The Death Letter of a Missouri Soldier

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Union burial detail, laying to rest their fellow comrades. Though taken near Fredericksburg, Virginia, this scene was typical of post-combat burials.

Sometimes, we historians and buffs alike see the Civil War in a distant lens, where emotions do not grip us like they would if these same events happened to us today. Though the war was fought over 150 years ago, people who struggled through those fateful four years are not that distant from us. Just like we have seen in recent wars, the loss of a single soldier, marine, airman, sailor, or coast guardsman is devastating to their families, friends, comrades, and communities.

In the Civil War, we had 750,000 of them, with well over one million who would suffer physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives.

Pike County, Missouri native Pvt. David T. Massey of Company D, 33rd Missouri Infantry Regiment died of his wounds received at the Battle of Pleasant Hill in April 1864. On June 12, 1864, his comrade Pvt. Robert W. Thompson of Louisiana, Missouri wrote to David’s parents, notifying them of their beloved son’s death:

“It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your beloved son D. T. Massey. He was wounded at pleasant Hill on the 9th of April, in the right arm about half way between the shoulder & elbow Dave was so opposed to having his arm amputated that it was permitted to remain until he got down to Alexandria: The Doctors then found it would be impossible to save it, so they took it off. I got back to Alexandria a day or so after it was taken off: I was admitted into the hospital to see him, and I was quite surprised to see him look so well: his arm looked well as I thought, and he was in very good spirits The nurses appeared to pay every attention they could to our wounded: there being a dozen or so in the same room with Dave. The wounded were put on a boat the next day and soon started down the river having to go to New Orleans to put off some then the boat with our wounded started for Vicksburg: On the fifth as they came up Dave died He was taken off at Vicksburg & buried. I learn this from one of our boys who was on the boat when he died and saw him taken off at Vicksburg. At the time Dave was wounded, We (the reg) was lying down and the rebs were charging & driving our men just in front of us They soon got out of our way when we opened on them Dave was reloading on his knees & just in the act of caping his prese when the shot struck him. We had fired but twice when we were ordered to charge. Where we were lying was the hottest fire we were under in the fight. In the person of Dave Our company has lost a brave & noble boy He was blessed with health and was therefore always ready for duty and did it with a good resolution. Dave was no coward: but a braver boy never took up arms for his country In his death I loose a brother. He and I were bedfellows ever since we came into service. Mr Massey I will bid you farewell for the present believe me yours truly

R.W. Thompson
of Co. D. 33d Mo.

P.S. I will send back a letter that I got while at red river: as Dave was gone on down to New Orleans I kept the ltter for him and as soon as I heard he was ded I opened it, to see if there was any information wanted and finding none I kept it until I could send it back to you” [1]

To us, it is unfathomable to imagine receiving a letter such as this. How did David’s parents react to this letter? How did Robert find the strength to write a letter like this to his best friends’ parents? Sometimes, letters like this one give us more of an emotional connection to the Civil War that opens our eyes to the struggles they faced.

David was buried at Vicksburg National Cemetery and remains there to this day in Section I.


Sources:

1. Letter Signed by R.W. Thompson, Memphis, Tenn. to Nathan V. Massey, June 12, 1864, Civil War Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri.


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