Correction to My New York Times Article

It’s always nice to hear from readers who take the time to share how much they enjoy your work.  Though it’s a bit more painful to read, I also appreciate readers who point out my interpretive shortcomings and downright factual errors.  That is just what happened in response to my essay about John Christopher Winsmith, which recently appeared in the NYT’s Disunion page.   Last week I received an email from a gentleman in Spartanburg, SC, where Winsmith was raised.  I should point out that this individual is currently researching Winsmith’s father and has uncovered a good amount of information.  Earlier this year I shared the first year of Christopher’s wartime correspondence.

In the article I point out that Christopher was commissioned as a lieutenant in Company G of the Fifth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry.  Later in the essay I noted that he was elected as captain of another unit in 1862.  It gives the impression that he was an officer throughout this period.  It turns out he was not.  I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit startled when it was pointed out that Winsmith resigned from his position in the Volunteer Infantry in June 1861 in hopes of getting a commission in a regular Confederate unit.  That did not happen.  It means that for a significant period in 1861 and 1862 Winsmith served as a private.  He also kept his servant, Spencer, with him, which as many of you know is highly unusual.  I had forgotten about this and to say that I am just a little embarrassed would be an understatement.

A few days ago I finally located my Winsmith files where I was surprised to find that I had jotted down just that transition in rank back in 2010.  What it comes down to is that I had not refreshed myself sufficiently about Winsmith’s early wartime career when I went to write about a select number of letters concerning his relationship with Spencer for the NYTs piece.  There is nothing factually wrong in the article (Winsmith was most likely appointed to the rank of captain rather than elected.) but it is misleading.  My correspondent believes that the acknowledgement of Winsmith’s time as a private has and effect on how we interpret his relationship with Spencer.  I am not so sure about that, but I will continue to think about it.

My original goal with the letters was to see them published in the University of Tennessee Press’s “Voices of the Civil War” series.  It is an incredible collection of letters, but it’s been slow going.  All of the letters are transcribed, but still need to be edited.  The upside to all of this is that my correspondent and I are now talking about publishing the letters together.  Stay tuned.

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6 comments… add one
  • Bill May 15, 2013 @ 12:47

    I noticed a reference to “Rebecca’s Letters, The Saga of a Confederate Family” in the stream. I am a direct descendant of this woman and would love to find out more and or get a copy (real or digital). I have seen mention of this often and have yet to locate. I am currently querying UNC on arranging a time to see the letters. But if anyone knows where a copy could be had, please let me know…

  • Charles Purvis Nov 29, 2012 @ 6:26

    A great collection of Civil War letters between a NC soldier and his family is the Book “Rebecca’s Letters, The Saga of a Confederate Family” edited by Lafayette Claud Eaton, Jr.

    Letters are on file at the University of North Carolina – The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Collection Library as:
    Collection Number: 03328-z
    Collection Title: Rebecca Pitchford Davis Letters, 1855-1899.


    • Virginia Cornue Nov 29, 2012 @ 11:40

      Charlie, thanks so much for the reference. My book of letters is called So Much Blood: The Civil War Letters of Private William Wallace Beard 1861-1865. Aiming for a spring publication. Beard grew up in Mecklenburg County, NC and about 1855 or so emigrated to Mississippi for work. He wrote home to his family in NC and they saved his letters which descended to a living great nephew who loaned them to my mother, a family friend. She forgot to return them and I found them about 5 years ago–under her bed! They are really wonderful. This fall with the help of a dear friend who is a genealogist, WWB’s great great grandchildren were located.

      So beginning with the discovery of the letters in a squashed yellow Kodak photo paper box wrapped in two scraps of well washed gray wool blanket and a faint recognition of the Beard name, I now know how Mom acquired the letters, who Beard was and much about his family and his life before, during, and after the war.

      My co-editor is William R. Trotter a much published author. One genre he writes in is NC Civil War history. Bill has written the military context for the book and I am writing the social, historical and cultural context–thus my interest in NC at home to give some sense of what was happening back in Mecklenburg County (in what became Huntersville in 1872).

      Thanks so much for your help. I’ll get the book through an inter-library loan. BTW I am a graduate of UNC-CH and was in Chapel Hill and at Wilson this past summer. Would that I had known about the Rebecca letters, I could have read the originals!

      Best regards and many thanks,


  • Virginia Cornue Nov 28, 2012 @ 11:38

    Am currently editing a marvelous collection of CSA soldier letters that I found under my mother’s bed! That is a story in itself. My co-editor, William R. Trotter, has completed all the military context and I am writing the social, historical and cultural context. The letters encompass the entire war which the letter writer survived, unlike most of his company.

    Best, Virginia Cornue, PhD

  • Bummer Nov 28, 2012 @ 6:55

    How often is your research faulty. Rarely! Because you’re visible and not afraid to communicate your thoughts and feelings, occasionally someone will indentify a dynamic you missed and call you on it. No apologies required. You are out front 24/7, 365 days a year, how many errors in contrast have you made? Levin is Levin and Bummer looks forward to reading you every day.


    • Kevin Levin Nov 28, 2012 @ 7:08

      I appreciate it. I try to be as transparent as possible. This site has put me in touch with a wide range of Civil War enthusiasts who have taught me a great deal an saved me from countless hours. It’s nice to be able to acknowledge it.

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