“The Most Terrible Sight I Ever Saw” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Charles Harvey Brewster was an average man living an ordinary life in New England, but this changed when he enlisted in the Tenth Massachusetts Volunteers in April 1861, during the early days of the American Civil War. Brewster’s regiment experienced intense fighting and witnessed extensive destruction. Like many of his brethren, Brewster wrote home frequently, and the letters received from his family bolstered his sinking morale and increased his strength. His letters home provided his family with information about the war and proof that he was still alive. According to historian David W. Blight, Brewster penned over two hundred letters during the course of the war. The two letters examined here contain detailed descriptions of gruesome war scenes and provide evidence of Brewster’s diligent fighting spirit. They also portray his intense disdain for those men who did not enlist in the Union Army. Brewster’s name may not be among the best known in the annals of Civil War history, but his story is as compelling as any other.

Summary Overview

Charles Harvey Brewster was an average man living an ordinary life in New England, but this changed when he enlisted in the Tenth Massachusetts Volunteers in April 1861, during the early days of the American Civil War. Brewster’s regiment experienced intense fighting and witnessed extensive destruction. Like many of his brethren, Brewster wrote home frequently, and the letters received from his family bolstered his sinking morale and increased his strength. His letters home provided his family with information about the war and proof that he was still alive. According to historian David W. Blight, Brewster penned over two hundred letters during the course of the war. The two letters examined here contain detailed descriptions of gruesome war scenes and provide evidence of Brewster’s diligent fighting spirit. They also portray his intense disdain for those men who did not enlist in the Union Army. Brewster’s name may not be among the best known in the annals of Civil War history, but his story is as compelling as any other.

Defining Moment

Soldiers who experience war firsthand describe it as a harrowing and unforgettable experience. After serving with the Union Army in the Civil War, Brewster likely returned home to Massachusetts a changed man. His letters to his family serve as archives of the ghastly scenes he witnessed, including tangled piles of bodies on the battlefield. Any romantic notions Brewster had of war the first time he donned his Union Army uniform or as he marched past townspeople with his regiment had likely vanished three years later.

Given that Brewster served for nearly the entire duration of the war and fought in some of its most notorious battles, it is likely that, at one time or another, these piles contained men with whom he had served. To his family at home, Brewster’s letters provide a stark portrayal of the hardships their son and brother experienced as a member of the Union Army. Questions remain as to why Brewster chose to relay such graphic detail to his mother and sister in an age where written correspondences were rooted in formality and propriety. Brewster’s letters may have served as his only escape from the field of battle.

Author Biography

When the Civil War ended in May 1865, more than half a million soldiers were dead. For many, their stories died with them. This, however, was not the case with the Massachusetts-born soldier Charles Harvey Brewster. Brewster, from Northampton, Massachusetts, located in the western part of the state, wrote scores of letters home to his mother and sisters, each explicit in detail about both the battles and his personal misgivings about the conflict.

Brewster was born on October 10, 1833, to Harvey and Martha Russell Brewster. The family also included two daughters, Mary and Mattie. By 1838, Harvey was dead, leaving his wife to support their young family. Historian David W. Blight has recorded Brewster as a rather unremarkable man who wrote detailed letters later as a soldier of war; up until his enlistment, he worked as a store clerk. Service in the army therefore held the promise of honor. Honor is a recurring theme in his letters.

Though the Tenth Massachusetts Volunteers saw much action in well-known battles–such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg–and lost many men in the process, Brewster himself came out of the war physically unscathed, itself a notable feat. He married Anna Williams three years after the conclusion of the war, and they had a family of four daughters and two sons, and kept to Northampton, Massachusetts. Charles Harvey Brewster lived to the age of approximately sixty, attending battle reunions in the 1880s and writing to his family that “Papa has had the grandest time of his life…. They [Confederate soldiers] seem as glad to see us as though we were brothers or cousins at least” (qtd. in Blight).

Document Analysis

Letters, particularly personal correspondence such as that written by Brewster, are vital documentary sources. He wrote for his family and friends, as well as for the community. Well knowing that the mail service was at times delayed or unreliable, he advised his mother to publicize a casualty list he had compiled, advising that she “can hand it to the Gazzette and they can do as they have a mind to.” Letters hold a special place for the historian. They offer a first-person narrative of a specific moment in history, offering clues to how the debates of the day were framed. Letters allow the modern reader to hear a voice now lost and serve as archives of stories from years past. In historical letters, the writer’s voice, opinions, and thoughts are given voice. In a sense, the writer lives on through the preservation of his or her work.

Morale on the Battlefield

Although it is plausible that Brewster wrote for no other reason than to remain in contact with his family during the war, reassuring them of his safety, he may have had an additional motivation: morale. By May 1864, the Civil War had raged for three years. Brewster and other members of the Tenth Massachusetts Volunteers had fought horrific battles, witnessing firsthand the war’s savage brutality. By the conclusion of hostilities in April 1865, “more than one out of every five white men participating” were dead (Costa and Kahn 520–21). Brewster specifically states how frayed his nerves were at the time of writing, given that his regiment had recently endured approximately a week and a half of constant shellfire.

It is possible that Brewster wrote letters as a form of escapism in an attempt to alleviate his stress and anxieties before and after the battles in which he risked his life. In his letters, he inquires about life at home, asking after his mother, sisters, and the community at large. He pours onto the page his experiences in war as if to offload them from his mind. Likewise, the letters Brewster received from his family likely boosted his spirit. In the second letter, addressed to his sister, Mary, Brewster writes: “We received a mail [from] home and I got 4 letters and I cannot find words to express the joy it gave me and all the Regiment and you can little imagine the amount of happiness one such mail brings to every one Regt of this great Army.”

In another letter, addressed to his sister Mattie in 1862, Brewster expresses joy at having received a care package from home: “I received your most welcome letter accompanying the stockings, and also the pictures for which I cannot find words to express my thanks. I have to look at them fifty times a day.” These small acts from his family lifted up his damaged spirits and reinforced his reasons for fighting. Other like him held out for these missives from home as their “morale depended not just upon good news from the front, but also upon their families’ and communities’ support” (Costa and Kahn 525).

Just as there were valiant soldiers like Brewster within the Tenth Massachusetts Volunteers, there were also men who could not tolerate the experience of war. Deserters, whether soldiers or officers, damaged the morale of the regiment, and increased the duties and responsibilities of those left behind. The matter of desertion was not taken lightly. As Brewster notes: “Some of our cavalry the other day took a squad of Rebel prisoners a few days ago and among them was a deserter from our ranks. He was shot without ceremony… I don’t know what Regt he belonged to. We were marching by at the time.”

The fact that Brewster’s words are matter of fact and blasé can be interpreted in a number of ways. It is possible that he does not describe the episode emotionally because he concurred with the punishment meted out to the deserter. Economic historians Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn note that desertions were very small among regiments from Massachusetts, accounting for only 5.86 percent of overall Union desertions; they also affirm that deserter executions were rare events (528, 530).

No Glamour in War

In Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Civil War novel Gone with the Wind, characters warn others against romanticizing the war experience. In other scenes in the novel, characters come to the realization that war is unglamorous on their own. In the two letters considered here, Brewster does not record what he felt when he first enlisted with his regiment in Northampton at the onset of war, but his words demonstrate his effort to understand the reality of a combat veteran. Whatever charm he saw in the ceremony of soldiery was likely forgotten by the time his pen touched the paper. The first letter describes how the “batteries were brought up and threw about 150 shells over onto the opposite hills but got no reply. the Johnies had skeedadled so we were spared one great fight… which was a great relief to us I can tell you.” His two letters, written within one week in May 1864, came as his regiment waged the battles of Spotsylvania Courthouse from May 12 through May 21, and then that of the North Anna River from May 23 to May 26.

Brewster’s mother Martha and his sisters Mary and Mattie no doubt worried about his safety. They likely scoured newspapers for mention of his name and must have felt a sense of dread in the tone of his letters and in Brewster’s emphasis on the macabre. The letter to his sister Mary contains a reference to the magnolia trees he has seen in the South; magnolias are not native to the North. Brewster is melodious in his description of the flower, writing “their perfume is very refreshing after the continual stench of the dead bodies of men and horses which we have endured for the last 19 days.” It is quite an image to send to a sister. He then continues that he hopes to “perhaps put one of them in this letter but when it gets to you its white waxen beauty will be all done though perhaps it may retain some of its fragrance.” While he wishes to send examples of the blooms he has come to admire, he also observes that it very well could be dead and without its fragrance by the time it arrives to the family home. This description can be understood as a parallel of how Brewster felt his own homecoming might unfold.

Brewster served approximately three and a half years in the Civil War, risking his life every day. While he fought bravely, he did not romanticize his experiences. On any given day, his regiment faced shellfire from the enemy and marched mile after mile without sleep or adequate rations. Although he did not write romantically about his service, Brewster was steadfast in his loyalty to his regiment and the army at large. He fought for his country, but, like his Union and Confederate fellows, he also fought for those back at home, for the people who received his letters and sent back their own.

Essential Themes

Brewster, despite the hardships he endured as a soldier, was ultimately proud of himself and his military service. What he could not abide, though, were the men who did not and would not enlist as he and countless others had done. As he wrote to his mother:

I wish the cowards at home who sneer at the noble Army of the Potomac, might be forced out here to take their share of the luxuries of the Officers Confound them. It is outrageous and abominable that the Army must be slandered and abused by the cowards that stay at home and cannot be coaxed of forced out here at any event.

There is frank contempt in Brewster’s words. For Brewster, honorable men fought for their country, they did not shirk their responsibilities.

Bibliography
  • Blight, David W. “The Civil War in History and Memory.”Chronicle of Higher Education 48.44 (2012): B7. Print.
  • Costa, Dora L., and Matthew E. Kahn. “Cowards and Heroes: Group Loyalty in the American Civil War.” Quarterly Journal of Economic History 118.2 (2003): 519–48. Print.
  • Flynn, Kevin Haddick. “‘Where the Murderin’ Cannons Roar…’: The American Civil War.” History of Ireland 20.5 (2012): 28–32. Print.
  • Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Talbott, John. “Combat Trauma in the American Civil War.” History Today 46.3 (1996): 41. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Blight, David W, ed. When This Cruel War Is Over: The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992. Print.
  • Chestnut, Mary Boykin, and C. Vann Woodward, ed. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. For Causes and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
  • Roe, A. S. The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861–1864. Tenth Regiment Veteran Association, 1909. Print.
  • Shaw, Robert Gould, and Russell Duncan, eds. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw. U of Georgia P, 1999. Print.
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