Cook: Sharing love and loss during the Civil War
This is why I can spend hours in a book store. ěWeirding the War: Stories from the Civil Warís Ragged Edgesî caught my eye in Chapel Hill. A leisurely walk across the University of North Carolina campus somehow led to the student book store. Donít know how that happens.
Published by the University of Georgia Press, this compilation by Stephen Berry had a different tone from the other books Iíd come across on the war. In an old political cartoon on the cover, a skeletal Jefferson Davis is ěreaping the harvestî ó a harvest of skulls.
A blurb on the back says the essay collection takes a ěfreakonomicsî approach to Civil War studies, with essays relating unusual stories, incidents and phenomena.
And one of those unusual stories was about a young woman to whom I may be distantly related.
With so many books about the war surfacing this year, the 150th anniversary of its start, Iíve developed a screening method. Flip to the index and see if thereís any mention of Salisbury or my hometown of Fredericksburg, Va. Both are steeped in history and played pivotal roles in the Civil War.
Several pages were listed under ěFredericksburgî and I turned to an essay titled, ěLove is a Battlefield: Lizzie Alsopís Flirtation with the Confederacy.î
Iím not sure of any personal connection to Lizzie and her sister Nannie, but my maternal grandmother was Mattie Alsop Wilkerson, nicknamed ěNannie.î And the essayís details about Lizzieís family home in Fredericksburg and plantation in Spotsylvania County kept me going. Thatís where my roots are.
My grandmother could not have been Lizzieís sister; she was too young by at least 40 years. But she could have been a descendant.
So what might have been dry history or adolescent silliness to others suddenly felt like a personal story to me.
Lizzie kept a journal during her teen years, writing passionately about her attraction to young men dressed in gray.
On May 23, 1862, she wrote:
ěWe Confederates are, generally speaking, the most cheerful people imaginable, and treat the Yankees with silent contempt Ah! They little know the hatred in our hearts towards them ó the GREAT scorn we entertain for Yankees. I never hear or see a Federal riding down the street that I don’t wish his neck may be broken before he crosses the bridge.î
She was all of 15 when the war broke out. As essayist Steven E. Nash notes, hearts grew heavier as the Southís fate unfolded. Despite all the flirtation and at least two marriage proposals, Lizzie did not marry until much later. After the war, she joined the Ladiesí Memorial Association of Fredericksburg, which recovered the bodies of Confederates to give them proper burials.
ěShe continued to love the men in gray, whose memories came calling now that their bodies lay silent,î Nash writes. ěShe vowed to recover and mourn these men, and rebury them in the same cemetery where she had wounded a comradeís heart.î
I picked up ěA Tour of Reconstruction: Travel Letters of 1875î from book editor Deirdre Parker Smithís desk.
It came from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by J. Matthew Gallman.
The index led me to a letter that abolitionist and Union supporter Anna Dickinson wrote about visiting Salisbury during a tour of the South a decade after the Civil War.
In one month of travel, Dickinson quickly picked up on Southern ways ó ways that had not changed much since Lizzieís days of ěsilent contemptî for Union soldiers. Southerners remained distrustful.
ěThey are cunning enough to be as sweet as honey to the ëpasser byí ó if the passer by has money or influence,î she wrote, ěbut woí betide the passer by, if he or she pitch tent & remain.î
In Raleigh, Dickinson announces her intention to travel to the Salisbury cemetery where men who died in the Confederate prison were buried. The hotel keeper starts giving her reasons not to visit Salisbury. No good hotels. No place to get a good meal. Small cemetery. She suspects thereís something in Salisbury Southerners donít want her to see.
Sadly, her suspicions are confirmed. Upon arriving at the cemetery, she speaks with the one-armed veteran who serves as superintendent and asks how many men are buried there.
ěAnd his answer came, ó slow & solemn & terrible ó ëSeven thousand one hundred & twenty five.î
(Later she changes the number to 12,125.)
She asks where they died.
ěIn yonder prison pen,î he says.
And why, she asks, could she see only a few hundred graves? Thatís when she learned most of the Union dead were buried in trenches.
ěI turned cold, & shook with a horrible chill from head to foot, ó to the trenches. ó Yes there they were, ó eighteen (18) in a row, ó four hundred and twenty feet long, crowded close together, filling such a little, little space, ó without a mark save their own swell under the grass & clover. …î
It was a sad visit during a sad time ó a time captured in two womenís personal writings. Do you think they knew they were recording history?
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.