Private John James Wilson enlisted in Company B of the Fifty-First North Carolina on April 19, 1862. The 19-year-old Duplin County native listed his occupation as a farmer when he signed up for the war. Over the next year, Private Wilson regularly wrote to his mother, Amanda. Twenty of his letters survived; they are currently part of SC-MS-226 in the Special Collections of the Randall Library at UNCW.
John Wilson’s letters record the 51st Regiment’s movements around various camps in North and South Carolina. They also reveal the general condition of the regiment’s men and the hardships they faced. Lastly, Wilson’s correspondence gives a glimpse of the life of an ordinary soldier. Following are summaries of the letters’ contents.
Wilmington Area (May through August 1862)
May 12, 1862: The 51st North Carolina is at Camp Holmes on Masonboro Sound near Myrtle Grove. The men “have recive our arms to day,” most likely Enfield rifle muskets. Private Wilson had been sick but was recovering. He was pleased with the ration of “bacon and coffee and flour.” The men had been allowed to go swimming in the sound.
May 29, 1862: The regiment has moved up the coast to Camp Davis. The camp was located near the southern end of Figure Eight Island. Conditions at Camp Davis were not as good as they had been at Camp Holmes. “The fare here is not very good,” griped Private Wilson. His company had received 90 pounds of fresh beef, but the meat was spoiled. It “was throwed in the sound this morning.”
Parson Canoda had visited the troops and handed out tracts, hymnals, and testaments. The previous Saturday, the commander of the Department of North Carolina, General Samuel French, had inspected the Fifty-First North Carolina. Overall, the regiment was healthy, poorly fed, and “anxious to get in a fight.” Private Wilson has not requested a furlough yet.
June 14, 1862: The 51st North Carolina is still at Camp Davis. The unit’s heath is beginning to suffer. About 35 men in Company B are sick. Private Wilson wants to go home so he can go swimming and get something good to eat. He cannot get a furlough. Two of the regiment’s men are being court-martialed and may be shot.
June 19, 1862, Camp Davis: Conditions have improved since the last letter. Company B has plenty to eat, and they received four new tents so the men are not so crowded. The regiment should be issued clothes today and receive their pay soon. The 11th and 43rd North Carolina Regiments are also at Camp Davis; they have been ordered to Richmond.
July 17, 1862: The Fifty-First has moved across the Cape Fear River to Fort Johnston, near Smithville (Southport). Wilson asks his mother to send some apples, pants, cap, toothbrush, and notebook. He has not applied for a furlough because “it was not worth while.”
July 30, 1862: The regiment is near Wilmington “in a verry hot place.” The unit left Smithville three days prior and had since been ordered to Kinston, to Richmond, and back to Smithville. They didn’t know where they were going to wind up. The men are drawing their enlistment bounties.
August 14, 1862: The unit is back in Smithville. The weather is very warm. Private Wilson wants his mother to send him some more food and some soap. Wilson has been sick for a few days, but he never misses drill. “It is not worth my while to talk about a furlough.”
Kinston Area (September through November 1862)
September 5, 1862: The Fifty-First is about 12 miles from Kinston. The men have received three-months pay. Private Wilson is detailed as a butcher, slaughtering seven cows every other day.
September 15, 1862: The 51st North Carolina has settled in at Camp Campbell, seven miles from Kinston. The regiment is in good health. The men are busy on picket duty. Wilson asks his mother to send him a couple of chickens.
September 19, 1862: The regiment has moved eight miles from Camp Campbell. The Yankees have been within three miles of the Fifty-First. Private Wilson received his chickens.
November 9, 1862: The 51st North Carolina is now at Camp Allen, exact location unknown, but it is somewhere between Kinston and Trenton. “I am very sore from marching,” writes Private Wilson, “you never saw the like of blistered feet in your life as there is in this Regiment.” The Fifty-First pushed as far as Trenton, which was devoid of livestock except for a solitary hog that Lieutenant Swinson of Company B bought. Wilson asks his mother to send him a good opossum. John closes his letter with, “Our boys anxious to fight, but they cannot get the chance.”
November 12, 1862, Camp Allen: Private Wilson has nothing of interest to share. He would like two or three pairs of socks.
December 1, 1862: The 51st North Carolina is at Camp Whiting, “on or near the plank Road about one mile and a half from [east] Wilmington and it is not a very pleasant place.” Only one man from each company is allowed to go into town each day. Captain Caleb Hobson, commanding Company B, tried to get Private Wilson detailed home, but General Clingman denied the request. “I don’t know when I will get the chance to go home,” writes Wilson. He thanks his mother for the barrel of potatoes she sent earlier.
December 5, 1862, Camp Whiting: The regiment is digging entrenchments that will likely “never Be of any Benefit to us or anyone else.” The men dug up three corpses near a graveyard. Wilson requests another bag of potatoes.
December 13, 1862, Camp Whiting: Part of the regiment is still detailed digging entrenchments. Lieutenant Herring has hurt his leg and ankle and is on crutches. He doesn’t want his mother to know. Private Wilson asks his mother to send some potatoes and fresh meat.
January 11, 1863: The Fifty-First is still at Camp Whiting. Corporal William D. Carroll is in the hospital. Private Wilson has heard that A. O. Smith is dead. [Note: Private Albert O. Smith was wounded at Goldsboro on December 17, 1862 and died from his wounds on January 8.] “Send me something to Eat,” pleads Wilson.
Charleston Area (February through May 1863)
March 10, 1863: The 51st North Carolina is at Camp McKethan in the Charleston area. “We fare very bad for some thing to eat,” grumbles Private Wilson. But the young soldier is excited about the regiment’s brief time in Savannah: “Savannah is the prettiest place I ever saw. We fared very well. We returned here this morning.”
April 2, 1863: The regiment is on James Island, near Charleston. The men are in good health. Private Chestnutt Ezzell cut off two of his toes while butchering a cow. The Fifty-First marched in a grand review. General Beauregard was there and delivered a fine speech to the men. He “is grey headed [and] looks like a very smart man,” observes Private Wilson.
At the end of this letter, Wilson reveals that he is homesick. He wants to see his sister, and he wants to see his brother very much. “I want the war to end and I want to go to school,” writes Wilson.
April 15, 1863, James Island: The men have been told that the regiment is going to move somewhere else, maybe Wilmington, maybe Alabama. They do not expect to stay in Charleston much longer. “I should like to see you all very much, Mother.”
May 1863: The Fifty-First has returned to Wilmington. “You ought to have seen them when we got orders to leave [Charleston],” Private Wilson informs his mother. The men aren’t sure where they’ll go next. “I am a going to try to stop at home if I can,” writes Private Wilson. This is the last of Wilson’s letters in the collection. [Note: the 51st North Carolina returned to Wilmington on the night of May 2, 1863.]
The 51st North Carolina remained in the Wilmington area for the next two months. The companies were dispersed to different locations in support of other commands. On July 11, 1863, the regiment was rushed to Charleston in response to the Union advance on Morris Island. Private John Wilson did not leave with his company.
Wilson finally got to go home. The private had become very ill and was granted sick leave to go home and recuperate. Unfortunately, he succumbed to typhoid fever on July 15, 1863, while at his mother’s home in Duplin County.
On July 28, the officers and men of Company B drafted a “Tribute of Respect” for Private Wilson and sent the tribute to The Biblical Reporter. The newspaper published the tribute on August 12, 1864. You can view the article on the Obituaries and Tributes page of this website.
A month after Wilson’s death, Captain Walter Bell, commanding Company B, had the unpleasant task of writing to John Wilson’s uncle. In the letter, Bell requests that Wilson’s gun and accoutrements be returned to the regiment. “I was verry sorry to hear of Johny’s death,” wrote Bell, “he was a good Boy and made a splendid soldier.”
Index to Wilson Letters
1/02: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp McKethan, March 10 
1/03: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Holmes, May 12, 1862
1/04: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Davis, May 29, 1862
1/05: To Alfred W. Pollock from John J. Wilson & James A. Brown, Camp Davis, June 14, 1862
1/06: To Amanda Wilson from Kinion Johnson, June 15, 1862
1/07: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Davis, June 19, 1862
1/08: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Fort Johnston, July 17, 1862
1/09: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Wilmington, July 30, 1862
1/10: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Smithville, August 14, 1862
1/11: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, September 5, 1862
1/12: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Campbell, September 15, 1862
1/13: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Kinston, September 19, 1862
1/14: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Allen, November 9, 1862
1/15: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Allen, November 12, 1862
1/16: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Whiting, December 1, 1862
1/17: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Whiting, December 5, 1862
1/18: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Whiting, December 13, 1862
1/19: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, Camp Whiting, January 11, 1863
1/20: To Amanda Wilson from M. E. Johnson, April 10, 1863
1/21: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, May 1863
1/22: Tribute of Respect by Company B for death of John J. Wilson
1/23: To A. W. Pollock from W. R. Bell, Sullivan’s Island, August 6, 1863
1/24: To Amanda Wilson from W. H. Taylor (Division of Deceased Soldiers), Dec. 17, 1863
1/25: To Joseph and Margaret Wilson from A. R. and Mary F. Wilson, July 12, 1864
3/01: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, James Island, April 2, 1863
3/02: To Amanda Wilson from John J. Wilson, James Island, April 15, 1863
3/19: List of students at W. R. Bell school (1857-1858)
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