Volunteer Ann Arcari has spent the last few weeks organizing and reading through the letters and diaries of Fitz Green Hollister, a Civil War soldier. Although he was in the army during the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Ann did not find any mention of that great fight in Fitz’s writings. However, in her search, Ann found interesting bits and pieces, which she shares below.
Fitz Green Hollister was a young farmer from Washington, Connecticut, when he joined the 8th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers, in 1861. His letters home and his dairies evidence a keen intellect and an eye for detail. He was in Virginia July 9, 1863, where his regiment was “within three miles of Williamsburg encamped in a great field of blackberries. As soon as the arms were stacked the men all went to picking them. There were acres being culled. Thus we skirmished across the field to the fence . . .” The following day they “started early . . . marched to a mile the safe safe side of Williamsburg and near to Fort McGruder. Williamsburg is ancient and honorable, I suppose it certainly looks mature, the irreverent might call it seedy. One of the contra[bands] (an escaped slave who sought protection with the Union soldiers) asked a female of secesh proclivities where she was going? ‘To Heaven’ ‘You will see Hell if you follow them off!’ There was too much truth in this,” Fitz allows.
Looking at letters Fitz wrote soon after, on July 14 in camp near Portsmouth, Virginia, to “My dear friends” he talks about having to march in the severe heat “the warmest of the season. Men dropped out by scores, some doctors were trying to resussitate [sic], ambulances were filled with soldiers who had given out, and their equipment . . . the road was lined with overcoats, blankets, and knapsacks flung away. Sometimes where men had rested they were left in piles.”
The next day he records
the country was one of the richest and pleasantest I ever saw. The harvest were plenteous but the laborers few. Some wheat had been cut but we saw no reapers at work. There were immense fields of corn badly tilled or not tilled at all. And there were many fields not sowed at all, there was no one to do it, I suppose. The houses were palaces, the farms great plantations, the soil rich. The inhabitants not to be seen–‘gone to the war’. The Taylor plantation where we stayed . . . is owned by a man who formerly spent his summers in Litchfield & was there when the rebellion broke out . . . Mr. Taylor sent his regards to many of his old acquaintances in L___. I told him to write everything, how it looked there, how any old setting hens squaked [sic] last night. There was a venerable goose that he meant to have saved but he said they got her in the pot before he knew it. I saw her boil many hours and after heard some say they could not eat her.”
Mr. Taylor owned 200 slaves and 10,000 acres of land and Fitz claimed he was ‘monarch of all he surveyed.” What a very different picture of life the Virginia countryside must have conveyed to this farmer so used to the small rocky fields of New England! In closing his letter Fitz expounds on the view of the countryside, “The hills east of Taylors afford the richest prospect I ever saw. The Pamunkey Valley checkered with gran fields and far away green pastures and wood lands. There were cartloads of blackberries . . ” [There are those blackberries again!]
His final observation probably reflects the change in attitude of many Union soldiers after fighting so long and so hard against the secesh. “Wherever a contraband saw us they evinced pleasure & gave all the information in their power . . . quite a number fell in our train as we came back, they & their wives & little ones. Our soldiers are getting to be abolitionist of the most practical kind and of some it may be said ‘who’d a thunk it.'”
As a post script, young Fitz was killed at Petersburg, June 15, 1864. The collection of his papers includes letters of condolence to his parents and documents concerning the return of his body.