Michigan in the Civil War

Browse by Name: Willett, James W.

Willett family

The papers of the Willett family of Ionia County, Mich., include letters of two members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and two soldiers (and diaries of one of the Sanitary Commission workers and one of the soldiers), and a letter about the death of a third soldier.

James W. Willett enlisted in Company I, 1st U. S. Sharpshooters (Berdan's), October 28, 1861; mustered on March 4, 1862; and was discharged for disability November 22, 1862. Three of his letters describe the situation near Yorktown, Va. (May 4, 1862), business opportunities in Washington (Oct. 19, 1862), and (briefly) the battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 15, 1862). 

Later Willett became a sutler with the 59th New York Infantry. In his diary (Apr.-Sept. 1864) he said the officers of the regiment gave him a place at their table and quarters for as long as he wished to stay. He wrote, "They are all very friendly & I sincerely feel grateful for the many favors granted me during the past winter. I think if Sutlers were all so kindly treated there would be a better feeling expressive of good results all through the army & they would bear a much better name as a class all through the country. I want to remain with them as long as the 59th is an organization."

On May 5, 1864 the battle of the Wilderness began, and he was a spectator and narrator of the action during the battle and ensuing campaign, writing of the fierce fighting, the burning woods, the suffocating smoke, the severe casualties and prisoners taken, especially May 12 when he said, "Our Corps made the grandest charge of the whole war" capturing 7,000 prisoners. "Here was desperate fighting said to be the heaviest of the whole war. A fearful number have been killed and wounded." He assisted doctors and nurses on the field in caring for the wounded; got meals to the officers and doctors on the field when he could find them. He found Fredericksburg "a general Hospt., the whole city one." The Sanitary Commission did much for the wounded. "100 men & a few women nurses from Washington doing the kind of work of the Commission. The Christian Commission is doing all in its power also. So the wounded are well cared for." He was appreciative of the work done by the medical department from field to hospital. But he also said, "It is impossible in moments of quick movements of troops to take their wounded in hospitals along." When the regiment went back to the 6th Corps Hospital, the Rebel Cavalry had been there and taken tents, rations, medicines, and part of those left to care for the wounded. He spoke of the practice of throwing up breastworks every time the regiment made "an advance on the enemy and by doing so saving thousands of lives in this single campaign." From there, June 8, he took the train for home, but said, after being home but a short time, "I shall go back as soon as my feet are well enough, for with all the horror and danger of war, I prefer it to this almost painful stillness that broods over one here."

Willett's brother Gordon A. Willett served as a sanitary officer with the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1862, and Gordon's wife Mary Yates Willett accompanied him as a nurse. Letters of Gordon (May 11, 1862, from the steamer Wilson Small, Yorktown harbor) and Mary (June 28, 1862, from the hospital ship S.R. Spaulding, York River) as well as a diary of Mary (May-July 1862) describe their medical work. 

Gordon Willett also served as a sutler for the 59th New York Infantry. A letter (May 19, 1863) and a pass (Apr. 29, 1863) relate to this work.

The collection also contains a letter (June 17, 1862) from Charles Bennett(regiment unknown) written from Gaines Mills, Va., and a letter (June 15, 1863)from W. A. Martin of Liberty, Mo., to Isaac Errett, describing the death of Capt. Darius Sessions (regiment unknown), killed in Missouri by guerrillas.