William C. White letters
Held at: Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center [Contact Us]100 E. Wynnewood Rd., Wynnewood, PA
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Little is known about William White’s life prior to his military service, and what is known about him comes mostly from these letters. He enlisted as a Private with the 69th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers on August 19, 1861. The 69th Regiment was recruited from Philadelphia by Col. Joshua T. Owen and was comprised largely of Irish Catholics. The Regiment was assigned to 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, and 2nd Corp of the Army of the Potomac. Within the Regiment, White was assigned to Company I.
The first assignment for the 69th Regiment was to construct Fort Ethan Allen and to build roads outside Washington. In October 1861, the 69th established Camp Observation, which would serve as winter quarters, near Poolesville, Maryland. On February 25, 1862 the Regiment left Camp Observation for Harper’s Ferry and then Yorktown, but its first real combat came on May 31, 1862 at the Battle of Fair Oaks before engaging in the single bloodiest day of fighting in the War at Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862. The 69th Regiment lost 88 men in the battle.
After Antietam, White’s regiment was sent to Bolivar Heights until October 30th, and then to Falmouth, where winter quarters were again established. On December 11, 1862, the regiment was sent to Stafford Heights, which is across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. It was from here that General Ambrose Burnside, having just taken over command from General McClellan, intended to wage a winter campaign.
On July 1, 1863, the 69th Regiment arrived at Gettysburg, a battle that would cost the regiment every one of its field officers and a total of 151 casualties, which was nearly 60% of its strength. On March 14, 1864, the regiment returned to Philadelphia for a one month furlough, and in early May the regiment began the Wilderness battles, and continued fighting at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. White’s last combat came at Ream’s Station on August 23, 1864 before he was discharged from the service 4 days later on August 27, 1864.
Little is known about White’s life after the war, but we know from the last letter in the collection that he worked in Duluth, Minnesota for at least a time in 1869 building the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroads.
Miles, Michael J. An Irish Philadelphian in the Civil War: The Civil War Letters of William C. White. Honors Thesis submitted in completion of Departmental Honors for History. St. Joseph’s University. May 1, 2002.
All of the letters from within this collection were written by William C. White, camped at various Union locations, to his parents, who were living in Philadelphia. In his letters, White typically includes his location, such as "Camp Observation" or "on the James River." As an Irish Catholic from an urban area, White’s perspective is somewhat unique in that many Union soldiers were Protestant and from rural areas. The Irish heritage of the men of the 69th regiment was clearly a source of great pride, as the Irish flags on the uniforms and other items, and the nicknames (“Paddy Owens Regulars” and “The 13th Street Boys”) given to the regiment will attest.
The letters provide a first-hand perspective on some of the Civil War battles. His July 5, 1863 letter, for example, provides a glimpse of “Pickett’s Charge,” noting, “Our regiment was behind a stone wall. On the 2nd of July the rebels marched out on us and drove the men in front of us back and then marched to our stone wall. We fought them over an hour and then they turned and flew in all directions.” Another example is a March 3, 1862 letter, in which White writes, “The arsenal where John Brown was in is a splendid building but it is all ruins now.”
The letters also provide a glimpse of Union camp life during the Civil War and insight into the psyche of a Union soldier. White often asked his parents to send tobacco and stamps, and occasionally certain items of clothing that he needed. White mentions several times the vitriol directed towards deserters, often referred to as “loafers,” and notes the issues with whiskey and the problems resulting from drunken soldiers. He even describes a strange condition known as “moon-blindness,” as one soldier claimed to not be able to see after dark, which resulted from sleeping with his eyes half-open and having the moon shine on his eyeballs. Additionally, White spoke often of the regiment chaplain, Father Michael F. Martin, at the camp and the importance of religious services.
The last folder contains a researcher's typescript transcriptions of White's letters. It should be noted that these are partial transcripts.
Accession number 1990.017
Digital reproductions of the William C. White letters are available at http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:364084
This is a revised finding aid. An older finding aid is available in hard copy at PAHRC.
A binder containing material related to this collection, including biographical information, military service records, and other material is assigned call # P008.713 and Accession# 2011.036.
- Gettysburg, Battle of, Gettysburg, Pa., 1863
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Anecdotes
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Military life--Union
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Participation, Irish American
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Personal narratives
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Regimental histories--Pennsylvania
- United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
- Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Bill Reuter
- Finding Aid Date
- ; June 2011
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.