Skip to comments.Letters from the Front (Civil War)
Posted on 04/15/2005 7:27:55 PM PDT by CurlyBill
With a heavy heart, Col. Columbus Sykes sat near a tree in Aberdeen, Miss., and wrote a letter to his niece and nephew.
"You are yet young, very young," he wrote, "one just emerged from his mother's arms; the other an infant, whose age is numbered only by months."
Less than a month earlier on Oct. 26, 1864, Sykes had held his brother, Dr. William E. Sykes, in his arms as he was dying in a home at Decatur.
In the Nov. 18, 1864, letter, Sykes is telling his brother's young children about their "devoted father" and his "noble brother" who joined the Confederate Army.
"Though suffering excruciating agony, he calmly surveyed his wound and pronounced it inevitably mortal," Sykes wrote.
"And, then with a courage that was sublime in its exhibition, he prepared for the last struggle with the great monster: death."
The letters and telegrams that reached the Tennessee Valley from the battlefield did not always bring good news.
Some of them were charming and some were romantic, but they mostly brought sad news, Morgan County Archivist Susan Bzdell said.
"If it wasn't about death, it was about what the soldiers were going through on the battlefield, and we know war is hell," she said.
But sad news was better than no news, Bzdell said.
"At least when they got a letter, they knew the soldier was alive," she explained.
Some historians estimate that less than half of the letters written during the Civil War made it home, especially in the Confederate states because there was no regular mail.
That was not the case for Pvt. John Newton Smith. His descendants have 16 letters that he wrote from Oct. 13, 1861, to July 27, 1863.
Smith was born in Calhoun County, but apparently moved to Decatur and helped construct the railroad bridge across the Tennessee River.
Smith wrote his first letter from Manassas Junction in Virginia and mailed it to his brother and sister.
"After a long time I take my pen in hand and paper on my knee to drop you a few lines to let you know that I am well."
Almost six months later, Smith was in Tishomingo County, Miss., when he wrote to his wife in Decatur. Word had apparently reached his camp about Union troops occupying Decatur.
"They say the Yankees (are) at Decatur and all around," Smith wrote. "You get you a gun and get in the cave, and go to shooting them. I am coming home whenever I can get the chance, (even) if I have to wade through Yankees seven deep."
In what was apparently his final letter, Smith tells his wife he is in Alexandria, about 16 miles from his birthplace. He had visited his family in Decatur and told his wife how much he missed her.
"Everything looks gloomy and dismal," Smith wrote. "The Lord only knows what is to become of us. At the present, it looks like the enemy has got the upper hand of us, but I don't feel like we are whipped yet, although we have given up some important points."
Moulton Postmaster Ken. N. Smith is the great-great-grandson of John Newton Smith.
"These letters are a treasure," he said. "We're not sure why they stopped in 1863, but we believe he died of smallpox in the latter stages of the war."
Between the battle at Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River in February 1862 and the Seven Days battles in Virginia in the summer of 1862, telegrams brought news of death to the area like no war in history.
"For the first time, news of mass carnage is coming to the Tennessee Valley," Bzdell said. "The men on the battlefield had never seen anything like this, and the people back home were certainly not used to so many people they knew dying at the same time."
In the early part of 1862, Moulton newspaper owner Nelson H. White received news that a son was killed at Shiloh.
J.T. Royer and R.A. Hunter died at Frazier's Farm in Virginia. T.J. Austin was wounded in the Battle of Sharpsburg. A Confederate surgeon sent him home where he lingered in his parents' Lawrence County home before dying.
A.P. Montgomery didn't make it back to the Tennessee Valley. Union soldiers killed him at Cold Harbor.
Washington Wilshire Parker found his brother's lifeless body lying near him at Shiloh. He returned Henry Parker's body to the family home and left immediately to rejoin his unit.
A telegram arrived in Athens announcing that Thomas Hobbs of the Ninth Alabama was wounded at Gaines Mill while fighting to defend the Confederate capital in Richmond.
He lingered for almost a month and died July 22, 1862, with his wife, Anne, and a young son near his side.
Above his grave overlooking the James River, the young widow erected a small stone with the inscription: "A brave and simple man who died in a brave and simple faith."
In the middle of August, Ira and Rebecca Hobbs received a telegram about their son's death.
Pvt. Jonathan Leggett Bracken of the 35th Alabama Infantry started writing to his wife in Lawrence County before the Fort Donelson battle. On Jan. 6, 1864, Elizabeth Caroline LeMay Bracken received his final message.
In the eight-page letter, he talked about his love for his wife and how he was trying to be a better Christian.
"I can't live happy without being near you, although I have fine health and plenty to eat," Bracken wrote.
"I hope and pray to God that the time is not far off when I can return home in peace to live the remainder of my days with you."
Almost four months later on May 25, 1864, his brother-in-law sent a letter from Montevallo to Elizabeth Bracken.
"Sister, I have bad (news) to tell you, yet I hope you will not grieve as it cannot mend the matter any, and be doing you an injury at the same time," C.M. LeMay wrote.
"John is dead. He died on the (20th) of March at Demopolis. Lieut. Carlock saw a paper with his death in it."
Almost six months after Bracken died, the Sykes brothers were part of an advanced guard that crossed the Flint River near what is now Point Mallard.
The men skirmished with a small group of Union soldiers and Dr. William E. Sykes was mortally wounded.
Less than a month later, the doctor's brother was in Mississippi writing a letter to his two orphaned children.
"I cannot in this communication give you even a partial account of his heroic endurance and his gallantry during his entire connections with the (Confederate) service," Sykes wrote.
He told the children that their father was offered a surgeon's position, but refused "to shield himself from danger behind a sick man's couch" and volunteered as a private in the Confederate Army.
Sykes talked about his brother surviving in the fighting at Atlanta and about his return trip to Decatur.
His brother was in military formation when Union bombs hit the unit and "my noble brother fell."
"The illusory hope flashed quick as thought, he is only wounded, sure he will not die," Sykes wrote. "In a few seconds, I reached him and supported his drooping head upon my breast. The first glance convinced me that his doom was as inexorably fixed as the decrees of eternity.
"The last, the very last, faintest, dimmest spark of hope was extinguished. His comrades bore him to a house nearby, once owned by him as gently as they could to an improvised couch."
Sykes said his brother was wounded at 3 p.m. on Oct. 26, 1864, and died the next morning at 10 a.m.
"I have seen the brave, the cowardly, the good, the wicked die; but never have I seen one who went so composedly, so rationally to the grave. Not a tear bedewed his cheek, not a murmur escaped his lips."
Sykes promised his niece and nephew that on "some future day" he would return and tell them more interesting stories about their father.
That day never came. On Jan. 7, 1865, Col. Columbus Sykes died in Mississippi.
Great story! Perhaps worthy of a Dixie Ping...
Thanks for the ping CurlyBill.
Thanks for the link - some of the scans are blurred, but a great resource.
That seems not entirely fair.
Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan actually set up an efficient postal service - the only one in US history toever turn a profit, BTW.
Mail had a hard time getting through not because of Reagan's bureau, but more commonly because of the Union's gradual overrunning of vast swaths of the South.
Thanks for the ping. God bless Dixie. May 10th, Confederate Memorial Day here in NC
Click for larger view. Captions read:
1. Raised by Oppression, Sustained by Justice. Freemen Will Defend It.
2. Southern Rights. Fear Not This Shall Shield the Right
3. Don't Tread On Us. Ever Ready With Our Lives and Our Fortunes
4. It's Thunder Tones Shall Arouse the Freeman.
"A brave and simple man who died in a brave and simple faith."
I suppose the usual suspects will be along to tell us
that he fought for slavery and his memory be damned.
I'm a Northerner, from Michigan. Of course it was about states' rights. It took living in Virginia for a few years for me to come to that understanding.
If you actually want to know what the was was about, read from an expert. Alexander H. Stephens Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861:
"But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other-though last, not least: the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It is so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North who still cling to these errors with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind; from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is, forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics: their conclusions are right if their premises are. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man.... I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the Northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery; that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle-a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of man. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds we should succeed, and that he and his associates in their crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as well as in physics and mechanics, I admitted, but told him it was he and those acting with him who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal."
Amazing that you skip the 1st 6 or seven things Stephens mentions. I take it that in your spare time you dance on graves, or shout insults during the ceremonies? You guys are all the same - you cause us to despise you, when we have done nothing but attempt to remember those on both sides that served with honour and paid the ultimate sacrifice. It would speak volumes if you and your ilk appeared on these threads and simply paid your respects, instead you serve as a reminder of what our ancestors fought to leave.
Interesting. I had three great2 uncles and a great2 grandfather who fought in Mississippi. Thanks.
thanks for the ping
Something I've wondered about...
I'm a student of US history, particularly this time period, but there is something I have never understood. Why is that so many letters from this period are so good? Some of these writers were no doubt well educated but many, many soldiers who wrote were not.
Even the least literate from this period seem to naturally write the most elegant and poignant letters. Their language is rich. What is it that these men had and why aren't we teaching to our children?
I strongly suspect that we have lost something.
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