A Smithfield Lad’s Letters From The Front

A Smithfield Lad’s Letters from the Front…

By Peg Brown

     For every generation, the words–“The War” — mark a turning point. For my generation, that war was either Korea or Vietnam; for my father’s—World War II; for my grandparents—World War I. And for my great-great grandfather, perhaps the Civil War. During a recent Civil War reenactment at Smith Appleby house, a participant referenced a collection of 31 letters, dated between April 1864 and December 1865, largely unknown, that had been written by Second Class Private Lewis Anthony Waterman, the 14th child and 15-year-old son of George Waterman, owner of a cotton mill in Manville.

     Originally published by a fellow Army Signal Corps officer after his Lewis’ untimely death at age 19 of Scarlet Fever, these letters paint a picture of war and the battlefield that cannot be captured by simply walking the long-abandoned sites and viewing the graves of those who fought these battles. Only through survivor accounts can we capture the concerns and drudgery of life of those who actually served.

     While space prohibits including most of Lewis’ text, the few selected do offer a glimpse of the war time experience of a very young enlistee.

     An early letter to his brother sets the stage for his service: “Camp was overwhelming for me being only fourteen but I began to acclimate to a soldier’s life of early rising, drill, poor food etc. I had a hard time staying away from the vices of the army. Money was the worse vice for men as they would borrow from each other and have none to send home.”

Travel to the West:

“…an incidence of importance was the firing on the boat by bushwhackers near Jefferson City…” Fire was not returned as Lewis reported, “we were not trained on the weapons we were issued …”

Food and Entertainment:

“I turned fifteen today and sorry I did not have some good bourbon whiskey to celebrate with but then I remembered the last day I left Providence and prayed with Rev. Pratt about the vices I should encounter.”

“As for entertainment, I read newspapers, play dominos and checkers.”

“The Army rations are the best we have had in a long time. Had myself Fried Beef Steak, potatoes, gravy, Bread, Coffe (sic) and Tea…also beans, hominy…some boiled ham…and vegetables and rice.”

By September, 1864, rations were getting poorer, with no vegetables of any kind and little salted bacon and bread. Many solders were taking their meals in private homes for 5 cents a meal. The soldiers also heard the rumor that some recruits were being paid up to $1,600 to enlist.


“Some bushwackers raided some places near the fort…some 700 chased after them causing them to lose about 150 men. We lost two men who could not control their horses.”

Camp Life:

Exciting news today, I got myself a wooden frame bunk off the ground.”

“I have new boots (but have been) told if I am not careful, they will be stolen by unodorax (sic) solders, so I will be sending them home until fall when Mother can send them to me.”

“Books here are expensive 15 to 25 dollars each, so hold on to mine and send me some in the fall…”

By May of 1865, Lewis was set to be discharged. Although he had initially said would never return to Providence, he changed his mind. Perhaps most poignant of all were his thoughts on the next stage of his life.

“My education is not such as I wish it was and as it might have been if I had not acted as I did while I had the chance. I am only 16 yet and there is chance for improvement. A year’s hard study will be the best thing for me yet.”

Author’s notes.

Lewis returned to Providence in December, 1868. When he knew he was dying of Scarlet Fever, he contacted his best friend, Sidney Greene, and entrusted him to finish the memoir he intended to write. Mr. Greene forward those notes and $250 for expenses to J. Willard Brown, who published his book in 1869. Portions of the profits were donated to the YMCA of Providence to help further young men’s education.

2nd Class Private Lewis Anthony Waterman is buried in the family plot in Swan Point Cemetery, age 19 years, 7 months and 17 days.

29 of the unpublished letters reside in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; the Rhode Island Historical Society holds two. The letters have been copied, transcribed and published by Civil War reenactor Ted Urbanski, Stones River Publishing Inc, Willington, CT, May, 2021, and are available for those interested in learning more.

(All apparent misspellings and punctuation marks reflect those made in the actual letters.)

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