James Daniel Quilliam was born on February 2, 1836, to James and Margaret Cain Quilliam, who had emigrated to the United States from the Isle of Man. The family had purchased land in the rural area of Westfield, N.Y., where J.D. Quilliam met and married Rhoda Dibble. They bought a farm, built a home and began a family. Quilliam was a skilled carpenter and the house he built on Quilliam Road is still in use today.
J.D. and Rhoda’s children were named William, Ida and Frederick, and the extended family included Rhoda’s parents, her brother George and her twin sisters Mahala and Maria, as well as J.D.’s sisters, Elizabeth and Elinor, and his parents.
On August 29, 1862, at the age of 26, Quilliam enlisted in Company E of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment was organized at Jamestown, N.Y., and left for Washington, D.C., on September 30, 1862. After arriving they were attached to the 2nd Division of the XI Corps, Army of the Potomac.
Quilliam put himself in harm’s way, but not for riches, glory or adventure. He did it to protect his family and to help preserve the Union. He once wrote: “should i be called to dy in defince of liberty, truth, and justes my life would not be spint in vain…” He had strong beliefs, and he was willing to die for them.
June 1864 found the 154th in Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland in the 2nd Division of the XX Corps. They had marched into northern Georgia as part of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and were engaged at Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca and Dallas. According to a report by the XX Corps’ chief surgeon, the 2nd Division was worn out and exhausted by the continual marching and construction of breastworks. It had been under enemy fire almost continuously since May 25.
Around 11 a.m. on June 15, 1864, the 154th was deployed as skirmishers at a place the locals called Pine Hill, or Pine Mountain. The first Confederate volley was a surprise, and the men had no time to find cover. Quilliam was shot at least three times, once in the thigh and once in each ankle. The wounded were left where they fell as the regiment withdrew. That night it rained. The wounded were picked up the next day by Union stretcher-bearers. Quilliam was treated at a field hospital, and then moved to a hospital in Chattanooga. While there, one of his feet was amputated. He was then moved to a better hospital in Nashville, though he died there in July 1864.
During his army service Quilliam wrote more than 60 letters to family members, most of them to his wife. The letters reflect his lack of formal education. He seldom capitalized words, used no punctuation (periods have been added by the editors to clarify where sentences end) and his spelling was poor. He was aware of his limitations, but still managed to let his feelings be known about battles, politics, religion, camp life, slavery and love of family.
March 17, 1863
Quilliam writes to his wife about what he has seen so far.
Camp James Manly [renamed, actually “John Manley”]
…the last day of the battle we came within three miles of fredricksbirg and staid over nite and all nex day and leaf nex nite after dark and went near the river in sight of the town and staid there four weeks. we expected to have a fight before we got there. we got word that there was a squad of rebble cavalry in dumfrieel a small town a few miles ahead of us. we were ordered to load and march on. we son met a lot of petlers making thier way back as fast as posable. some with their wagons and others only their horses and others a fut. but by the time we got there they were gon in a nother derection. we stait there over nite and till noon nex day and I think that when we left there were not many hens in town or hogs that were fit to eat. this was about 25 miles from fredericksbirg. we could hear the cannon all the time….the worst sight I have seen or expect to see was on the bul run battle groun. the firs time we were there was about a month after the last battle. there were hats and arms scattered in the road and bodies were pild in heaps and a little dirt throne over them and heds stuck out to one end and feet at the other…
March 27, 1863
He reminds his wife why he was fighting.
…i am afraid that you air worring about me to much….i do not blame you for wishing that i was at home. i want to come home as bad as you want me to but i think how much better it is for us to come here and defind our homes then it would be to stay at home and let them come and distry every thing that we have….i am thankful that your house hath not been birnd by an envading enemy as i have known and you haft to look out for your self. i hope that you will not think i am finding folt with you. i only want to tell you how much better off you air then many thousands of your felow beings. i hope that the lord will give you grace to endure with pations what ever trials may be before you and thank him for all his goodnes to you. you seem to be very much discouraged about my coming home. i do not feel so i think there is a better prospect of the war being closed this sumer then ever and there is a general expectation amung the army that they will be to home nex winter….i think it would be folish in me to get a forlow now for they do not give them for but 10 days and it will take six days to com and go and cost about 20 dollers. we expect 4 month pay before long. remember me in prayer…
April 11, 1863
He writes to his wife about seeing President Lincoln.
Near Stafford C.H., Va. …on the 10th [we were] revewed by old Abe him self. i wish you could have been here to have seen it. it was the grandest sight I ever saw….Just before the Precedent came in site the canon began to roar and as he came up the bands began to play then he road by the Regements one after another takeing of his hat and every man seluting him by precent arms. we then past the precedent in line 2 companies at a time and came of to camp…. the best signs of peace that i can se is the strength of our army…
May 17, 1863
He speaks of foraging and a soldier’s life.
Camp John Manly
…we have nothing to do now exept to stand picket. i have been out once since we got back. i sopose you think that there is great denger on picket but i never see any denger. when we ware at kellies ford i was speaking with a reb picket across the river. they say there orders air not to fire at us….there ware a few old men and women around [Kelly’s Ford] and quite a number of children. the solgers went in the mill and carried of every thing that they could. there ware a good deal of corn which the fed to the horses. there ware a number of barrels of flour which they carried of and made pancakes but wasted the most of it then went to the house and got a great deal of stuf that was of no use to them….i took nothing but some flour and a lot of goos eggs that i found in a nest near the house. i had good pancakes and egg super
May 18, 1863
He speaks of slaves.
…i must tell about the negroes and things on the north side of the river where we stayed more then two weeks. they knew nothing about the presedents procklamation tell we came there though a great many hed left before. some sayed that their masters said that the yankies wanted to get them to washington and kill them to eat but they said they never believed it and when they saw negro teamsters in the army they knew better. our officers forraged a good deal for the teams and the negroes would tell them were to find their corn…tell Willey he must be a good boy to go to school and learn so that he can teach ida…
Quilliam’s usual greeting to his wife was a simple “Dear Rhoda,” or sometimes he called her Rhodi. His favorite closing was “My love to you.” He never referred to himself as James, but instead always used the formality of his last name.
In many of his letters he complained about her not writing often enough. Several times he admonished her. Only one of her letters remains, perhaps because he wrote a return letter on the back of hers. Like James, Rhoda had difficulty writing, maybe even more than James.
May 21, 1863
Dear james i recive you letter last night. i am glad to har that you as well. i hope that you will not hafther go in to more battles. i got the check that you sant me. i got twenty dollers in the bank. i had 21 dollars in before that 40 dollers saft. i hope that i can let it stay thar an put more with it. my cow dos well this somer it will fit all the needs i want if i can sell it. they think they will by [milk] all somer. i hope they will. egbort has sent his clothes home in a box. it cost 10 dollers to git the box. we ar all well. may god bless you. thank him for his kiness to you. remember him to pray to him when in trobles. he Will take car of you. trust to him. i hope the Ware Will stop some time. i dasnt write no more now. i Will to send it with ed stowell so good day.
remember me. Write soon. fredy is crying so I dont no as you can red it Rhoda Quilliam
Quilliam was wounded and taken prisoner at Gettysburg.
…nearly all our regiment was taken [prisoner] exept about 50 men tha was out scouting and ware not in the battle. on the first day i got hit with a spint ball under my eye hard anought to make it blead so i was taken with a bloody face and the rebs sent me to their hospatal with as many of the wounded as could walk. they payed but little attention to our wounded but were very kind. we stayed there tell the forth when the rebs went of and leaft us to our self. we then came to this place where i have been very buisley wating on the wounded….our regement is scattered….
August 20, 1863
Quilliam speaks of dying in a letter to his parents.
Dear father and mother i recived yours of the 9 yesterday and a nother to dat containing apice of paper and 12 stamps it. truly is a great mercy that i have been spared but should i be called to dy in defince of liberty truth and Justes my life would not be spint in vain. if i understand your letter you object is to perswaid me that a soldier cannot be saved but you must first show me that it is rong to have any goverment for if it is write to have any goverment it must be rite to sustain it and in this case that cannot be dun without war. i should like to know if daba [David] and jonaton did not go to heven the same as al sinners. they believed in a saviour to come and we believe in a savior that hath come which is only a difference in time not in fath
January 27, 1864
He writes to his father:
Loockout valley Ten
My dear father,
…now let me talk plain to you. I have no doubt that you do not approv of the generall procedings of the goverment in relation to the war and amansapation… but you have got in such a habbit of talking aginst the presedent that you would be asham to do other ways. Now you had the idia that the way to put down the rebelion would be to encourage riot and insorection among the slaves to in corage them to kill and distroy every thing and gain their own freedom…and leave the north to go on in peace and stay at home. but the north is guilty in the sin of slavery as well as the south thaugh not to the same extent and hath to bare its share of punishment and while the whole nation air being sorly chestised we have grate reason to be thankfull that we air maid the honered instraments in gods hand of removing the curse of slavery from our land. John Brown made an atenpt but god not prosperin him so he was power less. as to Linkon going to turn the slaves back is perflick nonsens. do you sopose that he would do every thing to make them think them selvs free and then attempt to enslave them again…in your talk about moses and elias delivering all power up to Chrise you make an on set against the chrstian religon as we worship a god that hath all power in his own hands and who exested to all eternity. the Christions god was the god of moses and the profets…now that peace of paper the wanted to take the town. the soldiers road in and found no enemy. well they had the town and what more could the ask if the only wanted to fight why they could fight each other…afer all if there was any thing to be gained by their posesing the town it was gained when the got it fight or no fight…i am shure that we do not feel bad when we find no one to fight and if the southern towns ware like that one we would be to home and the children would mis the chance of seeing the bright buttons…I mus close hopeing that i have said nothing to ofend you…
March 13, 1864
Quilliam frequently speaks of religion.
Lookout valy Tenn
…the christian commision started a Sunday School at their chapel tent today. 10 oclock General Howard came in an took the lead as Superintindent there ware about 20 childeren and a few young ladies present…I think he is one of the best sunday school teachers I ever heard
March 27, 1864
He speaks of religion again in a letter to Rhoda.
Lookout valley Tenn.
…I have been to sunday school to day…the General spoke very afectanantly about the use of profain language and said that he had thaught of isuing an order against it. but as orders do not reach the hart and there were orders alredy against it he thaught it might do no good and he exorted the soldiers to help him to show those who thaught that a man could not serve both God and his Countrey that they are rong…
From the hospital in Nashville, Quilliam wrote his wife the following:
My Dear rhoda
It was with grate supprise a fe days ago I learnt that I had to take the cars for nashvill. I was carried on a bead but it was a long hard ride. but I feel better now then [when] I leaf Chatanooga. I am doing as well as can be expected and think that I Shall soon get wel. when you write send a few stamps if you can. my love to you and al my friends
J D Quilli
July 6, 1864
His last letter was from General Hospital 1, Ward 7, Nashville, Tenn.
Rhoda I am still here and think that my wound i wrote to you same time ago and recived no answer yet if you mant dong be blessd shall hav to get some body else to write, I mus clos, my love to you Quilliam’s normal handwriting was quite good. A comparison of his normal handwriting with that of his last letter, coupled with the incoherence and indecipherability of some of the words, shows how weak and near death he was on July 6, 1864.
James Daniel Quilliam, farmer, carpenter, soldier and husband, had a strong faith in God and a sense of justice that moved him to enlist. His death in 1864 received little attention, but his sacrifice is not forgotten.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.