The Story of a Civil War Soldier

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

Peleg Bradford, Jr. was a 20-year-old farm boy from Carmel, Maine when he enlisted in the 18th Maine Volunteer Infantry in July of 1862. He was listed as being 6’2” tall and nearly 200 pounds. Though Peleg was not married when he enlisted, some of his letters indicate that he was engaged to a girl named Cynthia McPherson.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine has several displays throughout the museum which are dedicated to Private Bradford. They feature copies of some letters he wrote home. Visitors can read Peleg’s thoughts about the war in his own words. The final panel in the museum also features a unique personal item of Peleg’s.

The caption on the panel reads, “Union Private Peleg Bradford ca. October 1862. Notice that the letters “US” on the belt buckle read backwards. Images were printed as negatives on metal sheets presenting a "flipped" picture. This photo is courtesy of the Bradford family.”

The 18th Maine was first assigned to defend Washington, D.C. under the Army of the Potomac. In an early letter home, Peleg describes being in Washington. [Letters are copied in Peleg’s own words and spelling.]

“Fort Wagner August 28, 1862

Dear Mother I thought I would write you a few lines to let you know that I am well and hope theas few lines will find you the same. We arrived here last night. The fort is within three miles of Washington. We will camp here until further orders. The sun shone hot. The 17 Maine is camping about a half mile from us. Our camps is in plain sight of the Capital. The boyes are all well that went from Carmel. I don’t know of any more to wright so good by.”

Another letter to his sister gives us a glimpse into the diet of the recruits, and how they supplemented their army rations!

“Fort De Russia September 18, 1862

Dear Sister:

…Our living is hard bread and beaf one day and the next is beaf and hard bread but we go out knits and get peaches and apples bee hives and young pigs and cabbage and bring them in and have a good feast. After we chop treas ten days we have forty cents a day extra so that makes us pretty good pay.”

Like many of the new recruits, Peleg became ill while in camp – with the measles! He recovered, but expressed his dislike of the war and camp life in a letter to his father shortly afterwards.

“What does the Carmel folks think of this war now days? ….they had better cum out south and waid in the mud two or three months and then they will want the war to stop. I would like to see some of them….out here and I would like to see them sack a knapsack through the mud….”

Peleg was a good big brother and attempted to talk his teenage brother, Owen, out of following in his footsteps and enlisting in the Army. He was not successful in swaying Owen, and wrote of his disappointment in a letter to his mother:

“Fort Sumner October 28th, 1863

Dear Mother,

I am very sorry to hear that Owen has enlisted but I have said all that I can to keep him from enlisting. I think that if father lets him go that he is to blaim for money is nothing to a man’s life. You tell him that he will be a sory boy that ever enlisted. I used to think it was something grate to be a soldier but I think different now. If I was out of the Army no four hundred dollars would get me back again, that is sure. Perhaps Owen has not been used wel but he will get used worse in the Army.”

This display panel contains a map which shows the location of two of the camps where Peleg Bradford was stationed.

In 1864, Peleg’s regiment was ordered out of Washington D.C. and sent into Virginia. Peleg was able to write a quick letter home before leaving D.C.

“Fort Sumner May 14th, 1864

Dear Mother:

I am well and so is Owen. I cant write but a few lines this time. We are under marching orders and we are all packed up and ready to start. They say that we have got to help take richmon and I expect to see some harde times before it is over but I shal try and take care of my self. I will rite to you again as soon as I can get a chance. Tell bart and smith to take care of themselves. The boyes are in good spearit about going but I think they will see hard times but it is nothing more than what I expected before this time. Keep up good courage until you hear from me again. Do the best that you can while I am gon, good bye.”

In June 16-18, 1864, his regiment participated in the assault on Petersburg, Virginia. On June 17, Peleg was crouched in a shallow rifle pit when he felt a small rock fall inside his right shoe. He pulled his right knee up next to his head so that he could remove the rock from his shoe. At that moment, a Confederate sharpshooter, who was probably aiming for Peleg’s head, hit and shattered Peleg’s knee. Peleg survived being shot, but his right leg had to be amputated at the knee.

A few days later, his regiment once again received orders to move. As they were marching out, Owen was able to run into the hospital tent to see Peleg. Upon seeing his brother in pain, Owen tore his own blanket in half, rolled it up and put it under his leg stump. He then ran back out to join the march.

Peleg was sent back to Washington, D.C., to Columbian Hospital to recover. Here he was able to write a short letter to his mother to tell her about what had happened.

“Columbian Hospital June 23rd, 1864

Dear Mother,

I now will try and rite you a few lines to let you know how I get along. I am in bad shape now. I have lost my right leg. It was taken off the 16 of this month. It is getting along very well now. My leg is very painful now and I can’t rite but a very little this time. Owen was well the 16th when I saw him last. I can’t rite any more this time so good bye.”

It took him a little longer to break the news to Cynthia. He did write to her though, and told her how awkward he was going to feel when he saw his friends back home. He also told her that he wouldn’t hold her to the promise to marry him, but that they would talk about it once he was home, and that he would leave the decision up to her. In another letter, he mentions how his leg is healing well, but mentions how difficult the experience has been for him.

“Columbian Hospital, Washington July 13th, 1864

Dear Friend: [Cynthia]

I now improve a few moments time in writing to you. I am sitting up now but I don’t know how long I can sit up. You wanted to know how my leg got along. It is getting along first rate. You need not have sent them stamps to me for I can get a plenty of them here. Them stamps that you sent to me Owen will get. So they will do for him. You tell Smith that it is hard work for me to write and I don’t know when I can write to him. I am in hopes that I shall be home by the last of next month. Oh Cynith God only knows how much I have suffered since I lost my leg but it is getting along first rate now. I would like to write you a good long letter but I can’t. I can only write short letters so goodbye for this time.”

Despite his hopes of going home in a month, Peleg spent the rest of the war in the hospital in Washington, D.C. He was still there when he got the news that his brother Owen had been killed by an exploding shell at the Battle of Petersburg. Owen was just 16 years old.

After being discharged, Peleg returned home to Carmel. At some point, he had a wood and leather prosthetic leg made so that he would not have to continue to get around on crutches. Though the government would have provided him with a more realistic-looking prosthetic leg, for some reason he chose to use the homemade “peg leg.”

Here is the final panel in the museum, which displays some family photos and Peleg’s prosthetic leg.

Peleg and Cynthia got married on Oct. 7, 1866, and they went on to have eight children! Peleg ran a local sawmill and also served as a selectman for the town of Carmel. He died in 1918 at age 76.

A family photo of Peleg, Cynthia, and their children.

Peleg’s grandson, Richard Bradford, provided some insight into Peleg’s attitudes after the war towards weapons, violence, and the Confederate who wounded him. “He [Peleg] brought no single item of army gear home with him, and was, in fact, left with such an aversion to dealing with death that he never allowed a firearm of any kind in his house… Yes, I think he had a certain pride in having served. He was a G.A. R. member and was glad to reunite with his old comrades-in-arms. He recognized the men he fought against as being like him and often said he’d like to meet the Johnny who shot him, not for revenge, but to have a chance to compare notes and to get to know him as a man.”

You can read more about Peleg Bradford here. Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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