MOST RECENT HISTORICAL WRITINGS
One Volunteer, One Family, One Farm: What it meant to be a North Carolina Volunteer in 1861.
Occasionally the historian is given access to unique documents which illustrate some aspect of the past in a new way. Some time back such a series of letters written between an early volunteer in the NC 30th Infantry, Lewis H. MacLeod, and his wife, Eliza Walker, turned up in a private collection. The letters are rich in description of life in military camps of 1861 and 1862 and detail about the life of one North Carolina rural family—without husband—and how it survived on the farm. The letters are very special in that both sides of the correspondence have been preserved with only a few gaps. The wife kept all of her husband’s letters and he kept hers. Lewis wrote his first letter on September 19, 1861 and Eliza wrote her first letter around September 20, 1861. When MacLeod returned home in the summer of 1862, after being gravely wounded in the battle of Malvern Hill most of her letters to him returned home with him and have been preserved. In addition McLeod, kept some letters from his brother-in-law, who had volunteered for the NC cavalry and from other friends. These were augmented with letters from McLeod written to a friend in a second private family collection. Who were the people and how typical were they? The family lived in central NC in what is now Lee County but was then northern Moore County. South and east of the area had been settled in the late 18th century largely by Scots. North and west settlers were largely English and German. The family represented this division in that the husband, Lewis H. MacLeod was a Scot and his wife, Eliza Walker was mostly English. MacLeod fell somewhere in the middle of free society, one of those often called “sturdy yeoman farmer.” His father had maintained a school and was fairly well to do. Therefore, MacLeod was highly literate and owned real property valued at $3000 and personal property valued at $5000 in the 1860 census. He was decidedly, however, not a part of the aristocracy. Having fallen out with his father he had been deliberately excluded from his father’s estate and on several occasions from 1860-62 was forced to appeal to his wealthier brother to help his wife. Moore County North Carolina had few slaves and no truly large slave plantations. It was strongly opposed to secession. The county voted 135 yes and 1257 no in the early 1861 question of calling a convention to consider secession. In the state as a whole the measure failed but by a smaller margin. When North Carolina did secede under threat of invasion and war the area quickly formed a company of volunteers, which became Company H of the 30th NC Infantry, to “defend their homes.” The enlistment was for one year. The Regiment was sent to Richmond in May 1862 and would remain part of the Army of Northern Virginia until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The MacLeod family in 1860 was composed of seven. Lewis MacLeod was 32 years old, his wife Eliza was 30. They had four children, Angelette, 11, Thomas Bragg 6, Delilah 5 and Ann Elizabeth 3. Eliza was a widow when she married MacLeod and living with them was an adult woman, Emily Franklin, who was probably Eliza’s sister-in-law from her first marriage. In early 1862 one final child would be born, Francis Moore Parker. Conceived just as MacLeod left for military service the boy was named both for the closest friend MacLeod formed in the army, Francis Moore and for his revered Colonel Parker. One slave family was present on the farm. The 1860 slave schedule showed one male aged 58, one female 40 and one male 10. The three, Henry, Nelsie and Arry are referred to frequently in the correspondence.
One of the most striking images from these letters is just how much North Carolina, and I suspect much of the rest of the rural United States, existed on barter. Very little money was in circulation. The family worked a nearly subsistence farm and life could be very difficult when there was a need for real money. When Lewis left home to report to camp he had with him $3.25, and put his “paper money” in a small purse which he then lost or had stolen. He had only $2.85 at camp and as a non-commissioned officer (He was elected corporal and then Lieutenant when the company was reorganized in the spring of 1862.) he had to pay for his food. Eliza sent Lewis $5.00 noting that she had only $5 left and she needed that for a bushel of salt to cure pork. She then discovered to her dismay that prices were rapidly rising and salt in Fayetteville was rumored to be $11 a bushel. In the end she was able to sell 15 bushels of oats, for 62 and half cents per bushel and two bushels of flour for $6.50. From that she got a bushel of salt-- a bargain at $3.50-- four pounds of coffee for $2.00 and some sugar for 18 cents. She could afford no whisky. For over three months MacLeod and the other volunteers waited to be paid their bonuses and wages. Even after they paid there was never any spare money.
In March of 1862 the Confederacy made a huge plea to get volunteers to extend their enlistment to three years or for the duration of the war. Even though there was great resistance to the idea, in the end almost all complied. The telling argument was that you would get rewarded with a 30 day furlough (many never got it as the unit shipped out for Richmond before all could go home) and above all $100 dollars of bounty in addition to the $50 paid at enlistment, Out of the $100, $10 was withheld for expenses but even so $90 was, as Lewis put in in a letter to Eliza “… more than a heap of them could make in one or too [sic] years.” Lewis sent $60 of his bounty home to Eliza. As sorry as she was that he had extended she welcomed the money. Sugar was now $.25 the pound and she thought she should pay Lewis’ debts which amounted to $40 to Dr. MacIver and William Huse. This way Lewis would be free of debt if and when he returned home. Besides she had $20 of money herself having sold the mule for $90. The family plantation was truly a working farm. Everything, save salt, whisky and sugar seems to have been produced there and with her husband gone all responsibilities fell onto Eliza. In November 1861 Eliza mentioned that the crib was now full of corn and they had dug about 75 bushels of potatoes. One month later in December she reported that the fodder was up and even though people kept trying to buy some of it from her she would not sell. She needed it all to carry their livestock over the winter. She had also finished sowing 15 bushels of wheat and 20 bushels of oats; the small cotton crop was in and hogs killed and salted. She had also dismissed the hired hand who had been helping. They could do without him she felt and save that expense. Lewis worried that she had not sown enough wheat and oats and warned that she needed to cut more wood to burn. Now that the harvest was finished he said to put Henry to work cutting ditches in the “little swamp,” probably for drainage and a spring new ground. In the spring Eliza’s worry turned to the problem of cutting wheat. Apparently the crop was good but with only a few old men around she was unsure how they would get it cut. The bad news was that she could not get a good stand of corn. The spring had been very wet and what germinated stayed small and was eaten by worms almost as fast as it appeared. The good news was livestock. By the end of February, 1862 Eliza reported 9 new lambs and she expected the ‘old bell weather’ to give birth to one more. In addition she had four calves born and now had cream and butter. While the exact number of head of livestock cannot be determined the farm clearly had many. Ewes, cows, pigs, chickens—the MacLeod daughters were setting several hens—horses and at least one jackass. When she sold the mule in May of 1862, fearing that she couldn’t winter all the animals and needing money, she said she was going to put “Big” to the Jack and try and raise another mule. Other crops mentioned in the letters are peaches and apples and hunted meat especially possum. One surprise, comparing the farm with North Carolina agriculture in the early and mid-twentieth century, is that no tobacco was being grown or consumed. The nature of the 1860’s NC farm was very different in other ways from family farms a century later. By the 20th century there were no sheep to be found. No doubt they had been primarily for wool in the nineteenth century. No mention was made in any letters at eating lamb or mutton. While this is hardly conclusive if the animals had been used widely for food they hardly would have disappeared so quickly from the agricultural landscape. Home life was difficult for a woman without husband present even if she could rely on two slaves for work. Eliza expressed her fatigue and worry in every letter. She worried about money, sickness—her newborn suffered from infected eyes for many weeks and her son was incapacitated with a broken leg—the terror of being “conquered” if Great Britain and France did not assist the Confederacy and how she could survive if Lewis were to be killed. Her letters from 1861 are filled with desperate pleas for Lewis to come home. She often mentions how afraid she is and how much she cried. By 1862 while she continues to express her fear for Lewis’ life, she seemed more resigned to his absence. She had no doubts about the need to resist northern invasion less they “be a conquered people,” but felt Lewis had already put in his time while others had not. Eliza wanted him home. However, it is very clear that despite her fatigue and worry Eliza MacLeod did, with the help of her older children and Henry, Nelsie and Arry, keep the farm productive and the family survived. In May of 1862 Eliza reported that the children were once again working with the school master. Lewis wrote to them about how pleased he was and stressed very strongly to the girls the importance of learning proper spelling. I found this rather poignant given that Eliza’s command of spelling was so weak that her letters are often difficult to decipher. Not the actual penmanship. Her writing was quite well formed and lovely but it is extremely phonetic and lacks all sense of proper spelling. In her letter of 24 November, 1861 Eliza made the following plea: “Louis times is mity hard up her I hav livd harder sinc you went of the I ever did in my life we hav to liv on white cofey and dos goo mity hard with me” [Louis times ares mighty hard up here. I have lived harder since you went off then I ever did in my life. We have to live on wheat coffee and it does go mighty hard with me.] She was at the same time very grateful that she and her husband could read and write. She mentioned what a comfort it was to her to read a letter that he himself had written. Very little in the way of amusement and non-work was ever mentioned in the letters. The one exception was in the fall of 1861 when Eliza, Emily and the children spent several days at a large camp meeting. Camp meetings provided an opportunity to see friends, talk about things and, above all, for the young men and women to flirt and court a bit.
One topic that was much on their minds in nearly all the early letters was whiskey. Whiskey was not seen as an amusement or a luxury but to the MacLeod family it seemed to have been more of a necessity. On October 30, 1861 Lewis asked Eliza to send some food as they had eaten all they had but above all try and send some whiskey. “We can’t live without a little whiskey to mix with water.” Iit was so expensive near Wilmington, where the company was training, that the soldiers could not afford to buy any. When he had arrived whiskey was $.50 the quart and now not less than $.75. Two weeks later Eliza wrote that she had sent a box with a half-gallon. By December McLeod’s brother in law, John Walker wrote him that he had no money at all, no one had been paid , not even the bounty and whiskey was now $.50 to $1.00 a quart. He had stopped drinking whiskey at all. In late November Eliza wrote that life was “mity hard,” with not a drop of whiskey in the house since MacLeod had left. But she was going to town in a week and try and buy some whiskey and coffee even if it was $.50 a pound.
One final surprise and interesting thing about these written conversations is that they reflect a society without much of the “Victorian” prudery and hiding of sex and the human body. Not, of course, that they were public about private matters. Eliza asked Lewis to write personal things on small slips of paper with the letters since so many people wanted to read his letters. Unfortunately none of those slips survived. But in many ways they were surprisingly blunt about life. Very early Lewis added a long note to Emily Franklin, the young adult woman who lived with them, about his health. “I have two terrible biles. One next to my asshole and one between my cod and my asshole. I can not bare to sit down.” In March of 1862 when North Carolina and the Confederacy instituted a draft Eliza wrote Lewis that in Harnett County several men had pounded their penises, which she calls “it” between two rocks causing terrible swelling and thereby making them unfit for the draft. Doubtless an apocryphal story but it made a good tale. Just before Christmas, 1861 when Eliza knew that Lewis would be getting a few days home—he came home to recruit and escort four more men to the company—she was worried about her increasing size with her surprise pregnancy. Knowing that Lewis would be very eager for sex she wrote that she was concerned that she might not be able to join him. She then wrote what seems a fairly astonishing comment. “If I can’t do nothing for you I hope some of the gals will have pity on you and let you have some.” Not Gone With the Wind but the words of a woman devoted to her husband and worried about his well-being and happiness. The last letter from Eliza is dated May 11, 1862. Lewis had been so ill in the spring of 1862 that he and twenty-one men of Company H stayed in Wilmington when the regiment left for Richmond on June 14, 1862. The symptoms and severity sound as if it could have been an outbreak of typhoid fever. By June 22, the date of his last letter, he had recovered enough to join the company at Richmond with six of the sick men. The others had been so debilitated that he furloughed them home. MacLeod wrote that he was still so weak that he was excused from most duty even though the company was doing picket duty and had been involved in some skirmishes with the Union Army. On July 1, 1862, he was with his company as they charged up Malvern Hill and was gravely wounded. After the battle Eliza and Henry came to Richmond and brought him home. The seriousness of his illness seems to have weakened his heart and his wounds from battle may have exacerbated his condition. Lewis MacLeod died on March 27, 1863 of dropsy. Dropsy was a term used to describe a condition of edema resulting from heart failure. Eliza Walker MacLeod died 28 May, 1907.