Category Archives: Veteran Profile

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,


Haunted By Gettysburg

Today, Grand Army Blog followers have the privilege of reading a guest post written by my wife, Allison, a public historian who specializes in the Civil War era.  Allison is currently a park ranger at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, Connecticut, the only unit in the National Park Service system devoted to American painting.  Weir Farm was the home and studio of Julian Alden Weir, a noted nineteenth century American impressionist.  Over the past year, Allison has spent a good deal of time researching the Weir family’s connections to the Civil War.  She has uncovered some rich findings underlining just how deeply our fratricidal conflict touched “every heart and hearthstone” across the land.  Allison presents here the heartrending postwar tale of Julian Weir’s half-brother, an ex-artillerist hopelessly haunted by Gettysburg.  For those of you in Connecticut or the greater New York City area, Allison will be presenting a lecture, “A Brush With War: The Weir Family in the Civil War,” at Weir Farm NHS on Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 2:00pm.  All are invited to attend what promises to be a fascinating program.  

Shortly after dinner on July 18, 1886, Captain Gulian Verplanck Weir hurried upstairs to his bedroom in the officers’ quarters at Fort Hamilton, New York. The 48 year-old husband and father of six young children had just returned from a week’s duty at Creedmoor, and by all accounts had been in “bright and cheerful” spirits that day. Weir undressed, sat down in a nearby chair, and positioned the barrel of a .45 Springfield rifle directly over his heart. “Five minutes later,” the U.S. Army & Navy Journal reported, “the family below [was] startled” by the piercing sound of a single gunshot. “They rushed up[stairs] and found the captain groaning and gasping,” the report continued, “blood streaming from a wound in his breast.” Within a matter of minutes, he succumbed to the self-inflicted wound. He had used his right toe to pull the trigger.

In the days that followed, Fort Hamilton and the surrounding community contemplated the impetus for Weir’s decision to take his own life. The coroner’s jury determined Weir had suffered “a fit of mental aberration,” while the New York Times deemed Weir “temporarily deranged.” Some pointed to a severe case of bronchitis that had plagued Weir throughout much of 1885, and still others hypothesized that the “only cause that could be assigned for the rash deed was pecuniary,” citing his captain’s pay as insufficient to support a large family of eight. But Weir’s comrade Colonel John Hamilton believed simply that “there could be no other cause for his terrible deed than temporary insanity.” Gulian Verplanck Weir, Courtesy Hagley Library Digital Archives

Captain Gulian Verplanck Weir had been born and raised at West Point, the son of     the U.S. Military Academy’s Professor of Drawing and renowned artist, Robert Walter Weir. A graduate of West Point, Gulian enlisted in the 7th New York State Militia (a 30 days unit) only days after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. The unit was sent south to assist in the construction of some of the defenses of Washington, and, upon his muster out in June, Weir re-enlisted in the 5th U.S. Artillery as a 2nd lieutenant.  He earned brevets for conspicuous gallantry during the Peninsula Campaign and again at the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg.

By July 1863, Lieutenant Weir had assumed command of Battery C of the 5th U.S. Artillery.  On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, he unlimbered his guns near the Emmittsburg Road, not far from the Codori Farm. After expending all the ammunition in his caissons against the onslaught of Richard H. Anderson’s rebel division, Weir’s battery “immediately limbered up,” hoping that the federal infantry regiments to his rear would be able to drive the Confederates back. But “the enemy was too close.” Battery C was trampled. Three of Weir’s six guns fell into Confederate hands. In his after action report, Gulian Weir emphasized the confusion of the moment, noting that his horse had been shot out from under him.  Upon rising from the ground, he was struck “with a spent ball, and everything seemed to be very much confused.” Amidst the chaos, Weir, acting on his own volition and without orders, dispatched the remainder of his battery to withdraw to the rear.

While he would serve with the 5th U.S. Artillery for the remainder of the war, eventually transferring to Battery L to fight throughout the Shenandoah Valley, the loss of his three guns at Gettysburg continued to vex and taunt Gulian V. Weir. Faced with repeated accusations of cowardice on the battlefield over the abandonment of the guns, Weir maintained a heated correspondence with his superiors, including II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock, after the war.  (Three of these angst- ridden letters are included in the Batchelder Papers). Though the artillery pieces were later recovered, Weir never forgave himself for the loss and could never overcome the charge of fear. Tortured for nearly two decades, it was an 1885 visit to the Gettysburg battlefield that sealed Weir’s fate. After touring the fields and once again walking in the footsteps of Battery C, Weir wrote that he had returned home a “broken man,” and that the memories of July 2 had come flooding back vividly.  Indeed, in the months prior to his death, his fellow officers found him “noticeably depressed,” as well as “moody” and “discouraged.” While Weir’s terse suicide note left no explicit indication of his reasoning for suicide, perhaps we do not need one. The horrific memories of Gettysburg had so remorselessly stalked Weir that one July evening, he was convinced that the only way to escape them was with a bullet.

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