Lt. Joseph South

First Lt. Joseph South was assigned to the "Plattsburgh Regiment," the 96th New York Vol. Infantry. He was a tailor and died in battle in Virginia in 1864.

PLATTSBURGH — More than one Clinton County Historical Museum volunteer has wept while reading the poignant letters that a soldier wrote to his wife during the Civil War era.

Californian Mary Certa donated to the Clinton County Historical Association the letters that First Lt. Joseph South penned to his beloved wife, Catherine, whom he affectionately called Cate.

On this Memorial Day, they provide an open book to his heart, mind and soldiering days with the 96th New York Volunteer Infantry.

Joseph was born in Ireland, and Catherine in Canada, according the U.S. Census records.

In 1850, the pair were beginning their family in Black Brook.

A decade later, the tailor’s family lived in Peru between blacksmith John LaMountain and wheelwright Moses Paradise.

Joseph enrolled as a first sergeant in the Union Army on Nov. 1, 1861, at Peru.


“It says on the envelope, he mailed the letters to Plattsburgh,” said Vickie Evans, a museum volunteer.

The 96th Battalion was organized in Plattsburgh and left for Washington, D.C., on March 11, 1862.

There, the unit was attached to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 4th Army Corps, and Army of the Potomac until June 1862.

The regiment was commanded by Col. James Fairman, Col. Charles O. Gray, Col. Edgar M. Cullen and Col. Stephen Moffitt, according to “The Union Army: a History of Military Affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65.”

From Columbia’s Maridian Hill District, Joseph wrote on March 18:

Dear Wife, we arrived here on Sunday and I am well, my prayer is that this will find you all well. we are in tents and it is all Bustle since we came it is now ten o’clock and we have received orders to cross the Potomac tomorrow morning we go either to Manasses or Rock Island, I am just called upon to draw 6 days Provisions, and I cannot write much, as I will be very busy till morning. give my love to all the children Kiss them all for me and tell them I hope they will be good children and mind their mother, I hope to be with them soon, until then I will Pray for them...

My love to Margt and Mother, and all enquiring friends, so good night & God bless you all is the earnest prayer of your

Loving Husband.


In all, 41 letters survive 150 years after their receipt in Plattsburgh and conveyance to the West Coast.

“Some relative had them,” said Melissa Peck, director and curator of the museum. “They were transcribed in 2014.

"During the sesquicentennial, we were getting donations from people.

"We were going to different events, setting up booths and having re-enactments. So, people were aware of the fact we wanted donations. We had people just walk in with them.”

Joseph’s letters express his frustrations with not receiving his pay regularly to support his family.

He also gives graphic accounts of what he is witnessing.

On the Fourth of July 1862 at City Point, Joseph wrote:

Dear Wife, I sit down in the Woods this morning to write a few lines we marched all night up to our Knees in mud the Rebels are firing ½ mile from us, we have a Battle most every day, and thank God I have escaped so far... in every battle the rebels get whiped but they fight like demons... We had 60,000 fresh troops arived yesterday under Genl Shield and were in a fight before night, There is a call to fall in so I must close by by Wishing that God protect you all.


“Almost every letter he writes to his wife, he wants to know how the kids are doing, and he wants to buy them things to bring home,” Evans said.

“Every letter he talks about the war will be over soon and he will be home. Evidently, he did get home once because she had another child.”

Charles South was born in March 1864 — two months before his father was killed in action at Cold Harbor, Va.


There was foreshadowing of his death throughout Joseph’s correspondence.

The first instance, particularly prophetic, was when he was in New Bern, N.C., on Dec. 22, 1862. 

The regiment had routed rebel forces in Kinston, Whitehall and Goldsborough.

Post-battles, Joseph writes near the end of this letter:

We arived here last night after marching 140 miles. I write this on the ground as soon as we get settled Il {I’ll} write you particulars of our fight, thank God I did not received a scratch though they went close to my head.


On March 18, 1863, he wrote:

I am on Guard as Officer of the Guard today and the rebels are aproaching their cannon are firing all the morning-- I don’t believe they can take this post but I write in case any thing should happen, My pay is due from the 7 days of May which amounts to about $800.00 dollars you must not feel bad for I believe there is no danger.

Still in New Bern exactly a month later, he wrote:

I wrote to you a short time since stating how much was due me by the Government (and I was afraid then you would think that I expected to be killed, and you would be feeling bad but you must not have these feelings I only wrote in case anything should should happen to me so as you might get my pay.


Nine officers and 59 enlisted men were killed and mortally wounded, and two officers and 158 enlisted men were killed by disease in the regiment.

Near Richmond on June 2, 1864, Joseph wrote his last letter:

Dear Wife, We had a desperate fight, I am safe thank god and the Rebels are whiped good buy yours Ever Loving Husband.

The packet concludes with an account of his demise, written to Catherine by the 96th Regiment Adjutant Fielding Neale.

“The last letter is very graphic,” Evans said. “He was killed on June 3, 1864.”

Neale wrote:

A grape shot must have struck him in the forehead shattering the head and killing him instantly. Major Pierce has just informed me that an Officer of the 81st saw the lieutenant where he fell. He describes him as having been struck thru the center of the forehead, that he fell forward in a crouching position and never woke.


The regiment’s quartermaster secured and forwarded Joseph’s effects to Catherine in Plattsburgh.

The museum's collection includes his pension records, envelopes, train tickets and a fine portrait of Joseph, an officer and a gentleman who made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation.

In 1870, Catherine and the children remained living here.

A decade later, they were living in Santa Clara, Calif, according to the U.S. Census. 

Catherine, 54, was keeping house. Rosana, 23, was a schoolteacher; William, 21, a laborer; and Charles, 16, in school.

Perhaps when she missed Joseph most, Catherine reread his letters or excerpts for comfort, as this one written in Plymouth, N.C. on Aug. 4, 1863.

Dear Catherine, I felt very lonesome after parting with you and the Dear children I think more so than I did first, for it pained me very much to leave you all, & were it not that it was a necessity as well for you as the union believe me I would not leave you ...

Email Robin Caudell:


Recommended for you