1863: Frederick A. Sayer to George Frederick Child

How Pvt Sayer might have looked

How Pvt Sayer might have looked

This letter was written by 20 year-old Pvt. Frederick A. Sayer (1843-1877) of Company D, 44th Massachusetts Infantry, the “lingual prodigy and pet of his corps.” He was the son of cabinet-maker Matthias Sayer, a German emigrant. Frederick (“Fred”) was also apparently a talented artist and after the war found employment in Brooklyn, New York as a draftsman and as the treasurer of the Park Theatre. He died in May 1877.

The 44th Massachusetts was organized at Readville and mustered in September 12, 1862. Moved to New Berne, N. C. in late October 1862 and saw action at Rawle’s Mills on November 2. They participated in a demonstration on New Bern on November 11 and on Foster’s Expedition to Goldsboro, Kinston, and Whitehall in December 1862. The returned to New Berne until February 10, 1863 when they moved to Plymouth, N. C., and performed duty there until March 15. The regiment moved to Washington N. C. in March and participated in the siege and skirmish there.  They returned again to New Bern in late April 1863 and performed duty there until June 6. They returned to Boston June 6-10 and mustered out June 18, 1863.

Fred wrote the letter to his friend, George Frederick Child (1844-1933), the son of Daniel F. Child (1803-1876) and Mary David (Guild) Child (1807-1861) of Boston, Massachusetts. George was married to Alice Hunnewell (1852-19xx) in 1875 and resided later in Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts where he was employed as the treasurer of a paper company. In 1863 when this letter was written, apparently 19 year-old George was working as a clerk in the store of Emmons, Danforth & Scudder at 31 & 32 South Market Street in Boston.


Hills Point, Pamlico River
April 21st 1863
My Dear George,

I received yesterday your letter of the 12th. I hope before now your fears have been somewhat quieted. The rebels have left this part of the country we hope for the present. Yesterday our quiet at this pretty place was somewhat disturbed by the sudden appearance of Gen’l Foster’s staff. On arriving at New Bern, he immediately sent off expeditions in every direction to stir the rebels up. One towards Kinston, one towards Greenville, & one under himself to Washington [North Carolina] by two or three different routes. They came through with very little trouble. Rumor goes that the expedition to Kinston under Gen’l Price resulted in another victory at that place. The old General looked pleased enough as he rode into our lines and remarked that wherever he went he always found the 44th. He has now gone back to New Bern and we are ordered to follow in a day or two. It will seem almost like getting home to arrive at New Bern once more.

I have endeavored to draw the bluff and fortifications at this point to give you some kind of an idea of their appearance. I don’t flatter myself that I have succeeded even indifferently well but think that with my explanations you may be able to make a very pretty picture of the place.

The main battery is that at the right of the picture. It is situated about 40 feet above the level of the [Pamlico] River on a clay bluff. In the rear is a deep, round gully into the side of which next the river are dug deep caves immensely strengthened with heavy timbers for the protection of the men against shell. All the shot fired by our gunboats that passed over the works either exploded harmlessly on the field beyond or striking the inside of the gully were there caught by some of the ditches dug for the purpose around the bank. Gunboats could never have affected anything against such a position. The high mounds that you see are traverses to prevent shot from raking the works.

To the left you see a small battery for 1 gun. It has no bombproof. Still farther to the left out of sight in the woods is another battery which mounted 3 guns as near as I could make out. The right hand little shanty of those seen on the left is the “hotel” at which I put up during my stay here. Bill of fare: Coffee, Salt Mule, Hard Tack, etc. The less said about the accommodations the better.

The works here at this place you must remember were built long ago when Burnside first threatened the town. They were evacuated after the fall of New Bern & our forces neglected to destroy them. This we are now doing. Day before yesterday the four bomb proofs were blown up & entirely destroyed. We are now making an earthwork into which troops may be thrown at any time when danger threatens.

I have no doubt but that I shall find all the things that you have been kind enough to send me, safe when I arrive at Newbern. Will write you as soon as I get there.

Lizzie Weld’s engagement strikes me as quite a funny affair. In fact, I hear that they appear even more silly than did Mr. & Mrs. Doct. Moses when they were first engaged. Lizzie did a pretty sly thing. At all events, Crook an elbow for me over this thing the first chance you get.

I enclose you a document found sticking to a post at Rodman’s Point when our forces got there. The man & brother spoken of is the carcass of a nigger that they dragged dead out of the river & left to rot on the wharf.

I also enclose you an order of Gen’l Foster that he had read to us when he left for reinforcements.

April 22nd. On board a schooner in tow of the steamer Thomas Collyer bound for New Bern.

Today we are in high spirits at the prospect of soon being able to enjoy our barracks again. I expect soon either to bite into my ham or mourn over its decayed remains.

I can’t understand how the report that our company was one of those drawn into an ambuscade could have got so widely circulated. Dean — the special assistant to Dr. Ware & the one who wrote the letter home about it — is a miserable little “pot. Slewer” in the hospital. He deserves a good whaling for writing as he did without being more certain. Orderly Edmans who he reported dead & eulogized so highly is safe with us.

5 o’clock. Off Brant I. light boat. Men most all sick. I still hold my own. Expect to get in about midnight. It is very “ruff.”

April 23rd. Newbern.

We arrived at the wharf at 10 o’clock last night & came ashore this morning. The first news we heard was that our barracks had been occupied by the 9th New Jersey and that we were to go down in town on provost duty in a few days. At present, we put up in the barracks of the 10th Connecticut who are at Hilton Head.

I have found my boxes both in good order as near as I could tell by a slight overhauling. as soon as we get anywhere, I shall examine more thoroughly.

April 24th.

I must now finish this long drawn out letter as the mail goes at noon tomorrow when I shall be very busy. We are to commence provost duty in New Bern tomorrow at 9 o’clock & will probably do nothing else the remainder of our term. Gen’l. Foster told Col. Lee at Washington that our regiment had probably seen more active service than any 9 months regiment in the field — that we had taken a distinguished part in all his enterprises & that he wished for no better troops. He also promised the Col. that we should go into town on Pollock Street.

Everything in my boxes was good. I cut the ham today. It was a little mouldy on the outside but tasted very nice. The underclothes suited even better than I could have hoped. You deserve a great deal of credit for the excellent taste & care with which you put up both of the boxes.

Seven weeks more & I shall be with you. I expect the time will pass very quickly. Love to all the folks & believe me ever your affectionate brother, — Frank

P. S. Please send me a receipt for the money you sent me. It is not at the Express Office & they know nothing of it.


1863 Envelope

1863 Envelope

Addressed to George F. Child, Care of Emmons, Danforth, & Scudder, Boston, Massachusetts

New Bern [North Carolina]
May 7th 1863

Dear George,

I received your voluminous epistle of the 24th with much pleasure. I suppose you have heard of our going into quarters in the city, living in houses deserted by secesh citizens, and that we are now keeping house in a style (damn the pen) hither to unknown even among the ancient Greeks. Flower garden in full bloom and well stocked fruit orchard including fig trees, a good sized two-story house in first rate condition, and everything lovely, and the aged gosling is pendant a considerable distance above the earth.

Union troops quartered in private houses in New Bern, NC

Union troops quartered in private houses in New Bern, NC

Your uncle lives in the front parlor with Charley D., Mose’ B. ¹ and other congenial spartans, and we are a joyous crowd, I tell you. We form a mess of ten and live pretty well and raise the devil generally. We have to go on guard every two or three days and spend the nights racking the heads of drunken soldiers with the butts of our rifles and keep the peace generally.

Do you know that I take my bitters regular? A few days ago I actually stumbled upon the New Bern “Apollo” and did enter and imbibe in a style that reminded me of days past. The “pier” is quite as good as any dealt out to me by “Spiedel.” There are very strict regulations to prevent non com’s and privates from purchasing and drinking liquors. But they can’t fool the regular boarders you know, so we had our egg nog the other night mixed in a pail enough for the crowd and washed down with ale and porter. Considering that the crowd was noisy enough to wake the dead and that our officer’s quarters are just across the entry from us, the proceeding was rather cool.

Capt. Henry Dorr Sullivan

Capt. Henry Dorr Sullivan

Our Captain [Henry Dorr Sullivan, 1842-1889] is getting lovely once more. Do you know that he got pretty well set up one night on Argee, and then went to work and wrote out a set of rules for the company — a mess of pop cockery — and stuck it up, and our boys went to work on it. One rule read something like this, “Non Coms and privates are forbidden the use of the outhouse which is reserved for the use of commissioned officers only.” Somebody added “and Aaron” — he being the Capt’s nigger whose free use of the outhouse previous to the rules being posted somewhat disgusted us aristocratic privates. This addition stirred up the officers and they denied us passes to go about town until the culprit confessed. So we have been obliged to elude the guards in our travels and it requires some knowledge of the town so to do.

Playbill from one the theatrical performances of the 44th Mass

Playbill from one the theatrical performances of the 44th Mass

Another rule forbad us to eat in quarters and that after we had bought a nice table for the purpose. We made so much fuss about these rules that the Captain took them back and we live on as before. The officers had visions of hissing when we were discharged and so had to come down. These incidents have created a great deal of excitement in our company and if the Captain had held his ground, we would have got into trouble sure.

Do you know that I am again concerned in an operatic entertainment which will come off just before we leave New Bern? We are now arranging the preliminaries and expect soon to commence the rehearsals. We expect to produce a dramatic entertainment, Ball Masque, and an Opera the scenes of which are laid in Washington, North Carolina during the late siege and expect it will be superior to Il Recruitio ² in point of music but has not so many laughable hits. With Jackson as stage manager, it cannot fail of being a success. The whole affair was started by the officers and they will no doubt form a larger part of the audience and I am afraid the privates will stand a small show. Mrs. General [John Gray] Foster is directly interested so you see we deal with the nabobs. It is a pretty heavy job to get up in so short a time so that I am not over and above hopeful.

Gen. John Gray Foster

Gen. John Gray Foster

We cusses expect to leave these parts in three or four weeks. We are going to take Boston by surprise and hold it. We expect to stay in Boston some time before our time has expired and the question is whether shall camp on Long Island to at Readville. We had just lives stay a few days on the islands but to hang up in Readville the boys don’t think much.

I was very much surprised to hear about Dar Weld’s caper. I don’t think it does her credit. That racy item concerning Sandy Porter was very amusing but we are getting accustomed to hear that our friends are doing the foolish and I expect to hear every day that you are involved in the meshes of some designing female plebe. Don’t do it, George. Take the advice of an old bachelor and keep out of such a pickle. I know you are daily witnessing the conjugal bliss of your late married friend. Resist temptation and spend your small change in “pier” and billiards and not on fine tooth combs and diapers for the children.

Some Boys of the 44th Mass

Some Boys of the 44th Mass

I received a letter from Ted the other day which is rather rough on me in moral point of view. He professes to have seen lately several small specimens of the genus “homo” that bear a striking resemblance to myself. Now I don’t know about this. I thought I had managed these affairs before leaving so as to prevent any unpleasant discoveries by my family but they seem to get loose and I am not round to look after them. Now I prithee neighbor and friend, if you meet with such evidences of my frailty and imprudence, do please ship them to Deer Island and charge the board to my account. I believe that all the embryo Parthenia’s are in charge of their mother who is trustworthy and would not betray me.

I am raising a company of mulattos down here. It keeps me hard at work every night. They will be fit for service in about twenty years. One of the corporals ³ in our regiment has been married to a Secesh girl who was educated in New York. Money is supposed to have been the chief attraction and she is quite good-looking and young. I can’t se how any Northren man can marry a Carolina girl. It would take a pile, you can bet, to induce me to hitch on.

I am glad to hear that Ford Walker is prospering so well. The circular you sent seems to indicate that he is doing a pretty extensive business in a general way. Please remember me to him.

Yours truly, — Fred

¹ Charles H. Demeritt and Moses E. Boyd were both from Boston and served in Company D with Fred Sayer.

knap² Il Recrution (“the Recruit”) was the Italian name of the opera performed by members of the 44th Massachusetts on 12 March 1863 while garrisoned in New Bern. This opera was founded upon the imaginary adventures of one of the regiment’s volunteers, describing his  enlistment at Boyleston Hall, the hardships and trials endured by his introduction to military life, and his perils by land and sea. The recruit was charmed in North Carolina by “Nancy Skittletop” — “a pretty Secesh maiden” played by Fred Sayer.

The regimental history mentions the attempt by members of the 44th to create another theatrical production “descriptive of our adventures in Washington. The lines were all written and the parts assigned; but the arduous duty of provost prevented us from giving much time to preparation and the design was finally relinquished.”

³ The regimental history says the soldier was Corporal Lawrence of Company C.


About Griff

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries. View all posts by Griff

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