Category Archives: Research

The Overland House Letters of William Beynon Phillips – Part Two

Here is the second post in a series about the postwar travails of William B. Phillips.  This 1874 letter written by Phillips was generously provided by reader Greg Taylor.  

Overland House,

San Francisco, Cal.

Sunday Evening. Nov. 29, 1874

My Dear Wife & Children,

I wrote to you on Thanksgiving & promised to write again today and do so.

I worked one day last week, Friday, it rained every day except that day.  I shall be going to San Mateo again to-morrow morning, if it don’t rain.  The weather today has been of the finest, just about what weather you have in mid-May.  I am glad that I am going back to San Mateo, it is so healthy, rural and quiet & such a nice job, besides; it will aid me to fortify myself stronger so as to resist the attack of my enemy-drink-.  I believe that this time I have conquered, I feel altogether different concerning this vital matter, and shall beware of the first glass, no matter what plea.  I am now two weeks in a new life and my hopes are brightened, my faith in finally overthrowing my enemy is stronger and my insight into the future gladdens my heart with cheerful comfort & bright anticipation of again laying down the foundations of, and rearing again, a happy home.

God moves in a mysterious way, and I have to confess that through all this he will bring us to know of what inestimable value is and the sacredness of home.  It is, of course, very desirable, and if attainable, to adorn & beautify our homes, have furniture & other accessories & all the modern conveniences which our progressive civilization continually keeps adding to and improving upon, to have the walls lined with works of art to gladden the eye & appeal to our better natures, but we can have all this & more too, and still it is no home.

Then, dear, what is home?  Home is that place, be it a hut or a palace, or any other place, where the heart loves to dwell with fond affection in recalling the happy incidents of the family, where heart sympathizes with heart, in mutual sorrow or mutual joy, where peace & plenty crowned the family group and was acknowledged in humble thanks and holy prayer to him the giver of all good gifts.  And now, here I am without a home, and without a friend, in all this wide, wide world, and believe me, I have suffered & do suffer the keenest anguish at this dark and dismal conviction.  I have often thought that at last I would be unable to stand the fearful strains of a brain continually on the rack and a heart full of remorse, spending night after night unable to sleep.  I am very thankful that I have now a different feeling and that I am not as restless, but that I have a livelier hope & have faith yet in a prosperous future.  Dear Annie, when we start again I hope we shall both together go hand in hand, cheerful and happy, contented and hopeful, doing our best & leaving the result to God.  I’ll try & do my best, and I flatter myself that my best has not yet been tried.  I’ll leave liquor alone, and my best is not to be sneezed at.  Thank God, I am very healthy & have a strong constitution & and a fair share of human intelligence & some talent and I shall try henceforth to put them to the right use, and I know, well enough, leaving liquor alone, that I am bound to be successful-yet, I have a great deal to overcome in myself & the world will look with a keen and doubtful eye upon me for a long time, yet the endeavor is worth all & above all for in it is involved my own salvation & the future of our dear little family.

I do now really believe that all this separation is for good.  I am positive in my own mind that I have learnt by sad experience a very bitter lesson, but I hope & believe that it will bear fruit that will sweeten our afterlife.

Now, I am going to let you walk through my castles (not in air, I hope) and lead you by the “Lily white hand” through its halls, corridors, keeps and donjons & should you desire to “view the landscape oer” I’ll take you up to battlement, turret & tower.

Walk short first through Frisco Hall, here you will find everything that man needs, churches, schools, Public & private works, untold wealth, enterprise & energy, Health, Wealth & prosperity, in fact everything favorable to establish and maintain a home & settle down.  I consider that a family has in this city an advantage of over 100 percent to get along, over the cities of the east.

Next hall, Hyde Park or there abouts, well, I can come back by next May, and go to work as a journeyman or open a shop on my own- I can’t tell how much building may go on nor what success I may have in securing work- all I know, I am not going to drink any, and my boon-companions can “take a walk & spin around the block”.  I’ll go to work and I think that I can outbid some of them painters there.  I’ll give you an idea now.  It took those two painters 1 ¼ day to do the shelving, counter, face of drawers & inside window sash of front windows & tops of counter-now if I can’t paint that myself in 1 day of 10 hours I should be dismissed in any shop in this town, it would be considered only 1 days work for 3 men to paint 1 coat on front of Edwards & Millspaughs building from crown moulding to sill of basement.

By investing 3 or 4 hundred dollars & establish credit to the same amt. in wall paper, Shades, Curtains, paints, oils, glass, Pictures, and Picture Frames, Brushes etc., etc. & in having a house to paint here & there or a sign to execute or to paint a curtain, or paper a room, or glazing & getting up show cards & sell and frame pictures, I think that in a year or so the thing will work easy & maybe get a pretty good thing out of it.

I know this, that I can get plenty of work  halsomming (sic), you would now hardly believe it.  I can work the whole day whitening over my head & work as quickly so you can hardly see the brush, gin wide at that and I won’t be tired, my neck being used to it.  I used to be a great coward on any high place.  I can now look unconcerned up or down 100 or 150 feet or more, to keep my arms from getting tired I have got my left hand broke in so that I can work equally as well with my left as with my right hand.  Well dear, we’ll finish prospecting this (unintelligible), if we keep together & work together I think that Scranton vicinity has enough demand to supply us with work enough to live & be comfortable.

Next hall is upstairs.  This hall, I call it “The Hearth” and I describe it to you.

It is a room of fair dimensions and not upholstered, of course, with costly paper & fancy priced furniture, but the ceiling & walls are white as driven snow, all the furniture is selected for it’s qualities in producing comfort & ease with a view too of neatness and fitness.  The floor is not covered with Ingrain nor Brussels, Axminister nor Kiderminister carpet, nor is it wove to order in one piece, but whatever the stuff is, what it is composed of, it is very durable, and it’s very clean.  On the walls there are some valuable engravings in good frames, some to make you laugh & others to create the opposite emotion, the cheerful face of the clock betokens the hour of eight in the evening, the cat on the hearthstone is dreaming a happy dream of milk and of fat mice & of the prospective visit that will be paid by her friend Tom a little after midnight, when, O happy pair, they commence a duet with vigor, if not melodious nor in the right key.  The fire in the hearth burning brightly diffuses a glow & gentile heat, & produces on the bright white wall five distinct human shadows, Father, Mother, and 3 children.  The shadow of the father is displayed with a book in his hands & by the movement of his lips it is presumed that he is reading, and it must be quite interesting, for you will notice that the mother has left her needle work to  keep the youngest quiet, who tries his best to climb on her shoulders, while her head is averted from the child and turned toward the father, and by the shadow of her elevated eyebrows she is deeply interested & her curiosity is awakened, while the shadow of the others, two sisters, shows two pretty well formed heads, with wealth of hair, both heads lean one against the other & both bent downwards, by the action of their lips they are both reading, but that can’t be it, for see, the shadow on the wall shows leaf following leaf in quick succession, then stop, then more lip action, & both faces express a concert of action as displayed in their mutual expression of wonder, delight, disgust & joy that they are experiencing in contemplating the engravings or woodcuts in their book.

Page 13-(Good gracious, this letter will be sixteen pages again)  The shadow of the table, which is round and of good dimensions, shows that it has books, papers, work basket (unintelligible), and a pitcher of water or milk on it.  You can tell it is water or milk, for the shadow on the wall shows that the little kitten is perched on the handle of the pitcher and its head is not cast on the wall for it is down in the pitcher helping itself to a drink.  Well, so much for this hall.  There are two more which we will pass by only to name them, one is called Nod Hall & the other Leisure Hall

Now we will go up past turret and battlement to the tower and view the landscape, away off to the right in the far off distance are high cloud piercing mountains, their heads crowned with the frost and snow of centuries, in the foreground are broad, open streets filled with costly handsome buildings and crowded with animal and human life, all busily going, coming, & going.  In the windows you will see the products of every clime & the manufactures of all countries.  In mid distance is a beautiful bay, smooth as glass, reflecting the heavy storm clouds that are scudding along driven to the East by the stiff breeze which blows steadily through a natural opening into this lovely bay from an ocean whose wavelets curl on the beach of the two greatest continents of earth.

Well, dear Annie, we will depart from the tower of our castle and let us hope that our castle shall not vanish in air.

I was to church this morning and enjoyed myself very much. I did not go this evening for I wanted to write you this letter.  After church I went down to Central Pacific R.R. landing to witness the arrival of King Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands.  I had a fair good view of him & shall not waste time and paper to describe, you will find all that in a paper I send you.

 You see that I don’t give you much news, but I hope that this letter will help to cheer you and if it makes you happy even if it is only while you read it, I am very well paid.  You have patience dear, yet a little while and I will make you happy & cheerful yet.  Some of those old Mrs. Grundy’s who think Bill Phillips is gone to the dogs may have occasion to hold up their outstretched hands in wonder to think that the lost have been found, and the dead brought to life again.

Now, darling, keep up your spirits, I am going to turn up all right, and I’ll drop off the cares at Scranton sooner perhaps than you anticipate & then we will start the ball anew.

Now, love, good night.  Kiss the children for me.  Love to father & mother & the rest.

I send you a sweet kiss good night, dear Annie.

Your husband,


The Northern Home Front

Earlier this week, I spent a profitable afternoon at the New Jersey Historical Society in downtown Newark.  The Marcus L. Ward Papers are incredibly rich, and I will be sharing some of my findings from that collection in forthcoming posts.  What struck me during my visit, however, is how under-appreciated and little utilized local and state historical societies really are.

New Jersey Historical Society, Newark

A private, not for profit organization, the New Jersey Historical Society operates with a shoestring budget, employing only one part time librarian who keeps the place running three afternoons each week.  Sadly, budget and staffing cuts are the norm at state historical societies across the country.  I have encountered similar situations at the Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine Historical Societies.  In several of these places, I was the lone researcher.

There is an unspoken assumption that local and state historical societies are more the province of antiquarians and genealogists than they are the dominion of academic historians.  Especially in Civil War studies, the utility of a research trip to Barre, Vermont, or Providence, Rhode Island is not readily apparent.  Hopefully, as we continue to apply the tools of social and cultural history to the Civil War era, this will no longer be the case. Some of the most important tasks I see on the horizon for emerging Civil War historians are northern community and town studies.

The social history revolution missed Civil War studies when it exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, but fortunately, historians are increasingly turning in that direction, filling a huge void in the literature.  Nicole Etcheson’s study of a single county in Indiana during the war is a fine example of what we have left to learn about the northern home front.  John Neff is also finishing up an autopsy of Civil War memory in the all-important city of Chicago, which promises to be a signal addition to the literature.  I look forward to serious books about Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and the all but neglected upper Midwest during the war and the peace.  The oft-repeated statement “there is nothing new to learn about the Civil War” has never been so erroneous.


Marcus L. Ward, “The Soldier’s Friend”

Well, I survived my qualifying exams and am a newly minted Ph.D. candidate.  So I will not only be back to my regular posting here at Grand Army Blog, but will now be working on “When Billy Came Marching Home” full time.  Indeed, tomorrow morning I am off to Newark, New Jersey, to examine the Marcus Lawrence Ward Papers at the New Jersey Historical Society.  Ward, who served as New Jersey’s twenty first governor from 1866 to 1869, was known after the war as “The Soldier’s Friend.”  He devoted much of his public life to laboring on behalf of Union veterans and their families, operating “Marcus L. Ward’s Office for Soldiers” in Room No. 2 of Newark’s Post Office Building.  Veterans throughout New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic region wrote heartrending letters to Ward seeking pecuniary support, aid with pension claims, or assistance with housing.  The governor also played a key role in establishing the New Jersey State Soldier’s Home, which housed hundreds of physically and mentally scarred ex-soldiers.

Thank you for your patience this past week.  It is good to be back.


What Can We Learn from GAR Records?

Surprisingly, Civil War historians have made relatively little use of the records of the largest northern veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.  Until last year, when Barbara Gannon’s elegantly written and well argued book The Won Cause appeared, the only modern work of scholarship that made any sustained attempt to analyze the records generated by the organization was Stuart McConnell’s two decade-old Glorious Contentment.  Most students of the Civil War know nothing about Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum, housed in an unassuming two-hundred year old building in a residential neighborhood on the city’s northern fringe.  In the attic are piled seemingly endless rows of Hollinger boxes containing Grand Army records, minute books, black lists, and registers.  These sources are also scattered across the country – in local history rooms at public libraries, at state historical societies, and in public archives.  And they are, for the most part, neglected.  

But there are tantalizing pieces of information to be gleaned from these sources. Take, for instance, the black book of Webster, Massachusetts’s Nathaniel Lyon Post No. 61, now housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.  A quick scan of the book reveals the names of “hard case” veterans dismissed from the Grand Army for “disreputable character” or “alcoholism.” Grand Army post court martial records also reveal “misbehavior” and rules violations that help us get a sense of the troubled lives and experiences of Union veterans.

Financial records of individual posts are similarly telling.  Each post operated a “relief fund,” which functioned as social welfare for Union veterans and their families well into the twentieth century.  By using the extant account books, receipts, and ledgers of these relief funds, one can assemble an amazingly cogent picture of the depth and breadth of destitution and homelessness experienced by blue-coated veterans.  Relief fund ledgers report expenditures for medical procedures, artificial limbs, coal (for winter heating), clothing, and prescriptions.  In 1870 alone, a GAR post in the anthracite coal region of southwestern Pennsylvania expended $30,000 caring for indigent comrades; in Chicago that same year, several urban posts shelled out $27,000 to help veterans heat their homes.  When a fire ravaged Oskosh, Wisconsin, rendering scores of ex-soldiers homeless, the GAR stepped in to care for him who had borne the battle.

These are only a few examples of what we can learn from the enormous paper trail left by the post commanders of the Grand Army.  At first glance tedious minutiae and trivial procedure, the records of the Grand Army contain clues with infinite possibilities for re-writing the history of Union veteranhood.

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