In the following letter, an eighteen-year-old McKinley serving in the army during the Civil War writes to his cousin.
CAMP AT WESTON, AUGUST 11, 1861
W. K. Miller, Esq.,
Your letter dated the 6th inst. was received this morning and its contents perused with pleasure. Although it did not come to hand as early as expected, yet "better late than never." We are encamped at Weston, a small town in Western Virginia of about eight hundred inhabitants, and looks as if it might have once been a village of some stir and vitality, but since the war broke out it has buried all its vital parts in oblivion. Our regiment is scattered all over the State of Virginia. Five hundred of them are with the Seventh Regiment under Colonel Tyler now marching to Galley Bridge, one hundred on their way to Sutton, and others scattered here and there, all over the hills and valleys, of the "Old Dominion State." Three hundred of us remain here as a guard and I can tell you we are doing the thing up "bravely," yea, "heroicly." We have entire possession of the town. The other night, some of the Twenty-third Regiment, while out on "picket" two or three miles from camp guarding a bridge for Sutton, and lying in ambush around it, returned in the morning possessed of quite a "scary" story, which they related. The substance was as
follows, that while out in the darkness of night, when
all was calm and quiet as the sea on a still summer's
day, a strange noise was heard about the above--named bridge and on its roof was the pattering of stones, distinctly heard; this was a terrific, appalling report, and preparations were made to catch the rebels. On the following night, four of us volunteered to go out and catch the "seceshers" if possible. Accordingly we started out about dusk led by a certain
lieutenant of our regiment. It would have done you good to have seen the above lieutenant prodding the
thick bushes with his gilded sword, fancying to himself that he saw the hideous monster in the shape of a rebel. Ah, -- the ambitious officer was disappointed; instead of sticking a secesh, he without doubt stuck- a skunk. We came to this conclusion from the fact that a strong smell, a venomous smell, instantly issued from the bushes. We imagined a great many strange things to appear before us, but all proved to be shadows instead of realities. We at last arrived at the hitherto "scary" spot, stationed ourselves, and it was my lot to be placed in a cornfield by the roadside. I stayed there until morning, cocked my old musket, and was almost in the act of shooting a number of times, when the strange vision would disappear and on examination would discover a piece of fox-fire, an itinerant "hog," or a lost calf, which had undoubtedly wandered from its mother in its infantile days. We returned in the morning, sleepy, tired, and not as full of romance as the night before. Enough of this. We have a very nice place for encampment, on one of Virginia's delightful hills and surrounded by the Western Branch of the Monongahela River. We have some fine times bathing in the above river. We are under the strictest military discipline and nothing is allowed but what is guaranteed by the army regulations. Your kindness, Cousin William, is highly appreciated by me in offering me anything that I need; this tells me that I have a place in your affections and in answer would say that I would like papers as often as you can conveniently send them. We cannot get papers here but seldomly. As to postage stamps they are very hard to get, but think I will receive some in a few days, and as to money I have none, but can get along without it until Uncle Sam pays us off. When that will be I do not know. We may have to leave here very soon, but I think it hardly probable. I received a letter from Annie a few days since, and was glad to hear from her. I presume she will soon be with you from what she writes.
Ah, -- the ambitious officer was disappointed; instead of sticking a secesh, he without doubt stuck- a skunk. We came to this conclusion from the fact that a strong smell, a venomous smell, instantly issued from the bushes.
I must bring this letter to a close, as the hour for duty is fast approaching. I want you to write me often and direct as follows; --
Weston Lewis Co., VA.
Co. E. 23rd - Regiment, O.V. Inf., USA
Care Capt. Zimmerman
With this direction all letters will reach me. Give my love to Sarah and family. Write soon.
Wm. McKinley, Jr.
[The above letter is reproduced exactly as written and was obtained through the archives at the Library of Congress]