Thursday, May 2, 2019

Booknotes: An East Texas Family’s Civil War

New Arrival:
An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 edited by John T. Whatley (LSU Press, 2019).

An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 looks like an interesting, if rather brief, correspondence collection. From the description: Over the second half of 1862, "William Jefferson Whatley and his wife, Nancy Falkaday Watkins Whatley, exchanged a series of letters that vividly demonstrate the quickly changing roles of women whose husbands left home to fight in the Civil War. When William Whatley enlisted with the Confederate Army in 1862, he left his young wife Nancy in charge of their cotton farm in East Texas, near the village of Caledonia in Rusk County. 

In letters to her husband, Nancy describes in elaborate detail how she dealt with and felt about her new role, which thrust her into an array of unfamiliar duties, including dealing with increasingly unruly slaves, overseeing the harvest of the cotton crop, and negotiating business transactions with unscrupulous neighbors. At the same time, she carried on her traditional family duties and tended to their four young children during frequent epidemics of measles and diphtheria. Stationed hundreds of miles away, her husband could only offer her advice, sympathy, and shared frustration."

William enlisted in the Seventeenth Texas Cavalry, which was organized in the spring of 1862 and sent to Arkansas to bolster that state's defenses when they were denuded after Pea Ridge to reinforce Confederate forces across the Mississippi at Corinth. Spoiler alert ... I was curious as to why the letters ended in December 1862, assuming that William was killed or captured at Arkansas Post. In actuality, it was Nancy who sadly died nursing her children during a home front measles outbreak. William survived the war only to pass away in 1866.

More from the description: In An East Texas Family’s Civil War, "the Whatleys’ great-grandson, John T. Whatley, transcribes and annotates these letters for the first time. Notable for their descriptions of the unraveling of the local slave labor system and accounts of rural southern life, Nancy’s letters offer a rare window on the hardships faced by women on the home front taking on unprecedented responsibilities and filling unfamiliar roles."

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