“Drifting to an Unknown Future” – Book Review

Book review by Gary Van Kauwenbergh

“Drifting to an Unknown Future” is a small paperback book of 100 pages that contains the Civil War letters sent home by James and Samuel Northup of Lodi, Wisconsin. It’s edited by Robert C. Steensma, and published by the Center for Western Studies. James, who wrote 49 of the 64 letters in the book, is particularly interesting because he was a member of Company H, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Samuel served in the Western Theater with the 23rd Wisconsin Infantry.

I’ve always found reading books of compiled correspondence a bit of a challenge. You usually have to read a lot of words to glean a few facts out of the text. This book starts out that way, but becomes more interesting as you near the end. The book costs over $16, but I’m a sucker when it comes to 2nd Wisconsin books.

There’s a list of the highlights I found in the letters:

1. 12/16/61, Ft Tillinghast, VA: James describes division-sized sham battles, and says they have one every few days. He also says at inspection their brass has to shine like gold, and the muskets are inspected with white gloves.

2. 6/19/6, Arlington Heights, VA: Mention of the Lorenz rifles the unit has been supplied with that are “a splendid gun said to carry a hundred yards.”

3. 3/1/62, Arlington Heights, VA: Description of new recruits as “shitting yellow”. I didn’t think that word existed until my grandfather invented it in the early 1900s!

4. 6/11/62, unknown location: mention of new assigned BG John Gibbon

5. 10/29/62, near Petersville, MD: Says there are “something over 200” men in the regiment fit for duty, and also mentions using “green back” currency.

6. 11/28/62: Samuel writes he received a letter from James, who told him there are only 18 men in Company H, 2nd Wis Inf.

7. 3/30/63, Belle Plain, VA: Says the officers have always had one wagon for their baggage up to this time, but now they only have two pack mules, and must now sleep in “Shelter Tents” like the privates. He also mentions “pulling ginseng roots” for a living. I didn’t know ginseng had been harvested in Wisconsin that long ago.

8. 6/17/63, on the march: For the second time since he enlisted, the entire unit has been officially ordered to wash their underclothes.

9. 8/20/63, near Rappahannock Station, VA: Mention of the newly issued state and national flags. In this letter he also included a piece of the old flag that had been shot off at Gettysburg. He also says unit member Wilber Turner has been arrested and sentenced to be shot for deserting.

10. 9/15/63, Rappahannock Station, VA: Mention of the Tiffany made brigade flag to be presented the next day.

11. 10/27/63, near Bristow Station, VA: James writes about the unit reenlisting, and how a number of soldiers signed a roster saying they were interested, but then lost interest after the specifics of the deal came out. “A great many signed their names thinking that the would be taken back to the state immediately and would be kept in the state all winter, but on finding out that they were not going right away soured on the whole concern. Many of those who signed are the worst grumblers and the poorest soldiers.”