The Bloody 85th: The Letters of Milton McJunkin, a Western Pennsylvania Soldier in the Civil War
compiled and edited by Ronn Palm, Dr. Richard Sauers, and Patrick A. Schroder
Given the plethora of Civil War narratives published in recent years, one might reasonably ask, why print another set of soldier letters? Will they tell us anything different than we have read somewhere else? The answer is a resounding YES! The letters of Milton McJunkin are unique and insightful in several ways. McJunkin's regiment, the 85th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, and its wartime service was atypical of the majority of Civil War units. That organization had the distinction of serving in both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James. These letters thus provide a different view of the war than the average Army of the Potomac soldier. McJunkin and his comrades served their time around Washington and saw action on the Peninsula at Williamsburg and Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). But they also participated in expeditions to Suffolk, Virginia, and to Goldsboro, North Carolina. In the latter campaign of the regiment, being a veteran one when compared with other units on the campaign, provided a reliable backbone for General John G. Fosterís force. Creating a diversion in favor of General Burnside in Virginia, Fosterís men slashed into North Carolina. The 85th saw fighting at White Hall, Kinston, and outside of Goldsboro itself and performed well capturing an artillery piece during the engagement at Kinston. Boarding steamers at Moorehead City, they proceeded to South Carolina to spend more than a year in operations against the city of Charleston. While the Army of the Potomac was spilling blood on the 85thís native soil, the boys of western Pennsylvania were consecrating the sands of the South Carolina islandsñin one week of siege operations against Fort Wagner on Morris Island, the regiment lost 120 men.
Upon returning to Virginia in May 1864. The regiment was part of General Benjamin Butlerís ill fated operations in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and then in the siege of Richmond and Petersburg. The 85th Pennsylvania was distinguished in the Battle of Deep Bottom on August 16, 1864, where three soldiers from their regiment captured Confederate battle flags and were awarded the Medal of Honor. Although, November 1864 signaled the end of the regimentís service, a portion of the men had re-enlisted as veteran volunteers. These soldiers continued with the Army of the James, and were among the force that cut off the Army on Northern Virginiaís escape route at Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, 1865.
The "History of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry" was written by Luther S. Dickey, and if truth be told, is quite possibly the most boring regimental account ever composed. But since the 85th did have a regimental, however flawed, little more has been penned concerning the service of these stalwart volunteers from western Pennsylvania. Enter Union loving Milton McJunkin, one of if not the tallest man in the regiment, standing 6'1". His letters home permit us to observe the inevitable evolution of the hardy and boastful recruit to the wearied veteran. Many of the letters contain typical soldier complaints about the need for money and the want of treats. But if one wants to know what was truly going through the minds of these fighting men, read McJunkinís letter of January 17, 1864. McJunkin was a steady reliable man, and sadly his one furlough home proved be his last. Initially healthy and hardy, like so many of his comrades he was fated to perish not by bullet or shell, but rather a victim of disease. The reader feels his plight, although the severity of his sickness is not realized until the very end. McJunkin dies with less than a month officially left to serve.
It is truly a shame that McJunkin met his demise before the completion of his term of service. The humorous content of some of his letters, such as the one to his sister on August 16, 1863, where he writes using the jargon of the colored troops (54th Massachusetts) on Morris Island, and telling of shooting at the fattest reb he could see. This comical missive does, however, aptly relate what the troops were experiencing on the island, and he signs it "tiddleywink." Such notations leads one to believe that he was of likeable nature, and probably a favorite around camp; except for the malefactors that were suppressed when officers would direct the hulking McJunkin to assist in securing an unruly comrade.
Complementing the text, are nearly 60 photographs of McJunkin's comrades-nost of them from the collection of Ronn Palm, who also has McJunkin's orginal letters. Underneath each photo is a military biographical sketch of each soldier derived from his compiled service records at the National Archives. After McJunkin's letters is a summary of the regiment's field service in "The Deeds and Sacrifices of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania." Then there is an accolade concerning the flag of the regiment, and the postwar handling of the sacred emblem. The book has been indexed, thus making it a useful resource to the reader.
For ten years, while employed at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, I've portrayed a veteran of the old 85th Pennsylvania stationed as the Provost Guard at Appomattox in the summer of 1865. It is gratifying that this project has come to fruition, and will help perpetuate the exploits of McJunkin and his comrades. This work is an apt tribute to a noble spirit and fine soldier as well commemorating the reputation of a gallant and hard fighting regiment from western Pennsylvania.
Patrick A. Schroeder