In the first of the James Fleming letters the man from Larne, Co. Antrim described his emigration to Canada in 1857 and the first weeks of his new life across the Atlantic. We join him nearly four years later. Now settled in New York, James writes home to Ulster to tell his family of his ‘change of business’- he is now an officer serving with the 9th New York Infantry in Virginia. The letter, written from Newport News, Virginia, describes camp life and the beauty of the Virginia countryside. James writes of his hopes of starting a farm following his two year term (although he expects the war to be over in a matter of weeks) and of his desire to get back to Larne for a visit. At one point he interrupts his letter to go out on evening drill, returning afterwards to complete his correspondence. Having not written to his family in nine months, the 26-year-old is full of inquiries about those at home, and also of assurances that he will be in more regular contact in the future.
When James wrote this letter on 12th August he had been in the army for three months, having mustered in as a Second Lieutenant in Company I on 4th May 1861. The 9th New York Infantry was commanded by Colonel Rush C. Hawkins and was known as ‘Hawkins’ Zouaves’ based on the brightly coloured North-African inspired uniforms they wore. It mustered in on 4th May (James was one of its original members) and was designated the 9th New York on 13th May. Following training, it left New York for Newport News on 6th June, arriving in Virginia on the 8th of that month. (1)
New Port News
Augst 12th 1861
My Dear Father Mother & Brothers,
Dear Mother I suppose you have heard before this time of my change in business. I have given up my old occupation for that of soldiering. I have joined the American Army for 2 years and so I am United States Commissioned Officer. I hold the rank of Lieutenant in the 9th Regiment of U.S. Volunteers (or New York Zouaves). We are at present camped on Virginia soil on the banks of the James river a beautiful place and a very desirable place at present for government to hold, as it commands the mouth of the river, we have fine bathing good fishing and plenty of oysters and we enjoy ourselves first rate we have been here for two months and I may say had nothing to do as yet there has been several fights and our side has always been victorious for so far the inhabitants have all cleared off on our arrival and left everything that belongs to a farmer behind them. Tell Alex if I was any way near him I could give him a couple of good colts as any man could wish to own. I went out the other day with 2 of my men and got 2 very handsome ones we had some trouble in Breaking them but the ride first rate at present they are rising 3 year old. I have 2 three year old, 1 about 5 year old & also a mule hard to tell its age so you see I have as many as will start farming when my 2 years are up. I have spent the most of 4 months already as time will roll. I will give you a little of camp life we landed here early in June on a beautiful Saturday morning pitched our tents in as fine a field of what as I have seen since I left old Larne it was up to my [shoulders] so you can judge of its height – as I am a good 6 feet. We remained there until Sunday morning struck out tents and went a little further south into a fine field of Indian Corn and pitched them there the same day that took us the most of that Sunday by the time we had all finished both officers & men were ready for a rest so spent the first Sunday in Virginia we got our pickets posted and our sentries. Pickets are a company of men sent out about 1 ½ to 2 miles to guard against an enemy approaching and on account of so many hogs & cattle running lose we were alarmed 3 times that night all called out by the long roll of the drum waiting to see the enemy but none has come as yet. At daylight in the morning drum beats to get up, at 5 o’clock the roll is called to see that all men are present, then they perform police duty which is cleaning out their tents and brushing in front of them to half past 6 they have for swimming and washing themselves at 7 they turn out for drill which last to 8 ½ o’clock then they have from that time unto 6 in the evening for any sort of amusement they wish some go a fishing and some into the woods & some reading & such ways they pass their time at 6 pm turn out for drill which lasts for one hour and half then supper all go to bed at 9 o’clock turn out at 4 so you can see pretty much how time is spent. I have been out with several scouting parties and has taken a great many small trophys such as Brooks (?) ornaments but too troublesome to keep & so when we get tired of them we pitch them away –
Dear Mother you can see that we are not overpowered with work and then the officers have much less to do only superintend the men working and so Dear Mother I almost know what you will say when you read this but I can assure you that [I] would not give my present occupation up for anything that I know of. I am content and in good health as content as possible could be away from home and also my health was never better I am stout & strong. I left word at my old place to have any papers or letters forwarded to me that would arrive but I hope not away for the last 4 months. I hope this will find you all enjoying good health and hopes with the blessing of God to see you all again as it will be my first trip at the expiration of my time as I am longing to see some of my old friends again about Larne. I had a letter from Mary Ann a few days ago she mentioned you were all well and she also mentioned she was writing home but I do not know whether she mentioned about my movements or not as I only expected I would remain in the army for 3 months and was delaying writing to you to the expiration of that time as it was expected that the 3 months volunteers would quell all disturbances but they had very little to do but a great many of them volunteered for 2 years some for 3 also some for during the war but its not expected to last longer than the 1st of Sept or Oct at the outside as we have two hundred thousand men in the field at present and has taken one of the strongest batteries that the rebels held and I may say that we have only to take 2 more which will leave them without a stronghold. Dear Mother this I may say has been the reason of not writing to you sooner but I can assure you never for one moment did I forget my Dear Parents & Brothers at home but I can assure you I will not neglect so long in writing again as you may expect to hear from me often during my stay in the army which I know it will give you all pleasure to get & which I hope Dear Mother you might forgive me my seeming neglect in not answering your last as I believe you have not got any word from me now for 9 months which I am sorry that I let such occur. I am very desirous of getting a letter from home as I have not got any in some time and does not know how my Brothers are doing or how my Father is getting along in the Nursery if he could only see the Peach, ?, Grapes etc growing here he would be astonished we have some nice fruit out here you will be surprised when I tell you that the Blackberry here is looked upon as a nice dish but then we have a great many sorts of Berrys here which is very nice. Dear Mother give my love to all of my old friends I suppose when Tomy Rankin next home he gave you all of the news give Anny and him my kind regards also her sister & mother not forgetting Mrs M Rankin & sister and all of my enquiring friends also any of my young friends that may think me worthy of a thought as I often, when I am all alone think of the pleasant days spent in Larne and wonder if I will ever meet them all again as I can fancy myself walking into Larne some time off, and meeting some of my old acquaintances and having a good shake of the hand but 5 or 6 years I dare say will make a great change some left some married & the young about growing old & yet when I look back I can only think it a few short weeks since I left her shores and since that time I have had good health and never wanted a friend which I may thank the giver of all good gifts for and hopes I will always have an overseeing eye to guide me and protect me from all harm. Dear Mother I feel rather uneasy about not getting any papers or letter they may have been sent to New York to me & not forwarded from that, but I hope that my Brothers are all well hoping that Henry is still continuing in good health as I feel rather uneasy about him on account of not getting any papers as he used to send them often when I was in New York. I suppose that Andy is still enjoying home happiness or rather happiness at home. I would not be at all surprised to hear that he had got married or some such desperate action – but I think he will follow in Thos’ footsteps and be afraid to do anything of that sort until he sees old age staring him in the face and then remorse will probe him to take such a step as for Alex & Agnes I suppose they are enjoying that quiet happiness which is only to be found in a loving wife and a happy mother which I think Agnes would make and for poor old Tom I suppose he is going to live his days out by doing one day & undoing the next. I hope that he & Agnes are raising a family which will do credit to the name of Flemming hoping they are both enjoying that great blessing good health as for Malcolm & Marianna I hope they are well and erased from their memory that speck of the past and living only for each other as I hope she will make a loving wife & good mother. Send her or give her my warmest & kindest love as many a happy day I spent with them as I know she will be glad to hear that I am well and doing well. I hope yet to see Malcolm & her in a better position than they ever occupied as their is no position so as what we work for & then we know how to appreciate it, and now, how is Sally enjoying her wedded life or what sort of a man has she got as I have not been able to get any news concering him or how he is circumstanced as I would feel sorry if she had not made a good match as she was well deserving of a good Husband.
Dear Mother I hope that you and father are enjoying health and happiness and hopes to see you enjoying manys the happy day yet. I hope you will both be spurd to see all of your children gathered around you again as I expect that at the expiration of my 2 years If I am spared at that time that Mary Ann & family will accompany me home on a visit. Dear Mother have you had any word from my aunt lately as they were talking very much about coming home during this summer but I think that they are too much afraid of spending what little they have but it may do them much good and it may not but its well guarded at present. I would not be much surprised if it would get well spent yet for her they were both very well when I left New York and have received several papers from Thos and one letter which he states they are all well. Aunt Peggy was only home a short time before I left she was well and looked well stout & healthy looking how is my uncle and family getting along or has he got any work to do yet that letter that the girls wrote to my aunt done them a great deal of harm about my uncle drinking etc as she would have sent him something more but for that letter. Now Dear Mother I must finish as it wants only a short time for to go out with my company for Evg drill. If you could only see the field of corns where we camped in you could not tell it from the road along the shore quite level and all hamped down the soil here is quite sandy you might search for one day and not get one stone as large as a hens egg, there’s the dream. I must finish when I come in. Dear Mother I have returned from my drill & will now finish. How is Sam or is he still living with you yet. I hope that he & Margaret are well. They are several more of my old wellwishers that I cannot recollect at present. Give them my regards Phelix & maty (?) how are they getting along and the lady that kept the small grocery store below that with the 3 daughters how are they – Tell Tom Rankin if he is at home I would like he would write one or Anny as it would give me great pleasure to get a letter from her or Tommy. Tell my Brothers to write me regular so I will give you all of the news as I go along. Dear Mother I will count the days & watch the post to I get word from home. Tell Malcolm I would like to get a few lines from him as I have looked long for one from him as I hope he can spare that length of time to devote to his absent brother as it would give me great pleasure to get one. I am getting a sketch of myself which I forward to you in this letter but will not be finished for 2 days yet which will delay the sending of this off. Dear Mother I will finish for the present and hopes that the course that I am persuing at present will not fret or vex you as I can assure you that I am much better pleased than any business ever I was employed in before healthier and better in every respect. Goodbye for the present and May God Bless you all in the sincere prayers of your affectionate son James.
My address will be
Lieut Jas H Flemming
9th Regiment United States Volunteers
New Port News
*The next set of letters will follow James as he continues his service in the 9th New York Infantry in North Carolina. Note that some punctuation has been added to the letter above for ease of reading. Sincere thanks are due to Louise Brown for sharing these letters of her ancestor, which she has also transcribed, with readers of Irish in the American Civil War.
(1) New York Adjutant General, New York State Military Museum; (2) Louise Brown Transcription;
New York State Adjutant General. Rosters of the 9th New York Infantry and 16th New York Cavalry.