Taliaferro Simpson, called Tally by his family and friends, may have been using romance as his escape from his war experiences and memories. As he marched northward with the 3rd South Carolina Infantry in the Gettysburg campaign, his mind and letters were filled with thoughts homefront rumors, a girl he had never met, and his hopes for a future of domestic peace. Tally had been interested in girls and relationships since before the beginning of the Civil War, but as he survived illness and intense battle experiences, his romantic interests increased as though it was something of a hopeful escape for his mind to pursue his fantasies.
In a letter written on January 22, 1863, to his Aunt Caroline, Tally revealed that he was very interested in a young refugee named Fannie Smith who had moved to his hometown. He had heard about Miss Smith from his cousin Harry and quickly enlisted Aunt Caroline and his teenage Cousin Carrie to carefully play long-distance matchmakers for him.[i] A couple weeks later he urged Carrie to keep his interest a secret, but to help him. “When you see her, you must throw in a word occasionally for me, and do it in such a manner as not to excite her suspicions. I understand you and she are particular friends, and if this be correct, an appropriate word in an appropriate place would effect much more than one would imagine. So for my sake, cultivate her acquaintance, and then you get an opportunity, clip a small lock of hair from her head and send it to me.”[ii]
Aunt Caroline’s letters were not preserved, but from Tally’s replies, she evidently sent him details about Miss Smith’s appearance, family background, temperament, and character. However, she must have cautioned him not to build too many “air castles.” He replied on March 6:
“Your description of Miss Fannie is truly charming and my feelings have already been enlisted in her favor. Tho you say it is impossible for me as any young man to fall in low with a girl without seeing her first, I must confess that I think a great deal more of her than you might suppose. I place implicit confidence in what you say that confidence & the influence of your judgement on such matters have created curious as well as pleasant feelings in my heart. Besides, the workings of my mind have a great deal to do with bringing about that very natural result, especially since I am always in a state of idleness [with] nothing to do but think from morning till night. You well know that a combination of all these influences is calculated to work wonders in a very short time.”[iii]
But Tally did not leave all the work to his female relatives on the homefront. He told his aunt that he had secretively sent his own messages. “I sent her a beautiful valentine giving her my heart. I disguised my hand, and I am confident that she will never find out who sent it, unless she got someone one to tell her.”[iv] A few weeks later he also copied poetry and sent it (without sender’s name) to Miss Smith.[v] How or when Tally thought he would reveal himself is a bit of a mystery. He seemed to be planning for a furlough and maybe he intended to say something to Miss Smith about the sent offerings at that time, if he still liked her.
By April 1863, the matchmaker aunt and cousin had been saying so many good words about Tally that Miss Smith felt at least patriotic or maybe romantically interested and wanted to send him a bouquet of violets. While he claimed to be shy about his feelings and dreaded rejection, he told his relatives how happy he was at the situation overall: “Your success so far is quite flattering and has put me in a monstrous good humor with myself and every one else. I intend to send her the first illustrated news that is worth looking at.”[vi]
In due time the bunch of violets arrived, and Tally needed all the hope and encouragement he could create or remember. The battle of Chancellorsville put Kershaw’s brigade in fierce combat, and he did not find time to write the proper notes of thanks for the flowers until May 29, 1863. Although he knew exactly who the flowers were from, he kept teasing his cousin to reveal the name of the “fair unknown”—possibly intending that Carrie would show Fannie the letter and add to the interest and suspense. Tally rightfully worried that somehow Miss Smith would find out about the collusion of aunt, cousin, and soldier and find it disagreeable at minimum or conniving at worst.
It can be difficult to definitively determine which version of 19th Century “language of flowers” people adhered to, but violets could symbolize innocence or faithfulness. Tally interpreted the violets as a compliment “of her favor, and will ever cherish the flowers as the gift of one who, I feel sure, possesses a pure heart and a noble soul. Say to her, that though I may not find out who she is, I intend, the very first opportunity, to send her some little relic from the battlefield, which I trust she will accept….”[vii] Tally evidently gave the relic question some thought and complained that he did not know what Miss Smith would like. Eventually, he took a walk to Marye’s Heights and picked flowers from that part of the Fredericksburg battlefield which he sent to her.[viii]
While Tally worried that his unseen lady would not approve of the matchmaking, he was becoming more sure that she was the girl he wanted to win and marry. However, he did make effort to consider the young woman’s feelings and sent orders to his obliging aunt to make more inquiries. “The next time you see her and when you get upon the subject of beaux, I want you to ask her what kind of young man she would prefer. In fine, ask her to give you a description of her “beau ideal,” and let me know as soon thereafter as practicable. I have been wanting to find this out for some time, but forgot to mention it when I wrote.”[ix]
By the time Tally marched northward in June 1863, he had become rather attached to the idea Miss Fannie Smith, but had still never met her in person…or received a lock of her hair which he still begged his cousin to obtain and send to him. That month he wrote to Cousin Carrie, drawing examples from fiction and mythology of a woman’s influence strengthening a warrior. Then, Tally admitted:
“I have experienced this power and felt that it exerted itself even to the purifying of both my mind and heart. The voice of a good and beautiful lady is music to my ears, and her smiles are a light to my pathway. Little flowers, those precious emblems of friendship and affection, presented by the hand of some “gentle one,” exercise a similar influence. Even after their pristine beauty has vanished, their wilted buds & leaves are preserved as sad but delightful “souvenirs” of the most pleasant associations. They not only remind one that the times in which they flourished have gone forever, but they tell that, during those times, scenes of pleasure were experienced and enjoyed by the possessor.”[x]
The flowers had left a lasting impression on this young Confederate soldier. Imagination with some reality fostered by his matchmaking aunt and cousin gave him new inspiration to face the next battle. However, the lines of reality, hopes, and fantasies blurred more and more during the Pennsylvania campaign and eventually prompted a sharp questioning from his sister.
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 176-178.
[ii] Ibid., page 186-187.
[iii] Ibid., page 199.
[iv] Ibid., page 199-200.
[v] Ibid., page 231.
[vi] Ibid., page 216.
[vii] Ibid., page 236.
[viii] Ibid., page 242.
[ix] Ibid., page 240.
[x] Ibid., page 242.