On this day 150 years ago Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry penned the following letter to his mother back in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It reflects a good deal of pessimism about the state of the Union army, Grant’s leadership, and morale on the Northern home front. Winsmith, like many Confederates at this time, continued to believe that victory was possible through the summer of 1864 if each man performed his duty. Interesting to note that Winsmith shares that the men in his unit were “well supplied with rations” at this late stage in the war in contrast with the popular image of starving Confederates. After the loss of Winsmith’s body servant, Spencer, in the summer of 1862 he was replaced by Miles, who remained with him until the end of his military career in October 1864. Continue reading
The book of essays pulled from the New York Times’s Disunion column has been out for a couple of weeks now. It’s a pretty hefty volume that includes over 100 essays on the period between 1861 and the beginning of 1863. My only complaint is that the table of contents does not list individual essays, which makes it difficult to locate specific topics. Included is my recent piece on the relationship between John Winsmith and his camp servant Spencer. I was also asked to contribute an essay specifically for the book on how it might be used in the classroom. That essay will be included in the e-book version, which is being marketed specifically to history teachers. You can read the essay for yourself below, but it goes without saying that I highly recommend it, especially if you teach American history and/or the Civil War.
If your high school history class was anything like mine, your instructor relied almost entirely on an unwieldy textbook, with an even more unwieldy narrative – written as if intended to alienate as many students as possible from the serious study of the past. Historical understanding involved little more than the memorization of facts, employed in an essay that closely reflected the textbook and your instructor’s lecture.
Step into a history classroom today, and much of what you see and hear will surprise you. Instructors have access to a wealth of primary and secondary sources, along with new digital tools, all of which have fundamentally changed what it means to study history. Continue reading
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.
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.
John Christopher Winsmith was what historian Jason Phillips refers to as a “diehard rebel.” Throughout the war, Winsmith never wavered in his enthusiasm for the cause. He believed that it was incumbent on everyone in the Confederacy to make the necessary sacrifices in the army and on the home front. In letters that routinely characterized the Lincoln and the Yankee army as “invaders” and “abolitionists” it is clear that Winsmith viewed the struggle as a war to protect slavery. Winsmith’s father, who served in the state legislature in 1860, introduced the following resolution immediately after Lincoln’s election to the presidency:
That this General Assembly is satisfied that Abram Lincoln has already been elected President of the United States, and that said election has been based upon principles of open and avowed hostility to the social organization and peculiar interests of the slave holding states of this Confederacy.
The father fully supported the war effort by purchasing Confederate bonds as well as his sons efforts to earn promotion.