Poignant, touching, revealing: WCU collection of Civil War letters helps mark anniversary of war’s startWritten by Quintin Ellison
Next to Hunter Library at Western Carolina University is a Baptist church with a 190-year-old graveyard. George Frizzell, head of the library’s special collections, helped survey that graveyard 17 years ago.
So when Frizzell spotted a postscript to a letter in WCU’s collection of some 200 Civil War letters written by Western North Carolina soldiers and their families, the archivist described feeling an eerie chill. The names seemed familiar.
“We saw the one with the postscripts about the headstones, I thought, ‘could it possibly be?’” he said. “I walked over and found the grave, and next to it was the smaller stone to ‘Little Charley.”
In that Cullowhee Baptist Church graveyard are two Civil War-era tombstones, side by side; a large one for a Dr. Edmonston, the other one for Charley.
The story of the tombstones is told in a letter written by Maggie Edmonston, Dr. Edmonston’s wife and Charley’s mother. And it seems as relevant now, as the nation observes the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, as when Maggie Edmonston wrote the words “Dear Brothers” in a poignant plea for help to her brothers-in-law. The letter is dated July 14, 1864.
“Will you please go to the marble yard in Petersburg or any yard you may see and select some nice tombstones for Dr. Edmonston’s grave?” Maggie Edmonston wrote from Webster. “Have sent off three times but failed to get any. I know you will take more interest than any buddy else please let me know if you get any so I can send you the inscription if you can get some nice ones let me know I can have them shipped to Walhalla. I want two set one small set for my baby that is all I can do for him and I never will be satisfied until I get that done.”
Dr. Edmonston was a native of Haywood County who is believed to have died here in the mountains from milk sickness after returning, weakened by illness, from the war. He was practicing medicine in Webster when he apparently drank milk poisoned with tremetol, which happens when cows graze on white snakeroot. The reason the couple’s baby died isn’t recorded, though WNC’s old cemeteries provide ample evidence of many babies in the early to mid-19th century also having died from milk sickness.
The 200 or so letters, and WCU hopes to receive even more in the years to come through donations from local families, provide an invaluable look at this region during the mid-19th century. They are being digitized and made available online. The letters demonstrate that though times have changed, human emotions have not. And although most of the Civil War battles were fought on lands far from these mountains, it touched people here as dreadfully as anywhere in the nation. As the war dragged on, it claimed more and more WNC lives, and destroyed more and more WNC families.
George Huntley, a Rutherford County native, wrote his sister Tincy on June 29, 1863, while marching into Pennsylvania as a member of the North Carolina 34th Infantry Regiment: “We are stoped to day in a Beautiful Oke grove I Cant tell whare old Lee Will Carry us tow this is One of the finest Countrys that I Ever saw.”
Three days later Huntley, a school teacher before the war, died from a wound received in the Battle of Gettysburg.
It is those types of details that bring the letters to life for Frizzell.
“The letters summon up the emotional experiences, the concerns and the hopes,” he said. “They speak so much to place, and being here.”
There are letters from Frizzell’s ancestor, M.W. Parris, telling his wife which men had been wounded and killed during the North Carolina 25th Infantry Regiment’s latest battle. The toll included a dozen or so men from Jackson County.
“I am sorry to tel that Som of our brave boys has got kild and Severl wounded in the great battle at richmond which Commenct last wensday,” Parris wrote on July 3, 1862.
Among them: Capt. Coalman’s head was shot off by a cannonball, John B. Queen fell dead as the fight started, Joseph Moody had his fingers shot off, William Cogdal (Cogdill) was wounded in the neck, Leander Hall in the leg, Harris Hooper was struck through the thigh or leg, Major Frances was badly wounded in the shoulder, W. William Beard badly wounded by a shot through his hips.
Parris adds that he believes they’ve won the battle, but describes the victory as “dearly bought” indeed.
Frizzell said Parris clearly penned the letter about the dead and wounded to the community as much as to his wife, Jane.
“These are folks they knew, and he’s trying to let all the wives know — this is how important information was shared,” Frizzell said.