Even after 150 years, the voices of some Civil War soldiers of Western North Carolina can still be heard, or at least read. Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library has a special collection of about 200 Civil War letters and documents, most of which range from 1862-1863 to and from family members and friends of soldiers. This collection is only a small piece of a national puzzle, but gives a more personal perspective of residents of western North Carolina and the realities of the Civil War.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War when, in 1861, Fort Sumter, S.C., was fired upon. The war was a pivotal time in the nation’s history and collections like the one at Hunter Library are seeing a renewed interest for researchers.
“We use the letters to help illustrate Western North Carolina’s involvement in the Civil War,” said George Frizzell, head of Special Collections at Hunter Library.
Although indirectly, the war still had a very definite impact on Western North Carolina. Farmers were being called away to be soldiers, so there was a lack of men to tend the farms, therefore, the women had to take on more responsibilities. There was also a shortage of everyday supplies which made it very difficult for rural farms to survive. Even though the men were away, sometimes hundreds of miles, they still tried to be as closely connected to home as possible. Sending and receiving letters was one way to do this. And these hardships are evident in the letters.
Surprisingly, the letters written by soldiers did not convey concern with war-time matters, political ideology or the reasons behind the war. These soldiers were simple people caught up in something beyond themselves. What mattered most to them was their homes and families, and that comes through in their letters. The soldiers would write about the wounded and various other people in the regiments, as well as ask and give advice about home matters, health, weather, and farm conditions.
“It is interesting,” said Frizzell, “that in a conflict as great as the Civil War, the correspondents often touch upon the everyday.” Sometimes, there was some bright news of personal triumphs. Thomas Edmonston, a foot soldier of the Confederacy, wrote to his mother, “Mother, I have quit swearing. I have not swore in two months.”
Among the Edmonston-Kelly collection of letters retained at WCU, Maggie Edmonston of Webster, writes to her brothers-in-law, Basil and Benjamin Edmonston, then stationed in Petersburg, Va., with an unusual request. She asks that they select some tombstones for her husband, their brother, Rufus, who had been a war doctor. Frizzell states that he believes that Rufus Edmonston was able to make it home and later died from illness. In addition to her husband, Maggie also lost her infant son. “I want two set one small set for my baby this is all I can do for him and I never will be satisfied until I get that done,” she wrote. It is unclear if the brothers were able to obtain the tombstones, however, Maggie was able to keep her promise. In the cemetery of the Cullowhee Baptist Church, a short distance from where Edmonston’s letter is kept, stands two of the oldest markers in the churchyard — headstones marking the graves of Maggie Edmonston’s husband, Rufus and son, “Little Charley.” Frizzell commented that it was a little eerie to be in such close proximity to these gravesites, “I can literally look out of my window and see the markers,” Frizzell said. It is unknown where the mortal remains of Maggie Edmonston are located, but no known marker for her is in the Cullowhee Baptist Church cemetery.
Several extensive letters were written to a Col. Joseph Cathey of Haywood County, N.C., requesting his influential help in getting land, crops, appointments, and other aid to soldiers and their families. The one main concern about the war that they all had was when it was going to end, to which they had no answers.
Mail to the soldiers was a big deal. One particular theme among the letters is that the writers make a point to mention the number of letters that they have sent and received. The soldiers wanted to confirm the number of letters sent and received. More often than not, the postal service was sporadic and unreliable, therefore, the soldiers would devise their own methods for carrying mail. They would sometimes pass letters along by way of other soldiers of the regiment that were on their way home.
At the beginning of the war, around 3,000 men from Macon County were called to service. The Siler family of Macon County were wealthy land and slave owners. In 1860, Julius Siler built his home — known as “Dixie Hall” — on Franklin’s main street. Siler was one of the men that served in the Confederate Army. Julius was wounded in battle, but made it home. He survived the war, but died on June 8, 1866.
The final surrender of the Confederate Army in North Carolina is believed to have taken place at Dixie Hall on May 12, 1865, when Col Stephen Whitaker surrendered the last of the Thomas Legion to Col. George W. Kirk. Dixie Hall was torn down in the 1970s to make room for the Macon County Courthouse.
Other Silers were involved in the war effort, but it is unknown if they were of the same family. Thomas Siler was born in Macon County and lived as a farmer. He enlisted on July 4, 1861, but was discharged at Hanover Court, Va., on Aug. 16, 1862, due to severe rheumatism. He wrote to his brother and thanked him for a pair of boots his brother had sent him. “You could not have sent me anything of the same value that would be worth more to me than the boots my feet were scarcely ever dry before I got them.”
Jesse W. Siler was also a resident of Macon County. He gained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and was killed in action at Gaines Cross Roads, Va. on Nov. 7, 1862.
Herbert Hoover, the 33rd President of the United States from 1929 to 1933, once said, “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die. And it is youth who must inherit the tribulation, the sorrow and the triumphs that are the aftermath of war.” Indeed, the men of Macon, Jackson, Swain, and surrounding counties had to deal with the harsh realities of war. Thomas Siler wrote in his letter to his brother dated December 27, 1861, regarding the “battle of Dranesville, ... Our noble Southerners who dared stand up for their rights against an over whelming odds were lying in heaps covered with their own and fellow’s frozen gore.”
D.H. Gettys was closely connected with the Siler family. In the letters on display at WCU from Gettys, he describes the horrible scenes which the soldiers witnessed on a regular basis but he also writes of remembering his home in Franklin and wishing to make it back. “I may never live to get too old Macon again but if I ever do I know I shall feel better than I would if I had stayed at home.” Gettys seemed proud to have served, as did many others, and in a very real sense, it was evident that their connection to home through these letters gave them the strength and motivation to keep fighting.
The letters bring a better understanding of the effect the war had on the homefront and what it was like for individuals. There were soldiers that fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, however, the Hunter collection does not yet include any of those that supported the federal cause.
The Hunter Library website states that they do not have any “collections that provide a perspective for African-Americans in western North Carolina held as slaves, even though over 220 men, women and children were enumerated as slaves in the 1860 federal census of Jackson County, North Carolina.”
The letters have been given to WCU by the descendants of the people in the letters over the course of 40 years. According to Frizzelj, the documents have been generously donated “by individuals interested in preserving them and also to make them accessible to the public.”
The staff in Special Collections at Hunter Library are currently working to receive additional grant money to do deeper studies of the letters and put more of them online for easy access.
To read some of the letters online, visit www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/CivilWar/about.htm