Letters Found in Maine Bring Bloody Civil War Battle Alive

May 14, 2014

One-hundred-fifty years ago this week, soldiers from Maine were among those taking part in one of the bloodiest clashes of the Civil War: the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. For one Vermont resident, it's an historical event bought to life by a recently-discovered cache of letters written by her great-great-grandfather who was there - and captured an enemy flag before being wounded. Tom Porter has more.

Tasha Wallis says her interest in this historic event began a few months ago when a family gathering took an unexpected turn.

"Last fall, I was having dinner with my parents and my dad just mentioned quite out of the blue that they didn't know what to do with my great-great-grandfather's Civil War letters," Wallis says. "I knew that he had served in the Civil War, but I really didn't know we had such a treasure trove of information."

That "treasure trove" amounted to more than 200 letters written during the Civil War - most of them by her great-great-grandfather, Maj. James W. Welch, who commanded the 19th Maine Regiment at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. 

Wallis has spent the last few months combing through the letters, and is now working on a book about her ancestor and his exploits with the 19th Maine. By the time the regiment fought at Spotsylvania, Wallis says it had already distinguished itself at the battle of Gettysburg the previous summer.

"On the second day, when there was one group of Union Army soldiers retreating, the 19th Regiment lay on the ground and the retreating soldiers swept over them. They then stood and fought quite valiantly."

The battle of Spotsylvania Court House took place at a crucial crossroads in northern Virginia. For 13 days in May, 1864, 100,000 troops of General Grant's Army of the Potomac fought with 52,000 Confederate soldiers from General Robert E. Lee's Army of northern Virginia.

There were more than 30,000 casualties - among them Major Welch, who was wounded on May 12 attacking an entrenched Confederate position, in an encounter known as "Bloody Angle."

"One soldier from the 17th Maine described it as 'all around the salient was a seething, bubbling, roaring hell of hate and murder,'" says Wallis. "There was a 22-inch tree trunk that was actually cut in half by the hail of bullets on that day, and that tree trunk is actually in the Smithsonian now. It was described by many soldiers as a 'slaughter pen.' There was hand-to-hand fighting. The wounded and dead were mixed in a pile on the ground."

Wallis reads from a letter that her great-great-grandfather wrote to his wife from a hospital bed eight days later, on May 20.

"My wound, I think I told you, was through the left thigh almost up to the body," Wallis reads from the letter. "The ball just gouged the bone, went through and struck the other leg so as to take off the skin and make a black spot as big as your hand. We have had some of the greatest fighting the world ever saw. The day I was wounded we attacked the enemy's line at daylight and took their first line of breastworks. I took a rebel flag on the breastworks and I have it now."

The captured flag was that of the 33rd Virginia Regiment - part of Stonewall Jackson's brigade. Maj. Welch presented it to the governor of Maine as a gift. To the annoyance of the federal government, Maine hung on to the flag for many years, using it for ceremonial purposes. Then, in the early 20th century, Maine veterans voted to return captured flags from the Civil War.

"So in 1927, Gov. Brewster of Maine traveled to Washington, D.C. and took seven flags, including three going to Virginia," Wallis says. "And there was a very significant ceremony of state. It was presided over by President Coolidge. And the flags were returned at that point."

The flag captured by Capt. James W. Welch of the 19th Maine now resides at the Virginia Historical Society in Virginia.

Read a letter from James Welch to his wife.

Read a letter to James Welch regarding the captured battle flag.

Read a letter from Mrs. W. Downes to James Welch.