Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War. William Prince.
Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War
Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War
Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War
Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War

Fascinating Archive of Letters from Lieut. William Prince, U.S. Ordnance Corps, 1864-1872, Most Written from the Washington Arsenal During the Civil War

Fourteen complete letters and one partial letter totaling 80 handwritten pages (various sheet sizes, but most ca. 8 x 10 in.), about 12,500 words in all; also a copy in Prince's hand of a letter recommending him promotion from writer and Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis. All in fine condition and easily legible, most on official Ordnance Office letterhead, some with original mailing envelopes. William Prince, b. 1833, was the son of horticultural pioneer William Robert Prince, the third-generation owner of Prince's Linnaean Botanic Garden and Nurseries in Flushing, Queens, New York. William's brother was L. Bradford Prince, who served as a New York State Senator, Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, and the fourteenth Territorial Governor of New Mexico. William enlisted as a private with the 159th N.Y. Infantry, but after gathering letters of support and passing rigorous written tests and oral and physical examinations, he was promoted to Lieutenant and detailed to the Ordnance Department at the Washington Arsenal on Feb. 12, 1864. Prince’s letters are exceptionally well written and detailed. Nine are addressed to “Banny” (one of his sisters), three are to his brother Bradford, and two are to his mother. There is occasional talk of family and financial matters, but the vast majority of the correspondence describes Prince’s life and work as a member of the Ordnance Corps. The first eight letters, dating from January to October 1864, are filled with enthusiasm and good cheer. He finds his new quarters pleasant and is impressed by the abundance of food available to the officers, boasting that In the dining room sideboard are "crackers cheese nuts raisins oranges lemons champagne brandy sherry bourbon bitters and a silver caster of cordials -- maraschino, anisette, absinthe, and crème de vanilla." He also has access to "about ten pipes of various kinds and big box tobacco." Equally delightful to him are the lavish parties given by officers at the Arsenal: "We can clear a whole floor in one of the shops, build a covered way from quarters (plenty of carpenters & stuff), cover it all with silk cloth, solid silk and thick as sail cloth used for cannon cartridges, get the Marine Band and as for fireworks we have them by the houseful, rockets as big as stovepipe and fireballs to light the drives, flags in untold quantity…Bengal lights all over the grounds…blue fire, green fire, red fire and yellow fire…". While pleased by physical comforts of life in the Ordnance Corps, Prince expresses some concern about opportunities for promotion: "The ordnance corps consists of one brig. General, two colonels, three lieut. Colonels, six majors, 24 captains, 20 1st lieuts, and 12 2nd lieuts –  that is all for the whole army….Captain Benton of this post has been 20 years in service, has written the great national text book on ordnance and gunnery, was 8 years professor of ordnance and gunnery at West Point and has served at every post in the country from the Rio Grande to the St Lawrence and yet he is just going to be made a Major and is still a Captain." On the other hand – the work is interesting. One of his duties has been to conduct the trials of new Rifles or carbines of which one new design a day is about the average. He describes the testing process at length, explaining how many shots are fired from various distances and the factors he assesses in his report on each new firearm. If he finds a weapon "sufficiently meritorious to deserve further trial in the hands of troops, then the proprietor of the invention (who is present always at the trial) receives a day or two afterwards from the ordnance office an order for the regular 1000 pcs which are always ordered first if we conclude to try it – just to arm one regiment.  This with carbines is about $3000 and it rests with me two days out of three whether somebody should have it or not with the prospect of further orders." Over several letters, Prince offers many interesting descriptions of his work testing various munitions and systems for improving aim, distance, etc. In one, he comments offhandedly, "By the by, I blew a 200 pd Parrot clean and clear of its parapet yesterday with its carriage, chassis, and all – a small lot of iron of about 28 or 30 tons." In another he notes how busy they are: "You have no idea how complicated the question of breech loading carbines is getting.  We have 137 different designs now on hand and they come about 5 a week." In September 1864, Prince accompanied senior officers on a visit to the Navy Yard Battery to observe experiments firing large guns against iron plates in a range of sizes and thicknesses to determine the best sheathing for vessels. His letter describes the tests and outcome in great detail. In his spare time, Prince was also at work on a monumental photography project. "Using the equipment every arsenal has on hand to document the details of newly invented arms, I have started a vast photographic album whose pages are to be the size of a sheet of cartridge paper (about 2/3 the size of my home drawing board) as some of the views will require that size. This album will be on separate sheets in portfolio form to facilitate interpolating and arranging for increase – but some time I may have it bound. It is to commence with the portraits of the Officers of the Ordnance Corps then a series of views in and about the various Arsenals as I go the rounds, then the main body of it is to be photographs of all classes of arms and Ordnance articles – all arranged and classified. I have already eight large single page views of portions of this arsenal ground and have quite a respectable series of carbines and revolvers—8 on a page and they look as neat as wax. Each piece in two pictures, one complete the other taken apart…then I have a series of Parrot gun photographs…plus an endless lot of things what I don’t say anything about because it would take so long to explain…". Alas, as far as we can tell, this project has not survived. The most dramatic letter is a partial letter about the explosion and devastating fire that killed 21 people at the Arsenal on June 17th, 1864. We suspect this is the final two pages of a letter from Prince to Banny (recounting the outbreak of the fire and Prince’s own role in fighting it) that was sold at Cowan’s in 2008. Our fragment describes the aftermath, including the funeral of the victims, and Prince’s horror at seeing the bodies of the dead in the ruins: " But now the roof has fallen in and the South end is all on the ground and beginning to break up. And there they are. McBrown had sworn that he knew they had all got out. He hoped the fire would give him a temporary respite by obliterating the traces—at any rate he lied perhaps to make himself believe his carelessness had not been fatal. But there they were. The beams were supported by them angularly as they had fallen on them and they peered out – deadening the fire in smoldering, roasting spots with tangles of steel hoop of skirts—a horrible smell and peeps of white bones – Oh, Banny, it was worse than a battlefield – and we were sick, even the Major." After the fire, Prince carried on as usual, and his letters from the Fall of 1864 show him as engaged in his work as ever. But a letter dated January 13th, 1865, gives the first sign of a change in Prince’s outlook—likely reflecting the development of some form of mental illness. Writing from Cumberland, he apologizes to Banny for failing to write sooner, offering the explanation that "I have been miserably ashamed of myself, and generally in trouble. You know or Mother knows that my constitution experiences a revulsion or something of the sort at the holidays and that I think about everything that is bad and gloomy. But I have had good reason to be troubled. In the first place I discovered that there was a plot among all the graduate Lieuts of Ordnance to get me dismissed from the service. I am watched on every side and no one likes me. After some further account of people taking against him, he reports I am hopelessly in debt it seems to me, and it is getting worse. I don’t see how it is. I certainly do not think I am extravagant." After the war ended, Prince was transferred to the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, NY, where he remained for about two years before his next transfer, to Charleston, SC. A letter of May 8, 1867 to his brother Bradford offers some interesting description of post-war Charleston. "It’s not nice but somewhat sad here, he observes, although everyone seems perfectly satisfied with the state of things. The burnt district has become somewhat softened as I fancy by the growths of 5 years, [but] no attempt has been made to rebuild any portion of it although in the heart of the city." He goes on to comment on “the relation between whites and blacks” in Charleston, and how it differs from what he saw in Washington. The final two letters in this group are addressed to Prince’s mother and written from Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. In December 1870 he reports "I’m having my annual December dumps when I’m miserable and ugly and looking at everything and every body through the gloomiest and crookedest of glasses….You know I had them long before any of the anxieties incidental to the closing year and perhaps an ill spent wasted year could have added to their burden—before all the beautiful possibilities of life had been blotted out." In February 1872 he writes: "I wish you would all see the necessity of my being taken care of, and that I can’t manage myself. I haven’t been outside the gate for months except to buy commissary stores….I’m so tired – tired – tired. I didn’t bargain to live so long. The only things I want I shall die without getting – and my mind is so now that I am glad I haven’t ever got them…You have the noblest, best, completest embodiment of all a woman should be for a daughter and the purest minded clearest headed man I ever knew for a son. And to have given birth to them ought to make you very happy – You can spare me." William Prince died on December 18, 1880, at the age of 47. A notice in Army and Navy Journal the following week reported that “a large number of relatives and friends attended the funeral at Flushing to pay the last tribute of respect to the dead soldier. Among the number was a military delegation from Washington. He was an excellent officer and a most agreeable gentleman, of whom the New York Herald justly says: His death will be regretted by a large circle of friends. His gentle, amiable disposition won him hosts of admirers and his integrity of character and honesty of purpose made him universally respected.” [Please e-mail us for a copy of this description in a Word document, formatted for easier reading].

Item #21360

Price: $2,500.00

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