REMARKABLE GETTYSBURG LETTER COLLECTION OF ELIZA WRIGHT OSBORN, WRITTEN TO HER MOTHER, MARTHA COFFIN WRIGHT OF AUBURN, NY, REGARDING THE WOUNDING AND RECUPERATION OF HER BROTHER, LT. WILLIAM “WILLY” WRIGHT OF COWAN’S BATTERY.

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A few of the letters are addressed to Eliza’s husband, David Muson Osborne, founder of a successful farm machine company that was an early acquisition of International Harvester, and several are written by Eliza’s younger sister Marianne.

These letters were written between July 18 and August 4, 1863 and chronicle William’s healing as well as his sister Eliza’s point of view on hospital details and happenings in her daily life while she watches over her brother’s recovery at the 6th Corps Hospital Site on the Michael (and John) Trostle Farm.

Lt. William “Willy” Wright, of Cowan’s Battery, First Independent Light Artillery, was wounded in the early part of the afternoon of July 3rd when a ball struck him in the right side of his chest, piercing through his right lung shortly after the Confederate artillery barrage ended and the infantry assault of the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew charge began. During this time, Cowan’s Battery, part of the 6th Corps artillery, was posted just near the Copse of Trees. Wright was treated at the 6th Corps Field Hospital and eventually moved to Letterman Hospital Complex, and from there he was permitted to recuperate at home in Auburn, NY. Lt. Wright recovered from his wounds and was formally discharged in 1864 at Brandy Station. Lt. Wright married Flora MacMartin in October 1869 and by 1872 signed off on his pension application from Putnam County, Florida.

History tells us of the incredible fight endured by Cowan’s Battery during the final culmination of the battle of Gettysburg that we know as the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge, but here we have a unique look into the medical history post battle. And not just that, but we get a unique glimpse into real life daily struggles during the Civil War.

For instance, entries mention details of hospitals that are rare to find. Eliza writes: “there are no women nurses for Dr. Oakley won’t have them around and I guess the sick are better satisfied, for they are obliged some of them to be nearly naked…” Therefore, regarding her chief duty as caretaker to her brother she writes:

The main thing is to keep the flies off him. And keep him quiet. There are three other men in the room with him, one a rebel Capt whose arm has been taken off, his left one, he is from N. Carolina and rather a nice looking man. In the next room to him are two of our soldiers. I haven’t found out what is the matter with them. The other two in Will’s room are first a sergeant whose leg is being left on till they see if they can save it he had a charge of canister shot in it and a private who has had a leg taken off. Willy was very quiet when I went in. Fred had seen him and told him I was here. so I kissed him and sat down by him to keep off the flies. And that has been my chief occupation since (letter 3).

Eliza’s writing is clever, witty, and quite detailed as she writes about her daily happenings in the hospital, from her travels to Baltimore and Hanover to her interactions with her Father and brother, Frank, who stop in to visit her brother, Willy. There are many occasions when Eliza discusses what is going on with others who have been wounded. She takes a particular liking to Frenchman Enos Besancon, who fought in the 37th Massachusetts (although the 37th Mass. was placed in reserve during Pickett’s Charge, they came under fire from the artillery barrage orchestrated by Edward Porter Alexander). Besancon died on July 27, 1863 and is buried in Gettysburg National Cemetery gravesite MA-C-34. Eliza writes of Besancon:

The frenchman got to bleeding again, and the Dr. had to tell him they could do nothing more for him. he said he was perfectly willing to die. and requested Johnson to write to his sister in Switzerland about him and he wished the Dr. would bury him in the grave yard and put a stone up for him. paying for it out of $65.00 he had in his purse. he left $10.00 to his nurse who he said had been very kind to him and Monday afternoon he died as quietly and peacefully as a child (letter 15).

There are times when she even notes a bit of playfulness and sarcasm. She writes to her sister, Marianne:

Your imagination has played you false if you have seen me riding on the Dr.’s horse. He aint asked me to go and I feel dreadful. To be sure he has offerd his horse, but who wants a horse without an escort. He very meekly offerd his services and I said I’d be delighted and so it ended nary a word about the battlefield. Woe is me. On the contrary he last evening said what a charming ride he had with my sister and what a charming woman she is and wished he could live near enough to see you occasionally [?] I mentally tear my hair with envy and jealousy, mean old thing you. I had a great mind to tell him your private opinion of him. To be sure he did say I looked like one of his sisters and she was tall and graceful, but that’s nothing. After my self-denial trying to make myself agreeable to the little goose, this is my reward. Well such is life and any how I’m going to town in the ambulance this afternoon with the rebel capt. To be sure he is so [?] proved he won’t take any notice of a body, but then I have the satisfaction of calling him a rebel (letter 15).

The Wright family featured in these letters are the children of David Wright and Martha Coffin Wright. Their mother, Martha, is sister to the famed suffragette, Lucretia Mott, so it is no surprise that Eliza spent most of her life petitioning for women’s suffrage. Eliza was a very supportive wife to her inventor and investor husband, with whom she had four children. She made it a point to have her home be the center of activity when it came to women’s rights. Her obituary notes that she considered herself close friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and that she oversaw the finances of Harriet Tubman.

Limited records come with the collection of letters. However, the entire file of Civil War service records, as well as pension records and medical cards, can be found at the National Archives.   [CLS]

A portion of the letters are included below; our web site software's space limits won't allow for us to include all of the transcriptions. Please click here full the full descriptions with transcriptions of all of the letters in the grouping.

 

[Each of the letters in this collection have been transcribed in the exact way Eliza and Marianne have written; there is a lack of proper modern punctuation and capitalization, although there are very few spelling errors, making the writing somewhat choppy to read. Each letter, with the exception of a few in the collection, have Eliza’s mother’s notation of date written on the back. This is noted in each letter where it occurs, typically on the last page. It is also common for the writers to continue their thoughts on the front page if they have run out of writing space on the final page. This is also noted when it occurs. Comments and illegible words are denoted in brackets.]

 

[Letter 1]

[No Date]

Dear Mamma—

Your darling sad face comes up before me continually & I fear I did wrong to leave you all alone, even for a day. & perhaps Munson was right in advising me to wait till tomorrow morning. but whether for good or ill I am fairly started on my journey. We are slowly steaming down the lake and I shall be glad to get in the cars once more, for the motion made by the machinery occasions a slight qualmishness not quite comfortable. It is cloudy and lovely day for travelling. Fred is making himself agreeable to some young fry down stairs on the lower deck. And I am up here all alone just now. My shawl is comfortable the wind blows so strong. We have two other places to stop at before getting to Watkins when we take the cars for Elmira. Mr. Wetherly is on board bound for Gettysburg. And I shan’t help him along for he is only going out of curiosity. I believe at least he has no friends there. He sat and talked awhile with me. and disappeared much to my delight. I hope Anna or Father will come today or tomorrow and I will write every other day if possible – as yet I have only thoughts of one thing I forgot and that is a paper of tea, but I can get it in Elmira. And the cook book too. If we go by way of Philadelphia, I will try and write a word from there. You mustn’t borrow trouble but keep well so as to go on to Philadelphia to help nurse Willy when he gets so far. As I feel sure he will recover now he is so far on the way. I am writing on a spare leaf in Mr. Russell’s book.

[Letter 2]

Eliza coming home

Hanover Station Friday 4 ½ o’clock July 17th

We are so far on our journey now and have to wait for the Gettysburg train which will come at 6 ½ and will take us after three hours travel in cattle cars to Gettysburg and I shall have to wait till tomorrow morning before finding willy and knowing anything of regarding Father and Marianne I hope to meet her here, but she must have gone on yesterday or may come in the next train. We had to come very slow from Harrisburg here over a great number of bridges which have been hastily and temporarily rebuilt after being burnt by the rebels. A train of wounded prisoners passed us at York and such a miserable set I don’t know either whether worse looking than most of the common ones in our army. They lay in cattle cars. Most of them not caring to look up. others stood at the door staring curiously at us. And we at them. We have seen at a number of stations boxes with the bodies of our soldiers in and I have looked for father and hope for the best in regard to Willy. Fred is a great comfort for I only have to be passenger and don’t bother about anything. Such quantities of grain as we passed on the road, a greater part of it cut and standing in heaps all black and spoiled. And some uncut all looking desolate enough. and I didn’t feel at all sorry to see it. Remembering that it belongs to rebel sympathizers. So many tired sorrowful looking people as there are here waiting to go on and hunt up relations. One very pretty and very young looking little soul from Maine with short hair she doesn’t look over eighteen. I wanted to ask her about her husband but haven’t yet he is somewhere in town I believe, so she can see him tonight, and thought she would be able to sit up all night with him. And I found out her husband had his leg cut off above the knee.

[Letter 3]

Hospital House. July 18th 1863. Gettysburg

Dear Mamma. First I will write to say I found Willy getting along very nicely indeed and looking very bright. He is able to sit up and eat his meals and other times reclines in an easy position not sitting up very straight. And taken good care of. his appetite is good and he relished a little piece of sponge cake with is dinner of milk toast and a little fish cake, that his nice man nurse made and his nurse from the battery is a very kind seeming man. He tends Willy very tenderly and gently. the dear patient wants nothing hardly. The main thing is to keep the flies off him. And keep him quiet. There are three other men in the room with him one a rebel Capt whose arm has been taken off his left one he is from N. Carolina and rather a nice looking man. In the next room to him are two of our soldiers. I haven’t found out what is the matter with them. The other two in Will’s room are first a sergeant whose leg is being left on till they see if they can save it he had a charge of canister shot in it and a private who has had a leg taken off. Willy was very quiet when I went in. Fred had seen him and told him I was here. so I kissed him and sat down by him to keep off the flies. And that has been my chief occupation since. Frank taking his turn Father went to town this morning right after I got here to see if Marianna came but she didn’t and we expect her today. with supplies though Will has lots of every thing oranges lemons and other nice things. I got an few oranges at Harrisburg but nothing else.

And now to return to Hanover St. We waited till six and a half. getting a bite at the dirtiest table and in company with the most flies I ever saw except one time in N.Y. a train of wounded stopped on their way to Baltimore part rebels and part our troops. such quantities of young things among the rebels. some don’t look over fifteen or sixteen. We looked for father fearing the worst but he was safe here. and we climbed into the cattle cars Fred got me a stool to sit on. the other sat on the floor. I was the only lady in our car and survived the tobacco smoke while we slowly poked to Gettysburg arriving at ten o’clock we hurried to the hotel before anyone else and I got a bed with another woman, who was looking for a husband that that had been shot through the lung and back. We slept comfortably till morning when after breakfast, we started to walk out here but a nice little fellow from Vermont overtook us. asked to ride and we gladly accepted his invitation as we had several miles to go. he didn’t know where the 6th Corps Hospital was and we rode too far along, and had to walk a long distance passing by different Corps Hospitals on our way and asking for directions every little while. at last we came to the one we thought was it and I sat down on a pile of stones while Fred went on to see if it was but it wasn’t. though very near by and Fred went on nearly the first one he met was Father. so he isn’t home with you after all, but he speaks as if he should go Monday. and you are still enduring the dreadful suspense of the last week or two unless some of father’s letters got to you, for he says he has written every day. I have a room in the next house which is in the same yard and within speaking distance I am going to try and get the men out of Will’s room as fast as I can, the wounded I mean, so he can be kept more quiet as that is the main thing I believe. It will probably be a month from this at least before he will be able to be moved. I will try and write every other day and get it mailed if I can. I hope it will keep cool awhile at any rate. Today is the first pleasant sunshiny day they have had since the battle. We passed several dead horses on our way out. and the young man who gave us a ride said yesterday a party found two or three dead rebels and one or two of our people near the battlefield. they had probably crawled away after being wounded and died among the rocks where they were found wishing for some help. they found three horses still alive one with a leg shot off and the others wounded badly. they couldn’t get an axe to and their misery so left them to die. Frank was asleep when I came but soon appeared bright enough, he has a handful of buttons picked up on the battlefield.

Fred talks of leaving this afternoon it seems lonesome to have him go. he has been so kind and efficient. Father and he are off now trying to shoot a squirrel for Will. he got him a woodcock yesterday which he relished. he is and will be in a critical state for some little time yet but I think will get well his eyes are bright and healthy looking. so try and be hopeful. The men fixed up his room this morning and put a cup of flowers on the bureau which looks quite gay and pretty. I was introduced to Dr. Oakley. He is considered a very fine surgeon and keeps things in excellent order. Every thing neat and clean. He is from N. jersey I believe. and a strong McClellan man, he invited me to mess with the Drs. which I did today at dinner and we had a very good one squashes turnips cucumbers white and sweet potatoes. Fresh meat and blackberries. His wife is here a little young thing, and he don’t allow her to go into the hospitals. so Frank says she loafs around in her room this afternoon they have gone out to take a ride.

I hope Anna Brown is with you, for I feel badly to have you alone even if you do say you don’t mind it. I shall stay and see to Will till he can be moved I think.

Fred is going off now and I will send this by him to be mailed at Baltimore. Father has got back but didn’t succeed in finding a squirrel. I guess you had better direct our letters Lieut. Wright care of Dr. Oakley 6th Corps Hospital and my name in the corner. it will do to try that way at any rate—good by now dear Mother. Keep up your spirits as well as ever you can and I will write tomorrow and send Monday. By Dr. Taber. lovingly Eliza.

Mr. Snow gave Father a bundle of old towels and rags and things which were very acceptable.

 

[Letter 4]

Getty July 20th ’63                                                                                                                                                           M

Dearest Mother

I am soo sorry we did not know that we could send a letter from Gettysburg today or I would have written you yesterday but was a little too tired after my two nights journey to do it upon an uncertainty. Eliza sent off a few hurried words to be mailed by Dr. Emanuel in Harrisburg or near York and now here turned up a man going directly to Auburn. So I am at it again though there is nothing more to report. Willy looks decidedly better to me than when I left a week ago this morning and I am in much better quarters than then. I was perfectly amazed and delighted to find Eliza here as Thomas and I drove up yesterday morning and we have now a very pleasant room and bed-- sheets and towels—with only one drawback that Dr. Oakley and his bride have to use it as a thorough fare for their apartment which do make it a little inconvenient during some hours of the day. but doctor and a married man with his wife do not make so much difference. Frank and Pa roost by turns in the very lowest sort of a high attic. Where Eliza was before I came. There have been so many men taken away that there is much more room here not more than thirty or forty men left here now. some very bad cases. Eliza and I are going among them a little now that they are not so crowded and it does not seem so hopeless Eliza is making some jelly for Will now and some chicken soup out in the kitchen. He does not know of it. We got wine and sugar from the Sanitary. I brought some brandy with me also some sugar. Frank is sleeping in his [?]. He is such a darling. Is is a great comfort to us to have him here and I am sure must be to Will. Willy does not look so haggard and wild as when I first saw him and the Dr. told me yesterday he thought he would live. Dr. Chamberlain too the other surgeon who was here last night, said he seemed much better and was doing admirably. Father is talking of leaving for home tomorrow I think it would be well for him to take a rest for he is indefatigable and it does not seem necessary for the whole family to be here together. I do not think of any thing more to write you of Will though I suppose there are a thousand things you would like to know. He seldom speaks and does not cough as he did—unless he uses some exertion but he has never coughed any worth speaking of.

Marianne

Do try a letter directed to Gettysburg maybe it would come.

 

Marianna

July 20/63

[Letter 5]

Dear Mama- This is Monday morning and Willy is better and the Dr. says now that he will get well with great care of course. he wouldn’t admit it till yesterday. the dear boy looks brighter every day. and has a good appetite. The Dr is just going to N.Y. and we are so sorry we didn’t get this written yesterday

Father isn’t going today after all. I don’t know when he will some time this week.

Lovingly E

 

[Letter 6]

Gettysburgh

6th Corps Hospital July 20th 1863

Dear Mama. It is Monday evening now. and I have another chance to send a letter tomorrow morning so I will improve the opportunity

Dear Will is sound asleep. I have just come from his room. He sleeps very nicely nights and very quietly too. His wound does not pain him. He has a sore at the end of his back bone produced by riding so long and lying in bed does not make it any better. today I made a cushion for it after a pattern one of the Drs. cut for me. and it felt very comfortable to him. He has no fever. And looked better this morning than at all and is in a fair way to recover. I never saw such patience, not a murmur of any kind though he has to lie on his back all the time, and cannot raise his right arm at all. though he uses his hand a little. not in eating at all or any motion which would move his shoulder. The first day I came his eyes had a wild look. A kind of stare but now they look perfectly natural. he keeps very sober and when I asked if I should read to him today said he hand rather think and I judge he is laying plans for the future. he says he means to be rich yet. I cant be with him so much as I [?] for then being so many others in the room they are often wanting little attentions, which require my absence. I made some wine jelly for him today but they have no ice and it wont harden, perhaps by tomorrow morning it will do for him to eat. I shall put some tapioca in soak for a pudding tomorrow, he certainly has the most careful nursing. His battery man is invaluable. Will says he saved his life he held him in his ams after he was wounded and nearly all the next night he bathes him now and touches him as tenderly as you or I could. we have been careful not to interfere with his duties for Will likes to have him. there are no women nurses for Dr. Oakley wont have them around round and I guess the sick are better satisfied, for they are obliged some of them to be nearly naked. Will has only misquito netting laid over his chest and shoulders, and a silk hdkf over that when he feels cool. a sheet over his feet and stomach and when he sits up to have his wounds dressed he is naked to the waist, and I prefer it even if he could have a shirt, which on account of his wounds would not be possible, the one in front is healing, but the other in his back the surgeon keeps open as it is better. I cant be too thankful I didn’t bring Dr. Robinson, it would have made a [?] and he would not have been allowed to do anything I think, for the surgeon lives right here in the house with Will and us for Marianna and I have a room right next the Dr. and as she wrote, and we get along very well indeed now. We go out in the barn where there are a dozen wounded men mostly rebels. Every day and our men seem to like to see us, one Vermonter who was in the same brigade as Will’s battery, spoke very highly of it he showed us photographs of his father, mother, and sister, the latter a very pretty nice looking girl, he says it makes the day seem shorter to have us come in for a while, and the little Maine boy wanted the nurse to go and ask those ladies to come out again. this morning of that was for we didn’t go in till this afternoon two of the rebels showed us pictures of their lady loves. Both fine looking girls and one of the rebels is a very handsome man one of them gave me a couple of rebel postage stamps a ten and five cent one Marianna gave every one an orange father talks now of going tomorrow afternoon but he finds it a hard matter to make up his mind to leave. I will write Munson tomorrow. I’m sorry I forgot to bring anybody’s photos. Especially the bairns but I didn’t think of anything but Will. good night I’m real sleepy. We find Mrs. Oakley a very nice little body. We haven’t been over the battlefield yet. I want to go tomorrow. Dr. Smith one of the assistant surgeons thinks he can find horses and rides [?] but I doubt and as it is only two miles I guess I shall foot it with Frank tomorrow—Lovingly—Eliza

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Inquire About REMARKABLE GETTYSBURG LETTER COLLECTION OF ELIZA WRIGHT OSBORN, WRITTEN TO HER MOTHER, MARTHA COFFIN WRIGHT OF AUBURN, NY, REGARDING THE WOUNDING AND RECUPERATION OF HER BROTHER, LT. WILLIAM “WILLY” WRIGHT OF COWAN’S BATTERY.

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