Today, I had the pleasure of finding absolutely nothing while scrolling through reel after reel of microfilm. My mom had some research to do at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio, so I volunteered to go along although I had no research plan prepared in advance. The night before, I quickly compiled a list of newspaper and county microfilms to check the following day. During my late-night search, I also came across a finding aid for a small manuscript collection consisting of the Civil War correspondence of a man named George B. Turner. Mr. Turner happened to have served in the same regiment as my Civil War ancestor, Archelaus Osborne, and I thought it might provide some potential background information about the 92nd OVI – shedding a little light on what my own ancestor might have experienced.
Arriving at the Ohio Historical Society, I dutifully performed negative search after negative search. Admitting a little boredom, I nixed the last few rolls of film from the to-do list. I wandered out to the main library and filled ouit the call slip for the manuscript and waited for its arrival. A clerk came bearing a smallish box. “Oh good,” I thought, “I should be able to get copies of this without selling a kidney.” Upon opening it, however, I discovered that there was more within the folders than I had anticipated. Much more, in fact.
The original collection consists of five folders containing letters written from George B. Turner to his parents and siblings. I quickly realized that the collection was beyond “copy size”. Mr. Turner was clearly an articulate, thoughtful man. And prolific. By my estimation, there were somewhere around 250 letters written between Aug 1862 and Nov 1863. By rough estimate, he seemed to write a letter every 4-5 days or so – sometimes multiple letters on the same day.
I started off reading the first five or six, and I was immediately hooked. The personalities, the emotion, the power leaped from the pages. The collection opens with an exchange of letters between George, his father, mother and brother. In them he thoroughly details his reasons for joining – his passion in evidence. He remains a considerate son, stating that theirs are the only opinions he values, and while he carefully weighs them, they do not change his mind. He reassures his mother, and off we go on a fabulously detailed journey. Given the size of the collection, I was forced to start skimming letters. Each had the location he was writing from and the date it was written. I flipped through, reading those that showed a change in location. The letters detailed many things: the travels, the conditions, descriptions of the locales he was in, and so many other wonderful details of his journey. He asked about those at home, showed his appreciation of their letters, and assured them of his wellness.
There is no possible way I can convey the way this young man’s writing made him very real to me. He was someone I know, a friend I’ve had, a neighbor, and family member. All this was conveyed in the brief time I had to look at the collection. As time ran short, I had to skip a few of the folders, and turned to the last one. In addition to the letters, the final folder contained some newspaper clippings. One of the clippings from the Marietta newspaper contained a list of names, so I read throiugh that to see if there were any that I recognized. I didn’t, but as a scanned up to the headline, I had a bad feeling. The first line confirmed it: “Marietta is now mourning the death of two of her most promising young men, Capt. Wm. Beale Whittlesey and Lieut. George B. Turner, 92d O.V.I., who fell at the Battle of Mission Ridge, Nov. 25, 1863”
I actually gasped. This was not the ending I wanted, not the ending at all. Being a tough guy, I was able to choke back a few tears, but not for long. Reading his last few letters, as well as the letter written in response to his parents’ inquiry about the circumstances of their son’s death, I mourned the loss of George B. Turner. I felt for his parents and family. I felt for those that knew him – his minister and friends. I wished I could send a card or letter. I wished I could have met George and have shaken his hand. Like that movie that doesn’t have the happy ending – I just waited for the “Aha – just kidding, he’s actually fine” letter. It never came.
My little tribute here cannot do justice to this collection. If you live in or around Ohio, you owe it to yourself to take an hour or two to read through these letters. I later called the second box, which is a typescript of the letters. I hoped that typed out, I would be able to copy them all. However, the typed collection was about 322 pages.
I transcribed a few of the first letters, as well as his final letter. Again – this does not do justice to the collection, but it does give you a glimpse into its power and importance:
“Marietta, August 7th, 1862
Father perhaps wrote to you something about the draft which will probably be made in this state about one week from this time. I have been considering for several days, yes weeks, what it was best for me to do, and have finally concluded that I will volunteer rather than stand the draft. I have come to this conclusion deliberately after considering my chances for escaping the draft, and the respective advantages and disadvantages of the two services – the volunteer and the draft….If I stand draft and am selected, I shall have to go when the governor chooses to send me, and may be sent down South. If I volunteer, I can choose my regiment and officers. Dr. Leonard advised me to get an office and said that it was not my duty to go unless I did; but there is such a scrabble for offices that I do not wish to elbow my way into the crowd that blocks the door of the governor’s office. I have nothing especial to do and have rather a desire to assist in so good a war as this is. These are some of the reasons that have weighed with me in deciding my course… You will please write by the first mail that I may know what you think of my decision. Drafting commences on the 18th.
Your son with love,
Geo B. Turner”
Note that this was 1862, and his mother was in Connecticut. That her response was via telegram is telling:
(Telegram)”New London , Conn. 13 Aug 1862
Do not volunteer. Stand draft. Get substitute. Letter on way.
The letters don’t seem to be included in the collection, but the content of them is obvious from George’s reply:
“Marietta, Friday eve,
9 o’clock Aug 22nd, 1862
I received your last letter and Uncle George’s the morn…The telegram had prepared me for the opinions expressed in the letters and I was not surprised to find you decidedly opposed to the step I proposed to take. In fact, I have not received one word of encouragement from anybody. This has made me reflect the more but has not changed my mind. A question of duty must be decided by each man for himself. Tonight I carried my decision forward with an act and am now in the Army.
Do not read these words with surprise, nor suffer anxiety to swallow up the pleasure of your visit. Was there ever such a crisis as this? And am I an inanimate substance that I can lie still and not learn to think and act when events press so hard.
Duty led me to take the oath this evening. I have pondered well the reasons you and Uncle very kindly gave, and I could not thoughtlessly set aside such advice. But after much reflection I could not arrive at the same conclusion as you.
[section detailing his choices to volunteer rather than his brother, the one-in-three draft ratio, and that he enlisted in Capt. Thorniley’s company]
Fred. has seen service and will probably come home and render Father good aid in his business., while I could not remain here contentedly nor suffer Fred. To have all the honor of serving in the great army of volunteers.”
As mentioned, the intervening letters detail many things over the period of slightly over a year. Most express a sense of optimism and well-being that one might not expect once idealism meets reality. Here is George’s final letter, written three days before his regiments’ involvement in the Battle of Missionary Ridge, the battle in which he was struck behind the ear while leading his company (although he was not the officer in charge) and encouraging his comrades. He died a week later on 1 Dec 1863 :
“Headquarters 92 Reg OVI
Chattanooga, TN Nov 22nd, 1863
My Dear Mother,
We are preparing for battle. A general advance will probably be made tonight to clear the vicinity of this place from the enemy. All of our forces may be engaged. Perhaps only a part will have battle.
We feel confident in our strength, and especially in the favor of God, of driving the enemy from our immediate front. However, all is unseen and veiled. God knows.
Mother, if I return not with the victors, thank God and believe that the sacrifice was not too great for the interests at stake. I trust God and feel that in his hands, I am safe. If this reaches you do not conclude that I am dead for it may be that I am a prisoner or wounded, or some accident may send it
Much love to Father, Kate, Frederick, Charles and Edward, and yourself. Pray that I may do my duty, and trust your son in God’s hands.
Farewell, with a son’s love, Geo. B. Turner.”
This post is long enough, and I won’t lengthen it by expounding on the many, many things I find moving about the letters transcribed here. I hope that you share my fascination and admiration. This is a collection I intend to revisit. I hope if you have the chance, you will, too. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a collection that I found more moving. Thank you, George B. Turner. You made a difference.
Source: George Butler Turner Collection, Jun 1862-Dec 1863. MSS 73. Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio