Confederate Soldier’s Letters Reveal Personal Side of Civil War
Monday, March 4, 2013
by BRIAN TROMPETER
“War is a dreadful thing to think of,” wrote Lt. Thomas Smith Taylor, who fought for the Confederate States of America at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and in other famous Civil War battles.
Taylor sent more than 100 letters home to his family during his three years in the war, but the depth of his experiences might never have been known had it not been for his great-grand-nephew, Harlan “Gene” Cross Jr. of Oakton.
Cross received a steamer trunk of family heirlooms and correspondence after his mother died in 1983. Emotionally wrought, Cross could not bear to open the container until his daughter Cindy coaxed him to do so 12 years later.
In the box were 12 letters written by Lt. Taylor. Intrigued by their contents, Cross in 1997 began contacting historical societies and relatives in Alabama and eventually obtained 115 of Taylor’s missives.
Cross began transcribing the letters to flesh out his family’s history, but friends encouraged him to publish them in book form.
“It became an intriguing story,” he said. Taylor “is articulate and describes these personal experiences in battles we’ve heard about. His story had to be told.”
Cross recently published “Letters Home: Three Years Under General Lee in the 6th Alabama.” The book is available for $18 from www.history4all.com.
The letters, written with pen-and-ink or pencil, are fascinating to behold. Taylor wrote the early ones on large sheets of yellowing paper, but used smaller pieces of blue paper as the war dragged on far past the young lieutenant’s initial expectations.
Taylor’s cursive is ornate and neat, but Cross still struggled to decipher some passages. He also corrected the letters’ factual errors for the book and made educated guesses for words obliterated by holes where the letter had been folded multiple times.
Lt. Taylor was 27 when he enlisted with the Confederate army in the summer of 1861, shortly before his second child was born. His wife, Sarah, would give birth to a third baby following one of her husband’s few furloughs, but the soldier would not live to see this child.
Taylor’s letters to her and other relatives feature recurring themes that would be familiar to soldiers anywhere. The lieutenant often was miserable in the rain, mud and snow, and he grudgingly tolerated the monotonous, rumor-ridden, hurry-up-and-wait nature of military camp life.
The young man was quite devout, peppering his letters with quotes from scripture and admonishing his wife to raise their children according to Christian precepts. Lt. Taylor’s religious commentaries often peaked after visits from chaplains and he vowed to become a better man if he survived the war.
Taylor frequently asked his relatives to send clothing, which Confederate soldiers had to buy for themselves, and food to supplement his usual diet of beef and biscuits.
Cross marvels at the irony of some of Taylor’s comments. The soldier had a young slave, Clark, with him throughout many of the campaigns and while he occasionally was vexed at the teenager’s work habits, he clearly had affection for him.
On the other hand, Taylor at one point wrote about fearing that Lincoln and his hirelings would “enslave” those in the Confederacy. To his mind, the fight was about preserving the South’s autonomy and way of life.
“You can’t admire the cause, but you can admire the guy,” Cross said. Having seen so many comrades die in action or from disease, Taylor kept up a brave appearance but occasionally was fatalistic. His descriptions of war are bracing.
“It is really shocking to all the senses to be upon a battlefield after the battle has ceased to see the poor suffering human beings gasping in the agonies of death for breath,” he wrote on June 23, 1862. “To see thousands lying upon one field some dead, others wounded & to hear the cries of the wounded for help. Then to glance at their wounds as you pass along, some with an arm, leg & even their nose or under jaw shot off.”
Even though readers learn in advance that Taylor died in the Battle of Cold Harbor near Mechanicsville, Va., his sudden demise on June 3, 1864, is a reminder of war’s cruelty and caprice. One minute the 30-year-old is writing to his wife and telling her to “Be not uneasy about our success.” The next he’s being eulogized by his captain.
The author was frustrated in some aspects of his research. He could not obtain a photo of Taylor or any of the letters the lieutenant received. Cross visited every battlefield mentioned in the book to try to visualize what the combatants were facing. He and his wife also traveled to Alabama and found his family’s cemetery, which was overgrown with brush.
In the course of his research, Cross also proved the family’s connection with the former Claudia Alta Taylor, later known as “Lady Bird” Johnson.
A retired engineer who formerly worked for the Harris and MITRE corporations, Cross still does consulting work two days per week. He and his wife, Carol, have lived in Oakton since 1996 and have three daughters.
Long a history buff, Cross since 2005 has donned 19th-century garb to serve as a volunteer interpreter at Arlington House, the former mansion of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He also is president of Save Historic Arlington House, a friends group that helps the National Park Service preserve the site.
Robert Poole, author of “On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery,” said Cross’ book provides remarkable insight into the Civil War via a reliable witness.
“There are so many biographies of the leaders, and they’re wonderful, about Lee, Grant and Jackson,” Poole said. “But the recent wave of scholarship, research and writing is drilling down deeper and deeper into the level of the ordinary soldier and sailor. Thank God those books give us another perspective.”
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