A few days ago I offered a few speculative words about the names of deserters that litter the letters of Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 5th South Carolina Infantry. One of the recurring names in the letters is that of Bill Taylor. He lived in the Spartanburg area and so it seems reasonable to assume that Winsmith hoped that his family’s connections might be instrumental in forcing him back into the ranks. It should be noted that Winsmith singled out Taylor as having performed bravely in early battles, but that history was largely irrelevant as Winsmith himself had very little sympathy with deserters. He believed that the sacrifice of everyone in the army and on the home front was necessary if his “country” was to achieve independence. Taylor eventually did return to the army in the summer of 1863 after being arrested for desertion.
It’s sometimes difficult not to get attached to the central characters in the narrative that Winsmith weaves through his letters. You want to know how these people fair in the end. I was somewhat relieved that Taylor’s name didn’t reappear in subsequent letters. While Winsmith understandably had little patience with this man, it is hard not to sympathize with Taylor. Recent studies of desertion suggest that a decision to leave the army did not necessarily imply cowardice, a loss of faith in the cause or an intention to abandon comrades who had shared hardships and sacrificed for one another. Rather, soldiers were pulled in multiple directions and had to juggle multiple responsibilities as parents, husbands, and soldiers, which shifted over time depending on news from home and the front. I tend to see Taylor from this perspective or at least I would like to.
Taylor does make on final appearance in Winsmith’s letters written from Petersburg in the summer of 1864. On July 9, 1864 he wrote to his sister Janie:
I am sorry to write that Bill Taylor killed himself through and accident with his gun in the trenches yesterday. He was working with his gun when it fired off, tearing the top of his head away.
And on July 16 he shared the news with his mother:
I stated in my letter to Janie how Bill Taylor came to his death: It happened on the 8th inst. He was doing something with his gun, when it went off accidentally, tearing away the top of his head. It was a horrible death. He was buried near by and his grave marked. Bill had been doing his duty pretty well, and I regret his death. He had $25 in his pocket book – $68 in Confederate bills and $10 on the Bank of Knoxville, which last is not current. I can send the money to his wife, or Father can pay her $65 for me, whichever he thinks best.
I don’t mind admitting that I slumped back in my seat after reading this. It’s in these moments that the human cost and tragedy of war hits home for me. Poor Bill Taylor.
On January 5, 2013, director Steven Spielberg, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and screenwriter Tony Kushner returned to Richmond, Virginia, where “Lincoln” was filmed, to discuss the process of “Bringing History to Life on Film” before an audience of 4,200. Moderated by Tim Reid.
Time for a little crowdsourcing in preparation for a simulation on Lincoln and Fort Sumter that my students will perform a week from this coming Tuesday. The overall idea is to have my students play the role of cabinet advisers and I, of course, will play Lincoln. Since I only have nine students we should be able to have a pretty lively discussion/debate. Yes, I am going to show up dressed like Lincoln and don’t worry as I will come prepared with plenty of responses that begin with, “That reminds me of a story…” Their responsibility is to advise me on what to do about the situation at Fort Sumter in the period following Lincoln’s inauguration. Should it be resupplied or abandoned?
I want to use the opportunity to have students consider the question from multiple perspectives and in light of recent events leading to Lincoln’s inauguration. Based on the available evidence they will also have to argue as to the likely consequences of Lincoln’s decision for the nation. Among other things, I want them to think about the differences between the Lower and Upper South, material differences between North and South, political differences in the North, Union, Southern Unionism, and disagreements in Lincoln’s cabinet. Their packet will include both primary and secondary sources. I’ve already put together a few things that I’ve used for various purposes in the past.
Secondary Sources (short excerpts)
Doris Kearns Goodwin’sTeam of Rivals
James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom
David Potter’s The Impending Crisis
Maury Klein’s Days of Defiance
Primary Sources (short excerpts)
Lincoln and Davis Inaugurals
Lincoln on Southern Unionism
Speeches from Virginia’s Conditional Unionists
Positions of Lincoln’s Cabinet members
Horace Greeley Editorial
Advice from Winfield Scott
Correspondence with Major Robert Anderson
Letters and Diaries (George Templeton Strong)
This is just a start, but I would really appreciate any suggestions you might have. Please be as specific as possible and include sources. I am especially interested in online sources because they are easily accessible.
You may remember that a few weeks ago Virginia Flagger Tripp Lewis was arrested on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts following a conflict with museum security. This recent incident reflects a pattern of behavior in this group. It’s a desperate plea for attention and a clear indication that very few people are listening or care enough to advocate in one way or another for the group. I’ve said from the beginning that I respect their right to protest, but at this point I see no clear road leading to success. In fact, the tactics of Mr. Lewis and others have only worked to marginalize the Flaggers.
The following video was filmed before Christmas on the grounds of Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery. It is an important cemetery for those who care about the proper treatment of Confederate graves. In the video Lewis raises a Confederate flag on cemetery grounds to replace those which have mysteriously disappeared. From there he takes us inside a small office that oversees the grounds.
Lewis is clearly looking for a fight. Unfortunately for him, no one in the office has the least bit of interest in what he insists is a case of vandalism and disrespect. At the tail end of the video Lewis is encouraged to end his little stunt and leave. Even worse, I have no doubt that they did not ask the female employee for her permission to post the video. Knowing that this video was filmed before Christmas helps to place the VMFA incident in proper perspective. Given that his mild-mannered approach did not work, Lewis decided to step it up a notch in front of the museum. Again, no one cared about his crusade, but in this case he confronted the wrong people.
One of the things that I find particularly interesting about Winsmith’s letters home is the attention he gives to reporting on the conduct and overall well being of his men. This is not surprising given his rank of captain and command of a unit raised in and around Spartanburg, South Carolina. Winsmith clearly assumed responsibility for his men and understood that family and friends on the home front would be interested in their progress. You find references to the men under his command who were wounded or killed in battle along with instructions on how to forward back pay to next of kin in the case of the latter. Other times Winsmith asks family members to check in on families with loved ones in his unit.
While Winsmith highlighted the bravery and sacrifice of his men, more often than not, the references to his men are in connection to their desertion from the army. From the beginning of the war Winsmith struggled to maintain the integrity of his company. He had little patience with deserters or conduct that fell short of the discipline and sacrifice that was necessary to achieve independence. At times the list of names is long and in some cases the names re-appear over the course of the war.
It should have been obvious to me from the beginning as to why Winsmith went out of his way to list these individual names in letters to his father, mother, and sister. No doubt, Winsmith hoped that these names would be passed through the community and ultimately tip local authorities and/or shame the individual and family. Following Jefferson Davis’s amnesty proclamation to deserters Winsmith had this to say.
Well, everything is yet going on quietly with us. My deserters are doing very well, and I hope their conduct may have impressed a salutary lesson upon them. Bill Taylor says he will do the thing that is right now. I expect they will all be thankful to the President that he has offered them pardon. I see that deserters at home, except Harrison have repented of their conduct, and will come back with Lt. Bearden. (August 7, 1863)
And a few days later he had this to say.
You are right in supposing that the deserters will be pardoned under the President’s proclamation; i.e. all who return within 20 days. I learn from your letter that Arch Harrison has delivered himself up and would return voluntarily to camp. I have heard that Bob Bogan has taken to the woods again. Lt. Bearden has not written me one word whether he has arrested Thomas and Smith. The only one he has arrested is Taylor. (August 10, 1863)
Depending on how this project proceeds it may be helpful to map out where the men referenced in the letters lived in relationship to the Winsmith home at Camp Hill. Muster records may also shed light on whether there was any causal connection between this form of public shaming and desertion in his unit specifically. Finally, in reference to the names that appear regularly it may be interesting to know whether Winsmith judged between his parents and sister as to who was more closely connected to the individual and family in question.
Those of you in the Richmond area should make it a point to check out Ray Carver’s one-man show, “Gettysburg 1963” which will premier at the Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church on Saturday February 23. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion following the show, but the organizer didn’t realize that I no longer live in Virginia. It’s times like these that I really miss the Old Dominion. There is just so much going on in the Richmond area alone.