Colonel Joseph Thoburn is probably not one of the historical figures from the Civil War who comes to mind with the word “romantic.” One of the Union’s best brigade officers in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, his name is associated with hard fighting at New Market, the Lynchburg Campaign, Third Winchester, or Cedar Creek. However, this civilian doctor-turned-soldier from West Virginia had a gentler side, as evidenced in some of his writings to his wife.
Married in 1853 to Kate Ann Mitchell, Thoburn devotedly cared for his family. At the beginning of their marriage, the Thoburns adopted a German immigrant child whose parents could not care for her. Later, they had four biological children, but only three survived. A friend described Thoburn’s character as “modest, humble and unassuming. His moral character was without stain.”[i] A physician by training and practice, Thoburn likely would not have needed to volunteer for combat military service, or at least not as early in the war as he did.
He joined the 1st West Virginia Regiment in 1861 as their regimental surgeon, but in his first combat experience he “was in the midst of it, on horseback and on foot, and firing as many guns as he could get hold of.”[ii] When the unit transformed to a three-year regiment later that year, Thoburn moved from regimental surgeon to commanding colonel. Though he did not promote to general, he commanded at the division level by the autumn of 1864.[iii] In between his military duties, Thoburn found time to write long letters to his wife, and there’s some evidence that he even tried his hand at matchmaking.
Sometime during the summer of 1864, Thoburn wrote to his wife, “Tell Sis, I can[?] find her a few very worthy young man [men?] for her to select from. But she must win them as well as choose. I have one man on my staff that is just the man for her, Captain George B. Macomber of Massachusetts.”[iv]
Then, in true brotherly fashion he begins to catalog the many fine qualities of the captain: strong, mild, brave, gentle, dignified, mindful, educated, unassuming, talented, unpretending, kind, tender, droll, quiet, and reserved. Macomber was even handsome and had an “intellectual countenance.” He goes on: “Ask Sis how she likes him. He has good principles, never swears or drinks whiskey and is 25 years old…. I could describe other young men but one is all she is entitled to. And if she won’t take my pick, she need not look at the others.”[v]
Thoburn then continues to write and list his other unmarried staff officers, but with caveats or reasons that they do not compare to Captain Macomber. (One fellow apparently had “too long a nose…and wants to know too much” as his primary fault.) He concludes the 1864-style matchmaking with the declaration: “There, I have given Sis a view of my friends and is not Macomber the only man for her[?] Now tell Sis to be everlastingly grateful to me for such a man. I have given you as well as Sis a sketch of my staff, all good men and true, and all pleasant companions.” (Unfortunately, it seems that “Sis” did not take the advice. As for Macomber, he stayed in the U.S. Army after the end of the war and had a fatal accident in 1869.[vi] )
Joseph Thoburn’s marriage lasted only ten years, cut short by his death. He made a pledge to his wife Kate on their wedding day in 1853 and wrote down his promises. He carried this written vow with him during his Civil War service, tucked alongside photographs of his wife and their three children:
My love for you will never die; I will keep it pure, untarnished and sacred; and will pray that it may be taken with me to the Paradise of God where I hope to greet you; and where, if God wills, I will love you always.[vii]
Mortally wounded when a Virginian cavalryman shot him at close range, Thoburn fell from his horse in the main street of Middletown during the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. He lay face down in the dirt until a Confederate soldier and civilian came to his aid. Moved to a civilian home, he lived less than twenty-four hours. His medical training gave him no hope for recovery when he realized he had been shot through both lungs. He kept his wedding promise with his last words: “Tell my wife not to grieve for me, and my children to be good and true.”[viii]
Often glimpses into Civil War era relationships are one-sided, leaving an assumption that the love and passion was shared. In the Thoburn’s lives, a piece of story has been published, revealing Mrs. Thoburn’s feelings. Just weeks after her husband’s death and funeral and on their wedding anniversary in December 1864, she wrote:
Eleven years ago this day, I was married… A nobler and braver man never lived. On the 19th of October, he sacrificed his life to his country. With three little children of our love, I am left to mourn my great and irreparable loss. My heart is torn, and I feel all is gone. He was my idol, my strong support. On him I rested. O’ what shall I do now? How great my responsibility. Where will I be when eleven more years pass ‘round? Perhaps I with my beloved. May God grant that when death comes to me I may join him…[ix]
Joseph and Kate Thoburn’s written words leave a tiny, but powerful picture of their relationship. They saw their love as an unbreakable bond. Death divided them for a time, but in the end, they were laid to rest together, and their written words of matchmaking, torn hearts, and a love that was for “always” remain—a testament to their relationship and proof that even war could not stop a love that would “never die.”
[i] Scott C. Patchan, Worthy of a Higher Rank : The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign Journal of Colonel Joseph Thoburn (Charleston, 35th Star Publishing, 2021).Page 7-8
[ii] Ibid., Page 8
[iii]Ibid., Page 17
[iv] Ibid., Page 93
[v] Ibid., Page 94
[vi] Ibid., Page 150
[vii] Ibid., Page 12
[viii] Ibid., Page 133
[ix] Ibid., Page 111