Week 33: Service. Letters from War

August Theme: Help

150+ years after the Civil War, we know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

When researching for a friend, I came across a stunning collection of letters written between a North Carolina husband and wife, while he was away in the Confederate Service, and she was struggling at home. It gives a reminder that people caught up in the “wrong side” are still people. That not all choices are defensible, but not all actions are choices.

Francis Marion Poteet was born 3 Feb 1827 in McDowell, NC, which is in the southern Appalachian region. He was one of nine children. He married Martha Henley on 25 Sep 1847, and seven months later they had their first of 13 children. Ten of them were born prior to his enlistment in 1863.

In 1863, the Confederates were in trouble. Starvation was a reality. Lack of basic supplies, price gouging, illness, disorganization. The Confederate Army was having trouble manning its forces. Wikipedia states:

The First Conscription Act, passed April 16, 1862, made any white male between 18 and 35 years old liable to three years of military service. On September 27, 1862, the Second extended the age limit to 45 years; the Third, passed February 17, 1864, changed this to 17 to 50 years old, for service of an unlimited period.

At the time of his conscription on Oct 2, 1863, Francis was 36, working as a miller, carpenter, and farmer to support his large family. Conscription means compulsory enlistment – he was forced to go. His letters show that he hated it. He hated the war, he hated being separated from his wife and family, he hated not being able to help them. Army life was miserable.

He also hated the Yankees. His family had not been slaveholders, but he was certainly influenced by what his peers and elected officials were telling him: That the North needed to mind their own business, that Union soldiers were aggressors, that the South was being invaded and needed protection. This ugly war was their fault. The lack of food and supplies, the danger to his family, the loss of life as he knew it – these were caused by the Yankees. He was as much affected by personal perspective as we are today.

Francis was part of NC 49th Infantry, Company A. On Nov 3, a few weeks after he enlisted, he wrote to his wife from Camp near Kinston, “I am well but not satisfied… Sumtimes I think that I Will Runaway.”  “you Rote that if I could be at home to go with you to the shucking that you would be glad If I could I would give Ever thing that I am worth to be with you if I cant be with you I pray that the Lord may be with you and help you as mutch as if I was with.”

Kinston, NC; one of the battles his unit was involved in

His letters make clear his feelings for his family. On November 12, 1863, he wrote, “you don’t now how bad that I want to see you and My little Babes…. My Dear Wife I want you to hug and kiss to my little Children for me and tell them that I told you to Doo so for me.”

Ten days later, he is sick with a bad cold and cough. His mood is grumpy. He chastises his wife, “you Rote to me to not Runaway you don’t now nothing About hard times .. tell mother that I live in hops that I will see her once more in this life … I cant see how to Rite for my teares…”

On Jan 7 1864, Martha’s letter shows that things aren’t all that great at home, either. “we are not well the children is sick with bad colds and I haint seen a well day since you left… I cant get the William house he is a going to move to it and I don’t know what to do … Bill Cowen come hear a Tuesday and told me to get out as soon as I could and what I am to do I don’t know… if I hav to move I will sell the Mar and Cows and live while the corn and meat last for I don’t see how I am to get along with no one to help me.”

from Library of Congress

There are no letters available from December of that year. Fold3 service cards show that Francis “deserted” on Dec 1. Desertion was a serious problem, and punishment was often harsh and included execution. The reason for Francis’s leave, we know in hindsight, is that his 13 year old son, Marion Alvis, was quite ill. Francis stayed home for several weeks – long enough to be with his son when he died, and to have him buried. Francis was “lucky” that he was “only” imprisoned. He wrote on Jan 12, 1864, to let his wife know where to send the letters – “NC Weldon gard House in care of the prov Marchel ofis.”

The next letter we have preserved is from Martha, dated Feb 4, 1864. She has sent food to her husband: “five pies and five ginger Cakes one doz unions [onions] two custerds 1 ham of Meat and three twists of tobacco.” These are being sent care of men traveling that direction. She is still concerned about having a place to live. “You wrote for me to stay hear Bill Cowen says if I stay in the house I shant work the ground that I shant as much as hav the garden I hav walked my self down this week trying to get a place and hav got non me and my children are bound to perish all the honest men is gone and set of speckalating dogs is left to press the lives out of the poor Women and children while the soldiers is standing as a wall between them and the enemy…” 

She is clearly overwhelmed trying to deal with dishonest and unscrupulous men who are taking advantage of her situation. “I told you when you left I was left to the Mercy of the people there is about as much mercy shown me as a dog would show apeace of meat.”

Hunger is a frequent topic going both directions. On Mar 17, 1864, Francis wrote, “I had to Sell my Raisor and my coat to git Sumthing to eat.” He is still imprisoned for desertion at this point, and it’s incredulous that they aren’t feeding him! “Unions” is a frequent request – It is hard for me to imagine trying to survive on a diet of onions! The good news in this letter is that someone named Johnthan Walker “has acted very cleaver with you tell him that I hope that god will bless him for letting you have the land.” So Martha at least has a place to live.

Fold3 service cards say that Francis was finally returned to his company (from prison) on May 25, 1864. One of the cards identifies the prison as “Castle Thunder.” A later letter includes his address as Care of Capt Richerson, Castle Thunder, Richmond Va., Room no. 8.

Matthew Brady photo of inner courtyard of Castle Thunder

A letter from Martha on Jun 16, 1864, has a surprise. Apparently all this time Francis has been away, Martha was pregnant with child number 11. Imagine! Caring for 10 children, grieving the loss of one of them, trying to run a farm, all while pregnant. Her letter says “My baby will be 4 weeks old Saturday Night she was born the 21 of May write to Me what to name her.” She enclosed a tracing of the baby’s hand. It would be many months before Francis saw her. The baby was eventually named Eliza Ann.

“the sise of the baby’s hand”

Letters continue back and forth with news of every sort, from neighbors getting married to soldiers wounded or killed, of getting to wash clothes, how the crops are doing, measles and other illnesses, and everything in between. Every letter contains longing for each other and desperate prayers. “Remember me in your potisions [petitions] and ask god to have mursey on me and help me to pray aright to my god.”

They also send each other news of the war – each of them sharing bits and pieces, as neither has access to it all. On Oct 4, 1864, Francis wrote, “Lee Says that he cant hold Petersburg that he will have to vack awate [evacuate] it … I haint heard our loss but I expect that it tis heavy.”

Matthew Brady Civil War photos – Confederate trenches at Petersburg

And then the heartbreak. Imagine getting this letter that Martha wrote to her husband on Nov 2, 1864. “poor little Francis Emmer is dead she died the 29 of Oct last Saturday a little while before sundown I wrote to you about the sore in her Mouth her chin rotted and come loos fom its jaw boen and 5 of her teeth come out and her toung turned black it was the pittifullest looking little Mortal you ever saw I cant tell you how bad it was it died with its eyes fixed on me it died without a struggle …. It was the best child I ever saw it never cryed one half a hour …” As near as I can tell, the poor little girl got an infection – perhaps something as simple as an infected tooth or bug bite – that went gangrenous. It is disconcerting that she always refers to her daughter as “it” but there is no doubting her affection for the child. She goes on to write about other things, and then returns to her daughter. “I am so lonsom sens our sweet little baby daid evry body sed that it had the most sens that they saw a little child hav when it got so that it couldn’t talk it would point its little finger for what it wanted and the day before it died it would look at me and then point with its little finger toward the loft I think it saw the Angels that come to take it to heaven.”

Martha’s letter about Frances Emma

The summer of 1864, Francis is in a NC “Horspitel”, although his letters don’t say why. The letters following his release from prison show that Francis’s regiment is in Petersburg, VA. A December letter says that he gets a daily ration of a handful of crackers, his shoes are falling apart, it’s snowing and the mud is deep.

The final of the surviving letters is dated Feb 2 1865 from Martha. The war ended a couple months later. The National Park Service says this about the NC 49th:

OVERVIEW:49th Infantry Regiment was organized in March, 1862, at Garysburg, North Carolina. Its companies were recruited in the following counties: McDowell, Cleveland, Iredell, Moore, Mecklenburg, Gaston, Catawba, and Lincoln. Assigned to General R. Ransom’s and M.W. Ransom’s Brigade, the unit fought with the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days’ Battles to Fredericksburg. It then served in the New Bern area and near the Chowan River in North Carolina. Returning to Virginia, it was active at Drewry’s Bluff and Cold Harbor, took its place in the Petersburg trenches south of the James River, and saw action around Appomattox. This regiment lost 14 killed, 75 wounded, and 16 missing at Malvern Hill, had 16 killed and 61 wounded during the Maryland Campaign, and had 9 wounded at Fredericksburg. Many were disabled at Sayler’s Creek, and it surrendered 11 officers and 95 men on April 9, 1865. The field officers were Colonels Lee M. McAfee and Stephen D. Ramseur; Lieutenant Colonels James T. David, William A. Eliason, and John A. Flemming; and Majors Pinckney B. Chambers and Charles Q. Petty.

There is no record of when Francis was discharged, although it is likely he was with his unit to the end, and then returned home to his beloved family. Over the next couple years, he and Martha added two more children to the family. Later censuses list him as a farmer or farmhand, although they moved around – Censuses listed them in Jamestown, McDowell Co in 1870; Silver Creek, Burke Co in 1880; Mooresboro, Cleveland Co in 1900.

The Morganton Herald, Jul 18 1895

Martha passed away on April 2, 1902, after 54 years of marriage. Eight hours later, on April 3, unwilling, it seems, to ever be parted from her again, Francis died. The Roxboro Courier of 30 Apr 1902, quoting the Cleveland Star, said,

“Mrs. Mary Poteat, or Mooresboro, had a stroke of paralysis and fell in her yard last Wednesday afternoon and died at 8 o’clock that night from the effects of the stroke. At 4 o’clock next morning her husband, Mr. Francis M. Poteat, died from an attack of heart failure, brought on by his intense grief over the death of his wife.”

They are buried at Sandy Run Baptist Church Cemetery in Mooresboro, Cleveland Co, NC.

[If you are interested in digging deeper, the preserved letters between Francis and Martha are available here: https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p15012coll8/search/searchterm/poteet ]

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