Title: Army Adjutant, Civil War, father of two sons who died in wartime
Birthdate: October, 1821
Death Date: September 12, 1900
Plot Location: Section 32, Lot 76

Screenshot (2611)

The name Letford derives from a village named Latchford in either Cheshire or Oxfordshire, England. Only a little more is certain about William’s roots. His parents were both born in Philadelphia and may have had eight children. West York Street Methodist Episcopal Church was the setting for William’s marriage to Matilda Martin on May 1, 1843. 

The custom of recording a person’s specific date of birth didn’t seem to concern this family, or at least no records were located. Matilda was born sometime in 1824, and her first two children, Charles and Robert, only have estimated birth years of 1844 and 1846, respectively. Emmaline arrived in October of 1849. An exact date was documented for Ida Maria, born February 26, 1857, and for their last child, Harry, born December 20, 1859.

The 1850 census lists William’s occupation as a currier, someone who prepares and finishes leather hides. He no doubt learned that profession having seen his father’s work with leather as a bootmaker.

In 1854 the state authorized the merger of the Philadelphia City and Philadelphia County governments. One major benefit was the creation of a unified and structured police force. William became a police sergeant, and in that role he learned the importance of good organization, efficiency, and proper record-keeping. 

That experience worked to his advantage when volunteers were needed to form regiments to fight in the “Rebellion” that began in 1861. William joined the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment that was being recruited in the city. It was set up by a 65-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, Col. John Kidd Murphy, who was also buried here.

(He had a hand in organizing the new police force in the 1850s, and his own Notable life story can be found here. Others from the 29th who are buried here include Frederick Sorber, the captain of Company E,  Corporal George Conly of Company B, and Private John Henry Harres in Company F.)

William was brought in as a first lieutenant in Company B on July 1, but his experience with the police moved him immediately to the adjutant position on the colonel’s staff. That job mainly involved administration and communication. William transmitted written orders, wrote and received reports and correspondence, maintained records, and tracked details of service. In the field he also established camps, inspected guards and troops, formed lines of battle, and decided what to do with deserters and prisoners.

The same week he enrolled, his oldest son, known as Charley, enlisted as a musician in Company B, from which his father had just been promoted. He probably wasn’t even 18 years old. A War Department regulation issued that month required each company to have two musicians, and each regiment should have a 24-piece brass band. That requirement was ignored as the war dragged on. Still, there was always a bugler and drummer on hand to issue calls and keep a rhythm for marching.

After being on duty for the winter and spring of 1862 at Harper’s Ferry and Winchester, Virginia, the 29th was defeated there by the Confederates in late May. The unit missed the slaughter at Antietam in September since it was in rear guard position. The Battle of Fredericksburg in December was a Confederate victory. Charley was promoted to Sergeant Major, a regiment-level position, on February 22, 1863.

At Chancellorsville, Virginia in the spring of 1863 the Union Army suffered another defeat. Gettysburg was next, but it was there that Charley lost his life by a bullet to the abdomen. He died on the field on July 2, 1863. His body was brought home for burial here nine days later. A pension application was filed a month later by Harriet Letford, stating she was his wife. Without any documentation to the contrary, it’s likely Charley got married when he was given a furlough after his promotion in February.

His gravestone (below, left) was recently unearthed, but he has another marker (right) at Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg. It is known as a cenotaph, commemorating someone who is actually buried somewhere else.

Matilda was the head of the household, residing in the 3400 block of Market Street while William and Charley were in the Army. After burying her son she suffered from liver disease and died just three months later, on October 22, 1863. William resigned his position to care for his four remaining children.

Robert was now the oldest son, perhaps already 18 years old. He had observed the patriotism and courage shown by his father and brother, and knew it was his turn to take up the soldier’s mantle they left behind. He joined Company B just after Christmas, on December 29.

Imagine the mixed emotions his father may have had, proud, yet protective. Unfortunately, those emotions turned to grief once again on March 14, 1864. Robert died just 11 weeks into his job as a private. He caught a bacterial infection called typhus, similar to typhoid fever. He probably didn’t even have time to catch up with the 29th, which was on guard duty for the winter in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Robert died at Satterlee General Hospital not far from his family’s home in West Philadelphia. It was an Army hospital that was built in 1862, but had to be expanded to 4500 beds after the Battle of Gettysburg. They treated some 50,000 patients during the war and lost only 260. Unfortunately, Robert was one of them. He was buried at Mount Moriah with his mother and brother. 

William, the 42-year-old currier-turned-cop had no desire to return to fighting crime. He had good reason, after all he had been through. The tragedy he witnessed on the battlefield paled in comparison to the personal pain of losing three loved ones in just eight months.

Now with three children, the youngest at age 4, William found a new wife for life, marrying Sarah “Sallie” Prentice Fenn on September 13, 1864. She was from Connecticut and just 26 years old but she became his emotional rock. They grew their family by adding a girl and boy just after the war was over. Another boy died in infancy in 1869, then to their surprise, another girl arrived in 1880.

Forty years after the war was over, the State of Pennsylvania Monument was built at Gettysburg, shown here. The memorial honors every soldier in every unit in the state that fought there. The bronze tablets around the base list over 34,000 names of those who were there, including William and Charles. They are both listed at the top of the tablet for the 29th Infantry since they held regimental positions. (Colonel Murphy, who originated the unit, served as its commander until stepping down due to his age just before Gettysburg, on April 23, 1863.) 

William’s life proceeded with relative calm in Philadelphia, taking a job as a clerk for the rest of his life. Sometime in the 1870s he moved the family to his last residence, on the 100 block of North 63rd Street. Harry remained in the home, also employed as a clerk, until he married in 1901. They both apparently worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and that is where Harry remained for the rest of his career. William’s other son, William Fenn Letford, became a machinist and married in 1892.

Before William died of heart disease at the dawn of the new century, he was blessed with six grandchildren to enjoy. One of them was named after him. Wife Sarah joined him in the family plot at Mount Moriah in 1916. The only daughter to remain single was Ida; she and Harry and his wife were the only children other than the two soldiers that were laid to rest at Mount Moriah.

Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Support the Friends of Mount Moriah

Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.