On New Year’s Eve 1862, 24-year-old William Thompson Lusk, a captain in the 79th New York Infantry—a regiment known as the “Highlanders” for its predominently Scottish-American makeup—penned the following letter to his sister Lillie at the family home in Connecticut. In his ambivalence about the year gone by and the one to come, Lusk was not unlike countless thousands of other Civil War soldiers, North and South, who took time for reflection that day. The following year, Lusk would resign from the army. Soon thereafter he’d finish his medical studies (which he had interrupted to join the army in 1861); after the war, he’d become a leading American obstetrician. He died in 1897 at age 59.
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
Dec. 31st, 1862.
My dear Sister Lillie:
I have just received your letter, and am much troubled to hear that mother has been ill. As you were intending to write me on New Year’s eve, I have concluded to write you in turn, knowing it to be all one, whether I write you or mother. I am specially disposed to write to-night as I feel very good-natured. I am not troubled for the moment, either with the goadings of disappointed ambition, the peculiarities of Scotchmen, the inclemency of the weather, or even with “the unfortunate Abraham Lincoln.” In a word, I am determined to be good-humored in bidding farewell to the old year, notwithstanding it is responsible (either it, or the aforesaid Abraham) for so many disasters. If all the hopes so fondly entertained at the beginning of the year have not been realized, we know at least that Providence doeth all things well, if not exactly as man would have it.
The Highlanders mean to celebrate the New Year, as the accompanying card will show. Turkeys, hams, tongues, bread and butter and a bowl of punch will be furnished to visitors, and we hope they may be many. But pleasantest of all, [Rev. William K.] Hall [chaplain of the 17th Connecticut Infantry] is coming to visit me, bringing with him a Dr. Hubbard of his regiment—an Uncle of pretty little Mary Chittenden. If we don’t have a good time, then I’ll hang up my sword on a willow tree, but you will have to wait until the second inst. for particulars. I had a good time Christmas too, and only regret you should have spent it so quietly. You see I raised a pair of ducks and rode up with them tied to my saddle to Stafford C. H. (ten miles), found Hall, eat the ducks (with Hall’s assistance), gossiped, and made very merry, though I had so recently written home representing myself so very miserable. Yesterday I made Major Crosby of the 21st C. V. a visit, and found that I used to go to school with him to old Peltis up-town. We had a right good time of it. His heart so warmed toward me finally, that he brought out a loaf of cake made by his wife’s fair fingers—good cake it was too. Speaking of cake reminds me that the Chaplain, my tent companion, has just received a cake from his sweetheart. Oh these sweethearts! Chaplain receives every mail pretty pink notes which he likes to be joked about. He likes the cake too.
Hall thinks I have grown dreadfully unrefined. I smoke a pipe and eat onions. Horrible, isn’t it? Would you really like your brother at home, who can do such dreadful things? I can’t come. I’ve tried, but Rhadamanthus, that is Old Bull Sumner, is adamant, and bids me wait until I catch swamp fever or lose a leg, when I will be able to return with flying colors. I tried in fact to take the Bull by the horns, and that’s what I got for my pains. Dear me, I’m growing older every day, so you can imagine how old I shall be when I get home.
Well, sister Lillie, I would try and be sentimental in view of New Year’s Eve, but that could hardly be looked for in a man that eats onions. But may many blessings rest on both my sisters, my mother and the little ones that are dear to us all. True love between you and Tom, between Hunt and Mary, deepening not weakening at each successive return of the New Year.
Had I my six months’ pay, and twenty days to spend at home, how I would make things fly around.
Again love to mother, Uncle Phelps, Aunt Maria, Nellie, Tom, friends individually, collectively, and in bulk.
Affec’y. your brother,