On New Year’s Day in 1863, Private Charles W. Merrill hunkered down in his tent near Falmouth, Virginia, doing what soldiers do when not on duty: waiting. Outside, the weather was pleasant though cold; the wind blew raw.
A soldier in the 19th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Merrill sat alone, pen in hand, writing to his brother. “Our fireplace is one of the greatest luxuries imaginable,” he said. “It is both company and comfort.” The Union regiment had not moved in three days, and the men had only three days of rations left. Merrill felt lonely, dreaming of home in West Newbury, Massachusetts, and wishing he could give each family member a “New Year’s present, even if it were a small one.”
Merrill’s coat pocket held a New Testament Bible given to him by his pastor, the Reverend Davis Foster, on August 12, 1862, the day he departed to join the Union Army. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Bible would literally save his life, stopping a bullet from striking him and earning him the admiration of President Abraham Lincoln.
Merrill was born in Newburyport, north of Boston, on November 20, 1837. His family later moved to West Newbury, where they made a living as farmers. Today, Merrill’s story survives through a collection of letters housed at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in the nearby town of Rowley. Featuring correspondence to and from the soldier’s family, the archive presents an intimate portrait of a new recruit, homesick but cautiously eager to help reunite his divided country.
Merrill recorded his first impressions of the war in a September 1862 letter to his sister, painting a stark image of conditions in West Virginia. “There is a heavy dew every night,” he wrote, “and for the last few nights, I have had to wear two shirts, my blouse and great coat, then roll myself in my blankets, and by three o’clock, I have been so cold that I was glad to get up and walk around.” Still, Merrill tried to reassure his family of his well-being, noting, “If anyone wants to know how I get along, tell them first rate.”
The soldier avoided discussing the “sad realities of a battlefield,” as he put it in an earlier letter to his brother Henry. Instead, in a letter to his younger brother Willie, he playfully teased, “If you were with me, I could show you some things that would open those eyes of yours, but I have not any cat for you to play with, nor barn to sleep in, nor cows to milk, but if you will come out here and bring that kitten of yours, you shall have a part of my house which is just about high enough in the highest part for you to stand up in, and I have a large overcoat that is big enough to wrap both of us in and a noble blanket all to myself. We could sleep as warm as need be.”
By December 1862, Merrill was encamped near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the eve of one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War. Nearly 200,000 soldiers fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg, making it the largest of any engagements between the Union and Confederate armies during the conflict.
Under pressure from Washington, D.C., Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside hatched a plan to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and advance on the Rebel capital of Richmond. Merrill’s regiment was among the Union troops assigned to cross the Rappahannock River from Falmouth to Fredericksburg.
As Merrill wrote in a letter to his friend Sarah, he and his four tentmates spent the days before the battle raising “our house a story so that it is just high enough for me to stand up in the highest part of it. Yesterday we built a fireplace to it.” During these “rather stirring times,” they waited for orders, hearing rumors that a fight with enemy troops was imminent. “It is different talking about spilling one’s blood at home and spilling it in rebellion,” Merrill observed.
Despite being drastically outnumbered, Lee outwitted Burnside and his men. After five days of fighting, the Union Army withdrew across the Rappahannock. It suffered heavy casualties, losing more than 12,500 troops to the Confederate’s 6,000. Lee, dejected by the carnage, bitterly exclaimed, “It is well that war is so terrible, [or] we should grow too fond of it.”
Five months later, the 19th Regiment clashed with the Confederates again at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. On the morning of May 3, 1863, Merrill’s brigade formed a line of battle in front of Confederate rifle pits. “We lay under fire until the enemy’s center was broken when our brigade was withdrawn,” recalled fellow soldier Gorham Coffin in a letter to Merrill’s father, William Merrill.
Overhead, a roaring shell filled with musket balls exploded, raining shrapnel over the retreating troops. Merrill was severely wounded when a bullet grazed his right eye, traveled through his skull and lodged behind his ear. But a second bullet propelled at his chest was stopped by a small Bible in a coat pocket over his heart. He was taken to the Lacy House, a makeshift field hospital where surgeons removed the bullet and pronounced him out of danger, though they acknowledged that he might lose his right eye. The doctors gave Merrill the musket ball as a keepsake.
Shortly after Coffin wrote to William, Merrill was evacuated to a hospital in Washington’s Judiciary Square neighborhood. There, his story caught the attention of Benjamin Perley Poore, a journalist, diplomat and bon vivant Washington insider. Like Merrill, Poore was a native of Newburyport, and he felt a kinship with the young soldier and his family. Poore informed the Merrills that their son was under the best of care at one of the nation’s best hospitals. “My personal acquaintance with the surgeons—two of them Massachusetts men—enables me to assure you that they regarded him with no ordinary attention,” he wrote in a letter, noting that a nurse named Caroline Whippey offered the patient her particularly “devoted attentions.”
In an earlier telegram, Poore had vowed to “look after [Merrill] as if he were my brother” and try to “take him to West Newbury when I go next week.” In another letter, the journalist added, “Had it not been for the testament given [to] him by Mr. Foster, which received a second bullet, I doubt if you would have ever seen him again.”
Four days after he was injured, Merrill was lucid and in good spirits; he appeared to be on the path to recovery. With frank resignation, he accepted his condition in a letter to his parents: “Could you see me now unless someone told you, you would pass me by and say, ‘No, he belongs not to us.’” Yet his firm Christian faith kept him strong, and he attributed “all to the kind care of our Heavenly Father that I am gaining and hope that we may meet once more.”
Merrill gazed at the Bible with the musket ball embedded in its leaves and must have sensed how fortunate he was to be alive. He closed with reassuring advice, writing, “Do not worry about me, for I am in good hands.” In a poignant postscript, he added, “Don’t let the little folks know that I have lost my right eye.”
Meanwhile, word of Merrill’s narrow escape from death swirled around Washington circles. Among those who saw the bullet-ridden Bible was Lincoln. The 16th president was known to be deeply religious, once telling his son Tad, “Every educated person should know something about the Bible and the Bible stories.” As editor and historian Louis A. Warren wrote in 1940, the Bible was “the single most influential book that Abraham Lincoln read.”
Deeply moved by Merrill’s miraculous survival, the president sent a Bible to the soldier, inscribing a personal message inside: “For Charles W. Merrill, 19th Massachusetts, A. Lincoln, May 8, 1863.” This volume is preserved alongside Merrill’s New Testament at the Phillips Library.
Dan Lipcan, director of the library, says, “Merrill was a native of Essex County, [so] … it’s entirely appropriate that the Merrill papers came to reside in our library.”
On May 12, Poore sat at Merrill’s bedside, optimistic about his chances of recovery. Charles told him, “I like this barberry water better than anything else I have to drink, for it reminds me of my grandmother, who used to make it.” Poore left the hospital, promising to return later.
Around 2 p.m., Merrill was propped up in bed when he suddenly cried out to the patient next to him. “Speak to Miss Whippey,” he said. “I’m splitting blood.” These were his last words.
Immediately, surgeons reopened the head wound and frantically searched for the ruptured artery as “his lifeblood was gushing forth,” Poore recounted. “Internal hemorrhage had commenced, and science could not arrest it.” Twenty minutes later, Merrill died, “his soul [having] passed into another and a better world.”
In Massachusetts, the Merrills waited anxiously for their son’s much-anticipated return. Their firstborn was coming home, and they had prepared clothes for him to wear. His younger brothers and sisters even gathered toys to occupy his time as he convalesced.
William had gone to Newburyport in hopes that his son might arrive on the next train. While he was there, a messenger arrived with a telegram from Poore:
Send word to Wm. Merrill West Newbury that his son was unexpectedly seized with internal hemorrhage this afternoon, and, although the surgeons were with him at once, he breathed his last in 20 minutes without a pang. It was my sad privilege to be with him. I shall have his remains embalmed and sent to Boston tomorrow afternoon.
Merrill’s New Testament saved him from instant death on the battlefield, but it couldn’t stop the bullet to the head that ultimately took his life. Though it was temporary, Merrill’s reprieve offered him nine more precious days, which he used to connect with his beloved family.
Merrill was buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery in West Newbury. As the Newburyport Herald observed in its coverage of the tragedy, “Mysterious are the ways of providence, and in an hour and in a way they thought not of, he departed to his eternal home and eternal friends in the heavens. He was a brave, high-minded and intelligent young man, beloved of all.”