Civil War letters

The Civil War letters of J.R.P. Ellis, part 1.

The East Carolina University Manuscript Collection’s Josiah Robert Peele Ellis Papers contain photocopies of transcriptions of correspondence by J.R.P. Ellis of Wilson County, North Carolina, to his wife Elizabeth Grimes Ellis while he was serving in Company C of the 43rd N.C. Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.

Hugh B. Johnston Jr.’s introduction to the letters describes Josiah R.P. Ellis as “a well-to-do planter who lived in Wilson County, about a mile northwest of Stantonsburg where the road forks in the respective directions of Black Creek and Wilson.” Ellis, born in 1821, was apparently inadvertently drafted, enlisted in the Confederate Army anyway, and was fatally wounded in 1864.

Several letters include references to free and enslaved African-Americans who lived in Ellis’ community, especially in regards to Ellis’ suggestions for hiring labor to work on the farm in his absence.

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Letter #1, undated, probably written late in 1863, to wife Betsy Ellis:

“I was glad to hear that Cole and Tomy got home safe. If any of you come, you will have to get a pass to come over the bridge. Direct your letters to J.R.P. Ellis, Kinston, 43 Reg’t., Co. C, Hoke’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division. I also desire your prayers. Your affectionate husband until death.   /s/ J.R.P. Ellis   P.S. They have stopped the daily mail. The mail only comes Monday and Thursday.”

In footnotes, Johnston noted that Cole and Tomy are believed to have been men enslaved by the J.R.P. and Betsy Ellis.

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Letter #2, dated “Camp near Modern Ford, Dec. 4/63”:

“Dear Wife and Children:

“Having a favorable opportunity I will endeavor to drop you a few lines to let you know I am still living. I left Kinston on Sunday, the 22nd of November. I was sent to Goldsboro and then to Raleigh, and then to Camp Holmes and was enrolled. They told me that I had to go to Lee’s Army or Bragg’s, so I am with the 43 Regt. with Rufus and Edwin Amerson. I got to this Company last Thursday night at 11 o’clock. We left Orange Court House about sunset and walked 15 miles. I had been there about 30 minutes when we received orders to march, so we had to start and march 7 or 8 miles. We were then marched to a line of battle and remained there until day. And then we started and marched until about 9 o’clock and then we met the Yankees and throwed in a line of battle. And then in about ten minutes the sharpshooters were firing. They kept up shooting until night, and then we fell back some 2 or 3 miles and went to throwing up breastworks, and if if you ever saw poor fellows work, then was the time.

“About sunrise the sharpshooters were sent out again. I was sent with them and by the time we got to our post we saw the Yanks coming, and in about 5 minutes they were shooting us and the bullets were coming whistling. In about 10 minutes a ball struck a man in the face, and I had to help tote him off the field with the balls striking all around me. Two struck a man that was on my side a-touching me. There is no use in telling you about being scared, for it will scare the most of the time. We got our breastworks done and I felt tolerable easy under the circumstances. We lay there 4 days a-waiting for the Yanks to advance on us, but on the 4 night they left us and we started after them, but I did not want to catch them much, so we ran them over the Rapidan and then we turned back and marched some 8 or 10 miles and struck up camp and stayed all night, so we started back to our old camp. I helped bury a dead man this morning.

“I received your letter that you send my by A.J. Ellis and was glad to that you and children were tolerable well except colds, and I still hope that you are still enjoying the same blessing. You said something about hiring Eas and Emily. You can do as you please, but I think you had better hire them if they don’t ask too much for them. You had better try to make support if you can. Encourage the children to be smart and saving and careful, for you and they are left dependent on your own exertions for a living, and I sincerely hope you will do well.

“I must come to a close.  /s/ J.R.P. Ellis”

Per Johnston’s footnotes: Eas [Eason] and Emily were “Edmundson slaves.” This reference may be to Wright Edmundson.

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Letter #3, dated “The Camp of the 43rd, Dec. 9th 1863”:

“Dear Wife and Children:

“This may inform you and family that I am very unwell though I am up. I have a very heavy cold and cough. I have to lie out and take the weather as it comes. We have no shelter at all to protect us. I have to drill 4 hours a day. Cooking and drilling take all our time. We have to tote our wood nearly a half-mile. It is very cold here now, and I suffer with cold a-nights. I have not cover enough to keep me warm. I have as much as I can tote, and in fact more if I have to march much, so don’t send me any clothes or cover. I got a permit to go see the boys in Staton’s old Co. I am with the boys now. They all seem glad to see me and it makes me feel proud to see so many of my old friends. The boys are all well here.

“You have no idea how badly I want to see you and the children. I would give all the money you have got to be with you and if I could stay and not be troubled, but that time has passed, I am afraid.  Lieut. Killet wants Wyatt Lynch to bring him a qt. of the old peach brandy. You can let him have it, and T. Barnes wants a qt., too. You can send it, also, and send me a qt. by Wyatt if he will bring it. They want it for Christmas. They will pay me for it.

“Thomas Mumford wants 1/2 bushel of potatoes. Send them if you can by anybody. Write as soon as this comes to hand. Don’t put it off a minute, for I want to hear from you once a week without fail. I must come to a close as Tom wants to send some in this letter, so nothing more, only I remain yours as ever.   /s/ J.R.P. Ellis”

Johnston’s footnote: “Wyatt Lynch (born 1830) was a highly regarded free black of Wilson County. He followed the trade of plasterer and brickmason.” Captain Ruffin Barnes also made reference to Wyatt Lynch, as well as Lynch’s wife Nicey Caroline Lynch, in his correspondence. As a free man of color, Lynch was not subject to conscription as a Confederate soldier and could freely travel the countryside (carrying at all times evidence of his free status), which made him useful as a courier over the relatively short distance from Wilson County to encampments near Kinston, North Carolina.

 

The Battles of Walnut Hill.

Joel Craig and Sharlene Baker’s As You May Never See Us Again: The Civil War Letters of George and Walter Battle, 4th North Carolina Infantry (2004) features the annotated missives of two sons of Amos Johnston Battle, a prominent (and peripatetic) Baptist minister who spent his last years, including the war era, in Wilson County.  The letters contain only one presumed mention of the family’s slaves — a single reference to a Church, who was charged with delivering certain items to the letter’s writer. A footnote appended to the passage states: “The boy ‘Church’ has been referred to by some as one of the Battle’s [sic] slaves. Whether this is referring to the Raleigh [North Carolina] Battle’s or the Wilson Battle’s is unclear. However, if the Rev. Battle did own slaves in the midst of the war it might mean that he was not the abolitionist as previously thought.”

Who thought Amos J. Battle was an abolitionist?

He is listed in neither the 1850 and 1860 federal slave schedules, but his wife Margaret H. Battle is listed with 32 slaves in 1860. (Hugh Johnston noted that Amos Battle’s “wife owned a small farm north of Wilson not far from the Barnes plantation.”) She is not listed in the 1850 slave schedule, and the sudden acquisition of that many slaves suggests inheritance.

Margaret Hearne Parker Battle’s father Weeks Parker died in January 1844 in Edgecombe County, leaving a widow and three children. (One predeceased him.) The 88 pages of his estate file span more than a decade, and Emancipation eventually intervened to prevent a final distribution. Included, however, is a listing of those slaves apportioned to daughter Margaret H. Battle and her children, apparently dating from the late 1850s: Old Ben, Old Seny, Big Hardy, Lucinda, Stephen, Turner, Hilliard, Mary, Adeline, William, Lena, Alice, William “usually called Reuben,” Little Ben, Harriet, Marina, Sally, Smith, Maria, Little Hardy, Betty, Jim, Moses, Syphax, Toney, Louis, Allen, George, Matilda, Lizzie.

Weeks Parker had executed his will on 31 July 1843. The document mentions his wife Sabra [Irwin Hearn]; son Simmons B. Parker; deceased son Dr. John H. Parker, who had migrated to Florida; and daughters Henrietta, wife of Benjamin Battle, and Margaret, wife of Amos J. Battle. [Benjamin Dossey Battle was Amos’ brother.]

Weeks designated son Simmons as his executor and trustee. He bequeathed certain slaves — Polly, Godwin, Old Ned, Winny, Hardy, Charlotte and her child Cintha, and Nelly —  to pass to Simmons after wife Sabra’s death, and mentioned that he had already given Simmons 14 slaves in a deed of gift. He also directed Simmons to sell the land and slaves in Florida inherited from son John’s estate. (And tweaked this last provision in a codicil.)

Weeks’ bequests to his daughters are curious though.  After Sabra’s death, Simmons was to hold in trust slaves Lucindy, Stephen, Turner, Lewis, George, Marina, Tony, Matilda, Caroline, William, Holly, Big Hardy, Ben, Cena, Moses, Syphax, Little Hardy, Jim, Lucy and Little Jim “for the sole and separate use and benefit of daughter Margaret H. Battle wife of Amos J. Battle during her natural life free from the management and control of her present or any future husband.”  Similarly, he directed that Simmons hold in trust after Sabra’s death slaves Barbara, Sarah, Luke, Ned, Sophia, Elick, Harrison, Milly, Jeffrey, Dorcas, Silas, Bill, Lou, Julia, Randal, Will and Abner for the benefit of daughter Henrietta Battle. Why the specific attempt to keep Amos Battle’s hands off his wife’s property? Was he in fact an abolitionist likely to try to free them? Or were Weeks’ concerns more prosaic?

Simmons and his mother went into court to have Weeks’ will admitted to probate, and the skirmishes began. The two sets of Battles teamed up to claim that they had not been notified prior to probate and that the will’s codicil had been made under undue influence. Simmons and the other trustees admitted that Battles may not have been given formal notice, but claimed that they knew anyway. They also charged Amos Battle with having taken a slave named Jim to Wilmington.  The Battles fired a second volley with a claim that Simmons was in “extreme bad health” and “great physical inability” and “utterly incapable of carrying out his duties” as a trustee. Simmons responded meekly, acknowledging that he had been shot in the chest many years before and had never recovered, a circumstance that sometimes completely debilitated him. He agreed to surrender his trusteeship. Replacement trustee Nathan Matthewson, too, stepped down, and was replaced by Benjamin Oliver of Duplin County. In one of Oliver’s reports, he advised the court that he had sold for $600 a slave named Jim “in consequence of grossly bad behavior and general bad deportment.” The buyer was Wyatt Moye. [In 1848, Moye, as Senator from Edgecombe County, introduced a bill in the Senate to “incorporate Toisnot Depot and Hickory Grove in the County of Edgecombe into a town by the name of Wilson.” The bill passed its third reading and was ratified on January 29, 1849.] With the funds received, Oliver then spent $500 to purchase Lilah from a Dr. Arrington. (She later gave birth to a son Charles.) In 1849, Oliver moved to Bladen County and resigned his trusteeship; Uriah Vaughan of Hertford County — where Margaret then lived — was appointed in his stead.

In the mid-1850s, Margaret, Amos and their children moved to the town of Wilson, where Sabra Parker bought them a house and lot. In another plaintive petition for yet another trustee, submitted in September 1856, Margaret complained that she had no other property and that the family was “dependent on their own exertions for a support” as their trust fund was inadequate. The younger children were chiefly supported by Margaret’s “exertions” [she was an innkeeper], while the creditors of her husband Amos, “who is greatly embarrassed,” tried to take her earnings at every opportunity.

Another source shines light on the Battle family’s financial situation. In 1911, Amos and Margaret’s youngest son, Jesse Mercer Battle, published memoirs titled Tributes to my Father and Mother and Some Stories of My Life. In the chapter on his mother, he recalled that his “mother’s family lived in Wilson, N.C. We lived in a large house, and it was called ‘The Battle House.’” There, to her humiliation, his mother took in boarders and other passers-through to earn money for the family’s keep. His father, though “rich in lands and negroes,” gave away his wealth to the point that his younger sons’ educations were neglected. The chapter on Amos J. Battle goes further. Amid fifty hagiographic pages limning his father’s Christlike-ness, Jesse reveals that “his money, his lands, his negroes, his stocks, his bonds, his personal property of every description went as his free will offering to the Church as a whole, and to anyone of its members individually, or to those who were not members.” (This was not offered ironically, and there is no attempt to square Battle’s slaveholding with his Christian values.)

Ah. So. And therein lies the motive for Weeks Parker’s determined attempt to keep his wealth out of pious Amos Battle’s hands.

Jesse Battle’s memoir also provides a peek at the family’s slaves and demonstrates that the thirty or so inherited from Weeks did not define the extent of Margaret’s holdings. “Negroes were my companions,” he wrote. “I played with them, and spent my time with them all day, till I was about seven years old, when I was started to school. I knew my alphabet and how to read a little. This start on my way to an education was given to me by a good old colored woman I called Mammy. (Her name was Dinah.) … This good woman remained with our family till 1865, when the Civil War ended, when she left us and moved down to Greenville, N.C., where her husband, whose name was ‘Shade,’ lived. After the emancipation of the slaves she said that she could never enjoy her ‘freedom’ as long as she lived with her master and mistress.”  Jesse elsewhere mentioned that Dinah had lived with the family at a farm called Walnut Hill, “about three miles from Wilson N.C., on the railroad toward Rocky Mount.”

Will Book F, Edgecombe County, North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970, familysearch.org; Estate of Weeks Parker (1844), Edgecombe County, North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979, familysearch.org; other sources as named.