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Long, Large Letter from the 3rd Maine Infantry, Birney’s Brigade – 20 Miles from Richmond – Sgt. Hannibal A. Johnson Writes a Great Letter about the Battle of Williamsburg: “Half of their men were killed by the bayonets of our boys for the rain had rendered half of the guns useless…” – “THE WOUNDED COULD BE HEARD MOANING IN PAIN, FOR IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO GET OFF ALL OUR WOUNDED” – “THE ROAD AND FIELD WAS COVERED WITH THE BODIES OF FRIENDS AND FOE ALL DEAD” – “Some of these poor fellows were so deep in the mud and water that we could not tell whether they were our men or not”
This is probably the largest Civil War letter we have seen. It measures 9 ¾ x 15 ½ inches. This blue stationery was taken out of some kind of ledger book. Both sides of the sheet are totally filled, written in nice dark ink. Hannibal Augustus Johnson was a resident of Hallowell, Maine and in June of 1861 was mustered into Company B of the 3rd Maine Infantry. According to the Civil War Database, the 3rd Maine “Perhaps no regiment from the state saw more fighting or rendered more distinguished service”.

Hannibal’s war record was quite remarkable. He was taken prisoner on July 2nd, 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg where the 3rd Maine was hard hit. He was quickly exchanged and fought until the battle of the Wilderness on May 5th, 1864 when he was again taken prisoner. This time he was confined in several southern prisons, eventually escaping from the one in Columbia, S.C. on Nov. 15th, 1864. He traveled nearly 2 months on foot until arriving in Union held Knoxville, Tennessee on January 10th, 1865! For his courageous endeavors he was promoted 1st Lieutenant before the war ended.

The letter is laid out beautifully… great for display. At the top: “Head Quarters Birney's Brigade”. Below that, “Camp on the road, about 20 miles from Richmond May 20th, 1862”.   Here is that great content:

• “Dear Friend Samuel, It is some time since I have heard from you, and I think you are my debtor, for I wrote you about five weeks ago while in Hampton and no answer has yet been received, but you may of written me and the letter been lost on the way.”

• “Since my last to you, we have seen something of war and its effects, for a while before Yorktown we built more fortifications, rifle pits, forts, etc. than I ever see before…”

• “While we were around Washington, we thought we could build earthworks about as well as anybody. But the fact was we did only a child's work in proportion to our work since. It is useless for me to write you about the evacuation of Yorktown, for you are well informed by the papers, but while before that place, we were under more fire than we were at Bull's Run.”

• “I have somewhat changed my position since my arrival on this Peninsular, for I have been for the last six weeks WITH GENERAL BIRNEY OF OUR BRIGADE, ACTING AS ORDERLY FOR HIM, and I like the position tip top for my duties are very light, have a horse to ride at all times, no walking to do, so by this change, I get clear of all long marches. Also picket duty. Have my knapsack carried in the Head Quarters wagon and on the whole have a very easy position.”

• “As soon as the Rebels evacuated Yorktown, we started in pursuit of them, but did not come up with them until Monday afternoon, before Williamsburg…”

• “On this day it had rained since early in the morning, and the roads were in a horrid condition, and after marching all day in the rain and mud, we were put in battle without a moment's rest.”

• “Hancock had engaged the enemy in the early part of the day, and his force being so small, and not being able to get any Artillery in position on account of the deep woods and mud, he came very near being whipped and would of been if our division coming up just as it did…”

• “AFTER OUR BRIGADE HAD ENTERED THE BLOODY FIELD, THEY WERE DROVE BACK NO LESS THAN THREE TIMES, BUT THE BRAVE BOYS WOULD NOT STAY WHIPPED BUT WOULD AGAIN AT THE ENEMY WHO WERE BEFORE THEM STRONGLY ENTRENCHED IN RIFLE PITS SURROUNDED BY FORTS THAT WERE THROWING SHOT AND SHELL INTO OUR RANKS LIKE HAIL…”

• “But for all these great odds, we succeeded in driving the enemy back and killing three of them to our one...”

• “HALF OF THEIR MEN WERE KILLED BY THE BAYONETS OF OUR BOYS FOR THE RAIN HAD RENDERED HALF OF THE GUNS USELESS, FOR THEY WOULD NOT GO HALF OF THE TIME.”

• “And in these cases our boys would make a rush at the enemy with nothing but their bayonet, but with this simple instrument they gained the battle.”

• “At one time during the battle, we got after much trouble a battery at work, but soon every horse was killed and many men making the battery of no use to us. There was only two of the Regts. in our Brigade engaged. The 38th N.Y. or Scott Life Guards & the 40th or Mozart.”

• “The 3rd and 4th Maine having been detached and sent down on the left to prevent a flanking movement by the enemy which object they accomplished without firing a gun. Gen. Birney led on these two N.Y. Regt. in person, and of course I was with him, so I see the progress of the engagement all through, and I was under three times the fire that I was at Bull's Run and came out unharmed.”

• “The darkness put an end to the battle and during the long, dark rainy night, THE WOUNDED COULD BE HEARD MOANING IN PAIN, FOR IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO GET OFF ALL OUR WOUNDED, FOR AN AMBULANCE COULD NOT GET ON TO THE FIELD ON ACCOUNT OF MUD AND DESTRUCTION IN THE ROAD…”

• “ALL WOUNDED HAD TO BE BROUGHT AWAY IN BLANKETS, AND EVEN THESE MEN WERE FIRED AT BY THE REBELS.”

• “Early in the morning, the news came that the enemy had evacuated, and we at once under arms and in line.”

• “We had to cross the battle field of the day before and what a sight met our sight, for THE ROAD AND FIELD WAS COVERED WITH THE BODIES OF FRIENDS AND FOE ALL DEAD, and horses in any number all dead…”

• “I was happy to find that most of the men were our enemy, although the Lord knows there were plenty of our own men.”

• “SOME OF THESE POOR FELLOWS WERE SO DEEP IN THE MUD AND WATER THAT WE COULD NOT TELL WHETHER THEY WERE OUR MEN OR NOT…”

• “But we soon passed this horrid place and soon entered their works with DEAD REBELS, JUST AS THEY FELL, AND MOST EVERY ONE OF THEM SHOT IN THE HEAD, SHOWING HOW DEADLY IS THE AIM OF OUR NORTHERN BOYS.”

• “We soon commenced the work of putting them under the sod and as soon as this was done, we started for Williamsburg, some two miles away which we soon entered and here WE FOUND MOST EVERY HOUSE A HOSPITAL, FULL OF WOUNDED REBEL SOLDIERS WHO HAD BEEN WOUNDED IN THE FIGHT ON THE DAY BEFORE.”

• “THEY WERE THE WORST LOOKING SET OF MEN THAT I EVER SEE TOGETHER LOOK AS IF THEY HAD COME OUT OF THE POOR HOUSE.”

• “We have now been on the road to Richmond about 10 days, and I hope by the next 10 days we shall be in Richmond. It is getting so dark that I cannot see the lines, so I shall be obliged to bring this to a close. I should be pleased to hear from you again if you think this worthy a reply. Respects to all. From Han”


This is probably the finest, most graphic letter we have read on the battle of Williamsburg, Virginia. It is in fine condition and a solid “10” in the area of eye appeal.

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