“I Donte Want to Fight”: One Union Soldier’s Struggle with Duty

“I Donte Want to Fight”: One Union Soldier’s Struggle with Duty

Sketch of James M. Jones, taken from Asa Bartlett’s History of the Twelfth Regiment. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

James Madison Jones wanted nothing more than to be out of the U.S. Army. The young father had enlisted in the 12th New Hampshire Infantry in August 1862, but once he donned the blue uniform and left his family behind, Jones regretted his decision. He tried–and failed–to renege on his enlistment for the next eight months. But by April 1863, as the 12th New Hampshire prepared for a new campaign, Jones had seemingly given up. “I donte want you to worey about me,” the twenty-seven-year-old father of five wrote to his wife, Maria, “all i want you to do is to pray for me and pray in faith to the lord to hav mursey on me and spair my life.” “I hope and pray to the lord,” he continued, “he will sone [soon] bring this ware to a close and dliver me from this unholey place and send me home to you whare I can take some comfort.” Unfortunately, none of his heavenly pleas were answered. A week later Jones was dead, his life snuffed out by a shell at Chancellorsville.[1]

James M. Jones presents an intriguing case study; the sentimental or patriotic language that historians have traditionally used to suggest the ideological motivations of Civil War soldiers is notably absent from his correspondence. Jones’s anguished words instead portray a man who struggled to reconcile his conflicting obligations to both country and home.[2] This New Hampshire father’s difficulty in defining his soldierly duty – and his acute pining for his family – is a searing reminder of the impacts of military service on the well-being of families during the Civil War. Jones’s experience also shares a strong commonality with that of present-day American military families. “Although many service members anticipate deployments, eager for the opportunity to defend their country and utilize their training,” explains a 2016 RAND Corporation study of the effects of deployments on American military families, “few look forward to time separated from spouses and children.” There is little doubt that James Jones and his family would have agreed with those conclusions. A microstudy of Jones’s struggle to fulfill both his patriotic and familial duties therefore helps us establish a tangible link to the past. The benefit is not only a more empathetic understanding of the wartime experiences of Civil War soldiers, but also of the challenges military families face in our own society.[3]

James Jones was a shoemaker living in the town of Alton, a community on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, when he enlisted in Company A of the 12th New Hampshire Infantry in the summer of 1862. It is not exactly clear why he joined, but considering that fifty-nine men—including his brother Charles—enlisted in the same company, social pressures from his community might have played a role in his decision. Jones already had three young children at home, with Maria expecting another by the end of the year, so the promise of a steady paycheck may also have been alluring for the young father.[4]

Alton Bay, New Hampshire, c. 1890s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But Private Jones almost immediately regretted his decision to enlist. Soon after arriving in Washington, D.C., Jones wrote his parents a letter full of longing for home. “You donte know how mutch i think of you all,” he scribbled from their camp on Arlington Heights. “I dremt of my famley last night i thought they came to see me and i wanted to [be] home with [them] and then i waked up.” The despair is even more palpable in Jones’s letters to Maria. “I would giv all that i hav got in the world if onley [to] bee at home with you and the Children but i cant so i will try to bee conted [content],” he wrote in December 1862. “I wish i could put my arms around you all,” he continued, “and hav a kis from you all i hope and trust the time will soon come when i can.”

Things got worse for James when Maria gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl) sometime in January 1863. Jones was frustrated at his inability to play the role of a new father. “I drempet last night i was at home and i thought i see the babyes and they was fat as hogs,” he told his wife not long after hearing about their birth. He recommended they name the boy after himself, and the girl Francis Caroline. If Maria did not like the names, Jones told her to “rite and let me no and i will try a gain.” In February 1863, while languishing in the cold at Falmouth, Virginia, Jones told Maria that “i think a grate deal about you and the children and i dremt that i was at home with you last night and see the babyes i wish that dream would com to pass sone [soon] donte you?”[5]

Unlike so many inexperienced Civil War soldiers, Jones was not naïve about what awaited him in combat. “I hope that we shant see eney battle a tall for i donte want to fight,” he wrote in October 1862. When the 12th New Hampshire first came under enemy fire during the battle of Fredericksburg in December, Jones’s courage understandably failed him. He abandoned his regiment and escaped to the safety of the rear. Jones’s regiment court-martialed him for desertion from duty while in front of the enemy and sentenced him to one month without pay. Although he dejectedly returned to the ranks, the traumatic battlefield experience convinced Jones that he needed to somehow find a way home.[6]

Sometime around Christmas of 1862, Jones tried to convince his younger brother, Samuel (who went by his middle name, Estwick) to take his place. Jones desperately offered “Eck” two hundred dollars (with one hundred and fifty dollars down), in addition to all of his bounty money and even his watch, to take over as his substitute. This incredibly generous offer – from a soldier who only made thirteen dollars a month and had six mouths to feed at home – affirms Jones’s desperation. “If it wont for my little famley i woodent give half so mutch to git of but i am in a worrey all of the time,” he told Maria. Jones became bitter when his brother would not bite on the offer, complaining to his wife that Eck would “dreather for me to stay hear and die than to do it for me.”

His next tactic was to declare family hardship. “Git moather to rite a letter for you over to Concord to the Govner,” he wrote to Maria in March 1863, “and tell him about how your case is and tell him all about your little children and that you cant take cair of them alone and tell him that he will col me home and you will pay him back the bounty that i drawed from the state.” If he had originally enlisted for the money, it was now clearly the last thing on Jones’s mind.[7]

Despite the candor of his letters, Jones still carefully guarded his intentions to leave the Army. “Donte let eney body no that i want to come home you must minde and not git bolde,” he warned Maria. He cautioned her not to “let eney body else see this,” because Jones feared the news would “go like hot cakes” at home and in the regiment. To publicly fail in his homecoming efforts, Jones would leave both himself and his family open to ridicule from their community for rebuking his commitment to his fellow soldiers and country. The bliss in returning home to his family, however, would likely have been worth the shame of evading his duty as a soldier.[8]

Chancellorsville battlefield. Jones was killed somewhere in the woods in front of the cannon. Photo courtesy of the author.

But James Jones never succeeded in leaving the Army on his own terms. By April 1863 he had given up; all that remained for him was to accept the consequences of his enlistment and reconcile his failures with himself. In one of his final letters home, Jones outwardly tried to do just this. He reasoned to his wife that if he had actually been successful in his efforts to get out of the Army, he would not “Git it paid up” and Maria “would haft to lose all the money that [she] hav got.” He therefore told her that he thought “it is best to let it rest for the present.” But had he actually personally reconciled his conflicting obligations to his nation, community, and family?[9]

As his regiment crossed over the Rappahannock River to offer battle to the Army of Northern Virginia, Jones still feared the consequences of his military commitment. “[He] had told me that he should be killed in this battle,” Sergeant O.F. Davis recalled years later, “and while we were lying by the brook [at Chancellorsville] a bullet struck between him and me, and I said ‘guess they mean us.’” As Davis remembered it, Jones was incredulous that the sergeant would “speak so heedlessly in the face of death” because he expected every bullet to be his “death messenger.” As the regiment advanced into a belt of woods atop a low ridge that morning, Jones was struck by a shell. According to those nearby, he remained standing long enough to reach into his pocket and remove his wallet and testament in an attempt to hand them to another nearby soldier. Before he could do so, Jones fell dead, his final message to Maria in his outstretched hands. In his final moments, James Jones’s duty remained to his family.[10]

The author would like to thank Marty Cornelissen and the Alton Historical Society for sharing the letters of James Jones and for assisting him in researching the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. The original letters are in the possession of a descendant, who self-published them. You can find the Alton Historical Society website at https://altonnhhistoricalsociety.org/.


[1] James Jones to Maria Jones, April 26, 1863, in James M. Jones III, ed., Civil War Letters of James M. Jones (Concord, NH: Town and Country Reprographics, 2008), 80-83.

[2] For a recent counterpoint to the well-entrenched historical interpretations concerning the motivations of Civil War soldiers, see William Marvel, Lincoln’s Mercenaries: Economic Motivation Among Union Soldiers During the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018).

[3] Sarah O. Meadows, Terri Tanielian, and Benjamin R. Karney, eds., The Deployment Life Study: Longitudinal Analysis of Military Families across the Deployment Cycle (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), xvii.

[4] Asa Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion (Concord, NH: Ira C. Evans, Printer, 1897), 485. Also see Marvel, Lincoln’s Mercenaries for further elaboration on economic motivations of Union soldiers.

[5] James Jones to “Farther and Moather,” October 8, 1862, private collection of Marty Cornelissen, Alton Historical Society, Alton, NH; James Jones to Maria Jones, December 26, 1862, January 30, 1863, Civil War Letters, 35-38, 50-53.

[6] James Jones to Maria Jones, October 22, 1862, Civil War Letters, 24-27; 12th New Hampshire Infantry Regimental Order Book, March 15, 1863, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, DC.

[7] James Jones to Maria Jones, January 30, 1863, April 1, 1863, March 15, 1863, Civil War Letters, 50-53, 74-77, 69-72.

[8] James Jones to Maria Jones, January 30, 1863, March 15, 1863, Civil War Letters, 50-53, 69-72; Peter Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 22.

[9] James Jones to Maria Jones, April 26, 1863, Civil War Letters, 80-83.

[10] Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment, 345, 494.

Nathan Marzoli

Nathan A. Marzoli is a Staff Historian at the Air National Guard History Office, located on Joint-Base Andrews, Maryland. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he completed a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in history and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire. Mr. Marzoli’s primary research and writing interests focus on conscription in the Civil War North—specifically the relationships between civilians and Federal draft officials. He is the author of several articles in journals such as Army History and Civil War History, as well as numerous blog posts.

2 Replies to ““I Donte Want to Fight”: One Union Soldier’s Struggle with Duty”

  1. Unlike Confederate soldiers, the death of James Jones, and all Union soldiers, was not in vain. When the Union won and slavery ended, he gave his life for a noble cause–the winning cause and freedom for the enslaved.

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