What the Private Saw: The Civil War Letters & Diaries of Oney Foster Sweet

The previously unpublished letters, diaries, and retrospective pieces of Pvt. Oney Foster Sweet, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, 43rd Pennsylvania Volunteers (14th Reserves) Battery F (Ricketts’ Battery), 1861-1865. This first-hand account of what the private saw is a distinctive addition to the many existing volumes on the American Civil War. More

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About Oney Foster Sweet

Oney Foster Sweet was born in Gibson, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on December 13, 1841.

At age 13 or 14, Oney’s parents sent him to Newark, New Jersey, to attend a “select school,” where he obtained a better education than most of his peers. While there, he lived with his “benefactor,” Robert F. Ballantine. (Ballantine, mentioned often in Oney’s diaries, belonged to the family that founded and operated the Ballantine breweries in Newark and was related to the Sweets through the DeWitt family in Nyack, New York.)

When Oney completed his schooling, he went to work for a wholesale establishment in New York City. However, the Confederate blockade of Southern ports put Oney’s employer out of business.

On September 4, 1861, at age 19, he enlisted as a private in the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery,
43rd Pennsylvania Volunteers (14th Reserves), Battery F (Ricketts’ Battery) and served until the end of the war, mustering out with the battery on June 10, 1865.

His regiment joined the Army of the Potomac to protect the nation’s capital, and he fought in most of the major battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox.

Nearly four years after the war ended, in March 1869, Oney followed his sweet¬heart, Helen Matilda Coon, to Hampton, Iowa. Three months later they married, and their seven children—four daughters and three sons—were born in Hampton.

Oney became a partner of Josiah Phelps, who had opened the first grocery store in Hampton, and later Oney bought out Phelps. Oney also operated a candy store.

In 1912, at the age of 71, Oney moved to Southern California to be nearer his children. His war wound followed him, however, and the complications forced him to walk with a cane. When gangrene set in, he had to have the leg amputated below the knee.

Oney Foster Sweet died 1932 in Long Beach, California, at 91 years of age.

His previously unpublished letters and diaries offer a unique glimpse of the American Civil War from the view of a private simply trying to survive a deadly conflagration in which one in five combatants perished.

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