Empathy for the Enemy

While researching this week at the University of Virginia I found a highly valuable resource in the letters of Adjutant Joseph Tatnall Lea, who served on the staff of Colonel Regis de Trobriand in the Autumn of 1863. Lea wrote lengthy letters every day during the “Campaign of Maneuvers” between the armies of Meade and Lee. Mixed in with some of the best descriptions I have found of the Third Corps’ assault at Kelly’s Ford on November 7, 1863, are sentiments of a far sweeter tone.

While rummaging after the battle through a Confederate winter quarter near “Auburn,” the Culpeper County home of unionist John Minor Botts, Lea found a request for a furlough written by an unknown North Carolina private in A.P. Hill’s corps. A lady the Confederate soldier courted before the war finally consented to have him, provided he return immediately on furlough to be married. “I am very glad to see that Genl Hill approved it, & hope he got away before Sunday, as perhaps Lee thinks now he needs his services too much to spare him & would not him go,” Lea empathized. “I deeply sympathize with all lovers now, regardless of patriotism, whether they are rebels or unionists.”

"Winter Quarters on the Rapidan" sketch by Jacob L. Bechtel Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park

“Winter Quarters on the Rapidan” sketch by Jacob L. Bechtel
Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park

Perhaps Lea’s thoughts strayed back to the battle and the death of his friend, Captain Timothy L. Maynard, who was struck in the bowels by a stray bullet while offering a drink to a wounded Confederate in front of the lines. Maynard, a school principal before the war, was “a very fine fellow” according to Lea and was engaged to be married. While many families received jubilant letters about the smashing successes at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford, Maynard’s parents and intended bride would only find heartbreak in a sorrowful note.

Harper's Weekly, December 5, 1863

Charge at Kelly’s Ford, Harper’s Weekly, December 5, 1863

Lea had a sweetheart of his own back home, Annie Cabeen, to whom he addressed his letters. Thoughts of her may have been the spark of his sentimentality. Their love remained intentionally hidden from family and friends. Joseph went as far as to claim that a picture he received from Annie was actually of his cousin and suggested that they pretend to be interested in others to throw inquirers off the scent. Annie previously rejected his marriage proposal in October of 1862, but after Joseph temporarily returned home in May of 1863 to recuperate from a wound received at Chancellorsville, the two reconciled and intended to marry once Joseph had his business and military affairs in order. Being well connected allowed him to appeal directly to the secretary of war for an early discharge which he received to manage his family business and, additionally, to continue to court Annie. The two eventually married in December of 1865 and Joseph went on to become a very prominent businessman.

Postwar photograph of Joseph Tatnall Lea

Postwar photograph of Joseph Tatnall Lea

Before we enshrine J.T. Lea as the unblemished saintly humanitarian, uninterested in the killing of war, however, it is noteworthy to mention that he demonstrated more than empathy to his betrothed adversary. Following a visit to a field hospital after the engagement, Lea–perhaps in jest–considered an amputated Confederate arm or leg to be a suitable gift for Annie, asking, “Are you fond of rebel curiosities?” Whatever his true beliefs, the candidness of his writing will provide a broader glimpse into the attitude in the Union army in the Autumn of 1863 than the combat depictions I initially sought in his letters.

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