These 29 letters and diary entries were written by William (“Will”) Kennedy (1840-1909), the son of Scottish emigrants, Alexander J. Kennedy (1796-1868), and Agnes Finney (1804-1881), of Jefferson, Schoharie county, New York. The letters were all addressed to his future wife, Olive DeEtte Dayton (1848-1928), the daughter of Russell and Sally Ann (Owens) Dayton of Stamford, New York.
Will did not enlist as a private until September 1864, going with some twenty other young men from Jefferson, New York. When recruited, he did not know to what regiment he would be assigned but after passing his examination and being declared fit for duty, he became a member of Co, B, 91st New York Infantry—a regiment that by late 1864 was somewhat broken up with companies at various posts. While with Co, B, Will would spend most of his one year enlistment in Baltimore as part of the garrison at Ft. McHenry. It was not until the last couple of months that Will’s regiment was reassembled and sent to Petersburg, Virginia, to participate in the final days of the siege and fighting that ejected Lee’s army out of its defenses and on to the surrender at Appomattox.
The majority of the letters might be more properly characterized as “love letters” sent from a lovesick and lonely soldier whose days were spent on detached duty as a clerk in the headquarters of the post commander at Ft. McHenry, only rarely visiting his company who performed fatigue and picket duty without him. But to his credit, Will rejected offers to remain out of the field when his regiment was sent to Virginia; he wished to test his mettle under fire. His honor wouldn’t allow him to remain behind.
The last handful of letters are more typical of the wartime letters written by soldiers serving on the front lines and contain some good battlefield content. Will was mustered out of the regiment on 10 June 1865 and not long after returned home to his sweetheart DeEtte.
Included with the letters and Will’s 1865 diary is an 1864 diary kept by DeEtte who, in a very disciplined manner and a neat hand, made daily entries throughout the entire year. There are few references to Will Kennedy until the Fourth of July 1864 when she wrote, “This has been the happiest day of my life. Will came along about 9 o’clock this morning in good style. I was all ready. Too dinner in Moresville. Got back home 6 o’clock in the evening. I shall always remember one thing he said today.”
A couple of months later on 28 August 1864, Will broke the news to DeEtte that he had enlisted and she wrote, “Sunday 28th day of August. Will has told me this afternoon that he intended to enlist. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard him say it. Oh I shall be so lonely. How can I live a year without seeing him, I feel very sad and lonely tonight. He gave me a very nice coral ring this afternoon.” Just three days later she wrote, “The 31st day of August 1864. This has been a very sad & eventful day to me. Tonight I have parted with my best friend and Oh! what a sad parting it was. His last words were “Be true to me.” and I will be true to him. Before he went away he asked my parents consent to our union which was given. If he ever returns good and true, i shall be his wife…I don’t know how I shall live without him, but I expect i shall live some way. I hope he will think of me as much as I do og him and come back at the end of his year still loving me & no one else. Then, if I live, I think I shall be happy.”
Will and DeEtte were married on 5 September 1865 not long after he returned from the war. Together they had at least three children, Cora Maria (b. 1867), Roy Dayton (b. 1876) and Nellie DeEtte (b. 1878).
Six important pages from the back of DeEttes’ Diary