Benjamin C. Lincoln Letters

[Note: The following biographical sketch was lifted from the Manuscript Division Finding Aids of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. It was created by Rob S. Cox, December 1993. Thinking I could not do better myself, I have posted it here in its entirety.]

The twin centers of Benjamin C. Lincoln’s life were the church and his wife, Dora. Born on August 8, 1840, the son of a sailor from Hingham, Mass., who spent weeks at a time at sea, Lincoln was raised in a family that was solidly situated in the middle class. [His parents were Alfred Lincoln (1813-1865) and Mary Lee Curtis (1817-1903)]

Rev. Samuel Hobart Winkley (1819-1911)—Unitarian Minister of the Pitts Street Chapel in Boston

After receiving a common school education, but lacking any distinct religious fervor, Lincoln moved to Boston to assume a position as bookkeeper for a dry goods firm, Haughton, Sawyer & Co., and began to attend the Pitts Street Chapel of Samuel Hobart Winkley. It was there, under the charismatic Unitarian Winkley, that Lincoln first began to develop a deep interest in religion. The Pitts Street Chapel Association which he joined was a uniquely close-knit group of young men and women, committed to their faith, to evangelism, and to progressive causes, including abolition and the social equality of African-Americans. The depth and sincerity of their religious and moral tenets were matched by their behavior. Most of the eligible male members of the Association enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 or 1862, and the women, in turn, led by Fannie S. Merrill, formed a relief committee centered on the Chapel to help gather and distribute goods to soldiers in the field. Among Lincoln’s other friends in Boston were several men who were equally ardent in their support for the Union and abolition, including Henry Oliver Walker — an artist, an admirer of Wendell Phillips and a strong advocate of arming former slaves — and Charles Hamilton Mann, a law student at Harvard who held radical beliefs on racial equality.

During the summer of 1861, Lincoln began courting a fellow member of the Chapel Association, Isadora Frances Whitman, whom he called alternately Dora or Isie. Dora’s family had apparently once been wealthy, but after her father’s “unfortunate” experience in business, she and her sisters looked forward to the necessity of supporting themselves. When she graduated from high school [the “Bowdoin School”] in 1862, Dora began frenetically to pursue a career in teaching, taking evening classes at the Normal School, where her sister, Ella, was also enrolled, and working herself to exhaustion. The romance between Ben and Dora developed rapidly, and despite some apparent indecision on Dora’s part, the couple agreed between themselves to become engaged some time during the summer of 1862, but to keep the news mum.

As the Civil War beckoned, the Lincoln family responded, with as many as four Lincolns simultaneously serving in the military. Ben’s eldest brother, Alfred Augustus Lincoln (b. ca.1838), a shoemaker and occasionally a fisherman, served with the 4th Massachusetts Infantry, a three months’ regiment, and later with Company E of the 32nd Massachusetts. Another brother, Samuel Marston Lincoln (December 28, 1841-October 2, 1864) was a private in Company H of the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry, while a brother-in-law, George Miller, died in the service in 1863. It was natural, then, with his personal and family commitments, that Ben would enlist, and in August, 1862, he and his close friends from the Chapel Association, Charlie H. C. Brown and Samuel G. Hall, enlisted as privates in Co. G, 39th Massachusetts Infantry.

When the 39th Massachusetts left the state on September 6th, Dora somehow inadvertently got on the wrong train and missed sending off her fiancé, setting the tone for their relationship for some time to come. For months thereafter, she seemed incapable of coping with the separation, occasionally telling Ben that they could be nothing more than friends, occasionally breaking off their relation altogether, and always reacting intensely to perceived slights on Ben’s part and searching for evidence of inattention. Throughout the war, Dora suffered sporadic fits of “low spirits,” bouts of extreme depression that seem to have gone beyond the sadness of separation, but even at the lowest points, Ben never wavered in his desire to bring about their marriage.

During the fall and winter of 1862, Ben’s regiment remained in quiet posts at Edward’s Ferry and Poolesville, Md., seldom seeing any signs of the enemy, though occasionally facing a hostile citizenry. An ambitious man, Lincoln made every effort to improve his chances for promotion by serving as clerk, first for the quartermaster and then for Lt. Thompson, and he was rewarded with a small promotion to corporal in January, 1863. Much of his time during the winter of 1862-63 was spent in ruminating on his duties as a Christian, attempting to improve his own morals, and worrying about Dora. Lincoln felt burdened by his behavior prior to becoming a Christian and considered himself prone to lapses, even though his letters and those of his friends suggest that he was impeccable in conduct throughout his service.

On May 28, 1863, Lincoln’s brother, Sam, a clerk in Hingham prior to his enlistment, was discharged from the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry for disability. Two years younger than Ben, a bigger, stronger fellow who was just as committed to Christianity and the Union as his older brother, Sam chose to remain near his regiment in New Bern, N.C., to work as a civilian for the Quartermaster’s office and, in his way, to continue to serve his country. In May, he became engaged to Julia M., and arranged a visit home in July and August, 1863, during which he also visited his other brothers and Dora. With Sam engaged to marry Julia, the relationship between Ben and Dora began to evolve into a more formal arrangement, not so much in belief as in word (1863 March 15), and Ben began increasingly, subtly to press for a firmer commitment from Dora.

In May, 1863, Ben assumed a new clerical post when he was transferred to Washington, D.C., to work on detached duty with the Headquarters staff of General John Henry Martindale, Military District of Washington. In this setting, Lincoln was able to arrange for a brief visit by Dora in May, temporarily ironing out things in their relationship and easing his mind, but at the same time, the comparative luxury of a clerk’s position in an urban post made him feel more as if he were evading hardship than fulfilling his patriotic obligations. This unease led him at times to assume an almost defiant stance toward the opinions of others. In June, for instance, he wrote to Dora: “now when I accept a situation (which not one enlisted man in the regiment would refuse) here in the City, they talk about my want of patriotism, now as I know I am just as much serving my country here as in the ranks, I care not for anything they say” (1863 June 22).

Major Henry M. Tremlett

When the 39th Massachusetts left the city in July, 1863, Lincoln was ordered to return to the 39th, but refused, arguing that he now reported to Martindale’s staff. When threatened with a reduction in rank and imprisonment, he appealed to the colonel of the 39th, who supported him, but he was nevertheless, upbraided by Major Tremlett, setting his mind against ever rejoining his old regiment and more strongly in favor of securing a commission.

In June, Lincoln had begun to prepare himself for the examination to become as officer in a colored regiment. Told that a commission in a colored regiment would not bring the same respect in society as one in a white regiment, and that colored regiments would bear the brunt of the fighting, Lincoln was not dissuaded. Confident that he could do well on the exam, but still insecure about his chances for a commission, he asked Rev. Winkley to obtain the backing of Sen. Charles Sumner, and received it, followed in mid-July by a commission as Captain in the 2nd U.S. Infantry (Colored). Shortly after Lincoln accepted this commission, Winkley wrote, discussing the importance of the Christian chaplain and the Christian mission of the officer, and advising Lincoln to “look well to those black soldiers.,” adding, “This nation owes them a mighty debt. We must pay it” (1863 September 5).

Lincoln’s reasons for applying for duty with a colored regiment are complex and remain somewhat obscure. His ambitions for higher status must certainly have played a role, but it is also likely that his strong abolitionist beliefs were a guiding factor. Lincoln was part of a knot of friends from Pitts Street, including Charlie Brown, Sam Hall, Thayer, and John E. Bradlee – who applied for or received commissions in colored regiments. Harry Walker’s gleeful response to the assault by African American troops at Port Hudson in 1863 seems typical of the reaction of the Pitts Street Associates, “Certainly, one thing is proved if it needed to be proved — the black will fight!” (1863 June 9). Another friend, Sam Hall, ultimately decided not to accept a commission in a colored regiment, but nevertheless felt that after the performance of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry at Fort Wagner, the “experiment” of arming African Americans had been proved successful, adding that he respected any man who took charge of “colored” troops “against all prejudice” (1863 August 26). Despite this, Lincoln was never inclined toward placing himself (or his men) in danger, and it was clear to him, as well as to his friends, that a commission in a colored regiment was likely to place him in harm’s way. He was willing to fight, but never eager.

Recruiting, enlistment and training for the 2nd U.S.C.T. took place at Camp Casey, Va., in September and early October, 1863. Initially, Lincoln’s command was marked equally by an encouragement to religious worship and a desire to refine the soldiers’ Christianity, and by stern discipline. As might be expected from such a devout individual, Lincoln was deeply concerned for the spiritual and intellectual condition of his soldiers as well as their military preparedness, and at one he point he considered making the commitment to assisting African Americans his life’s work, suggesting to Dora that after the war, the two of them might lend a hand in the monumental task of helping to educate freedmen. The immediate task of training raw recruits was difficult enough, however, and was made more difficult by the hostility of white soldiers. On September 1st, 1863, a near riot erupted when a drunken white soldier came into camp and fought with one of the recruits in Lincoln’s command. Lincoln attempted to quell the disturbance by ordering the black soldier handcuffed and confined, and the near mutiny among his troops that followed was averted only by the force of Ben’s personality.

Lincoln’s friend, Charlie Brown followed Lincoln into a colored regiment, receiving a commission in the 7th U.S.C.T. in October, 1863, a regiment composed largely of former slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Both the 2nd and 7th U.S.C.T. would serve in Florida, though at opposite ends of the state, and throughout the remainder of their enlistments, Brown and Lincoln continued to share their experiences and became very close. The intensity of their relationship led Brown to write to Lincoln, “I love you Ben & my wife does also. I could write a love letter but I will not bore you” (ca. 1863 October or early November). The 7th became one of the most active colored regiments in the army, seeing action at the Battle of Olustee, in several small engagements near Jacksonville, Fla., at John’s Island and near Charleston, S.C., and in a series of engagements in Virginia, beginning with the Battle of New Market Heights.

Major Benjamin C. Lincoln, 2nd USCT, MOLLUS Collection

Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1863, the 2nd U.S.C.T. received orders to move south, and Lincoln and Dora arranged a meeting in New York City while the regiment was awaiting a ship to take them to Ship Island, near New Orleans. In a hurried ceremony, the couple was married by Rev. Thompson on November 24th, and within a few days, Lincoln was on his way, with a lengthy separation from his new wife in store. In February, 1864, Lincoln’s regiment received orders to report to Key West, and in May, they had their first brush with enemy forces during a brief expedition to Tampa. Upon their return from the expedition, during which they sustained few casualties, the regiment was afflicted with an intense epidemic of yellow fever with a startling mortality rate. Lincoln himself fell ill, and while he survived, disease claimed the regiment’s colonel, a captain (Captain Reinhardt), and an unspecified number of enlisted men. After his recovery, Lincoln was promoted to major, possibly to fill a vacancy left by the epidemic.

Between late August and early October Lincoln was granted leave to return home, and while there, his brother Sam died of fever (possibly yellow fever) on October 2, 1864, leaving his fiancé, Julia, disconsolate. The two were to have been married during that month, and Sam was in the process of preparing to return home from New Bern when he was stricken. The sense of despair and loss within the Lincoln family intensified with Ben’s departure in October, and the pain appears to have proved too much for Dora’s nervous temperament. Her behavior became increasingly erratic and troubling, and the family doctor finally recommended that she be sent to an insane asylum to help with her extreme depression. Dora’s sister, Ella, informed Ben of one particularly troubling incident: “Last Thursday she ran off, before we were aware of it, bareheaded, without any shawl on and went to one of the negro houses on Southac St.; tapped on the window and told them she had come to spend the day. It was a full half hour before I found her, sitting between two negroes, in front of a fire… She seems determined to hide herself somewhere, away from people. The doctor says the next thing will be suicide” (1865 February 5).

Lincoln died at Key West on March 9th, 1865, of wounds sustained at the Battle of Natural Bridge three days previously. He was cited posthumously for “gallant and distinguished conduct” for his part in the Battles of Cedar Keys and Natural Bridge on February 9th and March 5th and 6th, and was recommended for brevets to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel. Dora’s fate is unknown, though in the early summer, she was once more living at home.

Collection Scope and Content Note

A fervent patriot and devout Christian, Benjamin C. Lincoln was also a remarkably regular correspondent. The Lincoln papers [housed at the William L. Clements Library] contain 437 letters written by and to Benjamin Lincoln between 1861 and 1865, including letters to and from his fiancée, later wife, Dora, letters from his brothers, Sam, Alfred, Irving, Ernest and Eugene, and from friends, Fred Gage, H.O. Walker, Charles H. Mann, Sam Hall, Amy Halliday, and Rev. Samuel Winkley, among others. The high literary quality of much of Lincoln’s writing is matched by the quality of his friends’ writing. Ideologically, temperamentally, and literarily they are a well matched set. There is a gap in letters written by Lincoln between November, 1863 and October, 1864, caused in part by his visits home. This period, however, is represented by letters to Lincoln, through which some of his activities can be reconstructed. The correspondence ends shortly after Ben’s death at the Battle of Natural Bridge in March, 1865.

The collection is a valuable resource for examining the effect that the war had in shaping the relationships of friends, relatives and lovers. Throughout the separations imposed by military service, Lincoln remained in close contact with his fellow members of the Pitts Street Chapel Association (many of whom served with him in the 39th Massachusetts Infantry), and his relationship with his brothers remained intimate. The early letters between Lincoln and his then-fiancée Dora provide a depiction of the pain of separation and the psychological hardships placed on these devout and devoted people, and the entire correspondence provides a fascinating portrait of the vicissitudes in their relationship up to and following their marriage in November, 1864. Lincoln and Dora discussed their relationship almost obsessively, whether it was going well or poorly, and the frequency of their letters makes for an unusually dense coverage of the course of one war-time love match. Dora’s tendency toward depression was a problem throughout their relationship, and culminated in what appears to have been a mental breakdown early in 1865, probably over the stress of renewed separation from her husband. The collection also includes a wrenching letter from Julia M. (1864 November 21), mourning the loss her fiancé, Sam Lincoln, and several letters from Amy E. Halliday (see especially 1864 November 25) coping with the loss of her fiancé, James Schneider, an officer in the 2nd U.S.C.T.

The military content in the Lincoln papers includes far more on camp life than combat, with a few notable exceptions. During Lincoln’s time with the 39th Massachusetts, the regiment was stationed in a comparatively calm part of Maryland or in Washington, D.C., and thus lacks first hand descriptions of skirmishes or battles. Lincoln’s letters contain speculation on his own religious convictions, as well as on the spiritual and moral condition of his fellow soldiers, and there are comments on the hostile local citizenry, on his duties as a clerk, and occasionally on the war and the military itself. Once Lincoln receives his commission in the 2nd U.S.C.T. in September, 1863, however, the letters contain more of general interest. The collection is a significant resource for studying the attitudes and activities of a white officer in a “colored” regiment, particularly during the six weeks during which the regiment was filling up at Camp Casey, and during the period in which they were stationed at calm Key West. Lincoln was not always immediately forthcoming in his letters with descriptions of his experiences with his African American troops, partly for fear that Dora would think that he was ignoring her if he discussed anything other than their relationship. Lincoln does, however, provide good descriptions of racial tension surrounding the regiment as it was forming, and some spirited accounts of religious attitudes among the troops, along with several good accounts of their Methodist-style worship. In all, Lincoln’s correspondence provides an excellent portrait of the motivations of a white soldier for seeking a commission in a colored regiment, his racial attitudes, and his experiences in camp and, to a lesser degree, in the field.

Equally valuable from the military point of view are the numerous letters from friends and relatives in the service, including those from Ben’s brother Sam, a private in the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry and later as a civilian employee of the Quartermaster’s Department in New Bern, N.C., and from a friend, Samuel Hall, of Co. G, 39th Massachusetts. Sam Lincoln’s letters are filled with information about his regiment, and about life in the garrisoned town of New Bern. His position as a former soldier become civilian makes for an unusual perspective on Union-occupied North Carolina. Letters from Lincoln’s other brothers create an impression, somewhat less fleshed-out, of the stresses endured by the members of the Lincoln family during the war, the losses they incurred, and their attempts to cope. The 15 letters from Charlie Brown, initially also a member of the 39th Massachusetts Infantry, but later an officer in the 7th U.S.C.T, are particularly noteworthy. Brown was one of Ben’s closest personal friends, as was his wife Ellen, and his writing ability combined with his candor make his letters a particularly important resource for the study of one of the most active “colored” regiments in the Union army. Brown provides a description of the rout at the Battle of Olustee, of engagements near Jacksonville, Fla., and the Battle of New Market Heights, and comments throughout on life in the 7th U.S.C.T.

The 22 letters from Lincoln’s civilian friend and fellow Bostonian, Henry O. Walker, are also uniformly lively and interesting. A fiery abolitionist and an early advocate of arming African Americans, Walker was a man with strong opinions on the war who seldom demurred from expressing himself. Included among his best letters are a long discussion of electoral politics, radical Republicans, Frémont, Lincoln, and Johnson (1864 June 24 and September 8) and a detailed description of a public meeting held at Cambridge on the subject of conscription (1864 July 26). “We must have black troops,” he wrote, “and a limitless number of them too — paid and treated like their white brothers” (1863 September 5). The four letters from Rev. Samuel Winkley provide an interesting insight both into the powerful force that religious convictions held for some soldiers, but also the bonds of friendship and mutual assistance that tied Winkley and his former Chapel Associates, even across the separations of war. Winkley’s letter of September 5, 1863, includes a fine discussion of the duties of a Christian chaplain, written with regard to the African American soldier.

Quick Link to the Benjamin C. Lincoln Papers, 1861-1865 at the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

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