Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson
With mid-February approaching, I went hunting for a North-South romance story to share on Valentine’s Day. In his well-researched study of Northern troops, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, Bell Irwin Wiley writes that wartime encounters between Federal soldiers and Southern women occurred, some ripening into romances, and even post-war marriages. There were stories out there. But where to look?
The first stop in my search was close to home. While researching a file of my Yankee great grandfather’s war letters for a different story, I’d noted that he’d written about a series of his visits with a group of unmarried women living in Sharpsburg, Maryland. All three, George A, Marden reported, were of “Secession proclivities,” one a Virginian with two brothers fighting in the service of Jeff Davis. My ancestor was single and a 23-year-old lieutenant at the time, late in October, 1862. His regiment, the Army of the Potomac’s 1st United States Sharpshooters (U.S.S.S.) Regiment, was camped near the town. I sat down for a close read of his October correspondence, hoping for a story worthy of St. Valentine.
Although Marden’s interest in female companionship was palpable in his writing, I found no evidence of a Sharpsburg romance. Yet the letters do not disappoint. They offer up an engaging story of a lonely Union soldier, far away from his native New Hampshire, attempting a normal social life while camped in a region set on the Virginia border that, he wrote, was “well tinctured with Secession.” The correspondence also provides a sometimes over-the-top demonstration of the condescending opinions and sarcastic attitudes about Dixie that Wiley found in many of Billy Yank’s journals and letters, especially in the writings of soldiers from New England. Reading Marden’s letters, it’s interesting to watch his interactions with the fair belles let some air out of his inflated prejudices and biases towards most things Southern.
As his story unfolds, Marden’s unit is facing delays in their plans to march into Virginia and, ultimately, to the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp, in Falmouth. His October 25th letter describes how he and his brigade’s Assistant Adjutant General (A.A.G.) ventured into Sharpsburg the evening before, “to spend the evening in Maryland Society.” The Adjutant, Marden explained, “had made the acquaintance of several young ladies and they invited him to bring me over and dine, take tea, and spend the evening.”
The letters do not identify the women or party hosts by name, nor do they offer any explanation of how Federal soldiers might have been welcomed in a town where so many citizens learned towards the Confederate cause. Perhaps the head of the household owned a business in town and wanted to co-exist and traffic with the Federal side.
Although he was grateful for his invitation to attend the event, initially Marden was most ungracious in his appraisal of the town.
Oct. 25, 1862, Camp near Sharpsburg
… The village is not one where the Dutch quality of cleanliness is cultivated to any extent. It must have a seedy appearance in the most peaceful of times. I think that is the normal state of all villages in this latitude, and the thrift of New England is very much missed… The inside view [of the host’s house] was somewhat better. I was ushered into a comfortably furnished room wherein the musical tastes of the inmates were indicated by two pianos. There were three unmarried, and one married ladies, all of Secesh proclivities but sufficiently well bred to keep quiet and not introduce politics. One is a clergyman’s daughter… She has two brothers in the rebel army, and was, besides being very pretty, what is rare in this vicinity, very intelligent and well educated.
Given the fact misplaced artillery fire had battered parts of Sharpsburg during the Battle of Antietam, Marden’s opening comments seem especially callous. Although he wrote that the evening had been spent “musically and pleasantly and I think I shall repeat the visit as occasion offers,” the Sharpshooter couldn’t resist firing off just one more snarky North-South comparison. “There are far better players and much better singers in Mont Vernon [his New Hampshire hometown],” he concluded.
The order to march further delayed, three days later the lieutenant and his friend headed to town once more, he wrote, hoping “to see my fair Secesh friends.” His description of this encounter opened with the same smug criticism evident in his earlier letter.
Oct. 28, 1862 3:00 p.m.
The Adjutant and I went over yesterday afternoon to bid [the women] what we supposed a final adieu. They were just going to the Secesh hospital, with some things for the wounded rebels. We were invited to go with them and went. The hospital is in the old church… The ceiling has fallen down and the pulpit and other accoutrements of an Episcopal Church are all destroyed. They don’t know any such sect as the Congregationalist [the Marden family’s Protestant denomination] here. It is all The Church [Episcopal] and Methodism. The churches are not a high style of architecture, and the more modern of them are guiltless of steeples (I suppose they do not own far in that direction.)…
Marden abruptly curbed his sarcasm, however, when describing his interactions with the wounded Southerners in the makeshift hospital.
The Secesh wounded are treated by a Union surgeon… There were about thirty wounded Rebs. They seemed very comfortable… I stood surveying one prostrate North Carolinian, whose face was about as broad as the edge of a hatchet and whose eyes seemed to survey me with considerable interest. I had on a new cavalry coat… and having just shaved and rode two miles in a brisk wind I presume I looked very rosy and doubtless a comfortable picture of health. After looking me all over he exclaimed ‘By God, you look as if you could do a heap of totin’ yet.” I couldn’t help laughing at this exclamation… I afterward entered into conversation with him. He enlisted some time last July and has only been in one battle in which he lost a leg. He left a wife and three little children at home from whom he had heard nothing since he left. He told the story in a trembling voice with a curse on the man who had brought him there, and a tear rolling down either cheek. It was one of the saddest commentaries on this devilish war I have seen. Several red-legged Zouaves* were around shaking hands with their butternut opponents, and hoping they might never meet at Bull Run again, or anywhere else except on friendly terms. Yet a single blast of the bugle would have placed these would-be brethren against each other.
Billy Yank surveys the opinions Federal soldiers held towards their foes. Many, Wiley found, thought the Southerners ill-educated, backwards and, partly because of slavery, barbaric. His research, however, also indicated Northerners generally admired the fighting skill and bravery of their foes. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, Marden certainly did. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, Marden certainly did, although he often directed the same critical condescension towards his military opponents that he aimed at Southern institutions and civilians. But his description of the meeting with the prisoners and his conversation with the wounded soldier struck a new tone— one of empathy and respect— that would be repeated in future writing about his war experiences and encounters while in Dixie.
The Yankees escorted the women back to Sharpsburg, expecting this would their last encounter. But the delay continued, and the two soldiers visited again the very next day. The topic of the war, apparently avoided at their earlier meetings, entered the conversation, followed by politics. Rather than debate and proclaim the sanctity of the Union cause— as Marden had done, with gusto, in previous encounters with Southerners, and would do in the future— the Sharpshooters struck a conciliatory note.
We conversed some about the war and I found as I expected that they all were of secession proclivities. They imbibed the usual idea that the south are fighting for their houses, and as we couldn’t agree we agreed to call it a horrible war and drop the matter with the most amiable wishes for each other’s success. They expressed much regret that we were not to winter near Sharpsburg which we cordially echoed, and you may hear a repetition of a rumor current not long since in regard to your most obedient servant.**
Marden hoped his journey south might be further put off, enabling other excursions to town. But the reality of war intervened. The command to march was issued the next day, prompting a final visit as the Sharpshooters began their march.
“I galloped in to say goodbye to the amiable females we had become acquainted with,” he wrote on November 1st. “They seemed sorry to see us go and I doubt not they were sincere.”
The soldiers marched off, reaching what would become their winter camp in Falmouth, Virginia, in late November. From there, they would participate in the December Battle of Fredericksburg. As far as I have been able to determine, November 1 was the last time Marden saw his “Rebel friends,” who, he observed “were bitter Secesh at heart.” I’ll probably never discover if he had yearned for anything more than friendship, or if any of the belles had a romantic interest in the Yankees. I suspect the women, as Marden noted in the final entry about his Sharpsburg adventures, were mostly “sick of the war and were glad of anything to relieve the monotony of their life.”
* Zouaves were Union soldiers whose regiments wore exotic red-legged uniforms of North African design.
** The meaning of the last sentence in this passage, with a reference to “a rumor current,” is a mystery to me. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wonder if it might be an indirect Victorian era reference to the soldier’s romantic interest? What do you think? Please venture your interpretation in the “Comments” section, below.
George A, Marden, from his unpublished Civil War Letters, October 24, 28, 30, November 1, 1862 (Archived at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH)
Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Civil War (Baton Rouge; Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2008; originally published in 1952) pp. 96-108; 346-361