molasses, bacon were saved. One of our men has just brought in two prisoners. They were brought to the Colonel's tent. They are very intelligent looking men, but worthless scoundrels, I know, as they said they got tired and did not care if they were taken as they wanted to go home anyway. They were privates of the 33rd Mississippi. We have just such worthless, cowardly scamps in our ranks, so that it proves nothing as to the disposition of the people here for peace. The (the Northern press) may say what they please, but the people here are as nearly unanimous for war, as the people can be on any question.

    I told you in my last letter that we heard the guns of our advance guard all day, expecting every moment to be ordered forward. Monday we did not hear them, and did not understand why (I did not), untill at sundown we were marched out to the river and compelled to stop, to build a bridge, the river here is about sixty feet wide and 4 to 6 feet deep. A Cavalry Regiment swam their horses across and pushed on to annoy their rear guard. A bridge was built, just the width of an artillery wagon, and one of our batteries taken across, by hand, leading the horses over, then more cavalry lead their horses over, then our Brigade crossed over, then the other Brigades of our Division, and by that time the bridge was so broken as to need repairs.

    We were marched to this place where Gen. Price had his Head Quarters Monday. Our ambulances and wagons could not cross the bridge. We got here about noon and just at evening I rode back 4 miles to the river to see about my ambulances. They did not get across untill late at night and it was nearly morning before our teams came in. It was mud and rain all day. I was completely plastered over with mud, though my gum coat kept me perfectly dry, and with my coat and gum blanket before a log fire, I slept dry and comfortably (at least I slept soundly for some 4 to 5 hours) on the wet and muddy ground covered from the mud by a pile of wet leaves. I am feeling first rate and have not even taken cold. How long would Scott live, and live as I have since last Friday morning? I do not know how I could stay at the north. I like the rough life, though we have had it rather too rough for the past few days, still I should feel uneasy at home, yet I do not think that Scott could stand it.  ----orders to move----

    Eleven o'clock p.m. Wednesday eve. ---have moved--- such is a soldier's life. I had my tent put up this morning about 1/2 past nine o'clock, had the hospital camp stove (as we had none sick in hospital and no tent up), and appropriated to my own use the stove, washed myself, got on some clean clothes, commenced to write this letter, my cot up and my tent fixed as comfortably as ever, had eaten a very good dinner of fried mush and have commenced to write again, when suddenly the drums sounded and orders came to move in 1/2 hour. I kicked the stove over, threw a bucket of water on it, and in less than 1/2 hour my things were in the wagon. We came on two miles and about dark camped, and it is supposed we will stay here at least a couple of days. We may go in 1/2 hour.

    My tent is again up, a large log fire burning brightly in front of it. My cot and everything fixed as though we had lived here for a week. I have a large hospital tent up, a little back of my own, and two sick men in it (so that I have lost my stove). Have had supper and am ready to stay or go, just as it happens, though I would a little rather stay tonight. This is certainly a fine country.

    We begin to see how the aristocracy of the south live at home; fine, large, airy houses with porticoes on all sides, with fine yards. Everything looking so comfortably and pleasant, only that at those houses we seldom see any one but Negroes or women. The men are all gone. As the Niggers standing by the road side near such dwellings say, when you ask him where his master is, "Oh, he gwine ober do oder side ob de Hatchie. I spec you found him dar, if you want to see him". We found the place where he had been, and I for one am very glad he was not there. Holly Springs is more like a Northern County seat town than any I have seen yet. It has a large public square with business houses on all sides of, something like Fairfield, Iowa, only the houses on the square are very much better and is closely built up, like Bellefountain or Newark. Off from the square are any number of beautiful residences. It probably had a population of some 3000 to 5000.

    The streets were quite full of citizens with scowling faces, and females stood at front doors and windows, watching us pass through. Niggers with a broad grin on their faces were the only smiling ones seen out of our ranks. Our band at the head of the regiment fairly threw themselves away on "Dixie". It was one of the most beautiful days I ever saw, the troops keeping step to the music, marching lively forward. Occasionally some of the females would speak, "You Yankees will come running back this way in a day or so", or "you won't look so fine and gay when you come back this way", or "Genl. Price will be happy to see you gentlemen". We were in the advance. They had no idea then that it would take 3 days for that sound of Yankees playing Dixie to pass through their little town. They must have thought that the whole Yankee nation was coming to take tea with Price. Oh, how they must have felt while that apparently interminable procession was passing through. As our regiment passed, their countenances seemed to express satisfaction that Price would soon send us running back; but, as hour after hour and day after day that army "went marching on", hope seemed to die away in their breasts, their doors and windows were closed to shut out the sight of the "ruthless invaders".

    From Corinth to Grand Junction we were truly ruthless invaders, but not so since. I no longer see burning houses, fences, barns and churches. Sweet potatoes and fresh meat are a rarity upon our tables. No longer is their burning and pillaging. So severely have some been punished that the soldier no longer dares to fire a building or enter one for the purpose of theft.

    In passing through Holly Springs, I saw several females in houses at doors or windows or in the yards that I was surprised when I noticed their hair to see that they were Negroes. Negroes? Were they Negroes? They were slaves, but they were white. One in particular was standing with several Negro or Mulatto women and children in the yard of a magnificent place. She had a white babe in her arms. She was a beautiful woman, I and others around me noticed her and supposed her to be the mistress, the lady of the house. Imagine our surprise when a Mulatto fellow, a servent in our regiment, went laughing and shook hands with her. Bets were immediately made and taken that she was a white woman - not a slave. Our Mulatto came on in a few moments, when a dozen men called out, "Bill, was that your 'old mistress'"? You ought to have heard the darkies laugh and seen them show their eyes and teeth as Bill replied, "What dat dar woman what I spoke to, why she is a Nigger, yah, yah, yah". I saw more white "Niggers" in Holly Springs than I ever saw before. I have seen a Mulatto woman with two babes in her arms, both nursing at the same time, one baby white, her mistress's babe, the other her own, a black one. Shall I send you a wet nurse?

Thursday Morn

December 4th, 9 o'clock a.m.

    Slept well last night making up for some lost time during the week. Have had breakfast. Fried mush, ham, butter, sugar, coffee. Had Surgeons call before breakfast, prescribed for 15 men, and put seven of them off duty for today. It is a dull, cloudy, damo cold day. The front of my tent is wide open, a large fire in front, with my overcoat on, I am quite comfortable. Some 200 men are at work sweeping up the leaves, clearing of the brush, etc. We are immediately back of an old camp of the rebels, one they left only a day or two ago.

    Lt. Col. Shane told me this morning that Col. Crocker told him yesterday that Dr. Thomas of Keokuk had been appointed Surgeon of our Regt. I presume it is so. If it is so, I hope he will get here soon as I do not want the care, anxiety and heavy responsibility of the place unless I get the pay, and if he comes now he will find Jordan a hard road to travel; and he may get sick of it. Even now, he will not have a difficult task as I had, for I took charge of the Regt. with no one to assist me or show me the manner of doing things. Were marching for two or three weeks, and in one of the severest battles of the war. Thomas is quite a decent clever fellow, though je murders the "Kings English" in a terrible manner; he spells head "hed" and toes "tose". If he does not carry his hed and tose straight or puts on airs, he will "come to grief". If I have an opportunity to mail this today, I will do so. Continue writing.

Your Affectionate Husband

Tell Scott I want Zii of Podophyllin. Send in a letter.

In camp near Abbeville, Mississippi

Tuesday morning, December 9, 1862

Dear Wife,

    Your letter of Nov. 30th I received yesterday. I wrote to you under dates Nov. 27, Dec. 1st and 4th, the latter at this camp. This division of the army (McArthur's) has been left here; other divisions have passed us. We were in the advance, I do not know where we are now or where the rest of the army is or anything about it. We have a very pleasant camp. I have a brick chimney and fireplace in my tent and have been resting this week. The ground freezes considerably every night, thaws out during the day.

    I sleep finely and warm on a tick filled with dead leaves, have a warm fire built before I wake up, and then get up and dress by the fire. You know that pleases me. It would be of no use at present to try and send a box per express. Some of our officers have boxes now on the road that were started from Iowa last October. They will probably find us if we stop long enough in one place, but when that will be is extremely problematical. I would like very well to have the Christmas dinner, but will take upon that day whatever turns up. For the past few days we have been living on fried mush or corn meal batter cakes, beef and coffee. I would like to see Frank riding around Columbus with Pa; he would be exactly suited. Tell me when he comes back what he has to say about it. I suppose Annie did not stay away longer than she expected.

    If you have not yet commenced to receive the "Courier" let me know. I sent word to Norris to send it to you. If Scott comes down he must certainly find me. He must inquire for McArthur's division and when he finds that, for the 3d Brigade. It will be hard work for him now, though the cars will be running here I suppose before long, then if we are still here, it will be no trouble at all. I believe it would do him good to come down here for two or three weeks.

    Unless Uncle Sam pays us off soon, you can not see my photograf with new uniform, as I shall have to wait untill I can borrow a wig, or else have it taken with no "har in the place where the wool ought to grow". I shall have to ask Scott to "lend me the loan of a dollar" as I am entirely out of postage stamps. Send me the dollar's worth. There is talk of a Paymaster continually, but I do not expect one untill we stop some place awhile. I feel sleepy and stupid today, so will not try to write more.

Your affectionate husband

Near Abbeville, Mississippi

December 14, 1862

Dear Wife,

    Your letter of the 7th received today. We are still here very comfortably fixed in camp. Other divisions of the army have gone past us below Oxford, towards Granada and Jackson. We no longer are in the advance. The indications at present are that we shall move forward on Tuesday next. I wrote to you on the 1st, 4th and 9th giving you a history of our march to this place, and how nearly we came to a big fight. I will enclose some letters of professional correspondents describing the same. I happened to be in the advance and saw and heard what he relied upon the statements of others for, as he must have been with one of the rear divisions. Our division (McArthur's) is in the left wing of the army, commanded by Hamilton. Friday last 4 companies of our Regiment were detailed to go back to Holly Springs as a guard over 700 prisoners, recently captured.

    While we remain in camp there is no news and it is as dull as can be. I should have been slightly surprised to hear of Theresa's marriage had I not a day or two before heard it from Dr. Davis (whose wife is in Columbus). It was quite romantic. Some day when the spirit moves, I shall write a letter to Mrs. Joy. I find it is of no use for me to write a letter now, so I shall go to bed and if the spirit then moves, write, and if it does not, send this as it is.

    Monday morning, December 15th --- It rained considerably last night. What this army does this winter it has got to do soon, as a few rain storms will certainly render the roads impassable. There are at present no indications of our moving tomorrow, yet I presume we will this week. It is a dull, cloudy day and raining every little while, raining now quite hard. I have just shut the front door to keep out the rain. It has been quite warm for the past few days. I slept last night with but one blanket over me. We keep a little fire in the fire place, but with the tent shut up it is uncomfortably warm and close.

    Our sick list has increased considerably for the past 3 days have had 25 to 30 attend Surgeon's Call, and have two in hospital, one case of pneumonia, one of typhoid. I learned the other day a little more about the appointment of our Surgeon (who, by the way, is not here yet). Colonel Crocker was not to blame as I was told, but Lt. Col. Shane who commands the Regiment. (Crocker commands the Brigade) Col. Shane pretended to be and told me that he was anxious for me to be appointed, at the same time he was using all his efforts to have a particular friend of his appointed. Crocker was anxious that a friend of his should have it, but I believe he did not interfere actively for him. Shane acted the part of a liar and a hypocrite, but he did not succeed in getting his friend in, he simply prevented my receiving it. Gov. Kirkwood had promised me the place, so between Crocker's friend, Shane's friend and myself, he split the difference and took neither. The part Shane played was not on account of disliking me, but on account of his old friend. He does not know that I know the despicable part he played.

    I should like to come and take a Christmas dinner with you and the children. I rather think myself that Frank is quite a boy. He will have sense enough for a doctor at least. When we get into winter quarters I shall try and get a pass for Pa and Scott to come down. When you write tell me how Pa looks, his health, etc. Also, of Mrs. Joy. By the way, I think that was sensible and am glad of it.

Your affectionate husband

Holly Springs, Mississippi

December 24, 1862

Dear Wife,

    My last letter home was dated 15th December. The last I received from you was dated December 7th. Thursday, December 18th we left camp near Abbeville, marched south through Oxford and camped Friday afternoon eight miles south of Oxford, Oxford is a very pretty place. The state university is located there, large fine buildings which we used as hospitals. Saturday our camp was full of rumors concerning Rebels in our rear, the burning of Holly Springs, the capture of Jackson, Tennessee, and of everything else nearly by the Rebels, but we know nothing definite only that our rail road communications with the frozen regions of the north was cut off.

    We received orders Saturday night about 11 o'clock to march at daylight Sunday, the 21st. We took the back track and Monday evening after dark halted here, 40 miles north, where we are now camped. It is just in the outskirts of Holly Springs, about 1/2 a mile from the Public Square. Now for what has happened, though you probably know more about it then I do. Saturday morning, Dec 20th at 4 o'clock a.m. about 6000 mounted Rebels dashed in to this place and captured it in about 15 minutes without the least trouble. The 29th Illinois and 101 Illinois Regiments were here and were taken prisoners and paroled. They did not try to fight. The conduct of the officer commanding the post (Col. Murphy) was perfectly disgraceful. We had abundant warning of the attack and yet permitted his men to be completely surprised. Two or three companies of cavalry were also here, but they fought like tigers and cut their way through the Rebels and nearly all escaped. We had an immense amount of Quartermaster, Commissary and Hospital stores here, said to be over a million dollars worth and was probably nearly two millions. The Rebels burned all that they could not carry away upon their horses, and the north side of the Public Square, the best part of the business portion of the town is burned, destruction of individual property of residents, immense.

    I described our march through Holly Springs as we passed south. It is the prettiest town I ever saw. I walked over part of it this forenoon. There are very many magnificent residences with grounds about them perfectly beautiful, evergreens beautifully trimmed and every indication of unbounded wealth. I did not see but two or three citizens in a walk of two hours. They are gone, the males to the army, the females shut themselves up in their houses and are invisible. When the Rebels come into town many of the women rushed in to the streets in their night gowns, cheering and waving their handkerchiefs to their soldiers - perfectly natural -.

    Sunday and Monday's march was the hardest on our Regiment that we have had. We were the rear guard, the baggage train was nearly three miles long, and we were behind to protect that and bring up the stragglers. We were up Sunday morning at 4 o'clock and did not get to camp until 12 o'clock at night, then had to get supper, go to bed on the ground and were called up at 5 o'clock in the morning, started at daylight and marched until 8 o'clock in the evening, making some 40 hours march with only 4 hours sleep. It was not so with any but our Regiment, the rear guard.

    As we passed through going south all our bands were playing, our flags flying, everything gay, when we came in Monday eve, the bands in advance of us were silent, till our Regiment came in, when, though we had had the hardest part of the march, had been on the road 35 hours, the flags were unfurled and the band struck up "De Lincum gun boats come dis way", the streets were full of soldiers who cheered with a will, and hundreds called out, "What Regiment is that? Bully for you", etc.

    The last news I have of the world in general is Dec. 15th. We know nothing of what has transpired. The camp is full of rumors of the capture of Richmond by Banks and Burnside, of the evacuation of Vicksburg, etc. We think here that probably Vicksburg is evacuated, but I actually do not know what our own army here is doing. I only know that our Regiment, Brigade, or Division marches when it is ordered to, goes where it is ordered, and while we are actually on the road, we frequently do not know where we are going. We are a perfect sot of know nothings.

    It is Christmas Eve. I would hang up my stockings only that for the past 4 or 5 nights I have not taken them off at night, in fact have not taken off my clothes for the past five days, untill this morning, when I took a general wash and clean clothes. I intend however to undress tonight and go to bed again like a white man.

    I have an invitation to a Christmas dinner tomorrow from a Surgeon in charge of one of the hospitals here so if we do not move, I shall go. The weather has been delightful for the past few days. The days comfortably warm, we have no fire in out tent, and with a thin coat on I am comfortable. It freezes slightly at night, though not near so cold as it has been. Dr. Thomas (the newly appointed Surgeon) arrived last Thursday morning. Me thinks "Jordan is a hard road to trabbel and wishes he hadn't gone and done it". He is a dyspeptic, and has vomited up about 1/2 of what he eats. The stomach (digestive power) is the thing required in the army, and mine might digest lead provided it did not come in the shape of bullets. The only thing I am dissatisfied with is that I did not receive the commission, as I should have done, and would have done but for the lying and treachery of Col. Shane, for which I hope to be even with him for, some of these days.

    I do not know when I can send this but will have it ready when the opportunity occurs, will in pencil on the envelope mark date that I mail it. Keep on writing and I may get a pile of letters some of these days. Kiss the children for me.

Your affectionate husband

Holly Springs, Mississippi

December 28, 1862

Dear Wife,

    Your letter of Dec. 14th I received last night, it being the first mail received in camp since the 17th. I wrote to you on Dec. 24 from this place. We are comfortably fixed again with chimney to my tent etc. The troops had wheat instead of coffee issued to them the other day. We still have enough coffee to last a couple of days, when we, the doctors, will also have to come down to wheat. All the mills in the country are kept constantly at work, night and day and Sunday, grinding corn, as nearly all our supplies were burned by Rebels at this place. Corn meal is at present the staple.

    Christmas, I took a Christmas dinner with several other Surgeons. We had upon the table beautiful and costly china plates, cups, saucers, cut glass highly ornamented goblets, preserve dishes, etc., in short, it was the nice costly dishes of one of the wealthiest families of Holly Springs. Their residence, now used for a hospital. We used their dining room table, dishes, Negro waiters, cook. Preserves as figs, peaches, apples, pears, cranberries, etc. and I had the first real nice meal since I left Keokuk. You know I have a slight partiality for preserves and sweet meats and the way we "pitched in" was a warning to everybody that has such things likely to fall our way.

    I have not seen a newspaper of later date than 15th of December and do not know what is going on in the outside world, or here, or anyplace else. I know nothing since the 15th of Banks, Burnside, Richmond or Vicksburg. I do not even know what is doing here except as I see it myself. I suppose we shall have communication resumed before long. The weather here has been very pleasant most all the time. It rained yesterday and day before, but today is beautiful.

    I received your letter containing Podophyllin, also the needle and yarn. If you will keep a record of date of your letters you can tell whether I receive them, as I acknowledge them by date. I keep a record of date of all letters when written of my letters, I can tell if you fail to receive any. Letters I receive, I burn after I have read.

    You are unnecessarily blue. I have no doubt that you will get along much better than ever. It is like everything else, nothing after you get used to it, and ain't you used to it by this time? You just take my word for it, and you will find it true. You will do much better than ever before.

    What is the reason Pa does not write to me, I have not received a letter from him since last September, only one since I came here.

    The Division of the army Homer was in was left at Corinth, so that I have not seen or heard of him since the last of September. I see Lt. Porter Sheffield, and others of Ottumwa boys in 15th Iowa every few days. We have annual, quarterly and monthly reports to make out by the 31st so I must go to work.

Your affectionate husband

    Sunday morn, January 4, 1863 - We are 1/2 a mile south of Lafayette, Tennessee. Left Holly Springs on the 30th, came here on 31st. Have received no mail for a number of days. Have an opportunity to send this to Memphis this morn, if Rebels do not catch it, you may receive it. I received only two letters in December, yours of 7th and 14th. We are 35 miles east of Memphis. Numerous guerrila bands surround us, so that it is dangerous to leave camp to travel around the neighborhood. It rained yesterday very hard. Continue writing and do not get the blues, as it is entirely unnecessary on your own account, or on mine. They are waiting for this. I will write next opportunity.

Your husband


More letters written by Seneca Thrall (page 4)



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