Dear Ms. Dickerson,
Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!
During the Civil War, the War Department did not have a formal process for notifying next-of-kin of casualties. Families often found out from casualty lists published in newspapers. In some cases, a soldier’s commanders or comrades wrote to the next-of-kin, however this was considered a personal letter and was not retained by the War Department as an official record. If the letter was retained by the family and still exists, it would likely be in private hands or in the collections of a wide variety of institutions that might collect donated personal and family papers.
One place that such letters sometimes appear in the official records is when they were submitted as evidence in pension applications submitted by widows and other survivors. We searched the National Archives Catalog and located the record series titled Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, 1861 - 1934 in the Records of the Department of Veteran Affairs (Record Group 15). A portion of this series has been digitized and can be viewed online through the Catalog, to include 62 files pertaining to the 54th Massachusetts. Because both the sending of notification letters and the submitting of them as evidence for pensions was optional, not all pension applications contain such letters.
There may be additional files pertaining to the 54th Massacussetts in the custody of the National Archives at Washington, DC and under ordinary circumstances they may be accessed in the research room there, and copies of individual pension files pertaining to specific soldiers may be ordered using the procedures outlines here: https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/pre-ww-1-records
Please note that due to the coronavirus public health emergency, all National Archives research rooms are closed until further notice. Also, the National Archives and Records Administration has suspended reproduction and digitization services until further notice due to COVID-19. Orders will not be serviced until operations can resume safely. We apologize for any inconvenience. Once operations resume, document reproduction requests will be filled in the order in which they were received.
For more information on death notification during the Civil War, please see the following articles.
We hope this information is helpful. Best of luck with your research!
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Hello Ms. Dickerson,
As Jason mentioned, letters to the relatives of Civil War soldiers that were killed in action or otherwise died while serving in the military would likely be fould in personal papers if they survive. The Library of Congress Manuscript Division is the custodian of a large number of collections of personal papers documenting the American Civil War, and many record the experiences of enlisted soldiers. After a search of the Library of Congress online catalog and the Manuscript Division’s finding aids, I am unable to identify items matching your specific description. However, few of our collections are indexed on and item-by-item basis, and comprehensive search may be necessary to make a determination.
The William A. Gladstone Afro-American Military Collection is now online. While this collection may not include letters notifying a soldier’s relatives of a death or injury, there are several examples of communication with the families of soldiers and some material related to the 54th Massachusetts. The finding aid online includes links to each item (download a PDF). Examples include:
Letter, Headquarters, 15th U.S. Colored Infantry, give the bearer the accounts of her dead husband, a private of this regiment, June 1865.
Letter, North Branford, Conn., requesting her bounty by widow of a Connecticut soldier who died in the Civil War, 1869.
Letter, Freedman’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., surgeon in charge, refers to financial matters of Private Charles Polk, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, Sept. 1
Please feel free to contact the Manuscript Reading Room directly with any questions about our collections. Best wishes and good luck with your project.
Manuscript Reading Room
Library of Congress