I am currently working on two book-length projects. The first is an analysis of postwar commemorations and memory of the battle of the Crater, which was fought in Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864. Much more on this in future posts.
The other project is an edited collection of the letters of Captain John C. Winsmith who served in both the 5th and 1st South Carolina Regiments. The collection contains 263 letters which are housed in the Museum of the Confederacy. As of this moment I’ve typed in 116 letters. I first came across these letters while working on the above-mentioned project over the summer. The letters cover the years 1859 to 1865. Winsmith served in both the Eastern and Western theatres and saw action in many of the important campaigns and battles, including Secessionville, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chattanooga, Overland Campaign, and the Petersburg Campaign. The letters are beautifully written. He comments on politics and provides vivid descriptions of the battles. Winsmith was educated at the Citadelin the early 1850’s, although it looks like he left before graduation. Apparently he was suspended by the Board of Visitors for “defrauding a negro woman by passing to her a copper coin covered with quicksilver for an amount greater than its value.” (From the archives at the Citadel) One can only wonder what the payment was for. The Winsmiths were a prominent slave-owning family in Spartanburg, and John brought one of his slaves with him while stationed on James Island near Charleston. His servant eventually escaped (probably to the Union navy off-shore), but Winsmith was unable to acknowledge his desire for freedom. Instead he blamed a free black man for convincing him to leave. This is a great example of southern paternalism in action. I am planning a research trip to South Carolina this summer and hope to visit Spartanburg where the family home still stands, including the slave quarters. The letters will be edited and will inlcude an introduction.
I’ve been looking for a collection of letters to edit for quite awhile. It offers a very personal perspective on the war. You learn to appreciate contingency in history as the individual struggles to deal with the unknown. At the same time one is impressed with the strong desire to maintain connection with loved ones back home. Tomorrow I plan to share a 4-page letter on the battle of Fredericksburg with my class.