Richard G. DePuy was 30 years old when he entered the service in Co. D, 4th Michigan, as a 1st Lieutenant on 20 June 1861. He was a lawyer by profession and the father of four children at the time of his enlistment. He was promoted to Captain of Co. K, on 20 August 1861. He was killed in action at Gaines’ Mill, Virginia, on 27 June 1862.
This letter was written by Lt. Richard G. Depuy of Co. D, 4th Michigan, to his friend Pool and subsequently published in the Michigan Argus newspaper on 2 August 1861.
Letters from Washington
Camp Mansfield, D. C.
July 14, 1861
Washington! in these perilous times how potent is that name to cheer and encourage the patriot soldier. At our feet stands the remembrancer of that name, and the man who bore it unmarred, and made it forever honorable! Even a knave is entitled to the semblance of respect who legitimately owns Washington as a name. I plain view from my tent towers up the unfinished pillar — Washington’s monument, — unfinished, like as the love and veneration of the world for HIM is incomplete, because inexhaustible so long as liberty is the chief aspiration of man.
Our camp is on “Meridian Hill,” directly north of the President’s House, which is in plain view, one mile distant. The whole city lies in sight before and below me. How grand and majestic it appears in this morning’s glorious sunlight. What thronging memories surround me! What startling realities compass me. Within five rods of our tent stands the quaint old mansion built by Commodore Porter about the year 1818, and afterwards purchased by J. Q. Adams, and occupied by him as a country residence during his presidency; now occupied as an army hospital, and soldiers quarters! How changed the scene. We know not what a day will bring force. At the Southwest corner of this building stands the Meridian post, a square stone post, some three feet high, from whence longitude is reckoned in this country. The latitude and longitude of the post is: Latitude 38º, Longitude 76º west from Greenwich.¹
Our camp is about one hundred and fifty feet above the base of the Capitol. Only one thing is wanting to make our location the most delightful spot I ever saw, that is water in plenty. We have to rely upon one well ninety-five feet deep and two springs about half a mile from camp. All the water is “soft,” and our men are suffering considerably from its effects together from change of diet and climate, though none of Co. D are dangerously sick.
Although we have had no real engagements with the enemy, yet it is easy to imagine them for, constantly on every side of us can be heard the booming of cannon and report of musketry, and the shrill whistle of the fife and the deep rumbling of the drum. From our elevated position we can see moving hither and thither tens of thousands of soldiers, and on every hand the landscape is dotted with tents.
Within the range of natural vision, lie Alexandria, Georgetown, the Arlington Heights, and some ten miles of the surface of the broad Potomac. Within this area of space how much has transpired in time past, and how momentous are the events to issue in the present and future! How strangely actual war seems to me, in the peaceful light of this beautiful morning. ‘Tis five o’clock, A. M.; half an hour since, when I commenced writing, city and camp, and country, seemed as I gazed out, over and upon them, the very semblance of universal peace, were it not for the presence of the grim engines of war posted here and there, in all directions, and the silent and ominous tread of the weary sentinels as they paced to and fro along their beats.
As I gazed delightedly upon the grand living picture before me, a picture transcending in actual beauty and magnificence everything imaginary or real I ever dreamed of or saw, I thought of our nation’s greatness, its vast extent, its millions of recently happy citizens, its vast resources, and means of still mightier greatness and usefulness, and of Washington and his compatriots who founded the government which has developed all this surrounding grandeur, when all at once, as unexpectedly in my reverie, as a thunderbolt out of clear sky, from twenty different points of compass, as many cannon sent forth their huge bellowings, clashing and clanging like as many thunder peals through the sky, startling a hundred thousand stalwart men from sleep to active life — from sleep’s sweet peace to life’s active, arduous war. If you could take in the whole scene by your actual senses, instead of through my poor pen, it would thrill your very soul as it did mine. This is no imaginary sketch, but actual reality.
I shall not trouble you with a history of our journey here, as you have probably read enough of that from other correspondents. Neither can I write you much news, for we hear less here than you read in Ann Arbor. I have to get hold of a New York paper to ascertain what is going on in this city.
Some decisive engagement may be looked for within one week. The secession flag of truce, recently sent to the President, is regarded here as a ruse upon the part of the rebels to gain important information regarding our strength, positions, &c., which object was happily thwarted by placing Capt. Taylor under close escort, and forthwith dispatching the chivalrous Captain, after delivering his message, back to his haunts no wiser that he came.
The rebels still cling with tenacity, either really or for effect, to the idea that we of the north are all abolitionists. If they but knew or realized the true definition of the word, abolitionist, they would be startled at the fact that they themselves are harboring, cherishing and obeying the behests of the only abolitionists in the world — treason and rebellion! I know of no greater or more potent abolitionism that their own madness and treason, and ere long they will learn this dear lesson from a costly teacher — experience. For rebellion persisted in till it brings its legitimate results, will, as surely as effect follows cause, in this age eventuate in absolute military despotism and monarchy, or in the entire abrogation of all arbitrary and unnatural restraints on personal freedom. Who dare dream that the former can exist in this country or that the latter is not inevitable. Disparity of races and self aggrandizement will vanish before the greater interest, universal self-protection. A great and might be happy people, but for the paradox of tyranny claiming protection from liberty, will abolish the tyranny, it being the only apparent danger threatening their peace and security and interrupting the gentle stream of their prosperity and thrift, and establish liberty, the essence of which permeates the hearts of all mankind, not misguided by ambition and avarice.
July 24 — I wrote the foregoing upon the eve of our departure for Va., since which time I have had scarcely time to complete it. As luck would have it, we are back on our old camping ground, which makes it not altogether inappropriate now.
The men of our regiment are all very healthy. No one was sick during our tour in Va. That State is reaping a sad reward for her treachery to the Union. Stagnation of business of all kinds pervades her entire borders. Her fields are unreapt and barrenness cover her like a pall. Patriot blood cries from her ground to Heaven for retribution to fall upon her treacherous sons. One half her children are fugitives from justice, the other half fugitives from secession tyranny. This is but the beginning of the end to her woes — to her desolation and disgrace. Vandalism runs riot through palace and hut. God only knows when the end of her punishment shall come; she has only begun to feel the tempered stripes, how must she writhe when vengeance and justice strike the full blow, as they surely will unless she submits to law and government.
P. S. — I just received intelligence that James Murphy of Co. D, who has been sick some time with inflammatory rheumatism in the hospital in Georgetown, died today. He lived in Northfield ere he joined our company. His father lives there, I believe. He was a good soldier, and his death is universally regretted by our company. The poor fellow has fought the fight of death — peace to his ashes. He has received no pay, consequently it will go to his father. I will see to it that he is decently buried. This is the only death that has occurred in our company, and the third in our regiment from accident or disease, unless we add Capt. Degolier and Lt. Preston of Co. F. Chas. Beesimer has arrived in town. — R. G. D.
¹ At the time of Washington, D.C.’s creation in 1791, the land beneath present-day Meridian Hill Park was owned by Robert Peter, wealthy Georgetown merchant, and was known as Peter’s Hill. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson had a geographic marker placed on this large hill. Centered exactly north of the White House, this marker helped to establish a longitudinal meridian for the city and the nation: the “White House meridian.” After the War of 1812, Commodore David Porter, a naval hero of that war, acquired the hill in 1816 as part of a 110-acre tract of land that he had purchased; he named this property “Meridian Hill.” On the brow of this prominent hill on his new estate, and close to the marker, Porter then built a large and famous mansion which he also named Meridian Hill. The home faced south with a dramatic view of the White House and the Potomac River beyond. After the onset of the Civil War, and with a strategic location overlooking the city, the Meridian Hill estate and mansion, along with the land of neighboring Columbian College (founded 1821, later moving and becoming George Washington University), were taken for use as an army encampment named Camp Cameron. This location was then at times referred to as being “on Georgetown Heights” [Wikipedia]
The following notice was published in the Michigan Argus on 9 August 1861:
Not Dead. — Last week we published a letter from Lieut. DePuy, (now Capt.) in which stated that James Murphy, of Co. D, died that day in the Georgetown hospital. A subsequent letter from Lieut. D. says that he was misinformed, and Murphy is not only not dead, but is recovering and will soon be on duty. We gladly make the correction.