From the Ivy League to the US Navy
Richard Henry Greene’s Civil War Letters
In 2014, Yale University Manuscripts and Archives acquired the letters of Richard Henry Greene who served as an acting assistant surgeon in the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War. In his letters written between September 1863 and December 1864, Greene shared with his wife the details about life on board ship, his work as an assistant surgeon, the progress of the war, and his personal desires.
In this letter written on July 26, 1864 from the U.S.S. State of Georgia docked at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, Greene talks about his time in port, the plight of the sick and wounded in hospitals, and his thoughts on the war. “One walk through the Hospitals one days’ view of the sick wounded and dying” Greene writes, “will fully satisfy any ordinary persons longing for war. It is a very easy thing to be patriotic at home attend enthusiastic meetings for mutual admiration and to devise means to forward enlistments and say to others go, but it is not easy to say “come.”
Image: First page of a letter from Richard H. Greene to Charlotte Caldwell, July 26, 1864
Courtesy Richard Henry Green Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
Note: The paragraph spaces in the transcription are not original to the letter but have been added to make it easier for the reader.
Full Letter Transcription
U.S.S. State of Georgia, Gosport Navy Yard, July 26th, 1864
It seems curious for I have heard nothing from you as yet though I believe I have written twice. We have now moved down to the edge of the yard and are putting the finishing stroke on our boilers and expect to go to sea in a very few days. I have been a good deal busier than usual this time from the number of sick from the yard and other vessels. The weather has been very fine but warm and comparatively little sickness. There has been some yellow fever but these cases have been in the town and not among the shipping. This is a great place for its on account of the large number of ships that come in here from the W. Indies and such places. Particularly at this time as vessels of war are here from all parts.
I have not spent as much money as usual for the theater is closed and thus there is no inducement to go on shore at night. I have been to church once or twice and enjoyed the service of the church. I have not partaken of the communion since I enjoyed it to my own church in B. How great is the privilege of meeting in Christian fellowship about the altar of the Redemer [sic]! And even to join in worship from Sabbath to Sabbath. I don’t think you can conceive how you would feel if cut off from the usual meeting of Christian people and surrounded only by the preparations of war. Oh how I long for it to terminate in some way for its terrible ravages and sufferings are enough to make Heaven weep. One walk through the Hospitals one days’ view of the sick wounded and dying will fully satisfy any ordinary persons longing for war. It is a very easy thing to be patriotic at home attend enthusiastic meetings for mutual admiration and to devise means to forward enlistments and say to others go, but is it is not easy to say “come.” But the commutation fee is done away with and most of those drafted will have to go under the late call so that I think things will come to a focus in a year or two. The draft will begin to get the wrong men, it will catch some of those fellow who have ____ been saying go and they won’t relish it long. Still things look more favorable then they have for a long time. If Grant hold Lee and eventually defeats him, Sherman will look out for the others. We may conquer by arms but their hatred toward us can hardly be expressed and there will be not sympathy of feelings. But enough of war. Near us is the remains of the celebrated ship of the Line Pennsylvania which you have doubtless read of so many. It seems like an old acquaintance so often have I read of it. It was burned at the waters edge. Also not far away lies what was once the noble frigate United States, the vessel that captured the Macedonia. In the stream lies the frigate Brandywine. We are surrounded by objects that have clustered around them memories of the past.
I had a very interesting visit to the Hospitals of Portsmouth interesting indeed to me as a surgeon but sad as the fellow man of the sufferers. One poor fellow that I noticed lying pale but composed and cheerful he looked better than most that I saw. I asked him what was the matter, he pointed to his right thigh, I raised the dressings, there was the wound of a minie ball through the hip joint coming out on the inner part of the thigh. I saw at once it must have intensively fractured the joint and the bone below. I saw at once that though he looked so comfortable and cheerful there was no hope. The next day, I learned he sank and died. This is the sad history of thousands. And of the cases I examined subsequently turned out to be yellow fever.
My health has been pretty good notwithstanding my confinement on ship board and salt fare and warm water. We have very few luxuries, I can tell you. Most of the time we cannot have ice and few have to drink lukewarm water, think of that that when you are drinking your sweet cold water. Give my regards to your mother, to Jennie, to Maggie, Merrell and all other friends. Do you know whether Mr. Yates has received my letter, have you heard him say anything about it. Yours, R.
Learn more about Richard Henry Greene in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Order today at Amazon or other fine bookstores.
© Jill L. Newmark, 2023