Dead Men Don’t Write

The posting about James Gray may be the first of an interesting series. At least, I am motivated to pursue it.

Certainly the idea of “letters home from the front lines” is not a new one, but I am definitely being drawn in to this fine, fine grain size for understanding wars, breaching across the time of the Civil War to the Vietnam War. There have been some collections of letters recently available, so I am pulling together a collection with this “letters home” theme.

One of these letters truly got my attention for the clear, clear poignancy of a simple, four-word phrase (and you can find it up there in the title). A soldier during the Korean conflict sent a letter home, dated “14 April 49” … and here is how it begins:


Don’t know if this off-spring of yours can be classified as lucky or not – he thinks maybe he is. You ask why? Goes like this: he’s still living. How does he know Well, he’s writing, and dead men don’t write.

I think that is rather stunning.

Let’s see if I can make something of it.

James S Gray (1843-1864)

I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in. ~George McGovern

I bought a letter written in 1862 by a young soldier to his family. The content was compelling to read from its slice of life normalcy. I spent about a week, on and off, with the excellent records that exist from the Civil War, trying to see if I could fill in the story of his life.

And oddly enough, I did all of this from a coffee shop on the campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. What a world.

 James S Gray was born in Massachusetts in 1843, the first son of James M and Emma E Gray, who were farmers that settled the family in Windham, Maine, just outside of Standish. On the July 11, 1860 census form, the Gray family listed 6 children, aged 2-17, as well as Martha M Swinerton, 69, who was presumably Emma’s mother.

The Civil War began in April 1861.

On September 26, 1862, the 19 year-old James mustered into the newly formed “K” Company of the 25th Infantry (Portland). On October 16, the regiment headed to Washington, DC, arriving on October 18, and was attached to Casey’s Division (Silas Casey, Defenses of Washington, organized in October 1862). The Defenses, or fortification efforts around Washington, were aided by conscripting the infantrymen into work.

The 25th Maine was stationed at Camp Seward in Arlington Heights, Virginia, on November 4, 1862, at a time when Camp Seward, the entry point for most Union soldiers, was not much more than a tent city.

A report from Casey’s Division on November 24, 1862, tells of 150 men per day, for four to six days, working on the roads outside of Alexandria that connected with various military camps. As reported, the work was interrupted by the weather and not yet finished.

The 25th Maine Infantry, in which James Gray served, would end up losing 20 of its members to illness during the nine short months of its existence.

The 25th Maine Infantry Regiment
Organized: Portland, ME on 9/29/62
Mustered Out: 7/10/63 at Portland, ME
Officers Killed or Mortally Wounded: 0
Officers Died of Disease, Accidents, etc.: 0
Enlisted Men Killed or Mortally Wounded: 0
Enlisted Men Died of Disease, Accidents, etc.: 20

Living in a tent camp exposed the soldiers to the elements, and the camp was hit by sickness in the winter of 1862. On December 7, 1862, Private Gray wrote a letter home.

Envelope: James M. Gray, Esq.; North, Windham; Maine
Sent from: Co. K 25 Me. Reg.

Dec. 7th 1862
Camp Seward Arlington
Heights Virginia

Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters,

I now seat myself to write you a few lines to let you know that I am quite smart now. I have been out of doors once but then we had a snow-storm and I have had to lay low ever since. I hope this will find you all well. I received your letter last Thursday night and was glad to hear from you. We have not moved yet, as you feared. We shall not be likely to move this winter for they have got the barracks almost done and then we shall begin to live more comfortable and to enjoy life a little.

We have lost 4 boys out of our regiment: Ansel Higgins from Standish died Thanksgiving Day. He was taken with the fever and was [a doing] very well, and Daniel Weston gave him an Apple and he ate it and it killed him. He belonged to our company. Isaac Kimball in our hospital died when I was the sickest. I did not know it until 3 or 4 days ago. He belonged to Company F. There was a fellow from the town of Cumberland his name was Henry Blanchard. His father, old Capt. Blanchard, arrived out here last Thursday noon. His son died this morning, about 3 o’clock he dropped away very quietly. He belonged to Company B. I think that he was the poorest man that ever I saw. He was nothing but skin and bones his father started for home today with his son. The old man felt very bad.

Charles Wescott and the rest of the boys from our way are all well. It is very cold here. There is about 3 inches of snow of the ground. You must not worry about me, for I shall take good care of myself as I can. Our Captain has resigned and is a coming home as soon as he can get it accepted. Butter is 40 Cts per pound. Tobacco is from 1.20 to 1.75 Cts per pound. Apples sell from 3 to 5 Cts apiece. Cheese is from 25 to 30 Cts a Pound. Everything accordingly. As I cannot think of anything more to write now I shall have to bid you good by for the present.

Direct your letters to
James S Gray
Co. K. 25th Maine Regiment
Washington, D.C.
Care of Capt. Davis

When you send my box, just send me a letter. I wish that I had sent home for 2 or 3 pounds of Tobacco, for it is a good deal higher out here than it is our way.

Give my love to all inquiring friends. Augustus Tripp sends you his best respects.

The members of the 25th were ordered back to Maine on June 30, 1863, and the company was mustered out on July 10, 1863.

On February 19, 1864, James re-enlisted and served with the “A” Company of the 1st Maine Cavalry.

The fighting was starting to be concentrated near the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA. In mid-1864, General Grant, on behalf of the Union forces, had a plan to cut the Confederate supply lines, which were railroads from southern and western sources into Richmond and Petersburg, which is 24 miles due south of Richmond.

To these ends, on June 22, 1864, Grant mobilized two of his generals (James Wilson and August Kautz) and about 5500 cavalry members, along with 16 cannons, to take out the three rail lines. The Wilson-Kautz Raid (June 22-29, 1864) covered about 350 miles. Things went well for the Union troops during the first part of this effort, with over 60 miles of railway destroyed in the first three days. A week later, cycling back towards Petersburg, the Union forces started to meet stronger Confederate resistance at the Stony Creek Depot (June 28). On June 29, within 10 miles of Union territory, the two Union forces found themselves surrounded at Ream’s Station, which they had expected to be in friendly hands. Wilson and Kautz had to abandon their cannons, torch their own supply wagons, and separated their forces in a desperate escape.

There were about 1500 casualties on the Union side, with hundreds of others who were captured by the Confederates at various choke points during the retreat.

The Confederates captured James S Gray at Stony Creek on June 29, 1864, perhaps while Wilson’s troops were reported to have been bottlenecked at a bridge crossing. He was transported to the infamous Andersonville prison, in Georgia, which had just opened in February, and which housed more than 45,000 men during the 14 months of its operation. Almost a third of the prisoners died from disease resulting from poor sanitation, malnutrition, and exposure.


The Andersonville records include James Gray’s death as a POW on August 15, 1864.

His cause of death is listed as enteritis.

He was buried at the Andersonville site.

Grave No. 5736.


The 1st Maine Cavalry
Organized: Augusta, ME on 10/31/61
Mustered Out: 8/1/65
Officers Killed or Mortally Wounded: 15
Officers Died of Disease, Accidents, etc.: 3
Enlisted Men Killed or Mortally Wounded: 159
Enlisted Men Died of Disease, Accidents, etc.: 341

The Civil War ended in May 1865.