Mention love, romance, and American Civil War in the same sentence, and – depending the listener’s point of view – they wonder how such words can be in the same phrase or they’ll be whisked off to the dreamland of the incurable romantic.
In the weeks leading up to this Valentine’s Day, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for reading “happily ever after.” I wanted something real. And that’s when I brought home a book from the library that I’d been eyeing for awhile, but just hadn’t had the time to peruse.
Dear Catharine, Dear Taylor proved to be a perfectly wonderful book. Realistic, historically informative, and with just enough misspellings and daily humor to provide a smile, this collection of correspondence is a glimpse into the life of a devoted couple and family separated by war.Dear Catharine, Dear Taylor: The Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier and His Wife was published in 2002 by the University Press of Kansas. While it wouldn’t be called a “new book” in the publishing world, it might be a new and fabulous addition to the shelves of history lovers.
This collection of letters begins in August 1862 when Taylor Peirce enlisted in the 22nd Iowa Regiment, leaving his Catharine and children at home. Motivated by a sense of patriotic duty, desire to end slavery, and secure the future of a united country for his children, he spent the next three years in military camps, campaigns, and battles. His letters come from Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. The collection concludes as he is mustered out in Iowa in August 1865. The accounts of Vicksburg, the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and early Reconstruction are particularly interesting.
Taylor Peirce’s letters are often written to the entire family; he intended his wife to share the epistles with the children and his sister and brother-in-law. His writing is matter-of-fact with occasional interludes of “common man philosophy” or inspired poetry. Taylor was a very observant man, and he faithful describes the appearance of the different regions of campaigning. While he doesn’t profess to have respect for organized religion, Taylor believes that honesty, hard-work, and good character are important, and he regularly encourages his young children to behave properly.
Catharine Peirce perhaps had an advantage in writing directly to her husband: her letters were not going to be shared and this allowed for more open expression. She frequently writes of longing to see Taylor, fearing he might be injured or killed. However, Catharine clearly states her continued agreement to her husband’s desire to serve their country. When Taylor asks if he should re-enlist, Catharine says she will acquiesce to his decision – whatever it may be – and will continue to support him. Frequently, Catharine complains that she does not know what to write, but her reports of the children, other family members, weather, local economy, gossip, and business affairs were clearly a life-line to Taylor.
There are a few letters by young Sarah (Sallie) Peirce to her father, including tattling on or praising her siblings, reports from school, and constant longing for Papa to come home. Taylor’s sister and brother-in-law also wrote several letters included in the book.
Footnotes by the editor – Richard L. Kiper – explain the military campaign details and people mentioned in the letters, adding valuable information to help modern readers understand the writing in the 1860’s context.
There are only two disappointments in the book. First – and no fault of the editors, I should add – there are no pictures of Catharine, Taylor, or their children. Photographs are frequently mentioned in the letters, but apparently none have been discovered after lengthy searching. Second – by an awful trick of fate – the second half of Taylor’s letter describing the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864) is missing. His brilliantly exciting description stops abruptly with the dreaded words from the dedicated transcriber “next pages missing.”
Dear Catharine, Dear Taylor is a remarkable glimpse into family life disrupted by war. In an interesting example of the “separate spheres” of 19th Century life, Catharine reports on the well-being of the children; Taylor sends home his military pay and writes advice for managing the money and property. While the “spheres of influence” are clearly defined, it is encouraging to see the complete trust between Catharine and Taylor. He is confident she will manage, and she believes he will continue to be a man of good character.
Taylor and Catharine Peirce’s affection is expressed conservatively through their letters. They address one another respectfully, avoid criticism, and are always thinking of each other. On February 15, 1865, Taylor writes “…I have got too old to write love letters…” but he signs the letter “I remain as ever, Affectionate, Taylor.” Consistently, Taylor signs letters with affection, love to all, or affectionately yours. Catherine writes more romantically “I remain thy own, Catharine.”
While there are occasional romantic quotes scattered throughout the letters which might be appropriate for Valentine’s Day musings, this one was my favorite. It’s part of a “real-life” love story from the Civil War era:
Many an hour is spent in weaving the bright pictures of our future loveing life and building Castles in the air to realise in future years. Sometimes the thought comes to me how am I to make a living for we will be very poor. But I hope I get out of the army with good health and I think I will be able to make us comfortable and try to live so that our life may go down in one blissful dream of love and affection. Does thee know that the proudest day of my life will be when I clasp thee once more and feel that I am worthy of thy love and know that I Still possess it? (Taylor to Catharine, April 23, 1865 – page 388 of the book).
This collection of letters allows readers to glimpse the trials, joys, and realities of family life during the Civil War. It is a chance to “meet” a Union soldier, brave lady, and lonely children and their experiences will not be soon forgotten.
Dear Catherine, Dear Taylor: The Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier and His Wife
Edited by Richard L. Kiper
Letters Transcribed by Donna B. Vaughn
University Press of Kansas, 2002.