This amazing letter was written by Orderly Sergeant David Fisher McGowan (1838-1924) of Company I, 47th Illinois Infantry. David was the son of Col. James McGowan (1795-1879) and Eliza Conn (1807-1898). In 1871, at the age of 33, David married Ida Annette Miller (1850-1927), the daughter of Washington D. C. Lawyer, Lemuel Bissell Stoughton Miller (1817-1889) and Sarah Norton Evans (1820-1903). David’s connection to Ida Miller is confirmed by his pension record.
David F. McGowan’s enlistment records indicate that his residence was Bennington, Illinois, when he mustered into the 47th Illinois at age 23. Though he was born in Pennsylvania, his family moved to the Baltimore, Maryland suburbs when he was a young man where he no doubt bettered himself by attending higher caliber schools than the average union soldier. How or why he came to reside in Bennington, Illinois in the early 1860s remains a mystery, however. And with no surviving envelope, it is not possible to confirm who Ellen and Fannie were and to what location the letter was directed. McGowan ancestry records for this family do not show siblings by these names but these records may not be complete. After the war, David found employments as an auditor in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D. C.
The 47th IL had its baptism of fire, at Farmington, Mississippi on May 9, 1862, and on May 28 it participated in an engagement near Corinth. It participated in the battle of Iuka in September, where the army under Gen. Rosecrans defeated the enemy’s forces under Gen. Sterling Price and it also took part in the battle of Corinth, Oct. 3 & 4. The regiment lost in that engagement 30 killed and over 100 wounded. On May 2, 1863, it marched with the army down the west side of the Mississippi river, crossing it at Grand Gulf, and with the 15th Army Corps marched to Jackson, Mississippi, where it participated in the engagement which resulted in the capture of that city.
The 47th participated in the first charge on the enemy’s works at Vicksburg, losing 12 men killed and quite a number wounded, and on June 4, 1863 it participated with the brigade in the defeat of a Confederate force at Mechanicsville, Mississippi, 30 miles from Vicksburg, near the Yazoo river. It was present at the capture of Fort De Russy, LA in March, 1864, and participated in the Battle of Pleasant Hill in April. On June 5th it moved up the river to Lake Chicot, moved inland and came in contact with a force of Confederates under Gen. Marmaduke, which they completely routed.
March 7th, 1864
Sisters Ellen & Fannie,
Your welcome letters of date Feb. 22nd & 26th both came yesterday and found me head over ears in work. I have been writing nearly all night for the last 3 nights. On the 26th of Feb. we (our brigade) started in charge of a large train of wagons with rations for General Sherman’s Army. We marched to Canton, Miss. in 48 hrs (56 miles). Canton is one of the prettiest towns I ever saw—something like Holly Springs, only not so large, is much prettier laid out, and is in the (by far) best portion of Mississippi I have yet seen. It is the county seat of Madison County.
We left there March 1st during a very cold rain. The roads coming back were execrable. We reached Black River Bridge on the third after a very tiresome march. We marched — or rather crawled — nearly all night two nights in succession. On our way out, we met a train of Negroes about 4 miles long, estimated at 5,000. They had all kinds of wagons, carts, etc., quite a number dying on the way. Mothers killing their own children to get rid of them. There was also a very long string of captured horses and mules. Sherman destroyed 23 engines at Canton, also a large number of cars and about 100 miles of railroad during his march. I suppose you have seen the account of his raid in the papers.
I haven’t read a paper for some time, being too busy during the last 3 days. I have made out 12 muster, muster-in, and muster-out rolls, 14 descriptive rolls, 24 enlisting papers, 12 discharges, and a monthly Return of Clothing, Camp and Garrison equipage, besides other reports and writing incidental to an orderly sergeant’s position. It is now about 12 p.m., and I should not write tonight, only we have orders to embark tomorrow with 30-day’s rations for a trip up Red River. We take no baggage along. I think we will not be gone longer than 3 or 4 weeks.
I paid a hurried visit to the Vicksburg Cemetery this evening. It had been a beautiful place. The soldiers have sadly marred its beauty. I don’t see how they can have the heart to desecrate a cemetery, do you?
I am very glad you have received your organ. How I would like to hear you play on it. And of course I would help. Well sisters, I am getting most awfully sleepy and with all, am so tired I hope you will excuse me for not writing more tonight.
Enclosed please find some cedar taken from the Vicksburg Cemetery. I have several articles which I got on our last march to send you but we had to pack up so suddenly that I had to leave them.
Your bro., — Dave F. McCowan