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John Beaton Letters


A Sargent in the Portsmouth Rifles


The following are letters from John Kerr Beaton to his sister, Mrs M.F. Stephens in Portsmouth.  They span a period from Nov. 29, 1862 to April 4, 1864. The city of Portsmouth was in Union hands during this time period. I transcribed these letters from the originals with permission of the owner. The letters have never been reproduced except in the Portsmouth Rifles newsletter. They were typed using original punctuation and spelling except where same would miscommunicate.   Comments contained in [ ] were added to provide additional information.

John Kerr Beaton was mustered into Co. G, Portsmouth Rifles, on Aug. 31, 1861.  He was promoted to Sgt on July 1, 1862; wounded July 1, 1862 at Malvern Hill; listed as 1st Sgt. On March 1863. 

   While holding and reading these letters I could not help but feel a kinship with the soldiers mentioned within. During my research of the Portsmouth Rifles I come across the same names in various sources until I feel as if I know them personally. I am honored to be descended from several members of the Portsmouth Rifles who are mentioned in John Beatons letters. My father was named for Lt. Nat Gayle who writes one of the letters and I lived in Colonel Owens house when I was young. I have been raised on grits and cornbread my entire life. These letters are very special to me and I would like for them to be enjoyed by you also.

                                                                                                                                                                    Jim Mayo


Letter No. 1

Camp near Fredricksburg    

Spottsylvania County           

Nov 29, 1862                    

My Dear Sister

                        Your very welcome letter came to hand today.  I am very sorry to hear that Ma is worse than when I left.   I assure you I would write every day if it were possible but such is not the case.  I have written to you several times and thought you had received them.  I have never written by this man though, this is the first letter I have received from you since I left Fallen Creek.  I wish you would be more explicit about how you are getting along.  I wish to know how you live whether you can obtain the necessaries of life or not.  I have heard so many different tales about the way you are faring and the citizens generally that I wish to know if there is any truth in these reports.  You ask me if I need clothes, in one way I must answer yes, in another no.  The long and quick  marches we have to take prevents us from carrying any more than is actually necessary to keep the cold out, which for the present I have except socks.  I have not a single pair nor have I had a pair for three months.   That is a very small inconvenience as my feet are hardened to the bare leather now.  I believe I keep as warm without them.  If we were in winter quarters or expected to go in, I would wish more as it is I am very well satisfied.  We are enjoying the best of health and spirits.  We see the yankees every day we are on one side of the river and they on the other about one hundred and fifty yards.  A part of our regiment was on picket a couple of days ago.  We talk across the river to each other neither side showing the least sign of hostility although we are ready for a fight at any moment.  We are here today and thirty four or five miles away tomorrow.  That is the way we spend our time one day either fighting or watching the enemy and the next day march thirty miles to another point.  We often hear rumors of peace which is generally a sure indication of a fight.  I wish we were at peace, I should like so much to get home once more.  There is a great deal we would have to talk about, the magnificent scenery in this mountainous country.  I really wish you could see it , to be on the top of one of these mountains where you can see everything around is a beautiful sight especially if one of our armies are fording a river, soft crabbing for yankees as we call it.  The different jests which are constantly going on would be very amusing if  known.  Would be very anxious to get to Suffolk and give those fellows a round.  I think we could a second Manassas of that if they would send our general Longstreet there.  He commands this army corps and is second to none but Lee.  We will yet have an opportunity of avenging the insults offered to the women of Portsmouth and right well do we know how to avenge when the opportunity affords us.  You need not trouble yourself about sending me any money.   I have done right long without any, if you could send me a pair of boots easily I should like to have it and also a fine tooth comb, they are worth a small fortune here, if I could get money enough to buy tobacco I would be all right.  WH Brittingham has been sent to a hospital where I don’t know.  We were at Winchester at the time and our doctor has been ordered away so I could not tell you a word about him, all the rest of us are very well.  I hope you all will be well when you receive this.  I have heard from Mary Francis once at Richmond but did not answer it as we marched the same day.  Give my love to Ma and accept it for yourself.

                                                Yours Truly

                                                            John Beaton

Letter No. 2

Camp Near Petersburg    

March 23rd 1863            

Dear Sister

                        Your very welcome letter was received this morning, it affords me a great deal of pleasure to hear that you and Ma are will.  I would like very much to see you, but as you say, it is impossible just now, perhaps the time is not far distant when we may come, although we may have some hard knocks we would be willing to fight a little harder than usual, to retake our homes.   I would like to meet those officers who offered you that insult, if for nothing else to learn them how a southern man has been taught to treat females.  I think my lesson to them would be rather severe and they might be made to feel what others have felt before, the lead from my musket.  Such treatment   as you received is of common occurrence.   When we were in the valley we could hear every day of some such chivalrous action, they know no better, too cowardly to meet men in the field, it is the only path left to them for promotion.  They are honored for such deeds, it shows the daring of the reptiles.   We can give them no other names.  I saw some who had deserted at Blackwater in Petersburg at work, in fact met them on the street.  They touched their hats and wished to know where we belonged.  Our reply confirmed their opinion as they say that we hated them root and branch.  I hear occasionally from Mary Francis.  She and her family were well.  I have written to her but she seems not to have received my letters.  I received the things you sent by that lady and am very much obliged to you for them.  The shoes are rather thin, the snow soaks through them very soon.  We have had an unusual quantity of that this winter. For the last four days we have had to travel through it nearly 15 inches deep.  A pair of heavy boots would have been a great deal better.  If you can conveniently get a black slouch hat, and send me, I would like it very much, these little caps are anything else but comfortable in rain or snowy weather the water runs down my neck and feels, not very pleasant, although being wet is something I am used to as we get so every time it rains, seldom having our flies as we are nearly all ways on the move, we may stay here some time, a very good sign for us, our flies have been sent to the regiment, we are now building chimneys to them, they will be very comfortable then.

            I have not seen John Tee [Cousin, 3rd Va. Inf] since I received the things from home.  He is in Kempers brigade, and I hear has gone to Carolina.  If I hear where he is, I will write to him and send the comb, they belong to the same division we do.  I saw Wm Tee in Richmond he had been sick, but was getting a great deal better.  I suppose he has joined his regiment, before this I have been in Richmond getting up absentees from the regiment, that was the first time I had been away from the company an hour since we left home.  We are enjoying excellent health not a men sick and but three complaining, then only to keep off guard.  This bad weather, a soldier is full of such tricks as those when in camp. 

            You would have laughed to have seen great grown men Saturday with their traps and dead falls catching birds.  We were very successful, the mess I am in caught quite a number.  We made a large pot pie which was very nice.  I wish you had one like it, everything is so very high we can get but except camp fare, which is rather hard, but we keep fat on it.  I have not seen John Beaton [of 41st Va. Inf] since we left Portsmouth, and Tip but once.  They are in a different division we seldom get together.  They are now at Fredricksburg and John I hear is in command of his company Tip being at home.

            I have been right busy lately, being the first sergeant of the company.   I have all the business to do and am now fixing up my rolls and have to give an account of every man who left Portsmouth with us.   It is a sad duty writing dead opposite so many names of those with whom I have associated and under such trying circumstances.

            I saw a number of men from Portsmouth in Richmond, among them, John Borum who is very anxious to get back home, but does not want to go until after we have been in and cleared the town out.  It seems to me to be a very hard matter to write a letter nothing that occurs in camp would interest you and I go no where else so my letters must necessarily be dull.  Have you ever heard from Jennie Hathaway.  I don’t know her other name, if so what is her opinion of the war and who does she think is in the right.  I suppose she is strictly northern in her views.  Tell cousin Thinsey, Lem is very will.  If you see Mrs. Harvey tell her Authur is very well and sends his love.  He is in a worse fix than I am he has written home often but none of his letters ever get there.

            Give my respects to Jim Borum and his family and to any one else who may inquire for me, give my love to mother and accept it for yourself.

                                                            I remain your affectionate brother

                                                            John  K. Beaton

                                                            Co. G 9th Regt Va. Vol

                                                            Armisteads brigade

                                                            Picketts division


            I would pay this but I am entirely out of money.



Letter No. 3

Pickett Line near Suffolk   

April 25th 1863                                

Dear Sister Your very welcome letter came to hand day before yesterday. I have received two or three from you and have answered them, but it seems you have not received them. I am very much pleased to hear you and your family are well. I am enjoying the same blessing just now, but donít know how soon I may get my quietness in the shape of a minie ball as they are flying quite thick. I am now with the reserve but they reach us. Sarah wrote me about her trip, it was very aggravating to get so near the wished for heaven and then be disappointed. I would like to see her just to hear her tell of their actions. I would like to see Capt. Gregg. I would like to be apt to send him as I have some of his brethren, to their last account. Sarah tells me Ma is getting a great deal better, which I like better than any news she would write. You must excuse this, if it is disconnected. I am called off almost every minute for something being the 1st Sergeant of the company. I have nearly all the business of the company to do in the way of details, reports and such likes. We have had rain every day since we have been here. I have not been dry in a month. My musket, my only friend, I have to keep dry consequently that gets the largest share of my blanket. This paper will testify to how dry we have been, you must give it itís true value. (Original letter is water stained). None of us have a shift of clothes. Our fancy goods are scarce. I have the last sheet of paper in the company. We are traveling light Ė besides our warlike implements we have nothing but our blankets, haversacks and canteens. This kind of life must suite me. I enjoy better health than I ever did and am heavier, so is all our company. We are now in a swamp where water only ankle deep is called a dry place. We throw down two tiers of rails and sleep as well as if we were on beds of down, it has been nearly twelve months since I have slept in a house on a bed. I donít know how I should feel to sit down at a table and eat a meal, and then go regularly to bed, it would be strange indeed, and would require sometime for me to get used to it again. I would like very much to travel over the same country again and have you with me, that I did last summer and winter. I never pictured anything so rich and lovely. I was with the main army, consequently I could not visit the different points of interest in our course. When off on a scout I had not time to enjoy the scenes as I would like. Three places in particular I wish to visit, I have a stinging remembrance of them having received a Yankees compliments at each one of these places in the shape of a minnie ball. Maryland and Virginia near Harpers Ferry is the ????? of America in my opinion and the only place I would be content to settle on and stay fixed for life, it looks so wild and grand. Just suiting my restless nature. Yesterday we had a brush the whole length of our lines, our regiment came off with out any loss. I have not heard from the rest of the line, our loss is very small if any as we drove the enemy back at every point, out position was very much attacked I donít know how soon we may attack Suffolk our lines are now within two miles of it. Our General Longstreet knows what he is about and I think will soon learn the Yankees. We have orders to be ready to move in a moment so I will bring this to a close. Tender my respects to Mrs. Stevens and return Hannies kiss although she would not want such a hard rough looking fellow as I am for her uncle. I came near forgetting to say I received one pair of socks from you for which I am very much obliged. Accept my love for yourself. I remain Yours Truly John K Beaton Direct Co. G, 9th Regt, Va. Vol Armisteadís Brigade Pickettís Division

Letter No. 4

Camp near Fairfax, Culpepper Cty   

August 2nd 1863                                

Dear Ma & Sister

                                    Our opportunities for writing are so very limited, we can scarcely ever find any means of getting a letter to you.  I received your last letter the day before the fight at Gettysburg and have watched anxiously for an opportunity to answer it.  I will make the effort now at last.

            I was very much in hope we would pay you a visit when we were at Suffolk, but our object was to forage the country. That through  with and the battle of chancellorsville, recalled us to the most important seat of war.  We are all very anxious to get down that way again and have a chance at those negroes we hear are parading around town.  We would soon make them wish they were back in the cornfields.  Portsmouth received a fearful loss at the late battle in Pennsylvania.  I hope you will not say anything about what I write you, that is to those families I mention.  Our regiment has suffered severely, we hope most of them are prisoners, but I fear to the contrary as we were almost completely surrounded and had been flanked and fought for nearly half an hour in that condition.  Our company sums up a loss of 34 men.  I was struck and knocked down twice but was not seriously wounded.  I am still on duty with the company.  Thomas Owens was struck in the lower face on the left side, the ball coming out below the right shoulder blade.  He can’t possibly live, he was left at the hospital near Gettysburg.  James Nash, another whom you know has lost his left leg.  All our wounded with two exceptions, were left in the hands of the yankees, all the rest being too badly wounded to be removed.  I suppose you have heard of the charge of our division.  All agree it was the most brilliant charge on record still we gained nothing, only in killing off so many of our enemies.  I will send you a list of our wounded and missing in our immediate company.   We traveled through a beautiful section of country on our march, scenery which rivals right much of Virginia.  It was truly heart rendering to see a country so beautiful and under such a high state of cultivation suffering so much from the march of an invading army.  Nothing was destroyed more than what was actually necessary, railroad bridges are tore up and burned every one we saw.  That was necessary.   Private property was respected everywhere, among cattle and horses this order was overlooked by the quartermaster’s, those where they could not buy they took by force.  The people say we treated them a great deal better than they expected.  This trip has fully satisfied me that we can never be whipped.   One more invasion and the army will not respect Genl Lee’s orders as it did before but will retaliate in kind, a house for a house will be their motto.  The late Yankee successes have made them more over bearing than ever.

            The cessation of the exchange of prisoners proves to us how deep they have sunk below the scale of nations, and what we may expect at their hands.  I would rather be dead a thousand times than under their controls so would the major portions of this Confederacy.  The day of retribution is fast approaching and it will be laid on them with a heavy hand.  So speak of the pleasant feelings which will follow after we have gained our independence that is to those who have done their duty and still live.  Oh how happy I should be to be one among that number.  I have been through many a hard fought fight and have laid down to sleep with the dead, dying all around me many of whom were my most intimate friends, and thanked God that I had been spared when so many had been stricken down by my side.  I have at times believed I would be spared to see this brought to a close.  I do most sincerely hope so. 

            Some of our men have been very indiscreet in  writing very little can be learned from a letter written by a private, he knows very little himself.  He conjectures and sometimes hits the mark.  I have just hit the nail on the head there is a man here waiting for mail so I must bring this to a close by sending my respects to Jim and his family, also my love to Uncle John and his family.   Accept my love for yourself and Sarah.

                                                I remain yours truly

                                                                        John Beaton

List of Wounded Co. G

    Lt. Tonkin slightly

    Lt. Gayle slightly


    Privates Boyd, Hargroves, Land, Nash, Owens, Phillips, Rrevell, Williams

    Missing Sgts Dunn, Gayle, Ballentine, Corpl. L.H. Williams, Brownley, Bennett

    Wounded and missing, Burton, Emmerson, Ferebee, Ferebee, Jordon, Grant, Gaskins, Arthur, Harvey, Harding, Theophilus Johnston, Lattimore, Monte,         Morland, Neaville, Phillips, Jobe, Revell, Sale, Tompkins.


    Col J.C. Owens Killed

    Lt. Col JJ Phillips wounded left Breast

    Major James Richardson Missing

    Sergent Major CG Phillips Missing

Letter No. 5

Camp of 9th Va. Inf.   

            Nov. 7th, 1863           

Dear Sister

            I have not received a letter from you in a very long time.  I cannot tell the reason.  I have written to you several times lately and sincerely hope you are more fortunate than I am in getting letters.  I hoped as we were near Petersburg we could often hear from each other but it seems more difficult now than with Lee’s army of Northern Virginia.  I received the bundle you sent for which I am very much obliged.  I tried to see Mrs. Flemming at Kinston but could not she being away from home each time I called.  I saw her children they have been very sick with agere and fever but are getting better, they gave me a glowing description of yankee conducts in town.  Oh how I wish we could be sent down to drive them away from our homes there is not one of who would not willingly lay his life down to drive the hated foe from the soils of Virginia and especially from among our friends.  I have just seen a letter from Lt. Lewis of our company.  He is a prisoner at Johnson’s Island.  From him I learned that Lemuel Williams was killed on the field.   I am very sorry for that family, two boys killed the other disabled for life.  They have certainly paid dearly for the liberty which they expect to enjoy and see the rest of their friends enjoy after being so long bound by yankee tyranny.

            Nov 12th  We have just returned from a short trip to Garysburg hearing the enemy were about to make a raid from Winton, we were sent to meet them.  It seems they were informed of our coming and gave over the raid.  I have to write with pencil we have no ink our baggage being in town we do not take any baggage with us at all on our trips now as they have to be made very quick and light especially by railroad.  These excursions would be very pleasant if they were made in the day, but it so happens they all ways catch us at night.  I would like very much to stay near Petersburg a while.  I heard two very able sermons last week.  I went to Mr. Wheelwrights church he looks like the same as ever and I think preaches better.

            We are treated very well by the people of Carolina, although some of them thought we were the cause of the men who had been stationed around Kinston being sent away.  Right many had their families with them who were very un happy at their being ordered away after learning their mistake, they treated us well as was in their power.  They sold us vegetables very cheap and in fact gave us all they could spare.  They knew we had had a very hard time and tried to make our stay with them a pleasant as possible.  We hear a great deal about the conduct of the ladies in Portsmouth in regard to yankee officers.  I understand that Mrs White, Henery’s wife is engaged to be married to a yankee.  I would like to know if its true or not for I don’t believe all I hear from there.  I must bring this to a close as we have just received orders to move.  Here today and gone tomorrow never more than two or three days still.  I am very thankful to be able to move with the company never having been sick since I left home.  Give my respects to Jim and his family, tell him I would like very much to hear from him.  Our facilities for writing are very limited he ought not to wait for me to write.  Accept my love for yourselves.  Look in my old dunage and see if you can find a pair of buck skin gloves I had them.  I need such a thing right much now.  

Yours    JKB

Letter No. 6

Camp 9th Va. Infantry   

April 4th 1864            

Dear Sister

                        Your long looked for letter came to hand this morning.  I am very much pleased to hear that you and your family were well, but especially to hear that Ma and Sallie were well, it is useless for me to write to them.  My letters never go.  I have tried two by flag of truce, but have never been informed if they reached their destinations.  You want to know how I am situated, well about five miles to the east of Richmond, in dry weather a very good camp in wet very good rice field.   The water is now four inches deep in my tent, not quite up to my pine pole bed but expect it will reach it before night - as it is rising very fast, that don’t bother us at all as we have learned to sleep with only our heads out of water and might forget where we were if it were not for traveling barefoot in the snow or sleeping in a mud hole occasionally.  We can’t complain though the winter has been mild and wood plentiful.  You can tell Ma I am very well weigh 175 pounds, about as much as I can easily travel with.  You ask me what I want, it seems as if every letter I name my wants in is loss.  My answer will be nothing.  I have gone through the winter barefooted and can surely hold out in the spring until Lee’s army is supplied, then will come my time to draw from government what we need if we are ordered to join our Corps.  We may be supplied sooner, the troops in this department are not attended to as those in the field.  I hope we may be ordered back.  The service is lighter and you receive better attention in the field than around Richmond.  I expect those soldiers in King and Queens are some Kilpatricks command if so I had a shot at them and reduced the numbers of their mess.  I want to get in a fight with those negroes of Butlers.   We have never had a good chance at them yet.   They will curse the day that we meet, I hardly think any quarters will be shown on either side.  It is well you sent this half sheet or I could not have written back as I nor any of the rest of us have a particle of paper and nothing to buy it with as we have not been paid in four months.  I am now out of Tobacco and feel real sick for the want of it.  I would rather go without anything to eat. 

            There is a better day coming I hope then I will forget all this maybe.  

            Give my respects to your family and accept my love for yourself is the wish of your devoted brother.

                                                                        J K B

Letter No. 7

Head Quarters Co. G  9th Va Infty   

July 30th, 1864  Chesterfield Cty. Va.


            Mrs M. F. Stephens

                                                I this morning seat myself to inform you of the sad news of your Brother’s “Death” which I no doubt has reached you ere this does, the company and myself to you your mother [fold in letter obliterates one line] in this deep affection, he was a noble Soldier and much beloved by the company and all who know him, he fell on the 16th day of May in the Battle of Drewrys Bluff in a charge on the enemy concealed in a piece of woods behind a piece of works which they had thrown up during the night previous,  Mr. James M. Bailey by his side of the same company both were instantly killed both struck about the same time and were not seen to move after falling, they were buried together on the field a distance of  (7) seven miles from (this place) Richmond City.  I do not know whether or not their remains have been removed yet, we have a lot in the Hollywood cemetery at Richmond for all the Portsmouth Soldiers to be interred in case their relatives in future times may wish their removal.  The boys spoken of in your letters are very will, Alonzo Roane, Arthur Collins, Robert Rodman.  Several of my company was wounded on the 16th some of them perhaps you man know.  I will give the names James T. Stewart,  Oney Edwards,  Lyles Jobson,  Virginius Denson,   Columbus Johnson,  Benjamin F. Grant,   Johnson has since died and it is feared Grant will, the others are out of danger.  No bundle has reached us yet as the bundle you spoke of in your letter has not reached the company  I must now close, with much Respect I am

                                                            Very Respectfully

                                                            Your Obd Servt.

                                                                        Nathaniel G.Gayle                   

                                                            2nd Lieut. Co “G”  9th Va Infantry

                                                            or Portsmouth Rifles


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