Letters from the Civil War: Henry Lawson Bert

Flags of the 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry

Taken from Indiana University Department of History.

Letters and diaries are often of more interest for the light they throw upon a way of life or a point of view than for their descriptions of great events. Such, to a degree, is the case with the letters of a drummer-boy that follow. His regiment, although almost constantly in active service, aside from the Vicksburg campaign, took part in few of the important battles of the Civil War. There are casual accounts here of a number, of forgotten skirmishes and expeditions, and something about the assault on Fort Blakely during the siege of Mobile, but some readers will perhaps get more of an idea, of a Civil War soldier’s life from incidental things: from the chicken that spoiled in the haversack, so that “I did not get to eat a bit of it;” from the green corn that was “coming out in tassell in some places and looks very nice,” but was used to make beds; from the picture cases that had “nearly all come to pieces,” and that he wanted to exchange for photographs; from the pay delayed for a year; and from Mr. Cope who “comes to me everytime the mail comes and asks me if I got a letter from home and how his folks is.”

Then, from this lad, who, in his later years, was one of the kindliest of men, comes the pious hope that “Andrew Johnson will kill every leader of the Confederacy which ought to be done,” and the expression, “I don’t know what they done with the butternuts but I hope they hung them for I know they need it.” No seeker after glory in those days of 1864–1865, he cheered the fact that “Our regiment was so lucky as to not get into the charge,” and he longed for the day when “we will once more have peace and hapiness restored to our once hapy [sic] country.” Of such homely materials are most of the letters made, and so they are presented, with no omissions except of some extraneous and unimportant messages to the folk at home.

Henry Lawson Bert, author of the letters, was born at Jimstown, Ohio, on August 15, 1845, the son of Peter Bert and of Mary Frazier Bert. Henry was little more than sixteen years of age when he left his home at Tipton to enlist for the Civil War. He was not at once accepted—he was small for his age—but followed the Forty-Seventh Regiment of Indiana Volunteers from Indianapolis to Louisville, before he was finally enrolled as a drummer in Captain William M. Henley’s Company I on December 21, 1861. He is described as four feet, ten inches in height, of dark complexion, with black eyes, whose occupation at the time of enrollment was that of a printer.

After the Civil War, Bert, became a merchant tailor, first in Indianapolis, and later in Edinburgh, Marion and Huntington. He died at Marion, Indiana, on December 8, 1910.

Below are the letters written by Bert.


Fort Curtis, Helena, Ark.,
March the —, 1863

Sister Dear:—

I seat myself this morning to try to write you a few lines to let you know that I received your letter and was glad to hear that you was well and hear that Benton got home safe. I have been well for a long time and as long as I keep my health I am very well satisfied. I just come from meeting. I heard the General preach8 he said he was in the hands of the rebels for six months he was taken at Pea Ridge.9 he says the prisoners was almost naked when they whre [were] exchanged, that is those that were with him.

I have been some time writing this letter. I will try and end it up in a different style.10 I will tell you something about a fight there was in town. There was a lot of soldiers come down the river on some boats this morning and the officers would not let them get off the boats and they tried to Break guard and the officers ordered the guards to shoot and one of the guards shot a soldier in the leg and then one of the privates belonging to the boat run out and cocked the pistol under the lieutenant’s nose and dared him to speak and he stood there and never said a word. So then the 11th Ind. went down to settle the fuss and they soon had it stopped and there was three men shot in the operation but only one killed.11

Paducah, Ky.,

April 3rd, 1864.

Dear Sister Ann:

It is with great pleasure that I take this opportunity to write you a letter. I am well at present and hoping that when this comes to hand may find you enjoying the same good health. I will tell you something about our travels from home.

We left Indianapolis on the 30th day of March, 1864, and got to Mattoon, Ill., on the 31st early in the morning and was called out in line of battle to fight the Butternuts but we only Captured two of them but the citizens of Mattoon was out at the same time and they caught 42 of them. So that morning we started out for Ciaro [sic] about 10 o’clock but I don’t know what they done with the butternuts but I hope they hung them for I know they need it. So we went gliding along on the cars and the next morning about 1 o’clock found ourselves at Cairo so we stayed in the cars till day light for it was raining very Hard and a little after day light it checked raining and we got off the cars and went on a boat named N. W. Thomas and we had just got our things on and loaded and we had to move off and go into the barracks and there we stayed till the next morning or till the afternoon rather at 1 o’clock and then we had orders to go on the boat Raymond to go to Paducah, Ky., and we started about 3 o’clock and the next morning found ourselves at this place. The reason we was ordered here was that the rebels had been here and destroyed a good part of town and tried to take the place but failed and they are looking for them in again and we come here to help them out or fight them if they come in.

The fight happened last Friday a week.12 I guess we will start for New Orleans prety soon We are still on the boat and expect to bee till we get to New Orleans, but we dont know when we will get there. …

I will tell you now about my Chicken. When I came from home it was in my Haversack [.] spoiled and I did not get to eat a bit of it. My walnuts was good yet and so was the sugar and I could not eat it all in two or three trials. …

[The stay in Paducah was not long, and the Forty-seventh soon joined Gen. Bank’s second Red River expedition, which got under way in March, in co-operation with the navy. This is the expedition referred to in the next letter. The fifteen days of fighting included Monett’s Ferry, Cane River crossings, April 23, Alexandria, April 30 to May 10, with engagements at Muddy Bayou on May 2 to 6, and at Graham’s Plantation on May 5. The “ten days’ hard marching” refers to the retreat to Morganza, which was reached on May 20 after an engagement at Mansura May 16. Apparently the drum major never did come back, as Henry L. Bert became drum major or “principal musician” of the regiment during his second enlistment and was discharged as of that grade.]


  • 8 Not identified. Possibly the Brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Frederick Saloman.
  • 9 The battle of Pea Ridge, Ark., was fought, March 6–8, 1862, between the Federal force commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel K. Curtis and the Confederate force of Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn.
  • 10 The letter is in printed characters to the end of the first line of the second paragraph. The remainder is in longhand, on the opposite side of the sheet.
  • 11 I find no further reference to this incident, illustrative of the lax discipline in the Union array as late as March, 1862.
  • 12 Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Anderson at Paducah on March 25, but was beaten off by the garrison.