The last letter of Col. Fletcher Webster, written just a few hours before his death at the Battle of Second Bull Run to his wife, Caroline. It describes the action at Thoroughfare Gap, VA on August 28th of 1862. Webster ominously speculates that this may be his last letter, as he “will not spare” himself if a large battle is fought. This is a copy of the original letter, made by William Dehon after the original was destroyed in fire at the Webster home in Marshfield, Massachusetts on February 14th, 1878.
Hd. Qrts. 12th Light
Bull Run, Aug. 30th, 62
Since I wrote you last we marched to Thoroughfare Gap, where the enemy was expected to try and pop through. We got there after a hard march, Wednesday about 3 P.M. Our brigade in advance. On getting near the gap, our brigade was sent forward skirmishing, and as support to Matthew’s battery. The coast was reported clear.
On each side the gap, which is just wide enough for a carriage road, rise high, steep, thickly wooded hills. Just at the mouth of the gap on the eastern side there is a small space for [a] building, and there are some stone houses and a large stone mill. We approached the gap from the East, so these buildings were on our right. [Col. Richard] Coulter, with the 11th Pa., supported by the N.Y. 9th ,
had the right. The 12th and 13th [MA Infantries] the left of the advance. No sooner had we got within a short distance than the enemy, concealed in the woods and stone buildings, opened. On the right, Coulter had a sharp fight; the buildings were too strong for him. He fought like a hero, but was obliged to fall back, and with the 9th, retired up the road to the rear. He lost 2 officers and 60 men. We sent our skirmishers into the woods in front of us, and for a short time cleared them. But shortly they were reinforced.
I drew up “ours” well under cover and listened to the balls as they whizzed over our heads. We saw the other regts. retiring. The battery on our side retired, and I felt uncomfortable. At last an order came for us to retire, which we did across a plain, and when the enemy saw us crossing, they opened pretty well. It was nasty business, but the 12th marched as if on parade. Capt. [Richard H.] Kimball [acted] as if all the girls in Boston were looking
at him. [1st Lt. Thomas P.] Haviland, the brave, rode smoking a cigarette; the major was glorious; Arthur [Dehon] a young hero. I thought he was hit; a ball passed between us, and I saw him throw up his hand, but it was nothing. Officers and men were all good. [Lt. Col. Timothy M.] Bryan was sick and not in the action at all.
We got here last night. Today a great and decisive battle is expected. Forrester Devereux [Arthur F., col. 19th Mass. Inf.] has just called and here sits by me on the grass under a tree, while I write. He was again in action the day before yesterday, and has lost nearly all his company. He is unhurt
If a fight comes off, it will be today or tomorrow, and will be a most dreadful and decisive one. Both sides are preparing; some three hundred thousand men are on the eve of a conflict, and Washington depends on the issue. This may be my last letter, dear love; for I shall not spare myself. God bless and protect you and the dear darling children.
We are all under his protection.
Love to Don and Charlie. I have not means to write more. You must show this letter to the girls, with my love. Good bye dear wife, darling Carrie.
Love to Bertie and dear Rose. I hope to have many a good gallop with them on nice horses.
Bye, bye, dearest.
Fletcher Webster was the only surviving child of the famous Massachusetts Senator and orator, Daniel Webster. He organized the “Webster Regiment,” the 12th MA Infantry in 1861 at the age of 47. He was killed in action on the afternoon of August 30, 1862 at the Battle of 2nd Bull Run. Lt. Arthur Dehon, obtained a special pass from the C.S. authorities to recover the body of his dead colonel.
Webster’s knapsack, containing his last letter, was captured by members of the 11th VA Infantry, but was subsequently recaptured at Leesburg, VA about September 2nd. A quote from the letter was read at Webster’s state funeral in Boston on September 9th.
This letter is a copy, made by William Dehon ca. 1862, from the original in the possession of Caroline White Webster, Fletcher’s widow. Because the Marshfield home of Mrs. Webster was destroyed by fire on Feb. 14, 1878 with the loss of her valuable papers, Dehon’s copy is believed to be the only surviving document.
For more information, see Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol. XIII No. 1, Fall 1995, pp. 20-27, for “Col. Fletcher’s Last Letter,” by Wiley Sword.