Poignant letter where Father arrives too late for dying son; also his views against slavery

Date Written

Jan. 3, 1863

Washington Irving Pennymaker was 48 years old when this was written.
The recipient, Mary Ann Pennypacker, was 52 when it was received.

Washington Irving Pennymaker died 10 years, 7 months, 17 days after writing this.
It was written 160 years, 9 months, 2 days ago.
It was a Saturday.

Great Meadows Harford Cty. Md.
January 3, 1864

Respected sister,

Some time since I received your kind letter for which I felt grateful as it bore the assurance that although a stranger in a strange land there are some kind friends who now and then think of us; which should have been answered sooner but we have been on looking for Mr. Buckwater and yourself to visit us, but hitherto it has been hope deferred.

We are all, that is, all that is left of us in the enjoyment of perfect health, one of the greatest blessings of an ever kind Providence both Eliza and myself never enjoyed better health than since we came here. We are both growing fleshy, we have an exceeding healthy country and one of the best neighborhoods that I have ever lived in. The people are as a general thing a moral, industrious, and church going community mostly numbers of Religious Society but the next numerous are the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists. We have two Quaker churches, four Methodist churches, two Baptist churches, one Episcopalian church, one Albright Church, one Catholic Church and one Presbyterian Church within four miles of us, so you see we have no excuse from attending church and there two Baptist Ministers live within sight , one of them joins property with us, it is pleasant to be in the midst of such people.

The only drawback we have in this state is the number of slaves which hangs over us as a curse but that is only in name as we have fewer blacks here than you have and the time has now come in our history as a state when the curse of Slavery shall be wiped from our escutcheon and we as a state will unite with our sister states of the north in proclaiming universal liberty to all mankind. The change that has taken place in the sentiments of the people within the last few years is truly amazing, when we came here eight years ago it was dangerous for any person to utter Emancipation principals and since that time some have been imprisoned for uttering abolition sentiments, but now the great majority of the people especially of those born and raised here in the midst of the evils of slavery are violently in favor of immediate emancipation, in fact so strong has that feeling become that last fall previous to the election all the candidates were questioned in regard to their opinions on the slavery question and none but unconditional union emancipationists stood any chance for election to any office. The blessings to be derived from the abolition of slavery are already beginning to develop themselves in the improvement of the country and the raise in the price of land, land is selling briskly and at better prices than were heretofore while the people are now in the spirit of improving and more building being done and the prospect now is that there will be a universal rise in the price of property here.

You spoke of our loss in the death of our son, truly it was a loss to us that no one but ourselves can realize; kind friends may sympathize with us and say they feel our loss, but yet there is none can feel as we do. We naturally looked to him as our stay and comfort in the decline of life for he was our first born and it is but natural for us to think there was none better than he, but his country called and he wished to do what he could in defense of the best government that ever existed and of course we could not say nay. We little thought he would be soon taken, but such as the ways of Providence and why should we murmur or complain, we have the consolation to know that he was prepared for the change, therefore our loss is his eternal gain and though he cannot come to us let us so live that we may go to him.

He died in a noble cause, he gave his life for his country and while our lacerated and torn hearts bleed sorely and shall ever bleed, for there is a vacuum there that can never be filled, I would not murmur or complain.

He was a remarkable youth perfectly reliable in all things and as far as I can find from others he was never heard to swear an oath or ever known to tell an untruth and we little knew the esteem he had among his acquaintance until the news came of his death, when there appeared to be a general burst of grief throughout the neighborhood and to this day when his young associates look at his photograph, which we have, their hearts swell within them and their eyes weep bitter tears. It is pleasant for us to know that he was beloved. I have lost other friends near and dear to me but this is the hardest trial I ever met.

I received the letter that he was sick on Friday night. Saturday morning, I started for Maryland Heights, fell in with an old gentlemen going there also to see his sick son. Arrived at Harper's Ferry on Sunday about noon and started to foot it up the mountain where the Regiment lay, about half way up the mountain being overcome with the heat, we sat down beneath the shade of a tree and were talking about our sons, each one hoping to find them better, when we saw a group of young men ascending towards us. When they came up they informed us they had just been down to bury a comrade, Pennypacker of Harford County. You can imagine some of my feelings. I can not describe them but I shall never forget them, I went on up to the Captain’s tent when the word spread that Pennypacker’s Father was there and the whole Company flocked around to sympathize and say something in his praise.

The next day I crossed the river to see where they had laid to rest my boy and while standing at the head of the grave with the scalding tears fresh from my poor heart watering the fresh earth. I thanked God that he had lost his life in a good cause. But I must stop. Yours truly,


Eliza sends here love and wishes to have Nathan’s photograph for her album.

Scans of Letter