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[Detail] Photographic Print of Tilton C. Reynolds, undated

A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment: Selections from the Tilton C. Reynolds Papers documents the Civil War experience of Private, and later Captain, Tilton C. Reynolds, a member of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, nicknamed the “Wild Cat Regiment” because most of the soldiers in the unit were from a region known for early “wild cat” oil exploration.  The online collection includes 164 documents, primarily letters written between 1861 and 1865.  The collection also features several photographs. 

A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment provides a personal look into the lives of a young Union soldier and his family during the Civil War.  The letters describe the daily drudgery of life in military camps, details of the regiment’s movements, experiences as a prisoner of war, soldiers’ view of politics, and feelings of homesickness and familial love.  The letters include candid appraisals of the war effort from officers and enlisted men during various stages of the Civil War, as well as reflections on the presidential campaign of 1864. Some letters in the collection may contain derogatory language and racial slurs, and teachers should prepare students to grapple with this language reflecting the times in which the documents were created.

Tilton Reynolds wrote the majority of the letters in the collection to his mother, Juliana Smith Reynolds.  The collection includes approximately 100 letters to his mother and five to his father, Thomas Reynolds. Some of Tilton’s letters to his father cajole him to respond.  Letters to Juliana from her brother, brother-in-law, and various relatives and family friends are also included.  The majority of these letters are handwritten; however, 46 have been transcribed.

The full text of the 46 transcribed letters can be searched by keyword; for the documents available only as facsimiles, the full-text search is not available, but the descriptive information can be searched by keyword. Title and Subject indexes are also useful finding aids.

Two Special Presentations provide useful context for examining the documents in the collection. Students can examine the “Timeline: History of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865” which provides an overview of the activities of young Reynolds’ regiment, to try to identify specific events referenced in the letters. “The Reynolds Family” explains the relationships among the various letter writers and recipients and fills in some detail on other members of the Reynolds family. Understanding the family relationships can be helpful in interpreting the letters in the collection.

Camp Life

The first engagement of the Civil War occurred April 12-13, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Just three days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 militiamen to volunteer for three months of military service. The 105th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers answered the call in September 1861. Among their ranks when they marched for Washington, D.C., was seventeen-year-old Tilton Reynolds.

On October 6, 1861, Tilton's letter to his mother from Camp Franklin near Washington, D.C., described his visit to the place where Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the famed Zouave Company was shot.  Ellsworth was one of the first casualties of the war; shot as he lowered a Confederate flag from a hotel in Alexandria.  Tilton mentioned seeing President and Mrs. Lincoln when they visited the camp.  He also reported that Captain Tracy put him in the "guard house for 24 hours"—as revenge, Tilton believed, for not voting for Tracy as one of the regiment's officers.  The letter concluded with a boyish glee over the forthcoming issuance of uniforms, rifles, and saber bayonets.

After the regiment moved to Camp Jameson on George Mason's estate near Mount Vernon, Tilton wrote of a colonel who was hated by everyone in camp and described punishment the colonel had administered.

. . . There is one thing I have been going to tell you for a long time that is concerning our Col. I never Seen a man So Universaly hated as he is.  There is not a man in the Regt that like him.  He is hard on his men puts them on a Ring (ie) (a circle for them to walk round in with a guard in the middle with his Bayonet to make them travel) for every little thing they do.  I don't want you to circulate this or let any one know from what Source you got it But it is a fact. . .

From "Letter from Tilton C. Reynolds to Juliana Reynolds, November 24, 1861"

In a letter written in December 1861, Tilton complained about his feet: "My feet is all that troubles me any. They have begun their old business. Burning & Smarting all the time they bother me considerable."

  • What do these letters home reveal about camp life and military discipline?
  • What problems did the members of the regiment encounter?
  • How would you predict that a seventeen-year-old soldier would react to military life with its attendant problems? Did Tilton seem to respond in the way you would expect? Explain your answer.

In a November 13, 1861, letter  to his mother, Tilton mentioned that the unit marched to the front and had a skirmish with rebels.  He concluded the letter with a brief description of soldiers destroying fine furnishings of a grand house they came upon.

Read several other letters written to Juliana Smith Reynolds in the first months after her son left home with the 105th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (late 1861). Put yourself in Juliana's position. What worries would you have about your son? 

Early in 1862, several of the Pennsylvania volunteers wrote to Juliana about Tilton. Her cousin, Hiram Sprague, wrote in February 1862 that some young men often got into mischief in camp:

Playing Cards and Cursing and Swaring is the principal trait of Some in and Tilton is often in here and has never to my knowledege engaged in a game. He has lost all of his frivouslessness and Conducts himself as a gentleman.

From "Letter from Hiram P. Sprague to Juliana Smith Reynolds, February 22, 1862"

Dr. David Ramsey Crawford wrote to his aunt Juliana Reynolds in reply to her request that he look after Tilton if he became ill.  Juliana apparently wrote similar appeals to other members of the extended family, imploring them to look after her son.  Concerned that Juliana was being too critical of her son, Orlando Gray gave his sister-in-law some advice regarding letters she had written castigating Tilton.

In my last wrote that I thought that you were over anxious about Tilton and I think so still your explanations to the Contrary notwithstanding.  Now he has been a good and useful man ever since he has been in the Service and his conduct would compare favorably with almost any man in Camp and I want you to write a few kind letters to him.  Praise him a little along with your Catesizeing ["spelled wrong"-- author's notation above word] and I think it would have a Salutary effect on him.

From "Letter from Orlando Gray to Juliana Reynolds, March 4, 1862"

  • What inferences can be drawn from Orlando Gray's letter regarding the contents of prior letters concerning Tilton? 
  • Did the letters from Crawford and Sprague support Gray or Juliana Reynolds? Explain your answer.
  • How effectively did Gray convey his advice to his sister-in-law?

A number of Tilton's letters mentioned pay, and often he wrote about the military being in arrears with their pay schedule.  In a number of letters to his mother, he wrote of enclosing money for her and, at times, for purchasing candy for his siblings. 
Read the letters Tilton wrote his mother on January 19 and August 5, 1863, describing the branding of a soldier for desertion and the probability of execution of another by firing squad. 

  • How would you imagine Mrs. Reynolds would respond to these letters from her son? 
  • Why do you think Tilton would mention punishments for desertion in a letter home?  Do you think this is an appropriate subject to be mentioned in a letter to the mother of a soldier in combat?
  • What do the letters reveal about military discipline? About troop morale two years into the war?