George W.W. Hawk was the oldest child and only son of Daniel and Phoebe Hawk of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. He had four younger sisters whom he mentioned in several of his letters home: Mary, age 20; Harriet, 17; Sadie, 14; and Emma, 12.
In August 1862, the state of Pennsylvania began recruiting men, ostensibly for a nine-month enlistment period, and several regiments of Pennsylvania Volunteers were mustered in. Hawk enlisted on August 9, 1862, in Company C of the 139th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He believed that he was signing up for nine months, but his regiment was mustered in for three years. Hawk and many of his comrades in the 139th were unaware of this fact for some time.
As a member of the rank and file, Hawk recorded the view from the lower echelons. His letters begin with an account of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s ill-fated “Mud March” in January 1863 and end after his transfer to the General Hospital in Pittsburgh in July 1864. In between, Hawk gives his observations on the vagaries of military life and the Army’s effort to keep the regiment in service for three years.
The fighting had been raging at Gettysburg for more than a day by the time Hawk arrived. The 139th, part of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, VI Corps, first received word of the battle at 8 p.m. on July 1 while still 36 miles away in Maryland. After marching all night, the men arrived on the field late in the day on July 2 and were ordered at once to support Union troops being mauled in the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard. The brigade advanced across Plum Run and over the wooded knoll immediately north of the Wheatfield in preparation for an attack by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederates. The 139th was the first regiment to open fire on the approaching Rebel column and succeeded in turning back every attempt to penetrate its lines. With the coming of darkness and the arrival of the rest of the Union VI Corps, the Confederate attack sputtered to a halt.
The next day, the 139th was pulled back to a position along the ridge north of Little Round Top. There, it was subjected to the Confederate cannonade that preceded Pickett’s climactic charge on the Union center. Hawk and his comrades had a clear view of the unfolding attack.
Except for a few months that he spent sick in the hospital, from July 18, 1863, through November of that year, Hawk was present at all his regiment’s engagements. In addition to Gettysburg, he also fought in the battles of Antietam, Williamsport, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. While fighting at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Hawk was wounded in the leg four inches below the knee. The wound failed to heal, and he died in Pittsburgh’s General Hospital on September 12, 1864.
The letters transcribed here were submitted to the Pension Bureau in 1879 by Hawk’s parents to document their claim that their son had contributed to the financial support of the family. The last letter in this group, written on U.S. Christian Commission stationery, is much briefer than the others and is written in different handwriting, suggesting that Hawk needed the assistance of someone else to write what may have been his final letter home.
Spelling and punctuation are corrected here only where necessary to improve the readability of the original letters. Otherwise the grammar, spelling and expressions are his own.
Camp Near Whiteoak Church
Stafford County, Va.
January 25th, 1863
Dear Father. I sit me this Sabbith afternoon to pen a few lines to you in answer to your very kind letter that came to my hand this morning and I was very glad to hear that you wer[e] all well and enjoying good Health, that great blessing which alone is bestowed on us by our divine creator.
Dear Father since I last penned a letter to you I have passed through a pretty hard time. You may judge how it was when I tell you how we got along. As I stated in my letter that I wrote to you in a hurry that we had marching orders on Friday the [16th]. Then that order was countermanded till on Sunday morning we were to march at an early hour. Then that order was again countermanded and no more till further orders.
Then on Munday we got orders to march on Tuesday at Eleven o’clock. We packed up our duds in our knapsacks with our tents or houses on our backs and started. We, or our Regiment, fell in line on the parade ground. Our adjutant [Albert M. Harper] rode in front with a paper in hand and gave the command ‘attention to orders’ when he told us that we were going to cross the [Rappahannock] and avenge the Battle of Fredericksburg, and our General Burnside asked the boys if they would consent, if so to give 3 cheers. In a moment with our caps in our hands and the old flag waving above our heads we gave three cheers that rent the air. Then our Colonel [Frederick H. Collier] rode in front and took the command of the regiment and was addressing us when his horse in a moment of time [threw] him off but did not hurt him any. Our Lieutenant Colonel [James D. Owens] then rode up and addressed us. Said he takes that as no omen of disaster but of good for he was thrown and not hurt.
After our Colonel got his horse he mounted up and we started and marched till dark when we stopped and camped for the night in a pine thicket that a bird could scarce get through. We stopped and made a fire and we had our supper and eat it very contentedly but lo it began to rain. When Lige [Elijah E. Lookabaugh] and I put up our tent it rained almighty hard. In the morning the drum beat and we were ordered in line without any breakfast,—only a dry piece that we eat. We had not as much time as to dry our tents. I rung mine and tied it on my knapsack and started. And such a march as we had. The roads were standing with water and the mud nearly knee deep and altogether in some places and it raining and blowing very hard you may judge what kind of a time we had. Such a scene I never witness in all my life. The artillery sticking and the horses tramping in the mud soon so deep that it took 10 or 12 horses to pull it out and the pontoons were also sticking all along the road. Some wagons were upset and left in the mud. Never did I think more pitty of men and horses than I did that day. Then as regards our march on foot we had our provisions 3 days rashions and 60 rounds of cartridges then all our other things and gun. You may judge how we got along. Then Lige got a box of provisions just that morning we started and I carried some things for him adding to my load but he did not forget to share with me for it. We marched till about 12 o’clock when we stopped and rested about 3 hours then we fell in line and marched about 1 mile and stopped for the night. We put up our tent and set up till about 10 o’clock when we got sleepy. We made a bed and laid us down to sleep. We slept till morning when we got up and got some breakfast and stayed there till about 10 o’clock when we were ordered to pack up. We took down our tents and were ready to move when we were ordered to put up our tents again and make ourselves as comfortable as we could. We then put up our tents again and got our suppers and went to rest— when about 10 o’clock the orders came to be ready to march at 5 o’clock the next morning. We got up and got some breakfast and packed up. We came back to our old camp and shanties but the mud was very deep. We were very tired. Some of the men fell out and did not get up till Sunday the 25th.
For my own part, I stood the march very well. I was able to keep up with my Company all the time and was among the first in camp. Lige was not very well and did not get in as soon as the Regiment did. I went to my old shanty and made up a fire til Lige came and then we got at [it] and put up our tent and here we are today. But not to forget our hardships that night. Just after we got our supper and was about going to bed our company was called out to go on picket and so we had to bundle up again and headed off. I took my blanket and gun and when I was not on guard I laid down in the mud and slept as well as I could. We did not get in till 10 o’clock the next day. This was pretty hard and in the bargain I carried an Ax. On the road I found it some good to cut wood and make fires—and it comes good in camp. While on the march not a man would help me carry it but when we got in camp every fellow wanted the loan of it.
I bought a pair of boots just a few days before we marched. I payed 7…for them and I tell you that they came good when I had to march through the mud and water nearly knee deep. I would not have missed having them for 3 times what they cost. Lige got a pair too and then he got a pair sent from home in his box….
If I thought that we would go into quarters or stay here any time I would send for a small box of provision but it is so uncertain….Mother wanted to know how I got along. Tell her that I get along very well. We have a warm shanty and a good bed to sleep on and we get plenty to eat and wear. Tell her not to make herself uneasy about that matter and as I am Corporal in our Company I am relieved of a great many hardships that the privates have to perform. As I have ritten you a long and close letter I think that I must close for the present so nothing more at the present but remain your affectionate son forever, G.W. Hawk
You requested me to let you know what the soldiers think of turning McClen [Major General George B. McClellan] out and giving [Major General Ambrose] Burnside the Command and in that the soldiers are all dissatisfied—they think nothing of Burnside at all. The cry is ‘Give us little Mack and all is right.’ The other time that [Burnside] started out he was defeated and this time he stuck in the mud.
Give my love to Mary and tell her that I will answer her letter soon. Give my love to Harriet and Sady and Emmily and to Mother and yourself. Please write soon and give me the news.
April 16th, 1863
…I would let you know how I am getting along and enjoying myself. I am getting along very well. And am still contented and like soldiering very well. In the letter that I wrote to Father on Sunday April the 12th I stated that we had orders to move camp. This we did on Munday morning. We got orders to pack up. We did so and commenced to move our tent and affairs. We had only about 50 rods to move but I tell you that we had A busy day of it. We carried our tents over and our chimneys and rebuilt them. We got everything fixed up nice for living. Was very tired. Got supper, fixed up our bed and laid us down to rest. Got up the next morning about 7 o’clock. We were called into line when we were marched down to the drill ground and formed into Regimental line. What this meant we could not imagine but pretty soon we saw our Adjutant coming with orders to read. And what do you think that they were? Well this was the news. We were to make ready for a move, all clothing except 1 shirt, 1 pair of drawers, 1 pair of socks, were to be given in. These articles were to be in our knapsacks. We were ordered to have 5 days rashions in our knapsacks and 3 in our Haversacks, and each man 60 rounds of cartridges and be ready to move when ordered. In the evening of the same day we got 6 days rashions of Hard tacks and packed them in our knapsacks and made every prepperation for to march the next day. But alas in the morning it commenced to rain and rained all day very hard. Such A day’s rain I have not seen since I left home. And so we did not go nor do we know when we will. It may be that there will no move be made at all. Such a time as we had on that rainy Wednesday. Our new camp was a bottom field where they had been corn the last season. The water run along the furrows like little runs. Some of the boys tents were full of water. Lige and I got along very well. We got a box the evening before and took it and made a floor in our tent. We slept nice and dry. I have a little cold to day but I think that I will soon get over that….
As regards the 9 months matter, I hear nothing contrary. We are expecting to get [our discharges] at the expiration of the 9 months.
The health of our company is good. We have only lost 4 men since we came out, our lieutenant and 3 privates. But there was a great many died out of our regiment. On Sunday our company buried J.C. Ferry. On monday Company F buried 1 and on Thursday Com B buried 1. Then they fell on[e] after another. The Com B boys lost 11 men out of their company but I think that I must close for the present as it is dinner time I am getting Hungry.
Give my love and respects to Father, and to Mary & Hal [Harriet], Sady and Emma and keep a portion for yourself. Nothing more at the present time but remain You Affectionate Son forever.
Write soon and let me know how you are getting along.
Your son forever,
from a soldier in the Army to his mother,
April 22nd, 1863
…I received your very kind and welcome letter on Munday the 21st…And I was very glad to hear that you was well and all the rest and that you still continue to enjoy good Health. As I wrote Harriet A letter yesterday, and as there is no news perticular I have nothing perticular to write. We were payed on last friday the 18th [sic]. We received 4 months pay. On yesterday I sent Harriet 10.00 Dollars Home and will send the rest home as soon as I can get a chance. Harvey Park [later wounded at Cold Harbor June 2, 1864, and transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps December 30, 1864] is going home on A furlow soon and He says that He will take our money and leave it at Kittaning with some good man and then you can get it when he starts for Home and if I send it with him I will send you A letter immediately. I will order him to leave it at Squire Keeners. You know him. I think that this will be A more safer way than to sent it by male. You said that you had not got any letter from me on Saturday. The reason why I do not know for be assured that I wrote regularly every Sunday morning and I have got you letters for a long time on Saturday Evening. On last Saturday I did not get one but on Sunday Evening they came and as I was out on picket I did not get it till on Munday when we came in off of picket.
As we have a grand inspection at 12 o’clock I must now bring my letter to A close. Give my love to Mother and all the rest. So nothing more at present but remember you son, G.W.W. Hawk.
I close by sending my respeccts to you. Write soon if not sooner.
May 27th, 1863
…I Suppose that you Are looking and waiting patiently for the result of the 9 months. I do not know how It is going to turn out. I hope that it will turn out right. Yet if we do not get home you may judge and set it down for grant[ed] that we are sold for I believe that our officers some of them are doing their utmost to keep us. Well Father While I was writing this morning I was called to go on fatigue duty and so I had to lay my writing by for this time.
I have been out in the woods cutting and [loading] poles and brush all day. I just came into camp. Got my supper, and now sit down to finish my letter or at least try to do so.
This evening the paymaster came in and payed our Regiment off. We received 2 months pay, 26 Dollars. I have 40 Dollars to send home as soon as I can. Well I must tell you how I am getting [along]. I enjoy myself pretty well and as yet am not tired serving my country. We get plenty to eat and wear. We can buy any thing that we want or need. Although tis very deer. The news of the success of the armyes in the south west have cheered up our troops grately. Our men are in good spirits. And I think that this rebellion is pretty near gone up. I think that E’r the green leaves of Spring are withered by the frosts of autumn this union shall step forth with the conquered foes under there feet And that glorious flag Emblem of piece wave in triumph over every foe, but enough on this subject. I think that I will not send my money home for A few days. I [want to] see whether we will get off reveille now in a few days. Our time is not out till the last of the month. And I seen in the Christian Advocate that some of the 9 months Regiments do not get off until the time expires when the regiments joined the Division and if this is the case our time will not be up till the 15th of June. There is still some hope but I must close for the present so nothing more at the present time but remain your son forever, G.W.W. Hawk.
Give my love and respects to Mother And All the rest. My respects also to yourself. Good by till we meet again.
June 2nd, 1863
…It apears that we will not get home at the end of nine months and as I can not get my money Expressed I must risk it by male in this letter. I send 10 Dollars. And as soon as you get it write immediately. I have 30 more to Send and will Send it as soon as I can and get answers from Each letter as I do not like to risk more than 10.00 Dollars in 1 letter at a time. Well Father, I suppose the best use that you can make of my money is to put it into the place and pay off the amount against it if you wish to do So. And if I am spared to get home we will make it all right. I will Send home all that I can. We will be payed off every 2 months now and I will try and send 20 Dollars home Each time. There is quite A disapointment about us not getting home at the End of nine months but so it is and so it must be. I would [have] liked very much to [have] got home to see you once more And I feel some little disapointed but we will have to do the best we can. This is A world of disappointments and trials and such is our lot while in it we stay. Try and get Along the best you can and I will try and do the same. I am getting along in the Army very well and feel contented. We get plenty to Eat and wear and not much to do. Only drill some and this I like. I am first corporal in our company now. At first I was 6th and now I am first. But as there is nothing special going on I will close my writing for the present. So nothing more at present but remain your Affectionate Son for Ever, G.W.W. Hawk
Give my love and respects to mother and the rest of the Family. My Respects to yourself. Write immediately.
Camp Near Fairfax Court House
Stafford [Fairfax] County, Va.
June 20th, 1863
Dear Father I received your kind letter of the 11th on the Evening of the 17th and I was glad to hear from you and to know that you was all well and still continue to enjoy good Health. I was glad to hear that you had got the money. I cannot send as much home as I thought I could for it is very hard for soldiers to get along without money out here. The living that we get from the government is rather dry unless we can have things to make it a little wet. If we have money we can get Along very well, And as I not been very well for some time I have spent considerable. As I wrote you A letter on the 17th I will not write much this morning. I am getting better and I think will soon be stout again. You said that if I needed any thing [to] send home and you would send it [to] me. I do not need any thing only I would like to have A pair of cotton or flax stockens if you could send them as woolen weats and [spoils] my feet. Send me som[e] thread and A few roes of pins if you please. It has rained for several nights here and is quite pleasant. This morning I saw A host of reb Prisoners that our men had taken the other day. I am glad to hear that old Pen[nsylvania] is wakening up and sending troops to the preserve of the union. This Rebellion must go down and that soon. Our troops are in good spirits and will meet the Enemy any where and fight him whether he is in his entrenchment or in the open field. Give the Yankee boys any chance at all and we will whip them 3 to 1. But enough on this subject. I seen Winfield J. Davis Yesterday. He is in the 18 Pen Cavalry. He looks well. He is commissary sergeant. I was glad to see him. Samuel Davis is well also. Seems G.A. Hawk [a cousin] has got quite sick again. E.E. Lookabaugh is well too and I think that ear many storms blow and many sun rises and sets this war will be over and the Boys will return home again. Live in hope and look beyond the storm for there never as yet was A storm but what there was a calm. May Heaven speed that day. But I must close for the present. So nothing more at present time but remain your son, G.W.W. Hawk
Give my love to Mother and all the rest and keep a portion for yourself when you receive this write immediately and let me know how you are getting along.
Camp Near Boonsborough
Washington County, Md.
July 9th, 1863
Mr. Daniel Hawk.
My Dear Father,
I sit me down today to pen you A few lines to let you know that I am still in the land and Army [of] the living and enjoying reasonable Health for the which I still Bless and thank my Heavenly Father and I trust that when those few lines comes to your hand that they may find you and all the rest of the Family enjoying that great Blessing of Health which alone is bestowed on us by our Divine Creator. My Health is somewhat better than when I wrote before. I suppose you think it long since you received my last letter, but we have not had a male since that time I wrote you nor has there been a chance of sending A letter. [We have] been on the march since [words missing]….
Dear Father since I last wrote to you we have meet the Enemy on our soil [Gettysburg] and we have drove him away with the loss and capture of nearly or altogether 1 Half his Army. On the 2nd day of July we marched nearly all day and the night all the time before [we] got up to the battlefield About 4 o’clock on July the 2nd and meet the enemy. In the evening we drove them back and held the ground. 2 of our Company were wounded namely Robert Long that nice little man that was At Singing one night at the church and A Man from Freeport. On the 3 of July the dreadful battle was faught. We lay under fire All the day and such cannonading never has been since the war commenced. So say men that have been through it. The rebbles marched in solid column to charge on our men. 6 columns and were all captured except A few that ran back. I lay and watched this Myself. The rebble shells flew over and around us and all directions. Quite a number of our men were wounded in our Regiment on the 3[rd]. [I] think Captain Sampile [sic] of the Company that I.A. Pierce is 1st Lieutenant [of], was and I suppose mortally, wounded. [Captain Jeremiah M. Sample of Company E died of his wounds July 16, 1863. Lieutenant I.A. Pierce eventually became regimental chaplain.] In the Evening our orderly sergeant was hit by A shell and his leg broken and I suppose will not live. [Sergeant James B. Parks died August 8, 1863.] When he was struck I was just laying behind him but I escaped. In the evening our men advanced their line and our Regiment went out. We marched about 20 Rods from where we lay and stopped. After a while we moved forward on the Enemy and Just at Dusk had quite A Lively skirmish. We fought about [an] hour when we fell back and stopped for the night. The Enemy balls hit some of our men but none in our Company was wounded or killed that Evening. Thus far I have got through safe. I owe it all to my Heavenly Father, and feel thankful to my Heavenly master for his protection in the hour of danger but enough on this subject.
I must let you know how I am getting along. I am still endeavouring to serve my Heavenly master and gain the crown that my master has laid up in Reservation for me. That same Religion comforts me Yet. You spoke of me having my testament and my hymn book. Yet they are my best friend save my master and scarce ever is there a day goes over my head but I read my testament. In it I find many consoling and comforting promises, which often cheers me up. I received the [Christian] Advocate [newspaper] today and was much pleased with it. I hope you will send them to me when you can, but enough on this subject.
You wrote that if I needed any thing to write. I need nothing unless you would send me A shirt, some dark flannel. Not too warm. When you write let me know how you are getting along with your harvest. I often think of you. I think I must close as you will get all the particulars of matters in the papers. I will send my money home just as I can. I lent 5 dollars to 1 of my partners to next payday. Give my love to mother, Mary, Harriet, Sady and Emma and keep a portion for yourself. I am as Ever you affectionate son G.W.W. Hawk.
U.S.A. Gen. Hospital
July 20th, 1864
Dear Father and Mother
There is not much change in my health since you were here, if any difference, my leg is not quite so well. I have been suffering the last few days from wind in my stomach. That old disease I used to suffer from has commenced again. I have one blister on my side & will have to have others on my stomach.
I was moved yesterday from the tent to Ward A in the main building first floor. I have an excellent nurse & better attention than before, both in relation to dressing my wound & what we have to eat.
Please write soon & as soon as you can make it convenient come to see me.
I remain yours, Most Affectionately
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.