Charles Henry Howe—known to all his friends as “Charley”—was born on 4 May 1845 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He was the son of Ebenezer Wilson Howe (1817-1885) and Sarah Ann Blanchard (1823-Aft1900) of Clinton, Worcester, Massachusetts. His father worked as a mill hand and struggled to put food on the table for his wife and three boys. Charley had a limited education and a difficult childhood. He fell in with the wrong crowd, shirked his work and developed a reputation for laziness among the Clintonites. Though he was below the minimum age, Charley begged his parents to let him enlist, hoping to see something of the world and get out from under his parent’s roof. When they finally consented, he enlisted on 15 August 1862 in Co. I, 36th Massachusetts Infantry.
There are sixty-two letters in this collection, sixty of them written by Charley while serving in the 36th Massachusetts. The last two letters were written by officers of the 36th providing Charley’s parents some details of his capture by Confederate cavalry near Rutledge in East Tennessee in Mid-December 1863. Charley initially served in Co. I but in the spring of 1863, he was transferred to Co. G. in exchange for another soldier so that he might be with other boys from his old neighborhood.
Charley’s letters are a delight to read and provide a rich, detailed history of the 36th Massachusetts not found elsewhere. According to Charley, only one in five of the men serving in the regiment were single. As such, Charley’s letters are not rife with home front domestic issues so often found in the letters of married men. Fond of travel and adventure, Charley’s letters abound with personal observations and impressions that give us rare insight into the life of a foot soldier. The 36th Massachusetts was also one of the few Eastern regiments that served in both the Eastern and Western Theaters of the war, enabling him to contrast the degree of difficulty in campaigning on the eastern seaboard, the mid- and deep-South.
Charley literally matures before our eyes in the two years of letters that are presented here. We notice, too, that his patriotism waxed and waned during the war—as it did for most soldiers. But in the end, he remained steadfast, and was one of only 130 from his regiment still reporting for duty as he marched with them through the mountainous terrain on the way to Knoxville in the fall of 1863.
In the summer of 1863, Charley purchased “The Historical War Map”—a publication by Asher & Co. of Indianapolis (January 1863). He might have picked it up in Cincinnati when the regiment was transferred from the Eastern to Western Theater. Aside from offering a record of key events in the war up to that point of time, it contained a very large map of the eastern half of the United States. Charley used the map to track the regiments movements and to record a diary on the back of it. [See Charley Howe’s War Map] After sending the map to his mother about the first of September 1863, Charley began to keep a separate diary on which he recorded his daily activities. Fortuitously, in September and October 1863, Charley copied his diary entries into letters that he sent home to Massachusetts. Regrettably, after his capture by Confederates, Charley’s diary disappeared and there has been no re-emergence of it to my knowledge. Whether he had the diary with him when he was taken prisoner is unknown.
According to the regimental history, “while the regiment was encamped at Rutledge, East Tennessee, during the pursuit of Longstreet, after the siege of Knoxville, [Israel H.] Smith, with nine other members of the 36th, and a small detail of the 49th Pennsylvania, under charge of Sergeant Charles Henry Boswell of the 36th, were ordered out on a foraging expedition, the regiment being greatly in need of subsistence supplies. While out for this purpose they took possession of an old mill about four miles from camp. the detail of the 36th was composed of Sergt. Boswell, Privates Daniel H. Park, Lucius A. Reynolds, Frederick Ruth, and Israel H. Smith of Co. C; Hezekiah Aldrich, Calvin Hubbard, and Patrick Gillespie, of Co. G, and Charles H. Howe of Co. I. These men were in the mill grinding corn, their rifles stacked in one corner, when, early in the morning of December 15, a boy came running into the mill saying the rebels were approaching. Smith glanced out the window and saw a squadron of men whom he supposed from their dress to be Federal Cavalry, but it afterwards appeared that their blue uniforms had been taken from one of our supply trains captured a day or two before. They numbered about 400 and immediately surrounding the mill, they demanded a surrender. Resistance being hopeless, our men…gave themselves up.”
The prisoners were sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia where all of them died except Smith who survived and was paroled a year later. Charles Howe died on 27 August 1864 and was buried at Andersonville.
The only picture of Charley that I have been able to find is one that appeared in a newspaper clipping which was purported to have been taken just before his enlistment in 1862. It shows a dapper young man with a nicely cut coat and vest. [see side column on home page]. I have not been able to find out in what newspaper this clipping was taken from.
- History of the Thirty-sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865, Edited by Henry S. Burrage
- My War Experiences, by James Hervey Miller, Co. H, 36th Massachusetts Volunteers
[Note: The screenshots appearing in the headers of these pages are from the 2013 film, “Light of Freedom” available on Prime Video]