Book Review: Toward A More Perfect Union: The Civil War Letters of Frederic and Elizabeth Lockley

Toward A More Perfect Union: The Civil War Letters of Frederic and Elizabeth Lockley. Edited by Charles E. Rankin. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023. Hardcover, 425 pp. $38.95.

Reviewed by Sarah Kay Bierle

Hundreds of letter collections exist from Civil War soldiers—published and unpublished. Finding a consistent collection of letters between a soldier husband and home front wife is rarer, and a published collection with excellent editing is a gem.

Frederic Lockley, a British immigrant to the United States, had settled in upstate New York, eventually taking employment as a traveling book salesman. Literary and somewhat philosophical by nature and profession, his style of writing is conversational, detailed, and clear. Frederic was a father to three little girls from his first marriage. Following his first wife’s death, he met and quickly courted Elizabeth Campbell who was about eighteen-years-old when they married in February 1861. Elizabeth (Lizzie) became a kind and capable step-mother to the little girls. Understandably, Elizabeth felt upset and somewhat abandoned when Frederic informed her in 1862 that he had volunteered for three years of military service in the unit that became the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. On her own with her step-daughters and sometimes keeping house with Frederic’s sister, Emma, Elizabeth learned to navigate the rented lodgings, financial difficulties, the girls’ education, extended family disputes, and her own loneliness—often confiding by letter to her husband. Her writing is generally clear and informative, though Frederic sometimes gently teases her about spelling and phrasing.

Until 1864, Frederic’s military service was in the Defenses of Washington, offering good details about camp life, writing military records as a company/regimental clerk, and soldier opinions when distanced from the battlefields. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery joined the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign, and Frederic saw combat at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Reams Station, and other engagements. Happily, Frederic received some promotions, survived the war, and returned to his family during the summer of 1865.

Several significant non-military themes in the Lockley’s letters are finances, their daughters’ experiences and education, and marriage. Frederic took a pay cut to his yearly income when he enlisted and was aware of that from the beginning. He had been assured that the local community would assist his wife and daughters if they were in financial difficulties that could not be covered by his soldier pay, but that help never materialized. Instead, Elizabeth relied on Frederic’s pay, Emma’s assistance, payment from sewing and other jobs she could do, neighbors’ loans, and good credit to make it through the irregularities of receiving the money he sent home. Reading both soldier and wife’s sides of this financial experience is eye-opening to the financial difficulties from the irregular pay system and dependent home front.

Both Lockleys loved their three little girls—Josephine, Emma Louise, and Gertrude—and they receive mention in the majority of the letters. The girls’ activities, learning and education, and longing for their father’s return give a glimpse into children’s experiences during the war years. Frederic occasionally took time to write letters to each of his daughters and a few of these are included in the published collection. Frederic and Elizabeth considered themselves still “newly-weds” when he left for war, and their understanding of each other and evolution of their relationship fills the pages of their letters. The separation fostered a greater intimacy of thought as they communicated by letter through worries, depressed feelings, good times, and even some minor quarrels. However, the separation also produced intense longing for physical presence in the home setting and intimate sexual desires which both Frederic and Elizabeth regularly wrote about with passion and playfulness.

Editing can make or break a primary source collection, and happily, Charles E. Rankin has done a superb job preparing, end-noting, and weaving the letters. Rankin carefully decided not to publish every letter in the archive collection from The Huntington Library and noted which ones he omitted. He chose the letters that he felt best told Frederic and Elizabeth’s story and which carried consistent themes through the collection. Brief editorial notes between the letters fill in context from the omitted letters, Frederic’s memoir, or helpful historical background without falling into the editorial trap of telling all the content in the printed letter which follows.

Extensive endnotes clarify more historical details, literary references, and genealogical information. A detailed introduction provides a good background about the Lockley’s lives up to the war and the conclusion finishes their post-war story. Some readers may find the thematic flow of the introduction less-helpful for quick biographical referencing, but it is easy and enjoyable to read as narrative. A collection of family photographs and related military images are included in the center of the volume. In addition, a timeline and two letters are included as appendixes—one letter with notable sexual desire and the other with military details from Petersburg in August 1864.

Toward A More Perfect Union is a treasure of letters revealing the struggles of war separation, affection, parenting, opinions, and values of a soldier and his young wife. Details within the letters will be of value to military and social historians and history-buffs alike.

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