This letter was written by James Cornell Biddle (1835-1898), the son of James Cornell Biddle (1795-1838) and Sarah Caldwell Keppele (1798-1877). Maj. Biddle wrote the letter to his cousin — and fiancee — Gertrude Gouverneur Meredith (1839-1905), the daughter of William Morris Meredith (1799-1873) and Catherine Keppele (1801-1853). William M. Meredith was a distinguished leader of the bar in Philadelphia and served as the Secretary of Treasury (1849-50) during the Zachary Taylor administration.
Sarah and Catherine Keppele were the daughters of Michael Keppele (1771-1821) and Catherine Caldwell (1774-1862). Michael Keppele was the mayor of Philadelphia (1811-1812).
James (“Jim”) and Gertrude were married on 27 December 1862.
At the time James C. Biddle wrote this letter in March 1862, he was a First Lieutenant and Aide-de-Camp on the staff of General Thomas R. Williams (1815-1862) while bivouacked on Ship Island — 12 miles off the coast of Mississippi and midway between Mobile and New Orleans. He would later be promoted to Major and attached as an Aide-de-Camp on Gen. George Gordon Meade’s staff just prior to the Gettysburg Campaign.
Ship Island was a desirable base for movement against Mobile or the Texas coast, or New Orleans; its selection served the double purpose of affording ample accommodations as a Union naval station and of keeping the rebel authorities in a constant state of uneasiness as to the point of attack.”
Union troop strength on Ship Island peaked in April 1862 when more than 15,000 men assembled for the assault on New Orleans. As soon as New Orleans fell, the Union garrison on Ship island was reduced to one regiment of infantry, the 13th Maine.
Addressed to Miss Gertrude G. Meredith, [Care of] Hon. W. M. Meredith, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Ship Island [Mississippi]
March 19th 1862
My own darling Gertrude,
Yesterday we made a change in our quarters. The General ¹ did not like the position of our tents. So we moved to the other side of the island. We were upside down all day & I did not have any opportunity of writing to you. It is very warm during the day but the nights have been very pleasant.
General Butler we hear has reached Key West. I wish he would arrive as I should like to know what we are to do.² I see no means of leaving here. We are completely isolated. We hear of nothing that is going on. I do not know when we may expect a mail, but presume it will not be very soon. You must be cheerful & take care of yourself for my sake. You are my all & if you should be sick, I do not know what I should do with myself.
We hear rumors every now & then but do not know whether to believe them or not. We had it reported last night that Manassas was evacuated & that we had gained successes in Arkansas in which Ben McCullough was killed. It is pleasant to hear cheering news but much more so, if you feel certain of the truth.
I live in the thought of returning to you. I trust the war will shortly be ended & that I may be with you again, my own dear girl.
It has been raining off & on all day with very heavy thunder. I wish it would clear up as I do not like to be confined to my tent. It was nearly blown down by the wind last night. We were obliged to get up & fix it about the middle of the night. It is a Camp Tent with two wings. Hewsen, Capt. [John] Clark, Leckay & myself occupy one wing, [H.H.] Elliott & [Wickham] Hoffman with their office the other, & the main area for a mess room. We have not as yet succeeded in getting any oysters or fish. The natives do not bring them as they used to do at Hatteras — it is very different though from there. This island was not inhabited & they would run a very great risk if they came from the Main land here.
After considerable trouble I have succeeded in getting a horsem which I am in hopes will suit me. I like his looks. I have not ridden him yet. He was only brought to me last night & today the rain has prevented my trying him. I am writing in pencil as it is so much easier for me. I am now sitting at the foot of my bed writing on my lap. The General [Thomas Williams] is on the other end reading Harper for January.
There is one very great drawback to this place — namely the want of shade. It is a very white-sand bank, without any vegetation. I myself think we are merely to take possession of New Orleans & Mobile. Fort Jackson, they think they can demolish with the mortar fleet & then with little difficulty go up to New Orleans. I do not see what we can do.
I hope we may soon have good news — something that looks decisive. I want very much to be with you again. I love you with my whole heart & I am sure we will always live happily together. I think with a little patience all will soon be right. It is provoking at this time to be so isolated but as it cannot be helped, it is wise to make the best of it & be contented.
Capt. [William B.] Renshaw arrived here with his Gun Boat [Westfield]. He has left for the South West Pass. We have heard nothing more from the Hartford. ³ I was in hopes she would be here. It will be somewhat of a surprise to Abbie Bache if he sees us.
Give my love to Ma, Katz, Elizabeth, Grandma, your father & all & with an overflowing heart, I am forever your own devoted, — Jim
¹ General Thomas R. Williams was made a Brigade Commander on Ship Island. The brigade included the 4th Wisconsin, the 6th Michigan, the 21st Indiana, and the 26th and 31st Massachusetts regiments. The staff officers of Gen. Williams included Maj. T. H. Bache, Brigade Surgeon; Capt. John Clark, Commissary of Subsistence; Capt. Wichkam Hoffman, Asst. Adjt. Genl.; 1st Lieut. H.H. Elliott, A.A.Q.M.; 1st Lieut. Jas. C. Biddle, Aid de Camp; 1st Lieut. Geo. C. DeKay, Aid de Camp. The Brigade remained on Ship Island until mid-April when they boarded the ship Great Republic and were transported to New Orleans.
² General Benjamin Butler arrived on Ship Island on 20 March 1862, the day after this letter was written. He arrived at 11 o’clock A.M. on the steamer Mississippi.
³ Two of Commodore David E. Farragut’s fleet of sloops-of-war and gunboats are mentioned here: the Flag-ship Hartford, twenty-six guns; and the Gunboat Westfield, six guns, with Capt. William Bainbridge Renshaw (1816-1863) commanding. The Westfield took part in the Mortar Flotilla operations on the Mississippi River in 1862. On January 1, 1863, the Westfield ran aground near Pelican Spit in Galveston Bay; she could not be dislodged and had to be destroyed to prevent capture. Renshaw and a boat crew were killed when she blew up prematurely. One story had it that they waited until the explosion should have occurred, then returned to the ship thinking that the fuse must have gone out. In May 1864 the hard-pressed Confederate Ordnance Department ordered the salvage of the Westfield’s hollow and forged side-wheel shafts, which were then made into gun barrels.