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William Combs - Introduction and Index

Jump directly to Index of Letters

Introduction to the William Combs Letters

By George Rugg

William J. Combs (11 November 1828-17 February 1904) was born in Winchester, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, the son of Anthony and Abigail Aldrich Combs. On 8 June 1847 Combs married Eliza Ann Doolittle of Brattleboro, Vermont; during the war the household included three sons and one daughter. The 1860 U.S. Census for Winchester identifies Combs as head of his household but does not indicate that he owned land; his profession is marked as "Labour" and his personal estate is valued at $50.00. Combs' military records identify him as a farmer, still residing in Winchester when he enlisted in the Union army on 19 August 1862. On 22 September he was mustered in to Company C of the 14th New Hampshire Infantry.

The Combs collection comprises nine personal letters, written from 23 November 1862 to 24 March 1865, sent by Private Combs to his wife in New Hampshire. The four earliest letters (November 1862-March 1863) were written from Poolesville, Maryland, where the 14th New Hampshire was on picket and patrol duty along the upper Potomac, defending the city of Washington. (The last three of these letters, from February and March of 1863, were dated "1862" by Combs. Combs was not yet in the army in the winter of 1862, and the 14th had yet to be formed. The letters' content confirms that they were written in 1863). Two subsequent letters (January 1864) are from Camp Adirondack in Washington, where the regiment was on garrison duty. The final three (March 1865) were written from the environs of Savannah, Georgia, where the 14th New Hampshire had been assigned to provost duty after the city's fall. From 6 March to 5 June Combs was part of a 60 man detachment occupying Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River.

In his letter of 23 November 1862 Combs betrays a disaffection for the war shared by countless other recruits in the Union regiments newly formed in the summer of that year. Lincoln's July call for 300,000 fresh volunteers had provoked little of the enthusiasm of 1861, and quotas were met only through the advance payment of bounties and the threat of conscription. (The slogan on the patriotic letterhead derives from the year's popular recruiting song, "We are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More.") Thus, Combs writes, few in his regiment would have enlisted had they known anything of army life; most of the men have been sick; and abolition is no good reason to fight, since it is rejected by the very people whom it would set free. Combs' evident antipathy for blacks is more baldly stated elsewhere, as in his letter of 15 February 1863: "i like here first [rate] i should like to live here but I dont want the damd nigers I hate them worse than the devel." In all the letters Combs' spelling and grammar are idiosyncratic — somewhat less so in his later efforts, written in 1865.

It is notable that four other soldiers surnamed Combs and born in Winchester served in Company C; all enlisted in the 14th at the same time as William. Captain Amos D. Combs, William's older brother (b. 1821), was in command of the company in 1862-63. Reuben H. Combs, another brother (b. 1825), was a corporal and sergeant, while Reuben's son Roland (b. 1846) served as a private. Reuben and Roland are mentioned in the letters, as is Private Carroll Combs, the son of William's older brother George. William's letter of 24 March 1865 concludes with a literary swipe at Carroll Combs: "here is a few lines from Carrold if you can read it if I could not write better than that I would try and learn to write he says I need not read it unless I am a mind to so good by for now." News from the field of how friends and relatives were faring in the army is commonplace in Civil War letters, since companies and regiments were generally recruited on a narrowly regional basis. A fifth Combs family member in the 14th New Hampshire's Co. C was Ceylon S. Davis, called Seel in the letters, who was the son of William's sister Cynthia.

The 14th New Hampshire was mustered out of service in Savannah on 8 July 1865, having seen sustained combat only in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1864. The tintype portrait of Private Combs accompanying these letters is of uncertain date. In later life Combs resided in West Dummerston, Vermont.

Bibliographic note: For the movements of the regiment and of Company C, see Janet B. Hewitt, ed., Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Wilmington NC, 1996, Part II, Vol. 39, pp 515-21, 525-28. For a roster of the men who served in the 14th New Hampshire Infantry, see the Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866, Concord NH, 1895, 693-733. The regimental history is Francis H. Buffum, A Memorial of the Great Rebellion: Being a History of the Fourteenth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, Boston, 1882 (reprint Earlysville VA, 1996). The Milne Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire holds a group of 28 wartime letters written by J. Henry Jenks, a sergeant who served with William Combs in Company C from August 1862 to October 1864; see the J. Henry Jenks Papers, acc. no. 9106. Thanks to John Coombs for kindly providing details on William Combs' family.

Index of Letters

MSN CW 5011-1LetterNovember 23, 1862Poolesville, MarylandWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-2LetterFebruary 15, 1863Poolesville, MarylandWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-3LetterFebruary 27-March 1, 1863Poolesville, MarylandWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-4LetterMarch 8, 1863Poolesville, MarylandWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-5LetterJanuary 6, 1864Washington, D.C.William Combs
MSN CW 5011-6LetterJanuary 8, 1864Washington D.C.William Combs
MSN CW 5011-7LetterMarch 2, 1865Savannah, GeorgiaWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-8LetterMarch 21, 1865Fort Pulaski, GeorgiaWilliam Combs
MSN CW 5011-9LetterMarch 24, 1865Fort Pulaski, GeorgiaWilliam Combs
Undated Tintype Portrait — 150 DPI, Color (93 KB)
Undated Tintype Portrait — 150 DPI, Black & White (92 KB)
Undated Tintype Portrait — 100 DPI, Black & White (52 KB)
Undated Tintype Portrait — 72 DPI, Black & White (29 KB)

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