Vivid Civil War letter makes its way to library
By JAMES T. HAMMOND
A vivid piece of South Carolina’s Civil War history will enter the public domain this week when more than 30 descendants of Sgt. Maj. William Sidney Mullins donate to USC’s South Caroliniana Library a richly detailed letter he wrote about the Battle of First Manassas.
The letter is intriguing because it lacks the hope-and-glory style of many letter writers of the period. Mullins offers a cold, uncompromising view of the first large-scale battle of the Civil War.
Mullins’ enthusiasm over the Confederate victory was tempered when he observed in a heavy rain the cries of the wounded, some of whom implored “the passersby to kill them to relieve their agony.” Mullins declared, “If it please God, to stop this war, I will unfeignedly thank them.”
He describes a scene in which soldiers debated whether to go ahead and bury a dying soldier rather than wait for him to expire.
The letter — which will be presented to USC President Andrew Sorensen on Thursday by Mullins’ descendants — was part of a private collection of more than 450 letters and documents that South Carolina tried — and failed — to claim as state property.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ended a legal battle over the collection, allowing to stand a U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the government in 1865 did not make a timely effort to recover the papers and that the statute of limitations had expired.
Wade Mullins, a Columbia attorney and descendant of William Sidney Mullins, read a newspaper story about the collection and decided to try to obtain the letter. Lawsuits interrupted that process.
On the day last year when the letter finally came on the auction block, the initial bid was $10,000 from a competing collector.
The family had agreed they would bid as high as $10,000 if necessary to secure the letter written by their ancestor.
“I decided we just couldn’t let this piece of history slip through the family’s hands; not only out of the family’s hands, but outside the state and up North,” Mullins said.
Mullins won the bidding at $11,500.
“The South Caroliniana Library is a place I’ve always felt a close connection with, and I think the rest of the family feel it will receive the attention and care that it deserves,” Mullins said.
Allen Stokes, director of the library, said a lot of Civil War materials are available at auctions. And more and more families are donating their inherited collections to the library.
“We get a lot of collections every year because so many South Carolinians had ancestors who served in the war,” he said.
“People are recognizing that these materials are historically valuable and should be placed in a collection where they can be studied by scholars,” Stokes said.
“There are many descriptions of that battle, but it is certainly one of the most significant I have ever seen. This may be one of the most important letters in that collection.”
Most of the collection comprised correspondence of the governor’s office during the Civil War, including draft copies of letters written by S.C. Govs. Francis Wilkinson Pickens and Milledge Luke Bonham, as well as letters they received.
Patrick McCawley of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History believes Mullins’ letter ended up among those documents because Gen. William W. Harllee gave the letter to Pickens to make him aware of the conditions in the Confederate Army.
“We didn’t want the letter to go out of state and be lost forever,” said Louisa Tobias Campbell, great-great-granddaughter of Mullins and a Columbia resident.
“We wanted it preserved, and we knew the library would take care of it so that it always would be available to family members, historians, scholars and others,” Campbell said. “W.S. Mullins wrote the letter to General William W. Harllee, whom he respected and felt comfortable with to be so honest and open. That’s why the letter has such integrity.”
“We have thousands of letters of officers and enlisted personnel. This is as important as any other single letter that we have,” Stokes said. “The letter was to the lieutenant governor (Gen. William W. Harllee), and he endorsed it, so I think it is pretty obvious that he passed it along to Governor Pickens.”
State officials believe the papers were taken by Confederate Maj. Gen. Evander McIver Law as Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army approached the state capital in 1865. Law had been the provost marshal in Columbia but was relieved of his command, said Rodger Stroup, director of the state Department of Archives and History.
Stroup said there is no documentary evidence that points directly to Law taking the documents from the besieged capital. But he said the collection was passed down through generations of Law’s descendants.
Last year, after winning the court battle, Thomas Willcox of Seabrook Island sold the documents at auction. Willcox is the great-great-grandnephew of Evander McIver Law.
Stroup, the chief custodian of the state’s documents, joined with the state Attorney General’s office to try to reclaim the documents, which they maintained were part of the wartime governors’ papers. They contained reports from Col. Robert E. Lee, who, early in the war, was in charge of Charleston’s defenses.
On The Web: http://www.thestate.com/local/story/349342.html