Library’s collection of soldier correspondence gains attention on the Civil War’s 150th anniversary

By CHRISTY MARTIN ’71 MA ’78

There was only one sheet of paper and two soldiers with letters to write. So they each used half a page, one covering the top and the other writing across the bottom. The letter was dated Sept. 16, 1862. America was into the second year of a war between the states that no one had expected would last long. “I want you to do the bes you can for yourself for I don’t know when I will get to come home,” wrote Thomas Edmonston. In his letter, Rufus Kelly told his parents, “I am well and harty. I had the tooth ache but I had it taken out. …Since that I have been stout.”

The young brothers-in-law from Haywood County, foot soldiers in a Confederate regiment, were camped close to railroad tracks in Eastern Tennessee. Kelly wrote about watching trains pass, day and night, back and forth, carrying sick and wounded soldiers away from the battlefields of Virginia, new volunteer soldiers toward them. Like most soldiers from the mountains, Kelly and Edmonston were farmers and wrote about farming matters, including livestock and crops, and occasionally about triumphs of a personal nature. In one of his letters, Edmonston wrote, “Mother, I have quit swearing. I have not swore once in two months.”

The Edmonston-Kelly correspondence is in the “Civil War Letters” collection of WCU’s Hunter Library. Written by Western North Carolina soldiers and their loved ones, the original letters are being digitized by library staff and made available online. “The authors of the letters were writing from their present moment without the knowledge that we have of what would happen in the war,” said George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81, head of the library’s special collections. “The letters were a way to reassure one another during a time of great national conflict. Today they help us to construct a broader picture of what life was like and how the shared experience of this region fits into the national picture.”

As primary resources for researchers, the letters are receiving renewed attention this year as the nation observes the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war, a pivotal time in American history. “The Civil War is something that Americans should think about and remember because it is essential to who we are as a people,” said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, chair of the WCU history department and a member of the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial academic advisory panel.

The dozens of letters in the library’s collection reveal many details about daily life in the mountains during the mid-19th century and the impact the war had on local families. “At the time, there had been ongoing commerce in the mountain region, especially with South Carolina. There was slave ownership here, though a lower percentage than in the Piedmont. There were newspapers. Residents had knowledge of politics and current events, and literacy rates were rising,” said Starnes. “Western North Carolina wasn’t an isolated region, and any idea that it was untouched isn’t true.”

Absent soldiers, terrible inflation and shortages of even the most basic of supplies, such as paper and postage stamps, created hard times for mountain families. Women especially felt these hardships as they took on more responsibility for farms, businesses and families. During the war, there were conflicting loyalties between neighbors and within families about the issues of secession and slavery. Soldiers from the mountains fought in both the Union and Confederate armies. “The letters run the gamut of human emotions, from love and concern, hope and despair, but are always poignant and compelling when read in the context of the nation’s agony and the longing to remain in touch through the years of war,” said Frizzell.

The Civil War carried soldiers hundreds of miles from home to parts of the country they had never seen before. In a letter of 1861, just after the war began, R.P. Crawford of Jackson County wrote to his cousin about seeing the ocean: “You can stand on the beach and look as far as your eys can see and it is nothing but one world of water.” In a letter to his sister while on the march through Maryland into Pennsylvania, George Huntley, a teacher from Rutherford County, described his fondness for the scenery in the unfamiliar surroundings. “We are stopped today in a beautiful oke grove. … This is one of the finest countrys that I ever saw.” This last letter home was dated three days before he died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

For some of the soldiers, thoughts of home and loved ones often brought memories of food. Encamped in Wilmington and receiving a routine diet of meat and bread, Wiley Parris of Jackson County wrote to this wife, “I want a good mess of eggs. … I want a good jug of whiskey with some cherry tree bark.”

During the war, women at home often provided supplies, including uniforms for their soldiers. In a letter to her husband, Keziah Osborne of Asheville wrote about sewing him a new pair of trousers. “I could not get velvet to make strips for them but I did the best that I could. … Hope they will fit you. I cut them like your others and lined them in the seats and knees to save you patching.”

In a “howdy” to her husband serving near the South Carolina coast, Elizabeth Watson of the Hamburg community in Jackson County wrote about the usual concerns of domestic life. Their three young children were healthy. The cows were producing plenty of milk. Temperatures were warm for late October. She missed her husband: “My dear I han’t forgot you for I think of you every hour in the day.”

And, in closing, “Here is your shoo strings, if you a git them.”