The Soldier’s Letter: The Civil War from the Western Frontier

Color photo of a front page of the "Soldier's Letter, with the fingers of a right hand holding open the bound volume

The Soldier’s Letter, issue No. 15. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Oliver V. Wallace was neither a great soldier of the Civil War nor an imposing man of his era. He was a private in the 2nd Colorado Cavalry and spent most of the conflict on the third floor of the Union Hotel in Kansas City.

Still, he found a place in history. It was from that perch that he created, edited and wrote much of the Soldier’s Letter, the unofficial newspaper of his regiment, that ran for 50 editions between 1864 and 1865. The four-page paper, printed on notebook-sized pulp, formed a loose diary of Union soldiers who were — although far removed from the war’s epic battles — “instrumental to the Civil War-fueled expansion of the American empire across the West,” writes military historian Christopher Rein in 2020’s “The Second Colorado Cavalry.”

The Library recently acquired a bound copy of the full print run of Wallace’s paper, an extremely rare find. It is a hardbound if unpretentious presentation copy, given to the regiment’s commander, James Hobart Ford, after the war as a memento. It is the size of a notebook, unlabeled, weathered, with the editions of the paper inside printed on pulp stock.

Though there is a long-standing national obsession with the Civil War, regimental newspapers never quite caught on as something to be preserved. More than 200 such papers in at least 32 states printed at least one edition, according to historian Earle Lutz, but they had mostly vanished by the time he surveyed the nation’s libraries, museums and major private collections in the early 1950s.

“A large number simply do not exist, and, in many, many instances, there is only one copy held anywhere,” he wrote in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1952. “It would be far easier to assemble a collection of the signers of the Declaration of Independence than to make up a collection of just one-half of the soldier publications that I have on my list.”

More recent scholarship has helped document the history of the military papers, and the national Library leaped at the chance to get the Soldier’s Letter from a dealer in rare manuscripts.

“I was struck by its uniqueness: a complete run of an American Civil War regimental newspaper and a specially collected set presented to the regimental commander,” said Georgia Higley, head of the Physical Collections Services in the Serial and Government Publications Division, who recommended the acquisition of the paper. “Researchers and Civil War enthusiasts value regimental newspapers for the honesty expressed by the men and their descriptions of life on the front lines — both at times at odds with mainstream newspapers.”

Three pages in each edition were devoted to a narrative history of the regiment, war news, local gossip, rumors and jokes. The fourth was left blank for soldiers to write letters or notes to family and then mail home. Each copy cost 10 cents. Much of the war was over by the time Wallace started his paper, but he and his unnamed correspondents did note Lincoln’s assassination, accounts of skirmishes and the general tenor of the last days of the Confederacy.

“The rebels have taken to smuggling in bacon past the blockage,” a short item noted in one edition near the end of the war. “The evidences multiply that they are on their last legs.”

There were asides about eligible women — some wrote in, looking for marriage — but Wallace admonished his peers not to date Confederate women. Charming as they were, he noted, they were traitors to the Union cause at best and spies at worst.

The Union cause was a particular focus for the regiment, as Colorado was a territory whose white citizens longed to join the United States. Wallace surveyed his peers and published the results, providing a clear snapshot of the regiment’s demographics: Nearly all of them rushed west after an 1859 gold strike in the Rocky Mountains, and nearly all were working as miners or farmers when they signed up. The unit was composed of men from nearly two dozen states (primarily Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania), with a smattering of European immigrants. A few had been born at sea.

They first fought slave-holding Texans to prevent them from expanding into New Mexico, then moved to Oklahoma and eventually Kansas and Missouri. They were primarily “guerilla hunters,” both of Confederate bushwhackers and Native Americans, and relegated to an “obscure theater of the war,” Rein writes.

The paper was devoutly against slavery, and a few times units fought alongside the freed Black slaves of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. The editorial columns repudiated Confederates and Copperheads (Northern sympathizers).

But as historians have noted, the regiment was part of the bridge between the Civil War and the Indian wars that followed, and there is little doubt that the soldiers identified Native Americans as their most hated enemy. This becomes clear in their reaction to the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, one of the worst atrocities against Native Americans in U.S. history.

Throughout 1864, while most of the nation was focused on the Civil War, white settlers in Colorado were advancing rail and wagon-train lines through the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, attempting to connect themselves more concretely to the United States.

Native American war parties attacked the settlers making those routes, killing and raiding as they went. Peace talks ensued and by late November, some 750 Native American non-combatants were camped outside a U.S. fort, waiting to turn themselves over for protection from the hostilities. It’s a remote spot in eastern Colorado, flat and featureless, about 175 miles southeast of Denver, not far from the Kansas state line.

On Nov. 29, 1864, without warning or provocation, units of the 1st Colorado Infantry and the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, led by Col. John Chivington, attacked them at dawn.

“Over the course of eight hours the American troops killed around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children and the elderly,” the National Park Service writes in its official history of the place, now a National Historic Site. “During the afternoon and the following day, the soldiers wandered over the field committing atrocities on the dead.”

Capt. Silas Soule of the  1st Colorado vehemently protested plans for the attack, held his men out of the conflict and later testified against Chivington as a war criminal. “I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized,” he wrote to a friend weeks after the attack.

Soule was shot and killed in Denver less than a year later, an unsolved attack widely viewed as retribution for his testimony. Chivington escaped legal punishment but resigned from the military and was socially and politically ostracized.

Strikingly different from the rest of the nation’s reaction, the Soldier’s Letter editorialized the massacre wasn’t vicious enough to suit their taste.

“The only fault we have to find with Colonel Chivington and his troops is that they did not sweep the last ‘red skin’ in that part of the country, from the face of the earth! …. nothing short of annihilation will protect our brothers, sisters and parents, on the frontier, from their savage cruelties,” the paper wrote in January 1865 (original italics and punctuation).

It’s a stark paragraph or two, lost in a small sea of other type about quotidian details of camp life. More than a century and a half later, it’s a reminder that the Civil War was, on the Great Plains, only one of two conflicts that would define the nation.

A close-up of the final edition of the Soldier's Letter, describing the paper's history and bidding farewell.

The final edition of the Soldier’s Letter sums up its history. The top item at far right notes there were 20 copies of the full run of the paper on hand, all 50 editions. The Library’s copy is the only one known to still survive. Photo: Shawn Miller.

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