By Samantha Hall-Saladino/For The Leader-Herald
In a folder in a metal flat file cabinet in the museum’s research library is a small collection of letters, each of them enclosed in acid-free plastic sleeves. The paper is in good condition for its age; the letters date to the 1860s. Most are filled, front and back, with the looping scrawl of Francis Farmer, a young man from Ephratah who served in the Civil War.
Francis Farmer was born in New Jersey in 1840, but his family moved to the Mohawk Valley by the early 1860s, living in Ephratah, Johnstown, and Gloversville at various times. Francis was the oldest child of Joseph and Margaret Farmer. There were also Rachel, Agnes, Peter, Gertrude, and Maria. The letters start at the end of 1861, when Francis had gone down to Brooklyn to live with and work for his uncle Peter. He recounts various family members, which all provide clues for more family tree branches to trace, and their various doings. He complained in a Dec. 26, 1861 letter: “Mother it was very dull here Christmast. There was nothing doing here. I was down to Aunt Maria’s and went to a consert.”
On Friday, Aug. 19, 1862, he wrote: “There was a man a long the shore Wensday taking the names of all the men. He sed that they was a going to draft them. He took my name down to. He sed that I would hafter go on a gun boat for they cannot take me on land.” In his next letter, Sept. 4, Francis informs his parents that he has enlisted for nine months. He says: “Wee get fifteen dollars a month; past the doctor. He did not say a word about my eye. We got a furlow till Monday seven o’clock then wee go to Trenton to get our uniforme a then we will go to training.” Francis officially enlisted with the 22nd New Jersey Volunteers, Co. H on Sept. 1 and they were mustered in on Sept. 22.
The 22nd NJ was organized at Trenton for nine months of service under the command of Colonel Abraham G. Demarest. They were sent to assist with the defenses of Washington, DC until December, then to the Army of the Potomac through the rest of their service.
Francis’ letters home during this time give us glimpses into the daily life of a soldier with the regiment. He writes about their work, their diet, and their living conditions. “I think soldering is the laziest life that ever was known,” he writes in one note home. In another letter he asks for something so distinctly Fulton County that it made me smile when I first read it. The letter reads in part: “I got the box and all the things all safe. I want you to get me eight pair of them gloves. I want six pair like mine and two pair a little biger. Put them in a packeg buy them self and mark the price on them. Send me two pair mor ten pair in all send them right along as quick as you can for the boys wants them right away. We are eating our supper, it is a beef stue, we are digging rifle pits now for wee have fine fun in the pits. Put them gloves in a box and send them right along for it is a getting very cold here. Mine came just in time.”
Eventually the regiment ended up in Belle Plain, Virginia. The area was used as an alternate supply point to Aquia Landing by the Army of the Potomac, and it was a lead supply point during the 1864 Overland Campaign. On March 10, 1863, Francis wrote home, starting his letter in the usual way, by writing: “I now have the opportunity of wrighting a few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present.” He instructs his father on how to draw his bounty money and complains that he’s written to his mother every week but receives no response from her.
The last letter in the folder is dated two weeks later and written in a different hand. “Dear Sir,” it begins. “I now take this painful moment to write these sad tidings to you to inform you that your son Frances is dead.” The letter was written by Peter VanWagner, one of the young men that Frank mentions in his earlier letter about his enlistment. Francis Farmer died on March 24, 1863 of typhoid fever in Belle Plain. There were 41 deaths in the 22nd New Jersey Regiment. All of them were from typhoid.
Disease was one of the largest causes of death during the Civil War, and typhoid was especially rampant. It spreads through contaminated food and water or by close contact. Lack of sanitation, improper placement of latrines, and a general lack of knowledge about bacteria were all factors in its spread. There were over 75,000 documented cases throughout the Union Army, with a 36% mortality rate. These numbers were probably much higher in the camps of Black regiments, and most likely similar in camps of Confederate soldiers. A mixing of regional and socio-economic backgrounds was also a factor in the spread of the disease; those from cities were already exposed to common urban diseases and fared better than their counterparts from rural communities. There was no effective treatment, though surgeons tried everything from whiskey and brandy to leeches, opiates, and turpentine. The disease was so deadly that surgeon Daniel M. Hold with the 121st NY Regiment wrote: “Very little can be done for a man when he lies upon the ground with typhoid fever . . . when I order one to hospital, it seems almost equivalent to ordering his grave dug.”
Francis was buried in the Soldier’s Home Cemetery, also known as the Military Asylum Cemetery, in Washington, DC.
Margaret, his mother, applied for his pension in July 1890. One of the local papers listed her among those granted pensions. She received $12 a month. Francis’ siblings remained mostly in the area. His brother Peter and his wife Emma had four children, including a son they called Frank. He was well-known in the city of Gloversville in the 1930s and 40s, serving as the city’s postmaster, running for mayor, and serving as the alderman for the 2nd Ward. One of their daughters, Ruth, taught nursing in Gloversville schools for many years.
Letters like Francis’ are special — not only because they can provide personal perspectives on major historical events, but because they give us an opportunity to create a more profound connection with the author as an individual. Reading Francis’ words help paint a picture of who he was as a person and tell us what was important to him. We can find clues to conduct further research and create a broader view of the past. So, save those old family letters, postcards, and notes. You never know which future historians will be grateful you did.