Source: eBay auction

Memphis, Tenn.

August 21st 1862

My beloved wife and children,

I received Evlaine’s letter of the 15Th this morning and was truly glad to hear that you were well escept the sick headache which had troubled you. I hope at maybe nothing worse. Yet the Lord knows that is bad enough while it lasts. My health continues good, my only trouble arising from occasional overeating.

I am in rather bad fix for writing this morning. The Col. and Lieut. Col. are absent on business, the Major under armist?, Capt. Davidson, the ranking Capt. out on picket duty and I am left in command of the regt. It requires nearly all the regiment for picket when our day comes which is every fifth day and the consequence is that on the day we go on picket we have not men enough left for a camp guard, and some of the men will slip off to town and get high, and then they know that most if not all of them will be detailed for guard the next morning, which is this morning, they having been relieved yesterday morning and before guard mounting they slip off to get out of the way and it gives me some trouble to get up a guard this morning. Some of my own men had slipped off, whose turn would have come to go on guard and I have sent men with guns and bayonets to hunt them up and bring them in. So that with the troubles in my own company and other perplexities I am as I said before in a poor fix for writing.

Our pickets have an occasional skirmish with the guerillas; they got twenty of them yesterday morning. Some two or three of our pickets were out from the main body scouting, and discovered the rebels coming towards our lines. They made their way back to the main guard and gave the alarm. Our men secreted themselves and waited for Mr. Guerilla to come upp when they had got close enough, the Union boys finally killing ten and took the other ten prisoners.

We hear of frequent skirmishes between our cavalry scouts and the guerillas, in which our boys generally come off first best. We know nothing definite of our future deination. I think the probability is that we will remain here for some time yet, although we are liable to be ordered away at any time. But as it is intended to fill up all of the old regiments, I am inclined to think that we will remain here until the new recruits come in and have a chance to be drilled. I fear my going home this fall is plaid out, as there is an order from the war department stating that no leaves of absence will be granted to officers, (except in cases of extreme sickness) unless approved by the President. In order to obtain that I must first get it approved by the Col. and commanding Gen. here and then forward to the President for his approval. When it has once left him, it would be uncertain whether we would ever see it again or not. It is so, at any rate with resignations for Henry and several others sent up their resignations more than a month ago and they have not been heard from yet, and they did not have to go to Washington. Henry is improving finely and I believe will get well in a short time. He is as heavy now as I am. Alex health continues good. The boys are generally well. John Huffman is quite sick. I thought a few days ago that he would hardly recover, but his a little better now.

I wrote on the 14th by Capt. M Inglish. He promised that he would go and see you if possible and I suppose he is at home by this time. I sent one hundred and seventy dollars by him which he said he would deliver in person or put it into hands that would be seen to hand it over. There is also in the envelope 20 dollars for Albert Steele which you will keep until his father or brother calls for it. But if you get the money the lettter in it will tell you the same thing.

(Most of the rest of the letter he talks about home matters, money, debts and how bad the bugs are as he is writing) – ‘confounded little bugs and flies annoy me terribly.’

He closes with – I could not write much (for the bugs) but I have time to cool off a little and at roll call to night I delivered myself of a little speech, which helped me very much. Don’t let everybody see this show it or read it to J. Lutrell or Margaret, but for good reasons to me I don’t want Uncle Jim and others to see it. My best love to all. Write soon and often. I will explain the reasons to you when I get home and I shall make an effort to go his fall or winter. I hope I may succeed for I want to see you all very much indeed.

Yours most sincerely,

J.B. Duncan


Some history on Capt. John B. Duncan: he was a veteran of the Mexican War, John B. Duncan was a well-respected attorney and justice of the peace from Illinois when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Already in his mid-40s, Duncan left his comfortable life behind and during the late summer and fall, helped raise a company of the 32nd Illinois Infantry, which moved into Dixie under Grant’s command, moving to Fort Henry in March and then to Pittsburgh Landing, where they witnessed their first major engagement: the Battle of Shiloh.

Although during the battle of Shiloh Duncan was recuperating from an illness at Cairo, Ill., he was well informed of what happened in the Peach Orchard, where his comrades bore the brunt of the Confederate assault.

Though badly depleted, the 32nd joined the pursuit of Confederate forces into Mississippi. From Corinth they moved on to LaGrange and then to Memphis and Bolivar, fighting guerrillas and a hostile citizenry, as well as Confederate regulars.

The letters from the late summer and fall 1862 feature regular reports of skirmishing with guerrillas in Tennessee and equally regular reports of low morale and high desertion in his regiment. All this ends, however, on Oct. 7, 1862, when Duncan’s wife received a letter from one of his comrades: “in an engagement with the enemy Sunday (5th) your Husband was wounded by a shell from the enemy, cutting off left leg just above the ankle. He is doing well suffering but little pain… We whooped Rebels badly & our loss was comparatively small, only one man from his company (Parsly). Your Bro A.M. Wright came off unharmed….”

Thereafter the collection consists largely of letters written to Duncan by soldiers in his regiment. Duncan died of disease July 19, 1864.

Duncan engages in extended conversations with his wife, keeping her informed of what he and the men were doing in the field, and through her, keeping the entire community posted. At times, his letters have the air of a sort of extended community newsletter. An exceptionally rich and well informed set of letters from an experienced mid-level officer, fantastic tactical awareness.