Monday, July 8, 2019

Review - "An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862" by John Whatley, ed.

[An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 edited by John T. Whatley (Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Hardcover, 3 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages:xlviii,150. ISBN:978-0-8071-7069-4. $36.95]

Edited family correspondence is a regular feature of both popular and academic Civil War publishing. However, geographical representation in the literature is far from evenly spread. Certainly, collections of letters passed between wives running rural East Texas farms and their husbands fighting in Arkansas are published very infrequently. Edited by great-grandson John T. Whatley, An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862 offers readers a tragically brief but illuminating early-war window into one Trans-Mississippi Confederate family's intertwining struggles on the home and military fronts.

31-year-old William Whatley numbered among that wave of Confederate "later enlisters" who were the collective subject of historian Kenneth Noe's excellent 2010 study Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. In justifying leaving his young family behind to fight in the war, Whatley departs somewhat from Noe's general characterization of 1862 recruits as older, married, and more economically secure but much less ideological than the 1861 firebrands. While also citing defense of hearth and home, Whatley's letters frequently remind his wife that he enlisted to defend "southern rights," and it was the duty of every free citizen of a republic to fight for them. He doesn't elaborate on what he believed those rights to be, and how they were directly threatened by the Lincoln administration, but readers can likely assume that his views on those matters were in line with those expressed elsewhere by Confederates of similar social standing.

William was a private soldier in the 17th Texas Cavalry, which spent the latter half of 1862 in central and eastern Arkansas. When the Confederate high command stripped Arkansas of most of its available manpower after the Pea Ridge defeat, Texas troops rushed into the vacuum and helped turn advancing Union forces away from the capital. As an uneasy stalemate settled into the region, William's letters tell mostly of camp and scouting duties. Food was plentiful but arms, clothing, and equipment were in short supply (a common enough problem in the Confederate army as a whole but more so in the Trans-Mississippi). Readers hoping to discover a new ground-level perspective on the battle and Confederate mass surrender at Arkansas Post will be disappointed to find that the letters end well before the climax of the campaign. Whatley actually escaped capture and served out the rest of the war only to succumb to disease in 1866.

Economically situated between the yeoman farmer and planter classes, the Whatleys owned 13 slaves (most of whom were children at the war's beginning) who worked a relatively isolated farm near Caledonia in Rusk County. Female heads of household suddenly confronted with exponentially expanded duties for which they were unprepared is a common theme of the Civil War home front literature. Though her husband was able to offer her emotional support and practical advice from afar, the war left a profoundly stressed Nancy largely on her own to run the farm, conduct business, manage the family's slaves, and raise the couple's four small children. Though there seemed to have been sufficient food to go around, drought instantly threatened the vital corn crop, fodder for poultry and livestock proved inadequate, the slaves became almost unmanageable, and the cotton couldn't get ginned. The overall situation became so dire by late 1862 that home and property were in the process of being abandoned or sold by the time the letters cease, marking a remarkably rapid decline in the family's fortunes.

Before he left, William arranged for a neighbor (a Mr. Martin) to help his wife manage the family's farm, business affairs, and slave labor. Unfortunately, Martin proved incompetent or unwilling to fulfill his promises and was a constant source of anger and anxiety for Nancy. However, as the book's introduction astutely notes, we do only get one side of the story and it's possible that Martin had his hands full with his own family problems caused by the war.

From the content of the letters it seems clear that the Whatley slaves started to resist direction from both Nancy and Martin very soon after William's departure for the war, with senior slave Marshall voicing defiance and frequently refusing to work altogether. With authority of master over slave already breaking down by mid-1862 in an area of the Deep South far removed from the presence of Union troops, sober predictions that societal upheaval attendant to war on this scale would eventually destroy slavery were already coming true.

The extended presence of disease epidemics added another layer of troubles. Talk of measles outbreaks among civilians and soldiers throughout homes, communities, and army camps in East Texas and Arkansas persists in nearly every letter between William and Nancy, and most are filled with numerous death notices among family members, acquaintances, and comrades. Nancy herself succumbed to measles complications in December 1862 while nursing her children, all of whom survived. The fact that measles outbreaks originating in nearby army hospitals were able to race through the countryside and fatally impact families across the region for months on end serves as yet another reminder that current estimates of civilians deaths directly related to the war (all of which are admitted to be unsupported guesswork) are in all likelihood greatly under counted.

In comparison to many other books of this type, footnotes from editor John Whatley are rather sparse in number and detail. However, this apparent deficiency is ameliorated to a large degree by the extensive historical context and family background history contained in both Jacqueline Jones's foreword and Whatley's general introduction. Still, some significant developments raised in the letters (ex. the devastating impact of a screwworm infestation on area livestock) are allowed to pass without editorial comment.

Though some interesting aspects of William Whatley's military service are revealed in its pages, An East Texas Family’s Civil War primarily offers readers a vivid portrait of the many types of additional hardships and trials, in particular those shouldered by women, that the conflict placed upon rural Trans-Mississippi civilians of all economic classes. Recommended.

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