Of the 40 letters in the collection, written from May 11, 1861 to September 16, 1866, 28 were written by James Frank Fee (who signs his name as Frank), the majority addressed to his brother Julius. These letters begin with his enlistment in Terre Haute, Indiana, and describe Frank’s initial reactions to camp life and “soldiering” and demonstrate his attempt to reassure his family. While still in Indiana, Fee relates the tensions between those recruits who were to enlist for three years and those for one year, leading to an argument over which group should bear the flag, and excitedly describes the first moving steamboat he ever saw. Fee writes home regularly as the 31st Regiment is deployed to Kentucky, where they winter without seeing major action. He is confident in the Union cause, asking Julius, “we will soon starve and whip the Rebels out and return home covered with Glory. Don’t you think so[?] I do.” Throughout November and December, Fee confidently predicts a battle with the rebels at Bowling Green.
Fee’s first engagement, though, turns out to be the Battle of Fort Donelson, which he describes in his letter of February 19, 1862: “We went ‘Double Quick’ nearly a mile, and got right square into the fight before we stopped. We then Halted and lay down on the ground and the way the Bullets flew over our heads was a sight seldom witnessed.” In his next letter, addressed to his mother on March 2, Frank complains that the lack of coffee “affects me differently now. It completely unnerves me.” He falls ill with dysentery, missing the Battle of Shiloh, which he describes in his letters of April 10 and 30: “I tell you it was a terrible battle. Fort Donaldson [sic] was nothing to this.” After a silence of two months, Frank writes again to mention the Siege of Corinth. He then documents the difficulties of censorship, the Post Office, and a lack of information in the camp: “I think we are the poorest informed set of Human beings that ever had existence (Heathens not excluded). We get no Papers, no letters, and no nothing.” He discusses his role in the (Second) Battle of Murfreesboro: “We were then ordered to retreat, which we did, just in time to save our ‘Bacon’.” After a celebratory letter on July 10, 1863 reporting the fall of Vicksburg and Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg (“We have glorious news now. Vicksburgh [sic] taken and Lee whipped. Bully for our side. We will be at home by next April, and the Union restored”), there is a silence until a single letter in June, 1864, concerning the invasion of Georgia: “You need not be surprised if you hear that we have possession of Atlanta inside of two weeks. If such is the case, and Grant takes Richmond, I shall say ‘Good by, Southern Confederacy.’ Bully for the Bogus Confederacy.” Frank and Julius seem to have had a disagreement and falling out, and their relationship is not repaired until February 1865, when the correspondence resumes.
Throughout, the letters deal with Fee’s health and that of the regiment; money from his pay that is sent back home; concern for his sweetheart, Maggie W.; the prices and availability of food; and clothing (gloves, boots, socks, etc.) that Fee requests be sent to the front. The correspondence between Frank and Julius also describe wartime life back in Bloomington, Indiana, including the tension between those loyal to the union and the rebel sympathizers. Frank comments on the election of a “secesh” schoolteacher, and Julius bitterly describes a meeting the Democrats will hold to discuss the secession of the state: “it is reported that they will hoist a rebel Flag, other parts of Ind. is [sic] doing the same. It is said that if one pistol is fired there will be 1000 in suit.”
Other letters in the collection are written by M.P. Harbison, of Bloomington; Corporal Phil Crab, 54th Regiment; Sergeant Ebenezer H. Fee, 54th Regiment; and Lieutenant James Harvey Miller, 117th Regiment. These letters depict snapshots of life in other units, whether as green reserves in Indianapolis guarding Confederate prisoners or the campaigns in Alabama and Missouri of soldiers in the 54th Indiana Regiment, and show their desire for news from home. Two letters at the end of the collection were written by Gerald A. Beeman in 1866. He had gone to school with Julius D. Fee in Bloomington, and indicates that he was born in Indiana. He had served in the Confederate Army, and desires to renew his friendship with Julius.