From the Archives: Last letter from a Union soldier to his brother

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Uselma Duncan is not a household name. He was not a world-famous artist or poet, and he wasn't abundantly wealthy. Uselma Duncan was a dry goods clerk who fought on the side of the North during the early months of the Civil War. He represents a faceless, nameless number -- one of the millions of individuals pushed around by the circumstances of war. Wars these days are fought far away from us, at a safe distance; but the Civil War was closer to home, and the Duncan/Stoddard Letters at Auraria Special Collections Department starkly illustrate that proximity.

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Duncan was living in St. Louis when the war broke out. He moved to New Jersey and joined the 71st New York Volunteer Regiment, which was stationed at Washington Navy Yard. The Duncan/Stoddard Letters fill one single gray three-inch letter box, and they span the years of 1857 to 1864. It is not exactly clear how they came to reside at Auraria library; they were given to the library by a UCD employee named Phillip Becker in 1989. He got them from his father-in-law, E. James Ferrar, who received them directly from the Stoddard family after the last direct descendant died.

The collection contains correspondence from Uselma Duncan, his brother, Kenneth, his sister, Sarah Stoddard, and some others. This is the letter he wrote to Kenneth Duncan on July 15, 1861, days before the First Battle of Bull Run.

Washington Navy Yard

My Dear Brother

In haste I write you a few lines, they are perhaps the last I shall ever have the pleasure to write you from this place, but I hope not the last I shall be permitted to write, If they are I am prepared to say God's will be done, not mine. Just at the time when we were all expecting soon to return home and to join all our beloved friends, and enjoy the comforts we left and which we so longed for, we are ordered to take up our line of march tomorrow the 16th into the heart of the enemies country -- but such is war. I think, Dear Brother, I hear you say Go and be of good cheer. It is a noble cause in which you are engaged. I should be of in good spirits but I must say I am a little disappointed at the road in which we are to travel at this time, for we all expected to march into broadway this week and hear the greeting voices of our friends and brothers calling welcome to us. I think from the appearance of things at present and the number that go with us, instead of hearing the voices of our friends, we shall have our ears deafened by the thunder of booming cannons. Let us go and bear the brunt of the storm if needs be and if I and many others of the gallant 71st never reach home, we will dye a glorious death on the battle field in fighting for our country whose institutions are sought and praised by all the nations of the earth.

If we all return, I can't say when it will be. We form tomorrow at one o'clock on Pennsylvania Avenue. The 71st, Rhode Island First, and Second Regiments and Light battery and New Hampshire's Reg. form and take up their march in Virginia. I have no doubt but you will hear of sharp work. Write to me as soon as you receive this and let me know about my last, and if you received the box I sent you with my clothes in, and the letter with one closed to P.L. Vandermenter. I must close this, there is so much noise and they are soon going to [two illegible words] and they may hit me and wound me so I will close by saying I hope to see you soon again and that I may come out of battle unharmed and be permitted to return in safety. If not, rest assured I am relying on the arm of God, and if I dye by the ball of my enemy my pillow will be soft by my trust in God he is able to save. Direct to Washington, or the same as before, they will be forwarded. I am afraid to write to mother, I shall wait a day or two before writing farewell.

Your Dear Brother Uselma Duncan

Just after writing this letter, Duncan marched with Union forces on Richmond, Virginia on July 21, 1861. A dry goods clerk, Duncan was no more a soldier than anyone else on the battlefield; all were equally inexperienced in war, and the battle was a rout, becoming a victory for the Confederate forces. Uselma Duncan was killed, and his body was never recovered.

In wartime, a telegram -- the bearer of bad news -- was the last thing a person waiting at home wanted to see. Folder 13 in the collection contains several telegrams surrounding Duncan's death, including this one, which just reads "Uselma Duncan was killed while nobly doing his duty":

Duncan had a great deal of pride in being both a soldier and a dry goods clerk. Here is the business card that bears his signature on the back:

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