Monday, December 22, 2014

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 1

This is the first entry of correspondence by 2nd Lieutenant Henry Ropes written between September 3 and October 5, 1862 to his father, mother, and brother. Ropes served in Company K of the 20th Massachusetts, Dana’s Brigade, Sedgwick’s Division, II Corps. The letters give Ropes' perspective on the day-to-day affairs of the regiment as it advances to Sharpsburg and eventually to the West Woods.  See Sources, below, for more information on the Ropes correspondence.

Camp, 20th Regiment near Alexandria, Va.

September 3d 1862

My dear John.⁠[1]

I have just received from the Colonel your letter, the pail, soap, stamps, straps, and shaving brush for all of which I am very much obliged. Col. Lee⁠[2] looks very well and so does the Major.⁠[3]  The
Henry Ropes. Massachusetts
Historical Society.
Colonel asked me to mention in my letter that he arrived here last night safely and well and requests you to send word to Mrs. Lee and the family.

I think we shall move toward Chain Bridge⁠ [4] and stay there for some time. All quiet now. I believe I never acknowledged the receipt of the following letters. From Father⁠ [5] August 23d and 27th, Mary Ann [⁠6] 19th and 26th, and you of the 19th and the one by Col. Lee. Please thank all. In answer to your questions, Sedgwick ⁠[7] sent word to Col. Palfrey [8] that he might want an Officer for 2 or 3 days, and asked if he could send one in case he should need him. Col. Palfrey said he could spare one and asked me if I would go. I said I would but was never called for. Sedgwick had before asked for Peirson⁠ [9] or Whittier⁠ [10] but both were sick. Whittier is now on his staff. I was detailed to command Company E, but now Patten⁠ [11] has returned and assumed command, and I am still in K. James⁠ [12] does pretty well, but do keep a look out for a really good man. Strength to carry a heavy load and willingness to endure discomfort are absolutely necessary.

About 75 recruits joined us but were unarmed and had to be sent to the rear when we advanced.

I feel very sorry to trouble you so much in getting such things for me, but you see my equipment has to do for a house, pantry, kitchen, bath room, and everything else, including butcher, baker, and tailor, and all this has to be carried on my back to be of use to me at the right time, and so I have to be very particular to have good articles and of the lightest materials. You no do doubt will think it silly of me to give such particular directions about small things, but remember that to have a couple of eyelet holes in the wrong place in a tent may make me wet to the skin for 24 hours, instead of keeping me dry, and a slight alteration of the the straps of a knapsack may cut my shoulder and disable me, instead of leaving me perfectly sound and well. Now I wish to be perfectly prepared for active operations immediately, and therefore, after much thought, I have determined on what I want and ask you to see to the procuring of the same, in accordance with the enclosed directions. I want the following articles:

Pair of Boots. Rice⁠ [13] made me a perfect pair of Army shoes last December, and probably has my measure yet. Those shoes were very loose and comfortable, and very long, exactly as I want the boots. They must go on easily, even when wet. Please order a pair at Rice’s, not of excessive thickness, but of the leather best calculated to keep out water. Perhaps it would be well to have Cork soles put on (not inside Cork soles covered with Lamb’s wool). Let them be loose about the ankle bones, hight, nearly to the knee and very large in the calf. My calf is very large. Let no expense be incurred for ornament, and none be spared for strength and durability. As they are to be worn in rain and mud, let the “counters” be very stiff. Should Rice not have the measure, perhaps Rogers⁠ [14] has (who made the Army shoes you sent out). But let Rogers make them a little wider than the shoes. Clauser⁠ [15] has my measure in Cambridge, but if he makes them, tell him to make them large. I prefer Rice.

2d. A Knapsack. Please call Roulston’s⁠ [16], Tremont Street, and order a knapsack, made exactly like the one he made lately for Lieut. Wilkins⁠ [17] and Herbert Mason⁠ [18], with this alteration: instead of
"Knapsack." Ropes
Transcript, Vol 2.
Boston Public Library.
side straps for shoes on the outside, let there be on each side a small pocket, large enough for a sponge, for instance, fastened by a lappet and button, or buckle. Let the Knapsack be made as light as possible, and of the very best material. It’s cost is, I believe, $4. I will give you a little representation of the pockets I wish. He will understand what I want for Wilkins’ is my model. I wish to have “Lieut. Ropes, 20th Mass.” Distinctly marked in small letters in white paint just above (or under) the left-hand pocket, as I have represented. This is very necessary. Wilkins’ had a little inside pouch or pocket for comb tooth brush &c., and I wish one like this, with a lappet and fastening.

3d. Wool Blanket. I wish one of some color not very light, blue preferred. Size, regulation about 6 feet by 4. I want a very light thin blanket, not more than 1/2 as heavy as the common kind sold. Let it be as warm as possible for its weight, and therefore I suppose it must be made either of fine wool, or of silk and wool. Do not spare expense, but get the greatest amount of warmth and the least weight possible.

4th. India Rubber Blanket. I wish the lightest Rubber that is strong enough to bear careful usage. Patten has an excellent one. Let it be very large, say (if possible) 7 feet by 5, with strong edges, and one eyelet hole in each corner, and besides 3 others along each long side and 2 along each short side. Let this and the wool blanket be marked with my name “H. Ropes”. Do not get a lined blanket, only the light “linen rubber” (as I believe it is called).

5th Rubber Pillow. I have lost my old one. Please get a very small light one. Let it be marked with my name “H. Ropes”.

6th. A crockery Plate, Cup and saucer. Perhaps this seems to you to be very luxurious, but I assure you to eat so long from tin is very tiresome, and a crockery cup is a great luxury. These must be very small and light. I should prefer some of that old set which you remember I had in Cambridge. The cups were small and the material was light. If you buy anything, get it white.

7th. A Shelter tent. As this is an article of the very greatest importance, I enclose a description. [See below for enclosure]

8th A Lantern (Ropes’ Patent) Description enclosed. [18a]

9th A very small light and sharp Hatchet with a little leather case and strap to go over the shoulder. This for James to carry.

This is all, I believe. I really feel ashamed to trouble you to such a fearful extent, but if you were here and could go to the front a week or so with me, I am sure you would appreciate my wants, and see the absolute necessity of everything I have sent for, and the need of having the best of everything and thus the lightest.

The Adams Express Company, Boston
 offered to “forward packages
 and parcels daily to the “‘South,”
occupied by Federal Troops.”
From Boston City Directory, 1862.
Everything I have written for can be packed
in the knapsack, and if possible let it be sent on by some faithful man. If you can find no man, let Adams & Co. [⁠19] take it. One thing Mother [⁠20] can send me, if she pleases, 4 little linen bags like the former ones she sent. If three of these are filled with white sugar, tea and coffee, I shall be much obliged.

Another thing: 2 small boxes, tin or pewter, very light to hold each about 1 gill⁠ [21], for salt and pepper. Not with holes in the top for scattering the contents over the food.

I think everything can be made and sent off in 10 days after you get this, and so in 3 week’s I can get all.

I expect a campaign in Autumn, and I want to be as well protected from wet and cold and as generally comfortable, as possible. I have no news. Very sorry for your eyes. You had better go to Lenox⁠ [22] and try to enjoy that female society you say you consider so dull for a ‘steady drink”.

No news. All steady here; no desponding. We have arrived at our “Torres Vedras”,⁠ [23] and I look forward to our last advance before long.

Herbert, Macy, Hallowell, Abbot, Murphy, Shepard, Patten and others desire kindest regards.⁠ [24]

Your affectionate brother,

Henry [⁠25]

P.S. Black India Rubber for the blanket, unless white is stronger or lighter.


Hall's Rubber Clothing Company.
From the Boston City Directory, 1862.
I wish to explain to you the triangular end of the tent. It is a triangle divided in the centre into 2 right angled triangles, each of a base of 3 1/2 feet (because the tent is to stretch 7 feet wide) of a hypothenuse of 6 feet (because the 2 sides together are 12 feet long) and 4 feet 10 in perpendicular, because of the other dimensions. But to keep out rain I want a flap 6 inches wide, and to fasten this securely there must be 2 sets of tapes or strings, one outside, one inside. Then the ridge pole must have room to come out at the end, and be supported by a fork stuck in the ground, so the tops of these triangles must be cut off a little. The piece of strong canvas will sufficiently cover this opening.

I hope this description is plain, and that it will not trouble you very much.

Herbert has seen this and wishes one just like it. Can you order 2? Please do so for him. Better make one first and show it to you. Hall's, Milk Street, is the best Rubber store, I think.


The source for Henry Ropes’ correspondence is the three volume transcription of Ropes outbound correspondence to his father, mother, and his brother, John C. Ropes. The original transcription can be found at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library. 

Henry Ropes was killed at Gettysburg on July 3 and from that point on, John C. Ropes undertook a life-long pursuit to memorialize his brother’s life and the regiment’s history. The transcription volumes are the center piece of John C. Ropes work and his legacy. Each of the three transcribed volumes are organized chronologically: Volume 1 is Henry Ropes’ correspondence to his father and mother, and Volume 2 and 3 to his brother, John C. Ropes. 

For more on the Ropes correspondence, see Richard F. Miller’s excellent essay on historical bibliography at pages 495-499 in his superlative study on the 20th Massachusetts in Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005). Any errors in transcribing and annotating the selected correspondence are mine.

The sources for annotations for the September 3rd letter from Henry to John C. Ropes are: George A. Bruce, The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906); Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005); Martin T. McMahon, “The Death of General John Sedgwick” in Battles and Leaders; Massachusetts Historical Society, “Ropes Family Papers, Guide to the Collection”; Harvard Memorial Biographies, T.W. Higginson, ed. (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1866); U.S. Census Record for Massachusetts (1850 and 1860); Robert F. Mooney, Nantucket Hero: General George Nelson Macy (Nantucket Historical Association website); Harvard College, The Second Report of the Secretary: The Class of 1862 (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1872); Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Massachusetts in the Army and Navy During the War of 1861-1865, in 2 Volumes (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1895); John C. Ropes, “William Raymond Lee,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 28 (May, 1892-May, 1893), pp. 346-348; Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with reports from the Quartermaster-General, Surgeon-General, and Master of Ordnance for the Year Ending December 31, 1862 (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1863); Boston Directory, Embracing the City Record, a General Directory of the Citizens and a Business Directory, for the Year Commencing July 1, 1862 (Boston: Adams, Sampson & Company, 1862); Wikipedia and Find-a-Grave entries.


1 John Codman Ropes (1836-1899), brother of Henry Ropes came  from a prominent Boston family whose mercantile fortune came through trade with Russia. A graduate of Harvard College (1857), he suffered a childhood spinal infection and resultant deformity left him unfit for military service as the war broke out. Following the death of his brother at Gettysburg, he undertook the writing of a number of monographs and unpublished histories of the events of the war many of which appear in the Military Historical Society’s publications which he helped found. Richard Miller, in his study of the 20th Massachusetts notes that he “determined to memorialize Henry’s life and the history of his regiment.” He is the founder of the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray. 
Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891), attended West Point but dropped out in 1829. 
3 Major Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of Paul Revere and Harvard graduate (1862).
4 Chain Bridge crosses the Potomac between the District of Columbia and Virginia. The mention of moving toward Chain Bridge is the first indication that this letter was begun prior to its noted date of September 3rd for on August 28th the 20th had moved from the environs of Alexandria to Cloud’s Mills adjacent to Fort Worth near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. And it was here that 72 recruits joined the regiment. On August 29th, the 20th moved to Forts Ethan Allen and Marcy on the Virginia side of Chain Bridge; and on August 30th the regiment bivouacked near Tenallytown, District of Columbia probably near another defensive outpost, Fort Pennsylvania. 
5 William Ropes (1784-1869) established a number of trading enterprises in Boston in the early 19th Century. He married Martha Reed and had ten children. In 1830 he sailed with his eldest son to St. Petersburg, Russia to lay the groundwork for an import/export business there. While there Martha Reed died. In 1803 he founded the import/export firm of William Ropes & Co. In 1832, he re-married to Mary Anne Codman. The following year he established William Ropes & Co. in St. Petersburg. He returned to Boston in 1842, leaving his four eldest children to manage the St. Petersburg business. 
6 This is probably Ropes’ sister Mary Ann Ropes (b 1842). 
7 Major General John Sedgwick (1813-1864), West Point, 1837, commanded the Second Division of the II Corps (Sumner). Shot in the wrist, leg, and shoulder in the West Woods on September 17. He survived, but lost his life at Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864.
8 Col. Francis Winthrop Palfrey (1831-1889), Harvard College, 1851, Harvard Law School, 1853. He would be hit with grapeshot in his shoulder in the West Woods on September 17. 
9 1st Lt. Charles Lawrence Peirson (b. 1834). In 1865 his sister, Harriet Lawrence Peirson (1831-1880), would marry Henry’s brother William. 
10 2nd Lt. Charles Albert Whittier (1840-1908) eventually joined Sedgwick’s staff and witnessed his death at Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864. 
11 Second Lt. Henry Lyman Patten (1836-1864), Harvard College (1858), would die in Philadelphia on September 10, 1864 of wounds received at Deep Bottom, Virginia on August 17th. 
12 James Smith wrote to John C. Ropes on November 5, 1863 “a few lines in accordance with the expressed wish of your late Brother Lt. Ropes with whom I was a servant…” He signed his letter “James Smith, Head Qrs, 3d Brig., 2d Div., 2nd Corps, A.P.” 
13 After the war, bookmaker William B. Rice the shoe making firm of Rice and Hutchins Shoe Company in Boston (October 1866). The company prospered in the following decades opening factories in Europe and South America. It was dissolved by Rice's sons in 1929.  
14 This was probably Nathaniel H. Rogers who is listed in the 1862 Boston City Directory as a bootmaker at 147 Salem Street, Boston.
15 Peter Clausen was a Cambridge shoemaker.
16 Edward A. Roulstone dealt in “trunks and military goods” at 7 Tremont Street, Boston. 
17 Lt. Henry E. Wilkins would be severely wounded at Fredericksburg. 
18 Lt. Herbert Cowpland Mason (1840-1888), Harvard College, 1862, would be severely wounded at Gettysburg on July 3 and left the regiment in July 1864.
18a Description not found.
19 The Adams Express Company, operating out of 84 Washington Street, Boston offered to “forward packages and parcels daily to the “‘South,” occupied by Federal Troops.”
20 Mary Ann Codman married William Ropes in 1832. Their children were Catherine Ropes (1833-1835) and John Codman Ropes (1836-1899).
21 A gill equals a quarter of a pint or 118 ml.
22 The reference appears to be to Lenox, Massachusetts.
23 The Portuguese town of Torres Vedras anchored a line of 152 forts and 628 redoubts that extended to the Atlantic Ocean. Ropes may have been comparing the forts circling Washington with this fortified system. At the time of this letter, the 20th Massachusetts was inside the Washington defensive system at Alexandria and headed for Chain Bridge on the Northwest boundary of the city. Ropes seems not to have finished his letter until the 20th had moved to this location. 
24 Lt. Herbert Cowpland Mason (1840-1888), Harvard College, 1862, would be severely wounded at Gettysburg on July 3 and left the regiment in July 1864; Lt. George Nelson Macy (1837-1875 from one of Nantucket’s oldest families would rise to General by war’s end; Lt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell (1839-1914), Harvard College, 1861 would be severely wounded in the arm in the West Woods; Lt. Henry Livermore Abbott (1842-1864), Harvard College, 1860 would be killed at the Battle of the Wilderness; Lt. James Murphy would resign his commission on August 28, 1863 due to wounds received at Chancellorsville, Murphy and Hallowell would serve as Henry Ropes’ pallbearers; Capt. Alan Shepard who commanded Company K would be severely wounded at Fredericksburg and transfer to the Invalid Corps in September, 1863.
25 2nd Lt. Henry Ropes (1839-1863), born in London, came from a prominent Boston family whose mercantile fortune came through trade with Russia. A graduate of Harvard College, he joined the regiment on November 25, 1861. He participated in all of the regiment's campaigns without a wound until he was killed at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. 

No comments: