Sunday, November 27, 2011

Margaret-Ellen on the First Sorrows of War

1 August, 1861

My dearest Adah,

I am amazed at the speed with which your letter reached us, through all the clamor of battle and the smoke of strife.  I suppose the ability to send something along with an army courier assures its safety and its haste!  In truth the last few months have flown by, and though I dearly missed your correspondence, its absence was a mere pinprick of sorrow compared with the storms which gathered to ravage my spirit here on The Hill.  Indeed, my most precious Adah, I sat down many a time to write to you, but have been unable through heaviness of heart to complete the task.  Oh Adah, how much has changed!  The war seems to have yet left your family in relative peace, or at least stability, but mine has been turned on its head.

There was such a tumult in mid-April here, as news of Sumter, Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation, and the vote of the Richmond Convention came in quick succession.  Relations between neighbors in this and surrounding counties cooled considerably – there are many Unionists here and with the onrush of war I find that every mind is now filled with suspicions and scurrilous judgments towards those we once held friends.  Mason and Father quarreled more than ever, and it was all we could do to keep George chained to his chores in hopes he would not run away to join one of the many bands of young men fancying themselves military units even before the secession referendum.  Then in May we could deny the reality of war no longer, for Fairchild came home to ask permission of my father to join the Army.  My father consented with a proud but heavy heart. My brother was followed a few days later by Mr. Fleming, determined to pay court to me before he also ran away after the call of fife and drum.  How bitter and how sweet those last weeks with them were.  Fairchild brought out his fiddle every evening, and we sang out on the porch long after each sunset.  The earth seemed so content, so unaware of this distant thunder in our souls, as Alfred and I walked under the apple blossoms on the sunny afternoons.

Adah, how I wish I could write the following news with the joy and abundant spirit which ought to accompany it.  Alfred and I have come to an understanding, and my father agrees that we shall be married as soon as this conflict dies away.  How gentle he was when he asked for my hand, one warm May evening as we walked back up to the house – and yet how firm was his determination to leave my side and fight for Virginia’s honor.  His speech was full of Livy and Virgil – “Dulce et decorum est . . .” – so of course I could not match his arguments with eloquence.  I had to content myself with his presence while it lasted.  Our brief time together ended at Fairchild’s wedding in June – a beautiful affair, yet shrouded, I thought, by the presence of so many young men of our acquaintance who were headed to Winchester the next day to enlist or join their regiments.  The Wilcoxes, of course, made much of the departure - their own son, David, was among the volunteers.  They hung their house with bunting and the ball they hosted after the ceremony was so full of patriotic songs and speeches as too leave almost no space for attentions to the bride and groom.  The men all rode off the next morning from Woodlee with much fanfare and many, many tears.  I will not repeat the words that Alfred whispered in my ear before he mounted up with the rest, but I will treasure them up in my heart until the end of my days.

The fact that Mason was not among the volunteers left another shadow on the day – I am not sure how he could bear up under the cold glances of all the Middleburg ladies.  Everyone was the picture of manners over the matter, of course, and paid him the proper deference as brother of the groom.  But he spent most of the night alone, and I could not but detect contempt in his own soul for this show of aristocratic pleasures built on what he terms “our most wicked institution.”  Father and he could barely stand to be in each others presence for more than a few minutes our entire stay at Woodlee.  Perhaps the shame of the day contributed most to what came next.

I had hoped that Mason’s quiet spirit and Quaker ways would keep him from going off with the hotheads on either side of this conflict.  But he is a man, and a man who feels his principles as strong and mighty chains which bind his mind to his actions as surely as God binds the ocean to the shore.  A few days after we returned from Middleburg, Mason left us.  He left only a note, indicating that he was going “North” but did not signify where or when he might return.  I suspect he has followed Mr. Samuel Means – a dear mentor and friend to my brother from Waterford now forced to flee on account of his outspoken Unionism and abolitionism.  Whether he means to fight or simply to wait out the war in friendlier climes I am not certain – but I am hard pressed to imagine any son of my father unwilling to stake his body on behalf of his beliefs.

We have not heard from Mason since, nor do I think we may expect to.  We have heard from Fairchild and Alfred, however, first to convey news of their enlistment in the 1st VA Cavalry and the 4th VA Infantry, respectively.  I had thought they might enlist together, but it seems Alfred would prefer to fight on his feet, and is eager to join his comrades from Washington College who have enlisted in the 4th under the moniker of “The Liberty Hall Volunteers.”  My heart encountered terrors for them when we heard of the fight at Manassas, glorious victory though it was.  Imagine my joy and relief when Fairchild managed to send word the next day, assuring us that he and Alfred were safe – not to mention brimming with all the manly pride such a victory must bring to hearts such as theirs.  I pray the thrashing we have given the Yankee will deter him from any further thought of invasion, and that we may see F. & A. safe at home by Christmas.  Our table every day is silent and bereft, for Father, passionately but silently, mourns each of his departed sons as if he already held in his hands news of their deaths: yet one he remembers with a fierce pride and the other with conflicted shame.

I am not so passionate in my temperament as my Father, but I feel his anguish almost as acute in my own bones.  I pray ever morning for the Deliverance of our fair new country from the claws of tyranny – but I pray even more fervently for the safe return of all my beloved ones, for the restoration of our joys and the healing of our hearts.  May Omnipotence provide it.

I hope you, Adah, may be able to avoid similar pains.  Will Timothy finish his studies or join up?  Will Mr. Mr. McCarty leave you as bereft as I have been? Has Lincoln’s army swept as hard into your part of Virginia as we have heard rumored?  I pray to God not.  Do write and assure me of your continued safety in that town so close to the chief den of our mortal enemies. 

I apologize for the length of this letter – I hope you do not overburden your eyes in reading it – but my heart was so full of events that my pen found my 3 allotted pages would not suffice.  May God be ever with you, and with all whom you love.

Yours ever,


Adah Decides for Secession

23 July, 1861

My best-beloved Margaret-Ellen,

Whatever admonishment you would have for me for allowing your letter to go so long unanswered, I beg you do not withhold any of it.  You must not infer that my silence meant you were not in my thoughts, for nothing could farther from the truth.  It must have been a thousand times that I sat down to write, only to be thwarted by something requiring my immediate attention – Timothy with a button to be sewn on, some biscuits needing saving from burning in the bake oven.  And so it was these long five months.

You cannot begin to imagine how overjoyed we all were to receive your letter and the tidings of your recovery contained therein.  My solemn prayer did not go unheeded by the Almighty – praised be His name!  Timothy will be the first to tell you of how I dashed about the house and read it to anyone in the vicinity.  To just see your hand upon the page, to know that you were well enough to write, was happiness indeed.  O but I do mourn for the loss of your dear Cleo; I know how well your loved her.

It seems that all our joy now shall be tempered with sorrow.  Margaret-Ellen, we are at war, with our own countrymen!  You know that I did not harbor any strong feelings on secession before, but O! Mr. Lincoln has done away with any impartiality I may have felt.  How can a man order his people to kill their brothers?  How can he dare to call up first 75,000, then 500,000 men against their own country?  And to further rub salt into the wound by proclaiming a blockade of our ports?  If this is how he wishes to deal with the South’s secession, then perhaps it is indeed a far better thing for us to be our own country, to guard and secure our rights when she who claimed to be our mother country will not.

Margaret-Ellen, I pray you do not think my sentiments too harsh, but it is what I believe.  It is never a subject which I speak of in public, especially as I do not wish to embarrass my father, We do still frequently dine with members of the congregation, and would not wish to arouse any unfriendliness in anyone.  I have taken to keeping a diary into which I may pour all my thoughts and feelings upon these events.  Perhaps someday I will show it to you, but for now I keep it well guarded, especially from Timothy. 

I am afraid that dinner preparations call me away, my dear friend.  Nellie and I are trying a new receipt from Mrs. Buton’s.  Pray that it turns out well!

I hope soon that I shall have some good news of my own to share with you.  But as I do not wish to speak too soon, that is all I shall say for now!

God bless you and keep you,