Letters from the Battlefield

Such a tiny thing, a letter. What does it mean now? For many of us, a letter via ‘snail mail’ is a nuisance. Needless paper that litters our mailbox. Ads. Spam. Bills. Scams (most of which are electronic now and also a pain). Mail has been ruined for most of us with the sheer barrage of unimportant stuff that claims a box at the end of the driveway which once held so many wonders. Communications evolve rapidly throughout time, as well they should. But they change so fast that occasionally we forget just how important getting a letter was. Being delivered a letter was a moment of anticipation, perhaps dread or admiration, instead of the mundane. Many have written of the hopes or fear of a letter in the mail. In the iconic song ‘Mr. Postman’ by the Marvelettes, a lovelorn lady, yearns for word from her boyfriend. “So many days you passed me by, you saw the tears standin’ in my eye. Wait a minute, Mr. Postman.” Still, others have had to pen terrible letters they never wished to send, which informed families of what they feared most, the loss of a loved one.

            Our artifact blog posts tend to focus on unique objects. However, this time I’m going to concentrate on a very commonplace ink bottle that dates to the mid-19th century. So many of these were made that they normally escape notice. Mere curiosities. Who doesn’t love an old bottle? However, the importance of a simple vessel such as this one should not be understated. This particular example is in an ‘umbrella’ shape, one of the most ubiquitous ink bottle forms from this era. However, this particular bottle has the distinction of having been located within a portion of a Union Civil War trench which extended through the cellar of the house George Washington grew up in.

            Several units were assigned to Ferry Farm during the two occupations in 1862. The spring deployment was relatively quiet and uneventful except for the chaos of the hasty August withdrawal to defend Washington DC. The second occupation cumulated in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union soldiers deployed at Ferry Farm include regiments from New York, the 7th Wisconsin, and the 36th Massachusetts. While no large encampments were established at Ferry Farm, soldiers did occasionally camp there and used the farm for picket duty and to provision themselves. The farm experienced combat only during the initial stages of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

            The Federals appear to have built no large, formal camps at Ferry Farm. No evidence of winter huts, latrine trenches, or clay borrow pits have been unearthed to date. That is not to say that soldiers were not stationed at Ferry Farm both before and after December 1862. Photographs of the farm show small groups of tents situated on the terrace overlooking the river. The terrace served as bivouacs for soldiers guarding or maintaining the pontoon bridges and later for pickets. These activities suggest that a small force was a relatively constant at the farm.  Artifacts associated with soldiers at Ferry Farm included buttons, knapsack hooks, grommets, cap letters, minie balls, percussion caps, exploded artillery shells, cutlery, and of course, one simple ink bottle. The ink held within probably penned many a letter with critical information that could have changed the tide of war and/or altered the lives of so many families expecting word from the front. 

Military Encampment, Spring 1862. Credit: Unknown

            Really this bottle would be totally insignificant were it not for the location it was found in. We do know that the bottle was typically meant for single use and would have been made in one of the numerous American glasshouses present during the 19th century. It was then filled with ink, affixed with a label, and marketed for single use, which does not mean it wasn’t refilled from a ‘master ink’ bottle when the original contents were depleted. We’ll never know the exact history of this object, and there lies the mystery of it. As archaeologists, we can’t be privy to who owned it, what letters were written with the ink, or if those correspondences even made it out of the trench to the outside world. We’ll never know the travels of the bottle before it was deposited in the trench or the circumstances that led to it being abandoned. We only know that it was used during the Civil War by the Union and was found in a location many soldiers never wanted to be stuck in. Chances are, the soldier or soldiers who made use of the bottle never made it back home alive. The fact that it was discarded when the bottle still potentially retained at least some value and during a time when possessions were at a premium indicates a hasty departure, or perhaps the owner expected to return but didn’t. Regardless, letters were likely written using the ink from this humble bottle. Some may have had great importance in our country’s history, while some may have carried tidings of possible homecomings or hardships endured. Every ink bottle held the potential for countless correspondences, but this one has quite a history, the exact nature of which we’ll never know.

Mara Kaktins, Archeologist

Archaeology Laboratory Manager