This letter was written by Sgt. Harvey J. Covell (1835-1883) of Ashtabula, Ohio, who enlisted in Co. B, 23rd Ohio Infantry, in June 1861. In 1863, Covell was promoted to Captain of Co. B, 6th USCT. He was wounded on 29 September 1864 in an assault on the Richmond defenses at New Market Heights and was discharged from the service in April 1865 with the rank of Major.
Harvey was the son of Silas Covell (1789-1853) and Eunice Latimer (1796-1865). He was married in September 1864 to Louisa Olive Woolsey (1840-1879) who was most likely the recipient of this letter though her name does not appear on it.
The following is a good description of the first few months of service experienced by the men of the 23rd Ohio Infantry:
“Organized in June 1861, the 23rd Ohio Infantry contained 950 men when it went to Camp Chase, near Columbus, for its training. The Governor of Ohio appointed its officers, which was unusual — most regiments elected their leaders, up to and including the colonels — and which led to some problems. Colonel Eliakim Parker Scammon, who succeeded Rosecrans at the head of the regiment, was a martinet who never could understand the ways of the civilian soldier. For their part, the volunteers disliked Scammon and other West Pointers like him, and sometimes refused to follow him. In these crises it was usually the politician turned officer, like Rutherford B. Hayes, who had to step forward and save the situation.
At the start of the war Ohio was practically without weapons to arm its troops, and with the same frenzy that marked all preparations it bought, begged, and distributed whatever small arms it could locate. The Twenty-Third received an issue of old flintlock muskets converted into ‘percussion locks.’ This was too much for the young heroes. They had come forth to save the Nation, and they expected to be given proper weapons to do the job. They refused to receive the guns. Some companies stuck the muskets in the ground by the bayonet and marched back to quarters; others simply stacked them in piles.
Scammon, who had not thought it necessary to explain to the men why such guns had to be issued, flew into a rage and ordered some of the company commanders arrested. His conduct only increased the tension, because these officers could not be fairly blamed for failing to control the situation. In some way the men themselves had to be reached and persuaded to accept the muskets, and this result could not be achieved by a ramrod colonel or by such junior leaders as captains. It could be done only by officers of some rank who were from civilian life and could speak the language of the men; who could, in the bluntest terms, place on the appeal on the level of a stump speech.
Rutherford B. Hayes, the major of the regiment, recognized his role and accepted it. He went from company to company, pleading with the men to take the guns. The weapons were the only ones available to the state, he said. They would do for temporary use, to practice the manual of arms; later better models would be provided. Besides, he went on, the man was more important than the weapon. The ancestors of the men listening to him had won the jewel of American freedom in the Revolution with muskets even poorer than these. Would their descendants then refuse any weapons in an hour of greater peril? It was exactly the kind of exhortation calculated to move the impressionable boys, and they responded as Hayes must have known they would. Somebody yelled: ‘Bully for Hayes. . . let’s get our guns,’ and the crisis was passed.
Following their training, the men of the Twenty-Third moved south, to Weston in western Virginia. Their function there was to protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, secure the surrounding area, and protect the Kanawha Valley from Confederate moves. Mainly they marched back and forth on mountain roads, trying to round up guerrillas.
When the Federals first came into West Virginia, they were welcomed as deliverers. But if they thought that all the mountaineers were Unionists, they soon received a rude and sometimes lethal disillusionment. In many areas the inhabitants sympathized with the Southern cause or, if not animated by any ideological attachment, resented the presence of the invaders. Operating in small groups or as individuals, they stalked Union lines of communications, shooting at parties of soldiers and trying to run off cattle, horses, and other supplies. They were called guerrillas or bushwhackers by the Federals, who conducted constant expeditions to round them up. If arrested with arms but not in a guilty act, their invariable excuse was: ‘We were only hunting squirrels.’
One Federal witness described a typical guerrilla. ‘Imagine a stolid, vicious-looking countenance, an ungainly figure, and an awkward, if not ungraceful, spinal curve in the dorsal regions, acquired by laziness and indifference to maintaining an erect posture; a garb of the coarsest texture of home-spun linen . . . and so covered with dirt as not to enable one to guess it original color; a dilapidated, rimless hat, or cap of some wild animal’s skin, covering his head, the hair on which had not been combed for months; his feet covered with moccasins, and a rifle by his side, a powder-horn and shot-pouch slung around his neck, and you have the beau ideal of the West Virginia bushwhacker.’
The Federals came to hate them passionately and to hunt them without pity. Even as gentle and moderate a man as Hayes could hear of their being killed without a flicker of regret. Eventually many officers sent out to catch bushwhackers would come in without any prisoners. They would merely report that they had arrested so-and-so but that in bringing him in he slipped off a log while crossing a stream and broken his neck or that he had been killed by an accidental discharge of one of the men’s guns.”
Weston, Louis [Lewis] County, Virginia [now West Virginia]
July 17th 1861
I had intended to fill up the previous sheet and send it along before this but have been on duty and found no time until now. And as you will not get it so as to read until a week after I intended you should have had a letter, I will fill this and let them suffice for two weeks.
There still continues to be some killed. They are picked off regular indian style and soldiers are beginning to think that forbearance has about ceased to be a virtue. We shall probably soon see a different state of affairs. If in nothing else, there will be less of our teamsters and messengers killed. Our captain [Grotius R. Giddings] ¹ says if they do not give our company a chance to scout among the mountains, he will lead us out himself without orders from the Colonel [Eliakim P. Scammon]. We are all anxious to try if we cannot play an even hand at guerrilla warfare as that seems to be the game that is being played here now.
10 o’clock P.M. On guard and have been all day but I find tonight a right smart chance to finish this which I will improve. I find guard duty here rather more tiresome than at Camp Chase. I am placed here in town with 12 men. Have 3 places to guard but I have to act as corporal and go around with every relief which does not give me much of a chance to sleep for the 24 hours. But tomorrow I shall have a Sunday to myself. I expect, though, I should scarcely know that we had a Sunday here if I did not look at my diary.
Our camp for the past few days has looked rather lonesome and today still more so as we could muster only about 200 men — the rest having been sent off as guards, pickets, scouts, &c. Last night many were expecting an attack as it was reported that several hundred secesh were not many miles from here. But I guess that there was not much truth in the report though I was placed with 6 men to guard a bridge 2½ miles from here all day yesterday but saw nothing serious.
This P.M. a company of artillery came into camp and expect to be attached to our regiment. They have 4 pieces and can be unslung and placed upon mules to be carried in the mountains should occasion require. Many of the company are armed Sharp carbines. Tonight, some 5 or 6 companies of the 28th Ohio Regiment came in. All were glad to see them and welcomed them heartily.
Our Colonel [Scammon] is not liked very well and his being an Irishman and a Catholic does not increase our love for him very much. Our Captain [Giddings] and the Col. do not agree very well. They have had hard words several times. Yet for all that, the Colonel likes him and tells him he is the best military man he has got. But I believe they have settled all their differences by the Colonel sending for the Captain and telling him that they did not understand each other but would in the future. He seems to have rather a grudge against our company as we have not bowed quite as low to him as others. Still he respects us and knows we are trustworthy — sending to our company often for men to go on special duty. Some say the reason why he dislikes us is the company and captain are too independent. Others [say] that it is because none of our company have been in the guard house though there have been 4 in all here and at Camp Chase. But all were doing what they supposed was their duty and were soon released. One only has been in legally — that was for getting a little tight and quarreling, but I guess it has cured him as he has kept right since. I do not believe that there is another company that has been in camp as long as we have that can show as clean a record.
Yours as ever, — H. J. Covell
¹ Capt. Grotius Reed Giddings (1834-1867) was the son of Hon. Joshua Reed Giddings (1795-1864) of Ashtabula, Ohio.