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.

Battle:

“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.)

Meet the Keeper of the Stories of the Esmond Mills

Meet the Keeper of the Stories of the Esmond Mills, It’s Iconic Bunny Blankets, and the Lives of So Many Who Participated in One of Smithfield’s Historic Industries

By Peg Brown

     Sandra Achille, an historian by advocation and key source of the history of Esmond Mills, didn’t begin life expecting to collect hundreds of Esmond Mills “bunny blankets” together with the history of the changes that occurred in mill life throughout the twentieth century. In fact, it was not until she purchased a home in the shadow of the former mill that she began her journey as collector, archivist and story teller.

     Esmond had been known at various times as Allenville (build in 1813) and Enfield for a series of mill owners throughout the nineteenth century. However, Esmond, the final textile operator in this village, pulled down the pre-existing mills and moved most of the textile workers’ homes after buying the village in 1905. The home that began Sandra on her journey was one of the originals that remained on its original plot. Workers’ houses from the Esmond Mills era are generally well-preserved and many of the duplexes along the west side of Waterman Avenue (Farnum Pike) are designed based on the English model industrial towns of the early twentieth century. Esmond Mill, constructed of brick with impressive spandrel-arched windows, operated from 1905-6 until its closure in 1948. It then became the headquarters for Benny’s.

     There have been several histories written about Smithfield’s mill life and the growth of the town by local published historians such as Jim Ignasher, who has also written a history of the Smith-Appleby House, another of Sandra’s passions. It was actually in her role as “informal archivist” of Smith-Appleby House that I first met Sandra and learned of her extensive knowledge of the mill and its products. Several years ago, she had displayed much of her collection in the rooms of this historic home. Most recently we collaborated on a story of the Smithfield Raiders based on donations made to the “Town Room.”

     Sandra connected with Smith-Appleby House while she was attending her son’s school museum night at Old County School. She found herself chatting with Maggie Botelho, who has served in every executive volunteer board role for the house, and Deb Cote, who for decades has been volunteering and organizing both on and off-site educational programs mostly for children. Sandra was hooked!

     Over the past six years she, together with other volunteers, has worked to promote the mission of the Historical Society of Smithfield which owns the house, to collect, maintain and share the history of Smithfield. The Historical Society has hosted hundreds of open houses and special programs on site, as well as in every elementary school in Smithfield. In addition, collaborative historical projects have been undertaken with students from Bryant and URI.

     During our interview, Sandra recounted several very personal and gratifying moments she has experienced while volunteering. For example, she was contacted by one of Elijah Smith’s ancestors, the original owner of the home. Lee Smith from Arkansas who was inquiring about the last members of his family, Thomas and Elnathan Smith, spent a day with Sandra. She guided him to Providence to the search for the grave of John Smith Jr., the miller, who had a relationship with Roger Williams. In addition, she also attempted to take him to yet another relative’s grave in Harmony that unfortunately was land-locked and inaccessible. In addition to several other Smiths, Lee is also related to the Whipple family.

     She has also corresponded with Eva Rescinow of New York who was working on a book about important ballerinas that included Arlene Croce whose dad worked at the mill. Other interesting contacts pursued by Sandra, who also collects Indian trade and camp blankets made by the mills, include the author Barry Friedman, who has written the definitive book on these textiles. The book, Chasing Rainbows, has an entire chapter on the Esmond Mills. Not only was Barry a writer for Johnny Carson, but one of his most famous clients is Dale Chihuly, well know glass artist with roots at Rhode Island School of Design, but whose early and continuing interests are in native American textiles and baskets. Sandra actually purchased a blanket from Barry, which was in very good condition. However, because it was not 100 percent cotton, it is considered to have less value than other Indian and trade blankets.

     Sandra will have the opportunity to continue her passion and story-telling for and about the Esmond Mills, as she has been asked by Robert Leach, Chairman of the Smithfield Historical Preservation Commission, to be the Curator for the museum planned for the stone building, next to Smithfield Neighborhood Center, now undergoing extensive renovations. Sandra intends to donate much of her collection to that site for permanent public display.

     Author’s note: Many in town may know Sandra as the “Flower Lady.” From her extensive flower garden, she makes bouquets for anyone to take, and often distributes them to town offices and other sites. Last year she gave away over 120 such bouquets and in on track to break that record this year. One of her most heart-warming stories is of a woman who said she was taking a vase to put on her mother’s grave site.

BOX

Smith-Appleby House is always looking for volunteers to continue its important community programming and to fulfill the mission of the Historical Society of Smithfield. In addition, the site and home are available for special events, including weddings and special photo sessions. Please visit the website, Smithapplebyhouse.org, for more information and for additional articles and photographs of Smithfield’s history and its people. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or have items to donate, contact Sandra at smithapplebycurator@gmail.com. To share Esmond Mill stories or artifacts, please contact Sandra directly, sandrachillie@gmail.com.

Warwick, R. I. Post Office

Newport, R. I. City Hall

Hotel Thorndike, Jamestown, R. I.

The Evening Star
Washington, D.C.
June 16, 1892

 

 

 

Revere House, Narragansett, R. I.

Norwich Bulletin
June 1, 1911

New York Herald
July 17, 1921

 

 

Newport, R. I. Life Saving Station

Click on articles to enlarge.

Morning journal & Courier
(New Haven, CT.) February 2, 1882

New York Tribune
April 4, 1887

 

Newport, R. I. Bath Houses

Watch Hill House, Westerly, R. I.

The building was destroyed by fire in October of 1916. 

Advertisement from the New York Tribune
June 8, 1913

 

 

Wickford Oyster Company

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲