Monday, July 9, 2012

Letter Home from the Civil War

I was born in Sparta, Tennessee, which is in an area of the state known as the Upper Cumberland. A year ago I ended a six-year sojourn at the University of Illinois, where I had been working on my doctorate, to return to my alma mater Tennessee Tech (in Cookeville) to teach history.

So far as I've been able to determine, every branch of my family was in the Upper Cumberland by at least the early 1800s (in some cases earlier still.) Quite a few veterans of the American Revolution were given land grants in the region in compensation for their service -and besides that there was no huge influx of emigration- so a lot of folks who are native to the area are descended from those first families.

Alvin York, the WWI hero played on the bigscreen by Gary Cooper in Sgt. York, was from Fentress County.

Bluegrass legend Lester Flatt -pictured on the left, with his longtime partner Earl Scruggs -was from Sparta. Even if you're not a bluegrass fan you've heard their music, if you've ever heard the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.

Louis L'Amour chose to have his feudin' hill clan "The Sacketts" originate from Crab Orchard, down in Cumberland County...

...and Carthage is the hometown of a certain Vice-President you may remember.

The Upper Cumberland was devastated by the Civil War. There were no major battles fought here- though there were plenty of skirmishes -it was the bloody guerrilla conflict that made life miserable for the region's inhabitants. There was a strong pro-Union sentiment in the easternmost counties, and there were Union supporters scattered though the rest of the area as well.

The most famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Union guerrilla was Tinker Dave Beaty, from Fentress County. Beaty is on the right in this photo, with his friend Dr. Jonathan Hale.

The most prominent guerrilla on the Confederate side was Champ Ferguson, based in Sparta, who was hanged in Nashville after the war. There were a lot of other Confederate bands operating in the region as well -some more official than others- including those led by Oliver Hamilton (mostly from Jackson and Overton Counties), George Carter (Van Buren County), and Pomp Kersey (DeKalb County.) Here is a photo of Champ:

Earlier this month I attended the unveiling of a historical marker up in Pickett County, at the site where the Jonathan Hale pictured with Tinker Dave once owned a sawmill; Hale had hosted his annual Independence Day festivities at the mill in 1861, shortly after the war broke out -complete with a singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," reading of the Declaration of Independence, and prominent display of the American flag. This did not sit well with Confederate supporters; shortly thereafter Champ Ferguson burned the mill to the ground.

I wrote an article about Champ for Civil War Times, which can still be accessed HERE. (If you follow the link, the first line should say "40 year old man," not 20... that has bothered me for ten years!)

I also wrote a novel about Champ, Good Rebel Soil, in which Tinker Dave was also prominently featured;

What does all this have to do with a letter home?

Well, recently a friend (and distant cousin) of mine who has done a lot of genealogical research in the Upper Cumberland told me a fascinating story about one of my relatives. My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Boles, and her great-uncle James Boles -a constable in Gainesboro -had been murdered during the Civil War. My friend said I could get the details in the Jackson County court records, available online, so I did a search for his name. I found the murder details, but I also found him mentioned in another case- a dispute over the ownership of a tract of land.

James Boles' brother John -my great-great-grandfather- had, with their eldest brother William, purchased the land from a man named Hicks before the war. By 1876, all three brothers were dead and various people were contesting the land's ownership. As evidence that the property should go to the recently deceased John Boles' children, a letter and a will written by John in the middle of the Civil War was introduced.

John and James Boles rode with Oliver Hamilton, whose Confederate unit started out as unofficial partisans but eventually became the Fourth Tennessee (Confederate) Cavalry- they often coordinated with Champ Ferguson. I've seen no mention of William's activities, but since he died in his early 40s in 1864, I think it is likely he served with them as well.

To demonstrate how divided the region was, there was another John Boles in the area- those brothers' second cousin. He and his son were members of Tinker Dave Beaty's "Independent Scouts" -the pro-Union John Boles was actually married to Tinker Dave's sister. (Tinker Dave's first cousin, by the way, was my great-great-grandmother from a different line.) The Confederate John Boles barely scratched out a living in Overton County after the war; the Union John Boles became Overton County's state legislator. To the victor the spoils.

In 1863, things were going badly for Hamilton's Confederate cavalry. They were camped near Sparta- John Boles wanted to get home to Overton County to see his wife and children, but a troop of federal cavalry located in Cookeville stood in his way. Fearing his own imminent death, John wrote a letter to his wife and had a will drawn up, and asked his brother James to deliver them. It is possible that James was not permanently attached to Hamilton's group -he was apparently also serving as constable n Gainesboro at the time, and a later witness in the court case would testify that "James Boles was sometimes with Hamilton's men, do not know if he belonged to the service."

Here is the letter my great-great-grandfather wrote:

State of Tennessee.
White County.
March the 15th 1863.
Dear Wife and children,
I this morning with pleasure I write you a few lines to inform you that I am well as common and I hope that this few lines comes to hand that the may find you all enjoying the same Blessing and if George Abna [Abney] will tend the land if he will and let him have all of the land out at the Hix place and all on the creek but the lower field and I want you to tend it yourself if you can and if George don't move out there to the Hix place and Mart Gorden comes to let him have the house at the Hix place and the two hollow fields and the field around the house and I will tell you what I owe. [sic.] I owe Peter Hufines $5 and the cost and interest and the State cost in cost stayed [?] by Asel Duncan and Wm. Flatt and R. Darwin $5.00 and to Thomas Tabbert five dollars and six dollars to James Roberts and I want James Boles to make the right to me and to my heirs for the Hicks land and James I want you to do this without fail for I want my children to have the good of that land if I never get home myself. A few lines to Sarah Duncan and the children. I want you to remember me in all of my Troubles for I want to see you very Bad and the children. I am down here and it is hard times here for the lice is thick as hops and a man can't rest for them of a wit [?]. I would come home but the Cavalry taken us up and stop us at Cooksville some [?] more at present but remains your affection [ate] Brother until death. I was very sorry to hear that Job Johnson's wife is dead.

John Boles

As you can see, the first part of the letter is all business, pertaining to the use of his land. But, as he points out to his brother, "I want you to do this without fail for I want my children to have the good of that land if I never get home myself."

And of course, I was most affected by  the lines "I want to see you very Bad and the children. I am down here [in Sparta] and it is hard times..."

The will that was drawn up the same day reads a good bit differently, with much better spelling and grammar, so one must assume he dictated it to someone who could make a more official presentation:

State of Tennessee.
White County.
Sparta, March 15 day 1863.
I, John Boles, want Asel Duncan to see that James Boles does make unto me and my dear beloved wife and children a good and sufficient warrantee title to a certain tract or parcel of land lying in Jackson Co., District No. 16, known as the Hicks place, for I made him the deed to said land as security to him to pay certain debts for me and I have paid him the money to pay the same debts, to wit, the Peter Hufines debt for $35, a judgement and cost and interest before Esquire McCue in Gainesboro, which deed was made by Thomas Hicks to James Boles for which land I have paid all of the money on the land myself. I don't know that I owe James Boles anything at all if I never get home anymore or get killed or sicken and die this is my last will and testimony. I am at this time in good health and in my right mind the day and date above written.

John Boles (his mark)

John Boles did not "get killed or sicken and die" during the war... he was the only one of the three Boles brothers to remain alive at the end of it.William died in November, 1864, and James was murdered in January, 1865 -in a dispute that arose when he was trying to auction off 93 gallons of brandy that he had to move quickly, for it "was in danger of being captured by Soldiers."

As a historian, I encounter documents like this all the time. It is always interesting to see how people reacted to the events that disrupted their lives, and find a common bond of humanity when one empathizes with their thoughts and feelings. But this is the first time I've come across such war-time documents that are personal to my family. The youngest child of John Boles -not yet born at the time the letter was written, and named James after John Boles' murdered brother -was the Grandpa Jim that my dad has regaled me with stories of, and who died only a few years before I was born. Just the other day, at Decoration Day at the Overton County church where so many of my father's kin are buried, an elderly lady said "Jim and Sally Boles! Why I knew them well!"

Knowing that makes the Civil War seem much more immediate.


  1. That's great, Troy. Thanks for sharing a little bit of home and of your family with us.

  2. Why shucks, thanks for reading it.

  3. Troy, I greatly enjoyed your post having lived in Sparta for a short time and falling in love with a land so rich in history. I enjoyed learning about your kin and the family ties to the Civil War. If I could choose, Sparta would be where I would make my home, but my heart ties me to my grandson who lives closer to Nashville. I hope we have an opportunity to meet in person one day as we both share the love of a writing genre and state.

  4. Thanks, Troy. My ancestors emigrated here in the 1880s, so I lack any personal connection to the Civil War. Still, it haunts my awareness of the country's history as I learn more about it. The animosity between North and South sympathizers in border state areas like the Upper Cumberland must have struck fear and anger in the hearts of every civilian who lived there.

  5. It amazes me that you can find letters like this still extant and that gives a personal slant to the history of the times. I ran across several while researching family history. Very interesting.

  6. My family had connections with Pomp Kersey over at Short Mountain and are buried in the same graveyard. My Jones family had a son killed by the Union men while in search for Pomp. Lots of interesting perspectives about Pomp but there were lots of traitors to the people of Short Mountain that lived in Smithville and depending on where you stand - depends on your perspective.

  7. Thanks for sharing this Mr. Smith. John Boles is my 4th great grandfather. I took one of your history courses a couple of years ago. I absolutely loved it.