Civil War in the Robert Milton Speer papers

My first collection here at the Special Collections Processing Center was letters to and from a man named Robert Milton Speer. Before bonding with Mr. Speer through his collection of around three hundred letters, I knew absolutely nothing of this United States Senator from the mid 1800s, nor that he even existed at all. Now, finished with boxing up his little slice of history, it’s hard to let him go. The youngest of six children, Speer had (according to his biography in the Biographical Encyclopaedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century)  excelled through school and had become a successful and prominent lawyer before embarking on his journey towards becoming a U.S. Senator in the Forty-Second and Forty-Third Congresses. Along the way he met some incredibly quirky characters who wrote to him in handwriting that had me feeling like I was translating for my Ancient Greek course, and who asked him, sometimes, for the strangest of favors. A man advocating for a murder sentence to be lessened because the convicted man wasn’t usually horrible is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sifting through those fun letters, the requests for legal aid, the congratulations on his successful election to Congress in 1870, and letters from various members of his family (one from his sister entirely dedicated to telling him he just had to buy this watch because it was just so him), I came across two little gems that had me nearly falling out of my chair. They are the earliest in the collection, one written in September of 1861 and the other in May of 1862, and also two that I had more trouble reading than some of the others. The letter written in 1861 was in fact so hard to decipher that at first I set it aside and described it as “letter written in 1861 pertaining to war?” – but then I tried a little harder aaaand queue the near falling-out-of-chair experience.

Both letters were written by a man named Frank Zentmyer who, much like Mr. Speer himself, meant nothing to me at first glance. Then, in the upper right hand corner of his letter from 1862, clearly scrawled in his swirly script, I saw it: Bull Run, May 1862. Bull Run. Bull Run! I am an Ancient Historian by trade and degree but all eras of history tend to make me squeal. And squeal I did. A lot. To Holly. To my mom. To pretty much anyone who cared to listen (or didn’t care – because I told them anyway). In this letter, Zentmyer talks about how much he hates (loathes, detests even) Republicans but that he hates the war even more, how he is expecting to gain more men when they march to Fredericksburg “in a few days time”, and his position on uniting political parties just for the sake of ending all the suffering. He also mentions a mutual friend of his and Speer’s  who is hallucinating snakes and is soon to be discharged from the army. Oh, and apparently the whiskey given to them had been sub-par at best, Zentmyer added in a post-script.

For a moment, I was a detective and I was tasked with piecing together just what exactly I was reading. And so, on to the first (and less legible) letter I went. In September of 1861, Zentmyer wrote to Mr. Speer (sussed out after about forty-five minutes of me huddled closely to this over 100 year old letter) and detailed moving his garrison from house to house, finding the Union supporters and holing up wherever there was room. He wrote about trying to find liquor, how he and the rest of the commanders were tasked with doling out rations for the men and cooking the meals themselves, of the infamous countersign “waterloo” given after a sentry challenge, and some battle talk pertaining to General Reynolds – the General Reynolds! – and a General McCleary (sadly these parts are still a little difficult to understand).


Sent from Bull Run. THE Bull Run.

Sent from Bull Run. THE Bull Run.

Let’s take a little trip through history. After collecting myself from the floor and shaking off the history-induced hysteria, I researched Frank Zentmyer and put this timeline of his letters together – and I might as well have just stayed on the floor because I almost fell over again. Frank Zentmyer was a major in the Union army in the Fifth Reserves of the Pennsylvania 34th regiment. Assuming command after the colonel was injured, Zentmyer led the charge of the Fifth during the Second Battle of Bull Run under the orders of General George McClellan. He would also be present during the Battle of Antietam, where the Fifth marched out under orders of General Burnside, Lincoln’s replacement for McClellan. Zentmyer’s letter written in September of 1861, then, had been written after the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) and his second letter from May 1862 must have been written during the Battle of Shiloh, which the Fifth did not participate in for they were too occupied in Virginia, and before the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29/30, 1862).

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this discovery was that Zentmyer mentioned in one of his letters his hopes to gain more men upon marching to Fredericksburg. The Fifth regiment, after going through the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, started towards Fredericksburg under the orders of General Burnside. Here they engaged in battle with the Confederates, and Major Zentmyer and his brother were captured, held by the southern soldiers, and ultimately killed. Zentmyer would not live to see his hope of new men for his reserves be fulfilled.

As I held his letters in my hands I realized that maybe I was holding the very last letters this man had ever written. The very last letters of this man who I had no idea existed until the moment I opened Robert Milton Speer’s box of correspondences and sifted through over one hundred letters saying “congratulations on your election, dear sir!” to find these two. These two letters that talk about the conditions of the war for both white and black men, the struggle to tolerate republicans even if it was for the sake of ending the misery of battle with brothers, and the little snippets of humor in this private exchange between two friends that I had the privilege to read. Perhaps they were childhood friends (they were both from Huntingdon County, PA) who wanted to keep in touch while Zentmyer went away to defend his country and Speer stayed home to defend with the law.

The details of why Robert Milton Speer had these two letters, and kept them, are still unclear, but what I do know is that holding those letters, reading them front to back, top to bottom, and exhausting the internet for information on both Speer and Zentmyer, had me falling in love with history all over again. I didn’t know either of these men before being handed that box of letters, but I definitely do now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over these two little letters or if I’ll ever stop squealing when I start to talk about them, but I’m totally, entirely, completely positive that I won’t forget them.

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About Nikki Love

A student in the University of Pennsylvania's Post-Baccalaureate Program in Classical studies interested in ancient religion and the intersection of Hellenistic and Egyptian culture, specifically during times of political crisis and conflict. Also hopelessly in love with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, with superheroes, and with anything having to do with animals.

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