“We Have It Damn Hard Out Here”: The Civil War Letters of Sgt. Thomas W. Smith, Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry

Edited by Eric J. Wittenberg

Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999

            One of Rush’s Lancers was Thomas W. Smith of Philadelphia.  When he enlisted for a three-year term on October 10, 1861, Smith was 23 years old.  Prior to enlisting, the young bachelor resided with his parents, Joseph R. and Cathy Smith, in their home in the center of Philadelphia, at the intersection of 12th and Market Streets, in a busy and bustling part of the big city.  His mother was evidently in poor health much of the time, and little is known about his father.  The 1860 census records indicate that Joseph R. Smith was fifty years old, and listed his occupation as “Gentleman”, and that he owned his home, which was worth $6,500.00, a princely sum in the antebellum period.  Tom had three brothers and sisters: Joseph W., an eighteen year-old sales man, and Benjamin, known as Bennie, age nine.  He also had two sisters, Susan, a twenty year-old sales clerk, and Jane, also known as Jennie, age thirteen.[1]

Tom joined the cavalry, and his brother Joe served in the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia during the invasion hysteria accompanying the September 1862 Confederate invasion of Maryland.  Young Smith, an upholsterer by trade, was tall for a cavalryman at 5’9”, and weighed about 145 pounds.[2]  While not of the upper class and not college educated Tom Smith nevertheless possessed a keen but largely untrained mind and acute powers of observation.  These traits shone through time and again in the letters he wrote home.

            Flushed with patriotism and eager to join the excitement of the times, in early October 1861, Smith walked the four blocks down Market Street to Col. Rush’s recruiting office, located at 833 Market Street, and enlisted in Company I of the Lancers.[3]  Raised in Philadelphia and Chester County, Pennsylvania, Company I consisted of approximately 100 men, commanded by Capt. James Starr, another Philadelphian.[4]  Most of the company mustered into the service during October, and its men immediately set about learning their trade as soldiers.  Smith was popular enough with his comrades in the company that he was elected corporal almost immediately after beginning his service with the Lancers.[5]  As corporal, he was responsible for teaching other new recruits their duties, enforcing discipline, and assisting the company sergeants in the performance of their duties.[6]  These were important duties for the young trooper, and he set about learning them well.

            Sixty-seven of Tom Smith’s letters home have survived.  Filled with humor and humanity, they provide rare insight into the daily routines and life of an enlisted man in the Lancers.  This book, which has received good reviews, is essential reading for any student of cavalry operations in the Army of the Potomac, and of the daily life of an enlisted man in the American Civil War.


[1] 1860 Census for the Ninth Precinct of Philadelphia, RG M653, Reel #1159, p. 249.

[2] Thomas W. Smith Pension File, The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[3] Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War, p. 303.

[4] Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, 2 vols. (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, 1869), 2: 775-6.

[5] Thomas W. Smith Service Records, RG 94, The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[6] James A. Congdon, Congdon’s Cavalry Compendium: Containing Instructions for Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates in the Cavalry Service (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864), p. 58.