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Wilson S. Beckley papers, 1862-1864

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The Wilson S. Beckley papers consist of 19 letters written by Beckley to his mother, Sarah Beckley, and other family members during the Civil War, along with one carte de visite. Beckley was originally from Cascade, Michigan, and fought in the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry. His letters mainly describe military life within the infantry.

The Wilson S. Beckley papers include dated material from April 12, 1862, through November 16, 1864. Consisting of 19 letters and one carte de visite, the collection provides a great deal of information on camp life in the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry as well as views towards the “rebels.” With the exception of one letter from a cousin named Julia and a discarded letter of a Confederate soldier that he found at a rebel camp describing the battle of Shiloh, all letters were written by Beckley to his mother and other family members.

In his correspondence Beckley describes the march from Camp Siegel in Ionia, Michigan, to various sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. He keeps his mother apprised of not only his activities, but also of the movements of the brigade and other news pertaining to the Union army. He also includes some descriptions of weaponry and of the foods available to the soldiers.

The Confederate letter which Beckley also sent to his mother vividly describes the battle of Shiloh, and briefly mentions Generals Wood, Beauregard, Hardee, Bragg, and others. The unknown soldier wrote of the tragic battle, “…we rested until morning of the 6th it was holy Sabbath & the sun rose fair & beautiful over the field that was about to be drenched in blood…” (April 12, 1862). In his letter from November 20, 1862 Beckley includes passing references to African Americans servants, a description of a suicide, and several pen and ink illustrations of soldiers. Beckley's letter of December 19, 1862, describes frustrations about officers providing African American servants with rations for the regiment. The letter is illustrated with several vignettes relating to his irritation that African Americans were better treated than white soldiers. Fragments "of our tattered flag under which one of the bearers was mortally wounded and another lost an arm at Chickamauga" are enclosed in the letter of July 16, 1864.

Despite some of the hardships he endured, Beckley’s tone is highly optimistic. He incorporates many drawings into his letters, including a hand-drawn map of Bridgeport, Alabama. Beckley also had the role of being a “bugler” in the Infantry, and frequently wrote sheet music, which he claimed to have published and sold. His last letter dated November 16, 1864, was written from Cumberland Hospital in Tennessee, where he was hospitalized for what appears to be dysentery.

The carte de visite was produced in Louisville, Kentucky, and depicts a seated man with a beard in a Union Army uniform, possibly Wilson S. Beckley.