Monday, July 4, 2016

“If I Fall On The Battlefield It Will Be For A Good Cause:” Private Thomas Major (ca. 1840-1862), Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

Although I have not been posting as frequently as I once did and not even as much as I did during the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011-2015), I still maintain this site/blog and keep it active largely now as a resource for those hoping to discover more about the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment and especially its soldiers. I still occasionally post stories pertaining to the regiment and I still regularly receive emails from descendants of soldiers who served in the regiment and who are hoping to discover more about their ancestor.  Of course, whenever this happens I share all I know and all I have gathered about that particular soldier over the years. It is rather rewarding to be able to tell these folks, interested in their family story genealogy, about their ancestor in the 48th and connect them, somewhat, to that soldier. On the other hand, and every once in a great while, it is I who is contacted by a descendant who generously and graciously shares information they have about their ancestor who served in the regiment. It doesn’t happen that often; indeed, only a handful of times since I first launched this blog nine years ago. But last month I awoke one Saturday morning to discover an email in my inbox from a Mr. Brett Adams of Minnesota who came across my blog while doing some research on his Civil War ancestor: Private Thomas Major, of Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. I was absolutely thrilled by the message he sent, for not only did he include some biographical and genealogical information about Major, but he also included a photograph. Whenever I get to see an image of a 48th PA soldier for the very first time, well, it just makes my day. Discovering images of 48th soldiers does not happen often, or at least not as often as one might think. Indeed, of the 1,860 men who served in the regiment, I have only ever seen photographs of about 200 of them—or just over 10%. That’s it. So when I, for the very first time, get to see the face of a soldier I have known only by a name, it makes me feel a much closer connection. I responded quickly to Mr. Adams and over the next few weeks, I was amazed with the information he so willingly and so kindly sent along to me about Thomas Major and his family. Included were a number of letters—previously unknown to me, of course—written by Thomas while in service and sent to his siblings back home in Schuylkill County. Mr. Adams also sent along images of Major’s brother, sister, and brother-in-law. 

Having studied the 48th for so long, it was—and is—always thrilling to me when I learn more about its soldiers, and I cannot thank Mr. Adams and his family enough for their kindness and generosity in sharing their photographs and letters with me and for allowing me the honor of telling Private Thomas Major’s story here. . . .

Thomas Major
Company E
48th Pennsylvania 

When Thomas Major enlisted in September 1861, he was 21 years of age. He stood 5’8 ½” in height, had a Dark Complexion, Brown Eyes, and Dark Hair. His occupation was listed as Teamster and his residence simply as Schuylkill County, though the Census Records place him and his family in Blythe Township, which is east of Pottsville and west of Tamaqua.  He was the son of 43-year-old James Major and 40-year-old Maria Major. His father had been born in England and by 1860 was a foreman at a coal mine. Thomas appears to have been their eldest child; the oldest of nine. When Thomas marched off to war in the late summer of 1861, he left behind four younger brothers and four younger sisters. And he would write home frequently to his younger siblings. Along with a letter he sent home on October 18, 1861, from near Fortress Monroe, Virginia, Thomas also included a piece of President John Tyler’s piano from Hampton. Tyler, the former President who had been elected to the Confederate Congress, was, said Major, “now in the Secession War.” As was the case with most soldiers, however, Thomas soon began to admonish his siblings for not writing more often. From Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, in May 1862, for example, Thomas wrote that he was “discontented” because a mail had arrived “and all the boys had letters to read and I got none.” He was quite convinced, said the brooding young soldier, “that the folks at home had forgot that there is a Thomas Major out on Hatteras.” Nevertheless, he recorded his thoughts on army life and wrote about his efforts at getting a furlough—all to no avail. He was also sure to keep his family updated on the doings of the army. “They have taken Fort Macon and I think they will run the vessels in down there at Beaufort,” said Major in a letter dated May 1, 1862 when the 48th formed part of Burnside’s Expedition in North Carolina. “They lost but one man and it was 10 hours fight. They took them all prisoners. They battered a hole through the walls that they could drive a team in, and they put 3 balls in the magazine. The gun boats could not get in to fight. Our forces planted mortars 3 miles from the fort and the Stars and Stripes are waving over it now.” It was not all battle-related, though. At the end of that same letter, Thomas mentioned that he and the boys in the mess “are opening oysters," which they intend to have with soup for dinner. "Don’t you wish you had a cup?” Thomas asked his brother. In another letter, this one dated May 4, Thomas recorded the elation he and his comrades felt over the fall of New Orleans—“Hip, hip, hooray, we heard of New Orleans being taken”—but that elation seemed to have been short-lived, since, said Thomas, the boys were now “getting down-hearted, afraid the war will soon be over and then they will have to go to work again.” (Not a few soldiers of the 48th wrote about how they would rather be in the army than in the coal mines). 

In his letters, Thomas would plead with his family not to worry too much about him and in June 1862 told them that if it was his fate to "fall on the battlefield it will be for a good cause." Thomas also would do his best to still be the big brother of the family, even while hundreds of miles away from them, by urging his younger siblings to lead good, virtuous lives. In a June 9, 1862, letter from New Bern, he urged his brother “to leave thee off some of the bad habits you have—do, for a brother’s sake leave off drinking liquor, which I have seen too much of it already since I came out here.”  Apparently, drinking to excess was quite a problem in the army—at times—and Thomas saw what a ruinous habit it can be. Drinking lands men in the guard house, said Major to his brother, and in handcuffs. Thomas then quoted directly from “A Letter From A Father to His Son  on Inebrity,” that appeared in a book entitled “The Universal Letter Writer,” and published in 1811 and which surely made its way around the army camps. In part, this letter read that “Hard drinking is a vice that breaks a man’s rest, impairs his understanding, extinguishes the memory, inflames the passions, corrupts the will, lays the foundation of the worst and most dangerous distempers; prevents a person from pursuing his studies and from applying to his duties of his calling, be it what it will.”  

Certainly, Thomas was concerned about the well-being of his younger siblings and it is clear that he missed them. It seems his efforts at getting a furlough did not come to fruition and like most others, he longed for home. In a June 10, 1862, letter from New Bern, Thomas wrote that North Carolina was pretty country, but “I would like to see the old dirt banks [of Schuylkill County] again.” 

Sadly, he would not.

Thomas Major Letter From Camp Hamilton
Near Fortress Monroe
October 18, 1861

In July 1862, the 48th Pennsylvania—along with most of Burnside’s force in North Carolina—were ordered to Virginia. After spending a few weeks at Newport News, they were sent via steamer to Aquia Creek and from there, the soldiers of the 48th marched hard to catch up with General John Pope’s army then gathering in northern Virginia. They arrived in time to participate in the blood-letting that was Second Bull Run. On August 29, 1862, the 48th Pennsylvania—as part of Nagle’s Brigade and along with the 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire Infantries—smashed through a section of Stonewall Jackson’s line along an unfinished railroad cut. Their success was not exploited, however, and with no supports marching to their assistance, it was not long before the Confederates recovered and rallied and soon had Nagle’s men pinned down, fired upon from three sides. A devastating flank attack drove the survivors from the cut and by the time the 48th rallied, more than 150 of its soldiers were among the killed, wounded, captured, or missing. As it turned out and in terms of numbers lost, 2nd Bull Run would be the 48th’s worst battle of the war.

Among the wounded was young Private Thomas Major of Company E. At some point during the battle, he was shot in the leg and remained on the field for two days before he was able to limp or crawl away to safety. He was taken to the Columbian College Hospital in Washington, D.C. for treatment. Hopes for his recovery were high and from his hospital bed, Thomas continued to write letters home. On October 11, some six weeks after his wounding, he wrote that he was “well and hearty although in bed.” “My leg is coming along nicely,” Thomas assured his sisters, or at least “as well as could be expected” and that the hospital was “about the best in Washington.” He described his experiences at 2nd Bull Run: “About the battle, I was shot on Friday the 29th. I laid in under the hottest of the fire for 2 days. The ball tore the ground all around me, and also my clothing was pierced a dozen times.” He also informed his sister that he had received a letter from brother George. By the fall of 1862, George Major, who was two years younger than Thomas had entered the army and was just then serving in the ranks of the nine-month 129th Pennsylvania Infantry. Thomas also passed along his regards for their neighbors back home in Blythe Township, the Gables, but ended his letter by saying he was tired. He told his sister earlier in that same letter that she should “not expect to get long letters from me while I am laying on the bed for it is very tiresome.”

There was nothing in that letter to indicate that Thomas was not recovering well; indeed, the thought was that he would soon be back home. It thus came as a shock when on October 31, Thomas Major died.

Included among the letters Mr. Adams sent along was one dated November 22, 1862, and written by a M.A. Wood, who was likely a nurse or hospital steward at Columbian College Hospital. Wood was responding to a letter he or she received from one of Thomas Major’s siblings.

Columbian College Hospital
14th Street, Washington, D.C.
November 22, 1862
Dear Friend,
It was with much pleasure that I received your kind letter. I was truly glad to hear from you and to hear that you were all well, for I did not know but your brother's death might seriously affect your dear mother, but it was my prayer that the Lord would give you all strength to bear it. It must surely have been a cruel blow, more so on account of having all encouraging letters from him. It was very unexpected to me. I could not have felt worse to have had an own brother die. He had been here a long time and we all got very much attached to him. He was so patient and so good, not even a murmur through all his sufferings. I am very glad that it was my privilege to do what I could for him. I do not know of anything that he wanted but that he had.

It would have seemed much better and pleasanter for you to had him with you if it could have been right, but the Lord doeth all things well and doubtless you feel to say with the Psalmist "It is the Lord. Let Him do what seemeth to Him good." You spoke of giving me his picture and your mother's. You do not know how much pleased I should be to have them and yours too. I will have mine taken and send you. 

Please remember me kindly to your father, mother, brothers and sisters. I hope your other brother may be spared to you.

Please write. I shall be very much pleased to hear from at any time.

The Chaplain has looked after your brother's grave.

Yours affectionately,
M.A. Wood

P.S.  Please excuse me for not writing  before for I have not had time. - M.A.W.

Columbian College Hospital
Washington, D.C.
(Library of Congress) 

Thomas Major answered his country’s call in the late summer of 1861, leaving behind his family in Blythe Township and marching off to war as a private in Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. The next summer, he received a wound from which he would never recover. He bore his wound bravely, stoically, all the while composing letters home to his beloved younger siblings. His remains never made it back to those “old dirt piles” of Schuylkill County; they were, instead, buried at U.S. Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

The Worn Grave of Thomas Major
U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery
Washington, D.C. 

Thomas Major's younger brother, George Major, served out his nine-month term with the 129th, seeing action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In the years after the war, he became Chief Burgess of Mahonoy City. On March 30, 1874, a fire spread through a home in the center of the city. Responding to the call were two rival fire companies, one predominantly Welsh, the other predominantly Irish. As was so often the case in those days of ethnic division and strife, a street brawl broke out and Burgess Major attempted to restore order by stepping between the two gangs and drawing his pistol. A shot was fired from the crowd and George Major fell dead. His death—or murder—was soon blamed on Molly Maguirism.  

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[My thanks, again, to Mr. Brett Adams and his brothers for their kindness and generosity in sending along the images and letters of Thomas Major and his family] 

1 comment:

Brett Adams said...


Thanks so much for putting together this portrait of my ancestor, Thomas Major. You tied his experiences together in the larger context of the war, and gave details I wouldn't have known. I'm so glad to be reacquainted with this "lost" family member; I now have newfound respect for this one of so many soldiers who gave their all for this nation. You've helped to tell his story, and I am very grateful!

Best wishes,
Brett Adams