A Vermont Cavalryman in War & Love: The Civil War Letters of Brevet Major General William Wells and Anna Richardson. Edited by Elliott W. Hoffman. Illustrated, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index, 544 pages, 2007. Schroeder Publications, Lynchburg, VA 24502, hardback, $45.00.
Vermont raised a single cavalry regiment during the Civil War, but of the 258 cavalry regiments fielded, "few, if any, performed more arduous service, or took part in more engagements than did the First Vermont," according to Lieutenant William Greenleaf, one of its own.
The regiment mustered over 2,300 men in its three year career, losing nearly 400 to battlefield deaths, disease and prison. More than 300 were wounded, and almost 700 taken prisoner, some more than once. But despite these horrendous losses, the regiment managed to perform admirably in 75 engagements from mid-April 1862 to the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in early April 1865. Sixteen officers were commended for gallant and meritorious service. Four member of the regiment were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Gettysburg and Cedar Creek.
The most illustrious of these was William Wells, a native of Waterbury, Vermont, who originally enlisted as a private, rose through the ranks and mustered out as a Brigadier General with a brevet rank of Major General, U.S. Volunteers.
The regiment's second year, 1863, was an exceptionally busy year for him. He was taken prisoner in March by the Confederate raider Mosby and spent nearly two months in Libby prison in Richmond in the spring; he led a squadron of the regiment in support of Farnsworth's ill-fated charge at Gettysburg, for which he was later awarded a Medal of Honor. A few days after Gettysburg, he was wounded at Boonsboro, Maryland. At the end of August, at the age of 25, he started corresponding with his future wife, 18-year-old Arahanna "Anna" Richardson, a roommate of his sister Sarah at Kimball Union Academy.
After a quick synopsis of the regiment's activity since he originally met her, ten months earlier, he passed along some family news and gossip in a friendly, chatty letter, signing off "As ever your friend."
She responded two months later, and their correspondence blossomed from simple friendship to serious romance to betrothal by the waning months of the war. Although he regularly shared news from the war, and she news from the home front, it becomes quite evident their only real interest is each other and their hopes and plans for the future.
It is interesting to compare his fearless actions on the battlefield, leading his men in the hapless charge at Gettysburg, and dueling "hilt to hilt with a Confederate officer" at Boonsboro, and one of his last letters to Anna before coming home, where he admits to being bashful about stopping by her house on his way home, because he did not "want your people to think I am to intimate on short acquaintance."
Wells' other letters, to family, friends and some official correspondence, provide a unique view of the regiment from the higher echelons on the unit. Together with Dr. Hoffman's very beneficial commentary, they provide a fresh look at Vermont's busiest and most bloodied Civil War regiment. In addition, as publisher Patrick Schroeder comments, Wells' letters provide "fresh views" of the senior Union cavalrymen, including Custer, Farnsworth, Wilson, Mosby and Kilpatrick, as well as an insider's perspective of the politics surrounding inept and unpopular commanders of the regiment.
Together with Dr. Hoffman's first volume on the regiment, we can now have a more complete understanding of this unit than any other Vermont regiment fielded during the war. And, we understand, a third volume of correspondence by other members of the regiment is in the works, and is greatly anticipated.
Thanks to Dr. Hoffman, we have now met the man behind the hero. His letters home portray a man who is both lover and warrior, something we seldom get to see in Civil War correspondence.
Tom Ledoux is the creator and webmaster of the Vermont in the Civil War web project, VermontCivilWar.org. He holds an M.A. in military studies (Civil War studies) from American Military University.