I spent Veterans’ Day yesterday deciphering four letters my great-great uncles wrote in 1863 and 1864 when serving in the U.S. Civil War. Men from my family served on both sides of that war, and the Tennessee ancestors on my grandfather’s side epitomize that truism about the border states, “it was brother against brother.” Those living in Wilson County, east of Nashville, fought for the South, while those who’d moved further west, to Carroll County, were Union men.
The war did not treat kindly the land of Wilson County and the Hurricane Creek area where my family lived. Just ten miles down the road in early 1863 raged the Battle of Stones River (also called the Battle of Murfreesboro). On the Union side, Gen. William Rosecrans led some 43,000 men of the Army of the Cumberland, while Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg brought 38,000 men from the Army of Tennessee. Although “tactically indecisive,” it was one of the war’s bloodiest battles, with an estimated 23,500 men killed or injured.
More than 80,000 men moving through an agricultural area does not leave much behind for the settlers. As a returning soldier wrote, “When I reached my grandfather’s farm, I saw something of what the home folks were enduring while we were away in the army: barns all gone, fine trees cut down in the front lot, stock all gone, everything in disarray.” Food and currency were scarce, and supplies were gone. “For two years there was no coffee, no sugar, no shoes.” The cotton crop of 1866 was meager, and an epidemic of cholera raged that summer, hitting Wilson County hard, only to be followed by smallpox in the fall. Thus the painted slogan “GTT” began appearing on the doors of people’s abandoned homes and farms—Gone To Texas.
Some family on my grandmother Smith’s side already lived in Texas and their sons were recruited into the Confederate forces. It is their letters I was working on, with the beautifully florid handwriting and many misspellings adding to their charm. These boys—John Ricerd (J.R.), about age 20, and George, 23—were two of eight sons of William and Elizabeth Smith, and they are intimately concerned about the fate of their younger brothers:
- “Tell W. R. Smith if the war continues till he becomes 18 years old, tell him to go in Texas service, not to comb(come) out here. I hope though he will not have to Join the army.” (from J.R. Smith)
- “William, you will try to beat me a(t) writing a letter the time, for you are going to School for some time as will be when this letter reaches to hand. You will apply your Self Closely and try to make a Smart man.” (from George Smith)
- “I reckon I will never see home until this unholy war comes to a close and none but my Heavenly father knows when that will be.” (from George Smith)
- “I want to here from you and Franklin and all the rest of my little Brothers. But mutch rather see them.” (from J.R. Smith)
You also get a sense of the conditions and concerns that plagued them as they fought in Arkansas and Louisiana in the Trans-Mississippi and Red River campaigns.
- “I am anxious to here from Brother William. I expec that he has been in the fight. If so I hope that he came threw safe.” (from J.R. Smith)
- “Father, I have been as wet as I could be for 2 days and a night and travailed (traveled) all one day. You will excuse my bad writing and my Short letter for I have travailed all day and am tired.” (from George Smith)
- “The reson I don’t get letters regular is we have been running from place to place. The boys is all brokedown and need rest.” (from J.R. Smith)
America has had so many veterans of so many wars, and while the foes and armaments have changed, the human experience remains.