By Dennis Urban
George Messer was a 30 year old musician in Company F, 107th Illinois Infantry, who wrote his wife from the Lamar House Hospital in Knoxville on December 23, 1863. He was hoping to be home on furlough for Christmas. But that is getting ahead of the story.
George was a carpenter from DeWitt County, IL who was married but two years when he enlisted on Independence Day in 1862. In June 1860, he lived on a farm with his older brother and his mother. His father was absent from the home. His reasons for enlisting are unknown but given the date he enlisted perhaps patriotism after a rousing speech played a part. Maybe he enlisted as a musician so he would not have to carry a musket into combat. He may not have known that musicians were used as stretcher bearers to evacuate the wounded during battle. Many times they were in the thick of the action. The regiment was mustered into Federal service on September 4 and trained at Camp Butler, east of Springfield IL, before they left for the front. That fall the 107th spent time chasing John Hunt Morgan around Kentucky. These escapades did not result in any casualties within the regimen
George was a prolific letter writer to his wife Charlotte, whom he addressed as Lottie. Lottie was five years younger than he. His letter of December 23 was his 89th letter home. He numbered all his letters. George proved to be a sickly soldier, frequently writing about his intestinal diarrhea difficulties. As the regiment moved around, George spent most of his time in regimental hospitals. His letters indicate that he was sick more than he was well. He provided Lottie with news of the regiment and of those relatives and friends serving with him. He frequently sent money home. George offered Lottie advice on managing the farm. By September 25th the regiment was in Loudon, TN and George was again sick in the hospital for the next two weeks. He did recover and reported himself “well and hearty” to Lottie on October 11. His recovery was short-lived as he wrote on October 26 that he was “very poor and weak” and weighing 135#.
The 107th arrived in Knoxville the next day (October 27) at which time George began his stay at the Lamar House hospital. His letter of October 30 (#83) provides an excellent description of the Lamar House as a hospital. He writes, “the house that this hospital is in was a large hotel called the Lamar House and was owned by a Rebel and abandoned when our forces first came to this place. It is a splendid house and is well-suited for a hospital. There is now about two hundred & fifty patients in it. Some of them are pretty bad and some stout and hearty as men need be. There is about three deaths every twenty-four hours which is a very small average for a hospital of this size. I am way up on the third story and can have a view of over half the city from the window. [John] Minor Jolley [of Co. B] and myself are in a room with five others and we keep ourselves pretty comfortable.” George’s observations about the Lamar House provide some interesting information. We know the Lamar House had several additions built onto the original building especially on the north and west sides of the block. Being in a room with six others meant they were in quite a large room, perhaps even a corner room although he only mentions one window. Since he could view over half the city, he could have occupied a north facing room.
George remained in the Lamar House Hospital during November and he again wrote home from there on December 3. He commented that, “I am very weak and I can’t keep my diarrhea stopped long enough at a time to gain much strength…I don’t think that I will get entirely well until I can get to come home where I can get proper diet and better care and nursing.” He tells Lottie of some “sharp fighting” that had occurred in November (Fort Sanders) in which one soldier was killed and four others of the 107th were wounded. He concludes by telling her of his efforts to get sent home to recuperate but says it is impossible to get anyone’s attention with all that is happening.
This brings the story to George’s letter of December 23 (#89). George was trying to get a furlough to come home for Christmas but the medical director told him that furloughs were not being granted as the railroad was not in running order to Chattanooga. He wrote Lottie that “I think that I am getting a little better and have been mending slowly since I wrote to you last. I am gaining strength but my feet and legs are so bloated and swelled and so stiff that I can hardly get up when I am down. But when I am up a little while, I can manage to walk a little from my room out into the hall and back. I have not been downstairs on the ground for four weeks. I would be able to go down now if I was not so stiff for when I do go down, I have three pairs of stairs to go down and up again which is considerable of a job for me even if I was not so stiff. But I think the Dr will give me something to help that in a few days. He is very attentive to me.”
On the same sheet, George added additional information on Christmas Eve. He wrote, “During the siege here at this place, I was considerable under the weather and the prospect at one time was doubtful whose hands we would fall into, so I went to work one day and destroyed all of your letters that I had as I did not wish for other Eyes to see what was never intended they should and I did not know but I would get down so I could not take care of them myself. I am sorry that I done so now but it is too late. You must not think hard of me for doing so. Those other keepsakes, the locks of hair of yourself and our Dear Child that sleeps beneath the sod, I keep close to me night and day and shall still continue to do so. I would get my Likeness taken and send to you but I am affraid it would scare you. But I dont look so very poor in my face for it is nearly covered with hair. and besides, being considerable bloated, I shal not send my Likeness for a little while untill I see whether I get to come home any ways soon which I think will be known in the next three weeks at farthest.”
When George closed this letter, his words proved to be prophetic. “My Darling Wife Good By from your Ever True and Loving Husband”. Thirty year old George Messer died on December 30, 1863 without ever leaving the Lamar House. His family was first notified of his passing through a letter from Lottie’s nephew (Willy), a soldier in the same Company F as George, to Lottie’s parents. Willy and a company lieutenant were able to recover some of George’s possessions and send them to Lottie. Some of his personal items and some of his money were stolen from his room after his death. Other items were sold to pay for what he owed the regiment. Letters were written concerning returning his remains to DeWitt County in the spring for burial. This was never accomplished for today George Messer lies in Section A of the National Cemetery in Knoxville, six rows removed from the center flagpole.
As we give thanks for all of our many blessings this Christmas and Holiday Season, it would be well to remember George and all the other soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Sources: https://messerweb.wordpress.com and collection of Dennis Urban