Over the past couple of years, I’ve been intrigued by romantic troubles in the South during the Civil War. There are multiple accounts that I’m still studying and analyzing about girls on the homefront starting rumors that they were engaged to absent soldiers and how those young soldiers responded with annoyance or outrage when they heard the stories. That’s what first caught my attention in the “romantic adventures” of young Taliaferro Simpson. But as I kept reading and then looked at the whole scenario, I found the genuine, distracting hopes of a young man playing out against the background of war—particularly the spring of 1863 and the Gettysburg Campaign. Was a wished-for romance his way of focusing on something beyond war? I’ll explore the details of this idea through his letters in a short series of blog posts.
Born on January 26, 1839, Taliaferro Simpson was the son of Richard F. Simpson, a South Carolina congressman.[i] He grew up near Pendleton, South Carolina, and attended Wofford College in Spartanburg just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. “Tally” — as his family called him — was close to his siblings and respectful to his parents, evidenced by his letters. His closest sibling in both relationship and age was his brother Richard (“Dick”) who was about a year and a half younger. The brothers called each other “Buddie” in their writings and seemed rather inseparable until war-illness and romance stepped in.
Growing up in Pendleton, which was not far from John C. Calhoun’s plantation, Tally seems to have accepted the state’s rights and justification of secession arguments readily.[ii] He helped to organize a military company at college and served as its lieutenant.[iii] However, he boldly wrote to his aunt from his college room that he did not think there would be a war; the North would not fight and King Cotton diplomacy would prevail. Tally stayed at college through the secession winter—as his father signed the state’s secession ordinance—but he volunteered for military service immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861.[iv] Two days later, Dick also volunteered. Both brothers and numerous cousins enlisted in a local unit in Laurens, South Carolina, called the “State Guards” which eventually became Company A of the 3rd South Carolina Infantry which would form part of Kershaw’s Brigade.[v]
Both brothers left for war in Virginia with romance on their minds. Tally assured his mother in a letter on April 27, 1861, that he was “very serious” when he thought about “Miss Lizzie D.”[vi] Dick asked his sweetheart, Maria Garlington, to marry him before he left, but he spent the next months trying to keep his engagement to “the finest looking woman I ever saw” a secret.[vii] Community gossip plagued him and he confided to his Aunt Caroline, “You would not believe it but every body in Laurens knows it, and the old folks talk about it like it was a common thing.”[viii]
Tally and Dick fought at the first battle of Manassas in July 1861 and adjusted to camp life in Virginia for the rest of the year. It was very different than the life they had enjoyed at home and college, but enslaved men in camp made their camp chores routine less burdensome, and rations were frequently supplemented by foraging or purchasing. Both brothers caught the measles and recuperated at a hospital in Charlottesville during the autumn. Tally seemed to have no major side effects from the illness. However, the illness indefinitely weakened Dick’s health, keeping him from camp life, leading to his departure from the company, and his eventual honorable discharge from military service in July 1862.
Back in camp, Tally explained to his sister on January 3, 1862: “The times are dull and I amuse myself thinking of the gals and reading. I have thought of several gals and read several books lately, and I find as much pleasure in the one as the other, only I become more tired of thinking than reading.[ix] He decided to re-enlist and in the early spring the 3rd South Carolina went to the Virginia Peninsula, settling into the entrenched lines near Yorktown where “we pass our time in reading, fishing, and thinking of the women.”[x]
After experiencing combat during the Seven Days Battles, Tally wrote a distracting letter to Aunt Caroline who was a trusted confidante. He told her that he had heard that one of his previous love interests had married and “It has caused me no pain, no anguish. I am ready to unfold my wings and fly off in search of – of – of – yes another gal upon whom to bestow my affections. Who shall it be? Can you not suggest some one? I can rely upon your taste implicitly. Pitch in then, be quick and energetic, and let me know the result of your “looking around.”[xi] Writing to his sister Anna in August, Tally made a similar appeal and also confessed to some brotherly jealousy: “I envy Buddie’s happiness…. I am entirely without a gal. My future is a blank, but if my life be spared and I reach home safely after peace has been declared, that blank shall be filled if there is any gal in all this big world fool enough to say y-e-s. Is there no one of your acquaintance you can select for me and say a good word occasionally?”[xii]
These two letters begin to suggest that thinking about girls and marriage was an anchor to Tally and something that represented surviving the war. This theme grows stronger after the battle of Sharpsburg. After the intense fighting, two of Tally’s cousins in the regiment were missing, fates unknown for many weeks. He also felt alone with most of his enlisted family and close friends sick, wounded, or dead. To his sister Mary, he wrote on October 12, 1862: “Oh! How I do miss my original mess! How they are scattered…”[xiii]
A romance or even the hope of a young woman’s attention made Tally evaluate himself and perhaps long for some type of redemption from his soldier status and brutal battle experiences: “It will not be hard for me to love such a girl, but the greatest difficulty will be in gaining her esteem. You know I never was very “purty,” but now I am the hardest looking case you ever saw. I’ll wager you could not tell me [at] ten steps. I am very ugly, my beard is shaggy, teeth black, clothes dirty and worn, finger nails long and black, nose little inclined to drip – and in fact I must again repeat, I am a hard looking case. Now what chance will such a chap have with such a gal as you have described? A bad chance that! A bad chance. But I am aware that strange things have happened in this world, and still stranger will happen….”[xiv]
At the battle of Fredericksburg, he was slightly wounded when a bullet hit his shoulder; though it did not break bone or skin, the close escape capstoned everything else he had been through in 1862. What Tally saw from Marye’s Heights seemed to depress him, and he explained to his Aunt Caroline: “Camp is sad and quiet, at time the blues nearly kill me. I have no heart for anything…. I feel rather low-spirited. Write soon a long, long cheerful letter…. I will answer your questions about the girls when I feel more like myself. I can’t talk of them this morning as I wish.”[xv]
While Aunt Caroline wrote and tried to cheer him up, Tally had begun to fixate his imagination on a young woman living in Pendleton whom he had never met. Miss Fannie Smith and her family had arrived in town as refugees, but Tally had heard about her from his cousin. “Harry gives me a glowing description of Miss Fannie – handsome, intellectual, and accomplished – how could I help it? Since I have heard of her, I have built many magnificent air castles at her expense and feel that if I could but see her, good bye heart, good bye poor me. What do you think about it? When you write, express your opinion in full.”[xvi]
Aunt Caroline proved a most obliging matchmaker in the next months, and Tally spent a lot of time thinking about Miss Smith and sending her gifts through his aunt and cousin. (More details on his distance courtship efforts in Part 2.) He focused on hopes for a furlough and made his “air castles” about what life and matrimony could be like when the war ended. However, he also began to encounter trouble from the South Carolina homefront.
In a letter on March 24, 1863, to his Cousin Carrie (Aunt Caroline’s daughter), Tally defended himself as another young woman in the home community started rumors about him.
“You…remark that one Miss Sue L was once an old flame of mine, and at the same time hoped that there was nothing of it now. Now with reference to that “old scrape,” I am at a loss what to say. Some may assert that at one time I had very serious intentions, others who knew me better might deny any such assertion. But let me say that, if I liked her at all, it was a fleeting admiration, leaving as little impression upon my heart as that made by the shadow of a bird darting through the sunshine. Consequently it is as you wish. Not a vestige of it is left.
“I suppose you heard of the tales she told when she went back to Charleston after her first visit to Pendleton. She affirmed to her friends that she had made a complete conquest of one Tally Simpson and had him kneeling at her shrine soon after she had made his acquaintance, but that he was nobody and she only allowed him to pay her attention in order to flirt with him. When I was home last, she denied the whole of it and vowed that she had never said any such thing, at the same time very willing indeed to make friends. I have nothing in the world against her. Even the tales she told did not cause me to dislike her. But as to loving her, it is out of the question and is as far from my heart as Jupiter is from Earth….”[xvii]
On June 1 on the eve of the Pennsylvania Campaign, Tally complained with confusion to his aunt:
“I heard through Sister Mary of the reports that were getting out concerning my humble self. They actually had my wedding clothes nearly completed and reported that I was daily expected home on furlough for the express purpose of consummating my happiness by my marriage with Miss Mary S. Again I am dead in love with that…Sue Lee. Now don’t you know that both of these reports are, most emphatically, falsehoods – based upon what? I can’t say unless upon the design to create false impressions or more probably to afford silly minds something silly to talk about. Tis useless for me to ask you to give it a flat denial in my name. They do not trouble me in the least, and if it were not for Miss F[annie], I would not care one care one particle, but would humor the thing for mischief.
“I would like you to give me your opinion as to the report of my engagement to M S. Why did Mrs Lor– and Mrs Clara L seem to anxious to tell it? I don’t understand it. The idea of Miss Sue L still entertaining hopes of captivating me after what she said of me on her return to Charleston, you or any one else may give her to understand she can hold “no hack” at all. I once liked her well, but I never did nor ever will love her. How did Miss F[annie] learn I was likewise very fond of Liz Lee? This report is likewise false, and I wish you to tell so to any one who may be so officious as to assert it.”[xviii]
On June 10, Tally wrote to his sister Anna about the “great movement…now on hand. Nearly all the army is here and is cooking up rations to move on. Lee is concentrating a very large army, and tis generally believed that he intends attacking the enemy and then march directly for Pennsylvania.”[xix] He continued to think about Miss Fannie Smith, but his sisters had already expressed some level of disapproval of his long-distance matchmaking scheme so he did not confide to them. However, he had plenty to wonder about with more rumors circulating at home:
“I received Buddie’s letter last night in which he says he believes the report concerning my engagement with Miss M S. This tickled me no little, for I had not thought of such a thing in a long, long time. The report is emphatically false, and that is all I will say about it. As to the Sue L affair, I hardly know what to say. Tis too ridiculously absurd to talk about. Yet it makes me mad to see how things are going. I am so pretty, the poor thing can’t help loving me, and I don’t blame her, “poor cretur.” But the hand that others are playing completely “takes my turkey.” so when you hear anything of these reports, you can positively deny them in my name…. I certainly feel highly honored to know that I am so much thought of by the gals and talked of by the old women of old Pendleton, and say to those who have my wedding clothes made that I would like exceedingly have the choosing of them.”[xx]
Annoyance at homefront rumors followed Tally’s footsteps as he marched northward in the Pennsylvania campaign. He could only hope that the girl of his dreams would not be misled by the local gossip and that his efforts through the spring to interest this “Fair Unknown” would be rewarded. These thoughts seemed to give Tally something to think about beyond the dusty miles and looming battle as the 3rd South Carolina and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia converged toward a crossroads town.
To be continued…
[i] Richard Simpson and Taliaferro Simpson, edited by Guy R. Everson and Edward W. Simpson, Jr., Far, far from home: The wartime letters of Dick and Tally Simpson, Third South Carolina Volunteers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) page xv.
[ii] Ibid., page v.
[iii] Ibid., page xv.
[iv] Ibid., page xviii.
[v] Ibid., page 3.
[vi] Ibid., page 6.
[vii] Ibid., page 9.
[viii] Ibid., page 9.
[ix] Ibid., page 103.
[x] Ibid., page 118.
[xi] Ibid., page 136.
[xii] Ibid., page 141.
[xiii] Ibid., page 153.
[xiv] Ibid., page 163-164.
[xv] Ibid., page 167-168.
[xvi] Ibid., page 176-178.
[xvii] Ibid., page 203-204.
[xviii] Ibid., page 238-239.
[xix] Ibid., page 242.
[xx] Ibid., page 243-244.