BLOG BLITZ – GUEST POST – Monday 19 September 2016 – SCOTT REZER
The month of September is a special time for me:
my THIRD novel and sequel to
the final in the unsavory heritage series,
will be available 30 on September Amazon
GUEST POST – SCOTT REZER
—A Sampling of Confederate Civil War Letters
By Scott R. Rezer
(The words of soldiers and private citizens are recorded just as they wrote them.)
In a letter dated Oct 10, 1864, Private James H. Allen of the 13th Virginia Infantry wrote to his sister,
… we had another hard battle on the 19th inst. at Newport. We whipped the Yankees in the morning and captured a great many wagons and artillery… in the even they charged us and broke our line… and they retaken everything back and a great deal besides.
Our forces fell back to New Market. A great many of our men had to take to the mountains. I did myself, although I wasn’t but 2 or 3 days in the mountains before I got to my company. There is several hasn’t come in yet… The Yankees has too many men for us.
… our company is quite small. We have no officers, not even a sergeant. We are just here with no one to (lead) at all.
Ellen, I would give most anything to see you all. I am in hopes this cruel war will soon be over. I can get home to stay… I don’t think I can stay in no longer and this year no how.1
The war would end, just as Private Allen wished, six months later, but for many of the men involved with the fighting, and for those waiting for their loved ones to return home, those six months would prove far longer than the previous three and a half years. Private Allen could endure no more and deserted two months later.
Outmanned by more than two to one, the Confederacy faced almost insurmountable odds of survival, and yet they persevered. Aside from a few battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam, the Southern States felt the brunt of the Civil War. It was a terrible war, with far too much bloodshed and death on both sides. For people living in the North, however, the front lines often seemed at a distance, whereas for the Confederacy, battles often raged in their own backyards. For them, the war was a constant presence.
Historians estimate that more than three million soldiers fought in the Union and Confederate armies. Thousands of letters survived the ravages of warfare and time to give a unique perspective of the soldiers, and to a lesser degree, the lives of their families, in their own words. Whether the letters were the polished words of educated men or the barely literate scribbling of farmers, they all exhibit the unique eloquence of their individual voices.
Soldiers talked about everything they experienced from descriptions of battles and their opinions of fellow soldiers and officers, to conditions of camp life and the trials of warfare. They wrote about food, and their lack of food, travels, politics, their fears, their needs, weather, and death. Patriotism was a favorite topic, as well the desire to return home. Farmers and carpenters, lawyers and bricklayers, doctors, druggists, fishermen, locksmiths, grocers, stonemasons, clerks, gardeners, and every other imaginable occupation of the mid-19th century found themselves thrown together in a common cause, whether to seek independence, or to keep in the Union intact. The letters soldiers penned tell us more about the terrible circumstances they endured than any history book or written record.
Dear and affectionate father it is with a feble hand that I endeavor to write you a few lines to inform you that I am lying in Richmond wounded. I was in Maryland and taken prisoner by the Yankees. My wound is in the left leg opposite the knee and is doing well. It is nearly healed up but my leg is very stiff yet but I can go on crutches. My health is very bad at present. I am plagued very much with the diarea. The provision I get I think is the reson of it. This is dear father and mother one great reson of my writing. I want you to send me a box of provision for if I do get to it will be sometime yet and if you can send some I know it will do your kind hearts good and so would it mine… Dear parents I had written a letter sometime ago but I do know whether you got it or not and I can not want but write again. Dear parents could I be at home is proven do me so much good but I hope to get a furlough after which I only pray to God that I may be granted to return home and more I will have close for I am so tired writing. May God bless you and it is my prayer write to me as soon as you get this.
[October 28, 1862—Pvt. William A. Collins, 48th North Carolina Regiment] 2
Collins had been captured at Antietam, paroled, and sent to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond to heal from his wounds. In the midst of his letter, he nearly begged his parents to send him food in small quantities at a time to sustain him in his convalescence. Sadly, for Private Collins and his family, he died less than two months later of gangrene in his wound.
During the Civil War era, letters played an important part, both in helping soldiers feel connected with family and friends back home and in the transmission of news from the battlefields to those on the home front, waiting desperately for word of their soldier’s well-being. Surrounded by the horrors of war, soldiers were always desperate for news from home, even if the news was less than comforting as was often the case.
Newspaper reporters and military officers often proved unreliable sources of information, particularly in regards to transmitting accurate details of battles. Too often, casualty lists printed in the papers might incorrectly identify the wrong soldier. Much was the relief of many a family when they received letters from their loved one. It was the only sure way of knowing that a soldier still lived—but only until the next letter arrived home.
Such was the case for Mrs. Mary J. Cheek, a farm wife from Weatherford, Texas. Letters from home were not nearly as plentiful as those written from the front lines. Men did not always have the luxury of keeping letters. Soldiers traveled light, discarding anything of value when necessary. The fact that Mary’s husband, T. F. Cheek, serving with the 8th Texas Cavalry, saved her letter dated February 18, 1863 for posterity is more than amazing.
My Dear, It was the greatest joy that I received a letter from you some days ago, just the day before I got it the news come that you were killed or taken prisoner, and that your captain was killed, you can imagine my feelings on hearing that awful news, for then I never expected to hear from you again, I had not received a letter for nearly three weeks, and was afraid… I do not get my mail regular at all, I scarcely ever get my papers… I’ll tell you when I heard you were killed or taken prisoner, it made my blood boil for revenge and I felt like if it was only in my power I would go and have it if I lost my own life in the attempt, sometimes I long to be a man, so I could go and help you fight the infernal Yankees I do think I would love to kill them, for they have caused us women so much trouble… O plague on the Yankees, I wish they were all dead and in heaven, a great many think peace will be restored this spring, but I have no hope for it as long as old Lincoln is in office…3
If we are take the reports of newspaper correspondents and officer battle reports as the final word of actual battles and the conditions, we would come away with a far different view than that of the soldiers who actually lived through the ordeals. Both sides quite often downplayed losses and reversals, and sensationalized victories in their reports. The letters of the soldiers, however, left an unsanitized version of the aftermath of battles as Private Allen recorded above.
Many letters, if not most, record the terrible conditions soldiers endured in some fashion or another. Remarkably, perhaps it was the age in which they lived, the soldiers didn’t complain, they simply reported the things they experienced as we see in the following letters.
… I received the things you sent… and am very much obliged to you for them. The shoes are rather thin, the snow soaks through them very soon. We have had an unusual quantity of that this winter. For the last four days we have had to travel through it nearly 15 inches deep. A pair of heavy boots would have been a great deal better. If you can conveniently get a black slouch hat… I would like it very much, these little caps are anything else but comfortable in rain or snowy weather the water runs down my neck… being wet is something I am used to… I have been busy lately, being the first sergeant of the company. I have all the business to do and am now fixing up my rolls and have to give an account of every man… It is a sad duty writing dead opposite so many names… I remain your affectionate brother.
[March 23, 1863—Sgt. John Beaton, 9th Virginia Infantry] 4
My Dear Wife
… We only gets one quarter of a pound of meat and that is tainty at times. We gets bread enough to make out with… Everything is scarce down here… Ned Kidd is sick at hospittle up beyond Golesburg… Mary I hope you have got rid of your diptharia. I ware very sorry to hear that you had it… I remain your devoted husband untell death…
[April 12, 1863—Private Charles W. Thomas, 56th Virginia Infantry] 5
Despite fighting a war, and more often for their very lives, soldiers were also acutely aware of the uncertain conditions at home. It must have left many a soldier troubled to hear of the trials they faced, knowing they were helpless to intervene. Too often, circumstances forced wives and children to fend for themselves, trying to preserve some semblance of normalcy to their crumbling lives. Read what Private Grant Taylor of the 40th Alabama Infantry wrote to his beloved wife and children on January 4, 1863.
… You must do the best you can with your affairs. I am too far off to give advice. Surely Pap will advize you. I think if you can you had better get more than 50 bu of corn. Give my best respects to all… Kiss the children for me and believe your true one, as ever.6
Imagine the initial shock loved ones at home must have felt to receive a letter informing them that their son, husband, brother, or father had received a terrible wound or were captured in battle. How many tears must those at home shed to receive such news, knowing they could do nothing except pray to relieve their loved one’s suffering? Late in the war, the news of a soldier’s capture might also mean a death sentence such were the conditions of those abominable places, and yet families held strong in their beliefs and hopes that they would see their loved one again despite terrible odds.
My dear Parents Brothers & Sisters:
Many times since I was made a prisoner over a month ago, I have intended writing home… I am in fair health, freezing weather is severe upon Florida prisoners. There is considerable want of clothing and blankets. John Chana died 2 wks ago of pneumonia. Jos Irvine in Co. B also died of the same disease 2 days ago.
In the past 30 days I have suffered a great deal. Give my love to every member of my family. We hear you may be permitted to send us clothing. Tell Mother I am not forgetting my Heavenly Father & Bible.
[January 20, 1865—Sgt. Archie Livingston, 3rd Florida Infantry] 7
Too often, letters also proved vital in notifying loved ones of a soldier’s death. No formal (or informal) process of notification existed for those soldiers who died. Some commanders did try to write letters to the next of kin following a death, but only if time and circumstances permitted. Most soldiers relied on their comrades to notify their families in the event of their passing, but often times it might come from a chaplain, a doctor, a nurse, or even a hospital volunteer. Without such letters of condolence, many families might never have known of their loved one’s sacrifice.
To Mrs. B. A. G. Spears
I take up my pen to tell you very bad news. Your husband Henry Spears died at the Point Clear hospital on Wednesday night August 1, that evening I in company with some more ladies were in the hospital. I was talking to your husband and he asked me to write to you to say that he was sick, he said, “it will prepare her a little to hear of my death and will not be such a shock to her”… It is very painful for me to tell you this bad news but as I promised him I thought I had best do it. it will be some satisfaction for you to know that he was well attended to and all was done for him that could possibly be done. I can offer no consolation, God alone can console you…
[August 2, 1863—Miss Ellen Gaddes, Hospital Volunteer] 8
Four years of war and bloodshed took their long toll on the minds and hearts of the Southern people, whether they were soldiers or the desperate people waiting at home, as the inevitable outcome of the war loomed closer. It is evident most in the letters of the Confederate soldiers who faced terrible conditions as the hope of victory slipped away. For the Union, the sacrifices they made would bring the eventual reunification of the nation, though at a horrible cost, but for the Confederacy, defeat would bring an end to the way of life they’d always known. You can hear it in the voices that cry to us still from a hundred and fifty years ago.
Miss Mattie J Nunn
Dear Cousin… Your letter of the 23rd of September came to hand a few days since and brought the tidings that you were all well… You have but little idea of the horrors of war… Evils so many and so great that the heart sinks in contemplating it. Millions in property has been consumed and millions in debt have been accumulated to oppress the rising generation… Many thousands… have perished in battle or by disease… and other thousands have been maimed… The land is filled with widows and orphans… Where shall we look for help? I shall put my trust in the Lord… So. I will close. Forgive all mistakes. So farewell.
[December 21, 1863—Private William J. Bowers, Waul’s Texas Legion] 9
In and amidst the grief and mounting despair, glimmers of hope shone bright like stars in the midst of a dark sky. In this case, a letter dated December 24, 1863, from Mary Watkins to her husband is tender and almost playful, offering her loved one a warm glimpse of home he certainly cherished while in a distant camp in the midst of winter.
“Tis the night before Christmas and all
through the house not a creature was
stirring, not even a mouse” expect one.
My darling Husband
It seems a very long time since I heard from you… Emmie and Minnie hung up their stockings before going to bed and I have just filled them with apples, ground peas, some candy… and some cakes Mrs Baker sent them. Our negro men have been over to get pay for their corn and get their overcoats. They made eighteen barrels of corn this year.
Dec 25th Little Mary waked up last night and would not go back to sleep again until I went to bed with her so I could not finish my letter. She and Minnie both sleep with me. Minnie sleeps at the foot to keep my foots warm she says and she is a regular little stove… You never saw children more delighted than Emmie and Minnie were at finding their stockings full Christmas morning… Emmie was rather expecting a china doll but I told her the Yankees would not let Santa Claus get such things nowadays… I asked [Minnie] how she got so black she said she had been looking up the chimney to see if Santa Claus was up there now…
I can’t help thinking about you shivering in a cold rain and can hardly enjoy a good fire when I think that you are perhaps suffering with cold.
We are all well here. Little Mary has one tooth… I want to send this letter to the Depot now. Good bye for the present. Hope too see you at home soon as you get here… begin to think about your going back. Your own.10
No letter, however, could be more precious or heartwarming to a soldier than the single letter I include for contrast sent to a Union officer from his youngest son. The letter, composed in 1864, perhaps on February 28th (his brother Lucien wrote a letter on this day), is only six words long consisting of a series of looping, childish scribbles, penned by four year old Charley Burpee to his father, Lt. Colonel Thomas Burpee of the 21st Connecticut. His mother, presumably, translated her son’s message. It reads simply:
Charley loves his Father very much. 11
Sadly, Charley’s father was wounded in June of the same year at Cold Harbor and died two days later. The letter was found among Thomas’ belongings and sent home to his wife and sons.
Yankee volunteers who most often saw their service as an act of duty to their divided nation, but the average Confederate soldier felt deep in their hearts they were fighting, not for the preservation of slavery or states’ rights, but simply in defense of their homes. All these circumstances lent a sense of immediacy to the letters they wrote and the private journals they kept. History is fortunate so many letters survived to preserve their voices. Some of their words I recounted here, not because they deserve it more, but rather because they are too often overlooked.
- Toalson 2006, pg. 244.
- Collins, pg. 5, 71-73.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 57.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 93.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 113.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 12.
- Toalson 2006, pg. 314.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 246.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 381.
- Toalson 2012, pg. 381.
Toalson, Jeff (2006). No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 Months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865 as Seen by the Soldiers, Farmers, Clerks, Nurses, Sailors, Farm Girls, Merchants, Nuns, Surgeons, Chaplains and Wives. Lincoln, Neb.: IUniverse.
Toalson, Jeff (2012). Mama, I Am Yet Still Alive: A Composite Diary of 1863 in the Confederacy: As Seen by the Soldiers, Farmers, Clerks, Nurses, Sailors, Farm Girls, Merchants, Surgeons, Riverboatmen, Chaplains and Wives. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse.
Trenholm, Sandra. “Civil War Soldiers: Thomas Burpee and His Sons.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 9 June 2014. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
“William A. Collins Papers, 1862-1865.” William A. Collins Papers, 1862-1865. Internet Archive, 15 Aug. 2005. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
Banks Envelope LOC 2012649852
Olmstead Envelope LOC 2012648297
Camp Tent Scene Pixabay 1569055
Collins letter Chimborazo Hospital 10.28.1862 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chimborazo_hospital_richmond_civil_war_letter.png
Woman reading letter LOC 2010648375
Clack Letter 6.21.1862 LOC 2013645772
Anthony Letter 6.2.1862 LOC 2012648285
Couple Separated at Christmas
Scott R. Rezer was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1963. He met his wife and best friend while serving in the U.S. Air Force. They have two grown children and live in the Southwest. He is an indie published author of five historical fiction novels ranging from the Civil War to the Crusades to ancient Biblical history. Two of his books have garnered Editor’s Choice selections by the Historical Novel Society (The Leper King and Shadow of the Mountain). He is currently at work on a second Civil War novel.
As a maintenance technician in the U.S. Air Force, he worked on an aging, outdated nuclear missile system of questionable safety. He believes he may have been unwittingly exposed to radioactive material that altered his DNA and gave him his writing ability—well, maybe not. It could be he simply acquired his ability from his grandmother who was a local historian and writer. He could never ask her a simple question without hearing her say with a wink, “Go look it up.” In so doing, she managed to instill in him a love of history and a wonderful sense of discovery that have stuck with him ever since.
Facebook Author Page: http://on.fb.me/1ngMVgE
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CISSY LAUNCH PARTY, unsavory heritage series, Tessa, Clara Bess, Cissy, One Mother, Two Daughters One Favorite One Not, Where Were the Adoption Papers, #newbooklaunch, Guest Post, Scott Rezer, Civil War, Letter Writing, Affectionately Yours