1864: Joseph Samuel Collister to Sarah Rowena Lyon

How Sgt. Joseph Collister might have looked

How Sgt. Joseph Collister might have looked

This letter was written by 18 year-old Orderly Sergeant Joseph Samuel Collister (1846-1931) of Co. F, 138th Illinois Regiment. The 138th Illinois was organized at Camp Wood, Quincy, Illinois, and mustered in for 100 days June 21, 1864. They were transported by train to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, June 26, and duty there until October. Companies “C” and “F” saw duty at Weston, Missouri from July 7th to August 3rd. The regiment was mustered out October 14, 1864.

The letter was written during the period when armed bands of guerrilla’s or “bushwhackers” — ostensibly serving as operatives of the Confederate service but really just armed outlaws — raided towns, trains, and pro-Union farmsteads killing and robbing as they went. Hundreds of innocent and non-militant citizens in Clay and Platt Counties fled to Leavenworth and St. Joseph seeking refuge and protection.

Joseph Samuel Collister was the son of Samuel Amos Collister (1806-1886) and Sarah (“Sally”) Rowena Lyon (1807-1886) of Huntington, Lorain County, Ohio. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the family had relocated to Nevada, Livingston County, Illinois. After the war, Joseph married Laura Rowena Chapman (1853-1886) of Pittsfield, Loraine County, Ohio in 1871. He became the superintendent of schools in Attica, Seneca County, Ohio in 1880, By 1900 he lived in Spencer, Clay County, Iowa where he was employed as a physician. He died in Whittier, California. [Note: the family name is sometimes spelled Collester]

This letter has been graciously donated to the Weston Historical Museum in Weston, Missouri by Carl Volz of Peoria, Illinois.

TRANSCRIPTION

Fort Leavenworth [Kansas]
July 8th 1864

Dear Mother,

I received a letter from you some time ago and have sadly neglected answering it. I used to think when I got into the army I would write every week to you and all the particulars, but precept & practice are two different things. Now I commenced to write you a letter the other day. I covered one sheet of small letter paper, thought it was not enough, so I took another [and] nearly covered it, [but] something called me away [and] I did not get to writing until now. It being written with a lead pencil, you cannot read it so I commence anew on another sheet of paper. It is nearly dress parade and I shall be interrupted with this, I suppose. However, I will try and finish it in time.

I never had better health in my life. Can eat my full ration every time. Have not been sick a day yet since I enlisted. I like the army first rate. Have not been homesick a day yet. I do not mean to imply by that that I never think of home for that would be impossible and I think sometimes I would like to step in and see the folks but I would not come home before my hundred days are out for nothing — or something either.

The mail has just come but none for me. I declare, mother, I do like to get a letter the best of anything else after all if I do neglect writing them.

We left Quincy on the morning of June 26th at seven o’clock — or rather the camp at Quincy — for we did not leave the city of Quincy until eleven. We crossed the Mississippi on the ferryboat “Rosa Taylor” and as she carried us from the shore of Illinois, we were not sorry for we were tired of staying there. As the boat touched the wharf we jumped lightly upon the shore and for the first time — most of us — touched Missouri soil. Some little delay was caused getting our baggage loaded and cars assigned when we left for Leavenworth at eleven. I told you it was eleven when we left Quincy but it was earlier.

We was soon rattling over the roughest road I ever heard of, yes or ever imagined. To give you some idea, let me tell you something about it. When standing in the middle of the car sometimes the boys would be thrown flat and the road was so crooked that it was one continuous wind and the curves so short that like the crooked river, it almost crossed itself.

Weston, Missouri

Weston, Missouri

Weston, Missouri
July 10th

I am now writing under different circumstances than those which surrounded me at the commencement of this letter. I was then sitting in the Captain’s quarters at Fort Leavenworth [but am] now in the City Hall at Weston, Missouri, which is across and up the river from the Fort about 3 miles. The City Hall is a large room with brick walls. The brick quite as rough inside as outside and situated over a livery stable. At the only entrance to this room are three guards, two wearing infantry uniforms, the other cavalry. Inside are about one hundred men — infantry & cavalry — some looking out of the window, some sleeping on the floor, while quite a crowd are around a nigger who is dancing to the squeak of an old fiddle the boys found when we came here which together with the sound of the water which drops through the old leaky roof makes music that would cheer on “the savage heart.” I am a little out in my quotation but it’ll pass.

Gen. Thomas A. Davies

Gen. Thomas A. Davies

But I have not told you the reason of my cutting this so short and my being at this place. I heard a whisper in the Adjutant’s Office the bushwhackers were threatening to pillage Weston & that quite a large body of rebs were within a few miles of that place & that probably some troops would be sent over to protect it. As our regiment was marching out to the parade ground for dress parade, the Col. ordered Company’s F & C to file to the left. He then called on volunteers to fill up those companies to their full strength which being done we were placed under the command of Maj. Gunnison and marched opposite Gen. [Thomas Alfred] Davies‘ Headquarters to receive instructions. He said there was quite a large body of rebs near Weston who perhaps ‘ere this occupied the place and [for us] to take the place and hold it until morning at all hazards.

On our way to the ferry, we heard they had already robbed the bank. Our force of 150 men were finally landed. The cavalry — 50 strong — were quickly thrown around the town and as soon as we could get our single cannon on land, the infantry in column moved up town. It was the happiest hour of my life as I led the way up the hill into the town for you must know Company F had the honor of the right & I as Orderly Sergeant lead that company. We marched on through the town unmolested. Halt! Who goes there?! We had run against our own picket line — not a reb in town. What a disappointment. It was 10 or 11 o’clock at night and we were ordered to lay down on our arms in line of battle so we laid down with our cartridge boxes and bayonets buckled on, our Enfield rifles at our sides ready capped. Just as soon as we could have rose up, we would have been in line of battle and ready to fire. We were not troubled with knapsacks and blankets for we had nothing with us save our rifles and dressed for dress parade.

The Saint George Hotel in Weston, MO

The Saint George Hotel in Weston, MO

Just at daylight we were woke up, formed in line, divided up into small squads with a non-commissioned officer in charge, and ordered to get our breakfast where we could find it. I had six men in my squad. We marched straight to the St. George Hotel, ¹ woke them up and ordered our breakfast. This a kind of secesh concern and they made all kinds of excuses — they were sick & everything else — but it was no use. I told them we should have our breakfast if we had to take charge of the kitchen and cook it ourselves. When they found we were determined, they caved and got us a good meal.

Just before noon our haversacks and some rations were sent over from the Fort. Night before the last, the bushwhackers burnt a man’s house over his head and shot him, breaking his arm and wounding him slightly. In other places within four miles of here.. [missing line?]

Fisk (left) and his adjutant Holloway

Gen. Clinton B. Fisk (left) and his adjutant Holloway

They will never attack the town while we are here & they will not let us go to catch them for we are out of our district & the Gen. of this district who is a copperhead is mad because we occupy the town & will not consent for us to leave it to go after rebs. We are under Gen. Davies who is a true soldier & commands the northeast district of Kansas but we are now in the district of Gen. [Clinton Bowen] Fisk who makes his headquarters at St. Joseph, Missouri.

Last night we also laid on our arms but not in line of battle. We took the Weston graveyard ² for our campground & I never rested better in my life than I did last night with my arms buckled to me, my head on a grave for a pillow, the matted grass for a blanket, & the sky for a covering. Some of the graves are covered with a marble slab which made a good place to sleep.

Just about three o’clock this morning the picket which had been stationed on the main road fancied they saw some armed men. On examination, it proved to be five or six bushwhackers when the sergeant in command of the post ordered his men to fall back without firing a shot. Some came clear into camp waking us up with the “Rebs are coming” but the Maj. was not to be fooled this way. He sent the picket back with orders to fight them big or little & then he would turn out the force. But no firing was heard. Some of the picket was shot at just before daylight at another place. The sergeant that run was from our company & the boys blackguard him bad.

Marble grave markers like this one in Laurel Cemetery served as beds for members of the 138th Illinois

Marble grave markers like this one in Laurel Cemetery served as beds for members of the 138th Illinois

Just after breakfast, it commenced to rain and we were marched over to the City Hall to shelter us from the rain where I improve the opportunity to finish my letter on some paper which I found in a desk and which I will send in a large envelope which I also got in the same way. As I have never told you the rest about our journey and what happened when we got to the Fort, I have plenty of time to write in this rough way, I will tell you something of it.

The cars which fell to the lot of our company were the dirtiest of cattle cars and as night set in it began to rain. It was anything but comfortable. 86 men ordered into two cattle cars with leaky roofs and open sides through which the water came through making the filth on the bottom of the cars a perfect splash. At almost every station we were told that the guerilla’s would throw our train off the track or shoot into us or something of the kind but not withstanding all this, we got into St. Joseph just before daylight where we laid until sunrise when we were started for the fort, 40 or 50 miles distant. We arrived at Weston about 9 o’clock, laid there until 12 waiting for a steamer to take us to the fort when the Col. got impatient & ordered the regiment to march. The Captain [David M. Lyon] & 2nd Lieutenant [Frank I. Beard] stayed behind at Weston. The 1st Lieutenant [Samuel Coll] was sun struck on the way but I was tough as a brick. Some of the boys gave entirely out marching three miles but we were loaded down with all our baggage & the day was unaccountably hot — in fact, hotter than any other day we have seen since.

Fort Leavenworth

Fort Leavenworth

We stopped before Gen. Davies’ residence until we should find where our quarters were. They being assigned, we marched over & took possession. The very next day, one of the boys came running into the barracks [shouting] “Fall out, the bushwhackers are coming!” We all thought it to be [false] notwithstanding his earnest protestations to the contrary but the long roll brought us to our arms and in line of battle unless than 15 minutes. We marched to the parade ground where we saw the artillery just about to start for the city of Leavenworth (which was the place it was said the rebs were threatening) and Maj. Gen. Curtiss escorted by a company of Kansas 16th Cavalry started at full gallop for the scene of the supposed battle. All the working men about the fort — some 8 hundred — were armed and together with our regiment formed in line of battle under the supervision of Brig. Gen. Davies to await orders from Gen. Curtiss. Presently we saw one off Curtiss’ aids come galloping down the road and rode up to Gen. Davies. With what interest we watched his motions to try and ascertain if possible what we were to do. Finally the artillery came back followed by Gen. Curtiss & staff. The artillery formed on the left of our lines. Gen. Curtiss told us there was no danger of the rebs & we were marched to our quarters. The next day we found the alarm had been given by some cavalry who had got scared at a half dozen bushwhackers and run into town and reporting the Rebs 16 or 17 hundred strong which was the cause of our 1600 being turned out at the fort.

I remain your son, — Joseph

¹ The Saint George Hotel opened in Weston in 1845 when the town was a busy river-port on the upper Missouri River. Business plummeted in the town after the Civil War when the Missouri River changed its course. The Saint George Hotel has been restored and still offers accommodations.  

² Joseph is no doubt referring to the “City Graveyard” which was renamed Laurel Hill Cemetery in the early 1900’s. This cemetery dates to the 1840’s and sets high on Welt Street hill overlooking the town.

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