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Union soldiers reading letters from home.

Tomorrow we celebrate 241 years of American Independence. Through hard fighting and perseverance that is the hallmark of the American spirit, our forefathers separated from the British Empire. Eighty-five years later, our fledgling country faced an internal threat. The Civil War broke out with a fury. Devastating losses were felt by Union and Confederates alike. However, through the destruction, our country survived. Like many American’s today, my lineage has soldiers who fought for the Union and the Confederacy. In celebration of Independence, I would like to honor one such soldier.

Ebenezer Henry Gurney was my 3rd great grandfather. Born in Hanson Massachusetts, he was the son of Ebenezer Bourn Keene Gurney and Almira Jane Josselyn. In the records, I have found that Ebenezer Henry Gurney went by the name E. Henry Gurney or Henry Gurney. During the American Civil War, he fought as a private in the 3rd Massachusetts Infantry, Company A for the Union. Henry enlisted on 14 Apr 1861. He served for three years.

During his initial training at Fort Monroe, Henry wrote a letter to his brother Lieut. Thomas Gurney who was serving with the 58th Massachusetts Infantry at the time. In his letter, he describes the conditions of camp life and training. Fort Monroe is located in Hampton Virginia along the southern coastline of the state.

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Fort Monroe, Virginia

 

Fort Monroe
Saturday 11th, May, ’61

My dear Brother,
I received your letter of the 28th of April, last Thursday, so you see that it was a long time on the way. I would like to have you here this day just to see our style of living and how we work too, but I shouldn’t want you or anyone else to come here and live as we do, unless it was for the preservation of our country’s flag, as it is with us. I always thought I was not so hard and tough as the other boys from home, but I find, to my astonishment, that I go far beyond the endurance of the other boys. All of the other boys except Wallace (e.g. Wallace Hood, Pleasant Street) have been hauled up with something or other and I have been tough as a bear. Edwin Thayer has been in the hospital three or four days from a swelling in the neck. Willard is sick from boils. Otis (e.g. Otis Bonney, Washington Street) is not very well this day and the others have been complaining about something almost every day. All from our mode of living, which is pork and bread to eat, almost every day. I never felt better in my life than I have since I have been here, notwithstanding I never worked so hard before. I get up at quarter before five in the morning and shake my blanket; then I have to go out on company drill until breakfast, when we have pork and bread; never anything else. After breakfast we have our own time until eight o’clock when we have regimental drill for three hours. Afternoon we have our own time until four and then drill for two hours. We have to keep awake until 9 o’clock for roll call and do not get to sleep until 10 or after on account of the boys making so much noise. There are 150 of us in one room.
This is our parade duty. On guard and fatigue days we get up as usual and shake our beds but do not have to go out on line until 8.00 a.m. Our fatigue duty is the easiest and our guard duty the hardest. They are bound to put us through every day. As I have very often explained , our victuals are just right to create humors. I don’t eat anything except the bread, beans once in a week, meat once in ten days, rice once a week and what I buy from the officer’s wives or from the cooks. Nothing but pork and bread for breakfast and bread and coffee for supper. This is to serve one’s country.
Our place here is well fortified beside the fort. Yesterday the Pawnee, Cumberland, Harriet Lane and Monticello were all here as blockade; Pawnee, 10 guns, Cumberland, 3p., Harriet L, 6 or 8, and Monticello, 1 large 10-inch gun besides two small ones on deck (Howitzers). Today the Pawnee went out and the Quaker City came in. The Harbor is full of sail stopped by the blockade. We don’t know whether the rebels will be bold enough to attack us or not, but every place is being strengthened and guns put in order. Today they are covering the magazine with bags of sand to prevent all possible explosions. Last night was a busy night over in Hampton for the secessionists. Drums were going all night and this morning the scouts reported a sand battery in process of erection. If they get too fast, they may be used up before they expect. That big gun weighs 19.099-11 marked on it. Will throw a shot or shell from 4 to 7 miles and costs $100.00 everytime it is fired. It is a 15-inch Columbiad and is called the Floyd gun. It is four feet and over through the “britch”. I have stood on it and it was about 15 feet from the ground. I wish you to write as often as you can and tell me all the news. My love to all.

Your brother Henry

 

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A drawing of Fort Monroe receiving wounded.
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Canons at Fort Monroe.

In a note written by the hand of Josephine Gurney, Henry’s younger sister, she details that Henry ran off with three other boys, Horatio Sooter, George Hayward and Albert Josselyn, to enlist in Boston. Henry’s first enlistment lasted only three months but he relisted right away. He was a musician and during his second enlistment, he was Chief Bugler in the First Rhode Island Cavalry.

One of the stories remembered by his family was that Henry rode with General Sherman on that “scorching raid through Georgia.” In another one of his letters, Henry reported entering a beautiful Georgia mansion where the soldiers were destroying everything in sight. There was a fine piano in the house. Henry refused to let them touch it. He sat down and played until they left the room. In a flyleaf of a piano book, he found the name “Semple”. When his first daughter was born, he named her Amy Semple Gurney.

 

Thank you for reading. 

J. R. Lowe

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