William Wilberforce Douglas Papers

Manuscript Collection #1192
Douglas, William W. (William Wilberforce), 1841-
Physical description
0.015 Cubic Feet, 1 archival box, Consisting of correspondence copied into a journal
Preferred Citation
William Wilberforce Douglas Papers (#1192), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.
ECU Manuscript Collection
No restrictions

Personal Correspondence (December 30, 1861-September 16, 1862; April 1863) written by William Wilberforce Douglas to his family members during his service in the Fifth Rhode Island Volunteers and in General Ambrose Burnside's Expeditionary Corps in North Carolina. Letters, copied by his mother, Sarah Sawyer Douglas, from originals into a single bound journal, include references to his time at the battles of Roanoke Island, New Bern, and Fort Macon. Additionally, the journal includes newspaper clippings accounting his exploits in the war.

Biographical/historical information

William Wilberforce Douglas, born on November 26, 1841, was the son of Baptist Minister William Douglas, Sr., and Sarah Sawyer Douglas of Providence, Rhode Island. William W. Douglas had five siblings, Sarah Ellen, Francis Wayland, Anne, Charles Henry, and Samuel Tobey, many of whom were the recipients of his letters.

William W. Douglas graduated from Brown University in 1861, shortly before the start of the war. He enlisted in the Fifth Regiment of the Rhode Island Volunteer Heavy Artillery during the American Civil War and served for three years in Union General Ambrose Burnsides' Expeditionary Corps in North Carolina. During his time in the Expeditionary Corps, Douglas rose in ranks from Second Lieutenant in Company B, to First Lieutenant in Company D, and eventually to Captain in Company C before he was mustered out of service on December 20, 1864.

After his military service ended, he returned to Providence, Rhode Island, and received a law degree from the Albany School of Law in 1866 and served in the Rhode Island General Assembly for two terms starting in 1871. He also served in the Providence city council (1873-1876), was elected state senator in 1890, became an associate Justice of the State Supreme Court in 1891, and was Chief Justice from 1905-1908.

On June 30, 1884, he married Anna Jean Bennett of Newton, Massachusetts. William W. and Anna Jean Douglas had no children. During their lifetime, Douglas and his wife traveled extensively, and held many leadership roles in their church such as Treasurer for many years at the First Baptist Church in Providence, RI; and held many civic and veterans' leadership roles including service in the Hope Club, Squantum Association, and Rhode Island Art Club.

William W. Douglas died on July 11, 1929, at 87 years old, and was buried at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. His wife, Anna Jean, died on August 19, 1939, and was buried alongside him in their family plot.

Sources: Ancestry.com. U.S., Adjutant General Military Records, 1631-1976 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011

Boumenot, Diane. "The Civil War Letters of William Wilberforce Douglas." Last modified March 17, 2013. http://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2013/03/17/the-civil-war-letters-wwdouglas/

Burlingame, John K. History of the Fifth Regiment of Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, during Three Years and a Half of Service in North Carolina, January 1862-June 1865. Providence: Snow & Farnham Printers and Publishers, 1892.

Find a Grave. "William Wilberforce Douglas." Last modified April 28, 2008. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=26471855

National Cyclopedia of American Biography (Vol. 14, p. 214).

Scope and arrangement

Twenty-two letters (December 30, 1861-September 16, 1862; April 1863), written by William Wilberforce Douglas to his family members, are accounts of the exploits of the Fifth Rhode Island Volunteers, and General Burnside's Expeditionary Corps during the Civil War. The letters are copied from their original form into a single journal by Douglas' mother, Sarah Sawyer Douglas. Many of the letters are only excerpts from the originals.

Within the letters, William Wilberforce Douglas discusses many different topics including war exploits, religion, family matters, and military life. Each letter is dated with the current location of the regiment.

William Douglas spent a majority of time recounting his traveling to his family in great detail, so that they might understand the predicament that he is in. He mentions several times the quality of life of a soldier at each camp, and the shortages they face on items such as a good meal, a warm bed, and postage stamps. Several times he mentions his meetings with General Burnside, and his admiration and trust of the officers in command.

Douglas also describes war time tragedies such as the death of Lieutenant Pierce of Company D, and some soldiers wounded by the Confederates; and the specifics of battles, such as the battle and surrender of Fort Macon, and New Bern, and the surrender of Roanoke Island. The 5th Regiment of the Rhode Island Volunteers made camp at several places including Annapolis, Maryland; Fort Monroe, Virginia; Hatteras Inlet, NC; Roanoke Island, NC; Camp Pierce, New Bern, NC; Carolina City, NC; Bogue Banks, NC; Fort Macon, Virginia; Beaufort Headquarters, NC; Camp Anthony, New Bern, NC; and aboard several naval ships such as the transport Kitty Simpson; and steamer SR Spalding.

On a personal note, William Douglas wrote to his family about receiving their letters, missing them dearly, keeping temptation away while surrounded by it at war, his duty and loyalty as a soldier, and reminisced about his childhood, and the people who have passed away too young. William Wilberforce Douglas was a very religious man and spent quite some time discussing his faith, hopes for the war's outcome, and optimistic thoughts with his family.

The journal also includes newspaper clippings re-printed from a personal journal, thought to be written by William W. Douglas, from General Burnside's Division of Rhode Island Volunteers from March 1862. Additionally, William Douglas' sister, Sarah, used the last few pages of the journal to take notes on a Chemistry lecture she attended from Professor G. J. Chase.

Administrative information
Custodial History

February 2, 2012, 0.015 cubic feet, 1 item; Collection consists of a volume containing twenty-two letters (December 30, 1861-September 16, 1862; April 1863) copied from the originals into this journal contemporaneously. Lieutenant (later Captain) William Wilberforce Douglas (1841-1929) wrote these letters to family members while he was in the Fifth Rhode Island Volunteers and serving in General Ambrose Burnside's Expeditionary Corps in North Carolina. His mother, Sarah Sawyer Douglas, copied the letters into this journal. His letters document the battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern and the siege and surrender of Fort Macon. He also describes his surroundings in North Carolina and the people (both white and African-American). Glued into the back of the journal are newspaper clippings that appear to be accounts written by Douglas of his exploits in the war; and 10 pages of "Lectures in Chemistry" by Professor G. J. Chase written down by Douglas's sister Sarah. Donor: Purchase (Special Manuscript Fund) from Carmen D. Valentino, Rare Books & Manuscripts.

Source of acquisition

Purchase (Special Manuscript Fund) from Carmen D. Valentino, Rare Books & Manuscripts.

Processing information

Processed by Samantha Canada, October 2013.

Copyright notice

Literary rights to specific documents are retained by the authors or their descendants in accordance with U.S. copyright law.

Key terms
Personal Names
Burnside, Ambrose Everett, 1824-1881
Douglas, Sarah E.
Douglas, William W. (William Wilberforce), 1841-
Corporate Names
United States. Army. Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment, 5th (1863-1865)
Burnside's Expedition to North Carolina, 1862
Chemistry--Study and teaching--Rhode Island
New Bern, Battle of, New Bern, N.C., 1862
Fort Macon (N.C.)--Siege, 1862
Roanoke Island (N.C.)--History--Capture, 1862
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Campaigns--North Carolina
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Personal narratives
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Religious aspects