Cyrus Hall McCormick, Jr., Home Files, 1873-1936

Scope and Content Note

The bulk of the papers of Joseph H. Spencer are letters (originals and typescript copies) Spencer wrote at frequent intervals to his sister, Eliza S. Spencer of Coventry, Vermont, from his various posts of duty throughout the Civil War. They are dated from April 26, 1861, two days after his enlistment in the Minnesota Volunteers to September 29, 1865, less than a month before his discharge from the Signal Corps. There is also one folder of ten letters which Spencer wrote to his wife and children in Northfield, Minnesota while on business trips to Stillwater, Minnesota. These are dated from March 25, 1872 to September 28, 1872. One letter is from Spencer's brother, George, written in Vermont in 1881 to Major Spencer's thirteen-year-old daughter, Lillian. The correspondence file is arranged chronologically.

Interfiled with the correspondence are a few copies, made by Spencer, of Special Orders and Commendations by his superiors, as well as official notification of Spencer's promotions.

There is one folder of miscellany including two lithographed copies of the original Enlistment Roll of the Northfield and Faribault Volunteers in April, 1861. The original document was sent to the Governor of Minnesota by Spencer who had 200 or 300 copies made in New York in January, 1865. Filed here, also, are a testimony of the proficiency of certain members of the Signal Corps, including Spencer; rules and explanations for the use of the cypher disc; a copy of general orders from the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, July 23, 1862; copies of Spencer's commissions; and speeches, clippings and printed material concerning him. Spencer's commission as a major in the Signal Corps, signed by President Andrew Johnson and Edwin V. Stanton; and General Order #26 by Major General Banks in Virginia are oversize items.

Spencer wrote with enthusiasm for the Union cause in letters rife with colloquialisms and easy humor. The letters are filled with his observations, especially those letters written the first two years on the front. He wrote about places in which he was stationed, and the local population and its attitudes. He described his daily routine and detailed his work as a signal man, the ciphers, and the flags, lights, and rockets used in signaling. Spencer reconstructed what he could of the engagements in which he participated, especially the first Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Winchester, sometimes giving particulars of troop movements and mentioning officers on both sides. He described the appearance of Fort Sumpter on September 7, 1863, weather conditions, and the mud of Washington's streets. Contemporary politics and events are touched on, e.g. the burning of the Smithsonian (Jan. 31, 1865), Lincoln's second inauguration (Feb. 24 and March 5, 1865), and Lincoln's death (April 20 and 23, 1865).

The letters touch on the attitude prevalent on the Minnesota frontier toward the Indians (Nov. 29, 1862 and passim); some scattered home remedies for warts (April 14, 1864) and sprains (Feb. 14, 1864); the inaccuracies in the northern press regarding the conduct of the war; and General Stone's arrest for treason and his confinement in Fort LaFayette. Spencer offered opinions on Cabinet Secretaries William H. Seward and E. M. Stanton, and on General George B. McClellan (Dec. 11, 1862). There are careful details of Spencer's financial arrangements and an explanation of investments in United States Government Bonds, the “Five-Twenties” of the period, and the selling for profit of certain bank notes and “Green-backs.”

The Bill to Organize an Army Signal Corps is discussed (March 9, 1863) as well as the actual organization of the Corps and examinations for officers (July 4, 1863). Spencer mentioned the observation balloons of the Signal Corps, and his meeting General U. S. Grant, shaking hands with Lincoln, and going to the theater to see Edwin Booth in Richelieu. The letters comment, also, on such topics as the Confederate threat to the capital in July of 1864 and Spencer's reactions to news of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) in which his old Regiment, the 1st Minnesota Volunteers, suffered severe losses.

In April, 1865, as he journeyed to join Major General G. H. Thomas, Spencer wrote of the work of rebel guerillas, southern battlefields, southern soldiers, the cost of living, the cities through which he traveled, and a description of a Tennessee planter's home (April 30, 1865).

There is, also, specific mention of a Captain H. R. Clum of Janesville, Wisconsin (December 16, 1864; January 30, 1865; January 31, 1865; and February 3, 1865).

For complementary details see Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865, pp. 2-13.