Late yesterday we finished adding the Civil War era materials from the Poteet-Dickson Letters to the North Carolina Digital Collection (see the finding aid for more information about the whole collection). Although it is probably an understatement to say that no one would read letters written by husbands and wives separated by a devastating civil war expecting the contents to be cheerful, I think I can safely say that of the Civil War letters that we have digitized so far the Poteet letters are by far the most depressing.
Want proof? Let’s start with the early letters written by Francis Poteet not long after he was conscripted into the 49th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, where he is simultaneously planning to desert and to send money to his wife Martha (Nov. 3, 1863) because he is lonely and homesick (Nov. 8, 1863) and wants her to join him in camp. Then there is the letter where Francis reacts to the news that Martha and the children are being forced from their home (Nov. 23, 1863) by a man named Bill Cowen and the letters from Martha as she struggles to stay in her home (Jan. 7, 1864), pay her mounting debts (Feb. 4, 1864), deal with frequent thefts of food and supplies (Jan. 21, 1864), locate new places to live (Aug. 30, 1864), and fend off neighbors trying to claim her property as their own (Feb. 18, 1864).
Sometime between November and January, one of the Poteet children (a boy) becomes sick and eventually dies. Francis goes home in order to be with his family during the end of his son’s life and upon returning to the army is tried for desertion and spends several months in jail (Jan. 12, 1864). During that time, Martha continues to plead with Francis to come home (April 7, 1864) to help her, even as he writes to her about having to sell his possessions (March 17, 1864) in order to buy enough food to keep from starving.
Not long after getting out of jail and returning to his regiment (May 31, 1864), Francis begins having problems walking (Oct. 4, 1864) and finds himself in and out of the hospital, where he answers his wife’s threats to stop writing him if he doesn’t write her back by saying he has no paper to write letters on (Aug. 30, 1864). From mid 1864 – early 1865, Francis is stationed in Petersburg, Va. and writes often (July 5, 1864) about life in the trenches (July 11, 1864), the difficulty of getting food from home without it spoiling (Jan. 18, 1865), and his constant desire to desert (Aug. 21, 1864) in order to come home.
In October 1864, Martha loses another child (Oct. 6, 1864), perhaps the same one whose hand-tracing she had earlier sent to her husband (June 16, 1864), and gives an excruciatingly detailed description (Nov. 2, 1864) of the girl’s death. When Francis writes his mother asking for her to help his children and his wife, Martha writes him an angry letter (Nov. 24, 1864) saying, in part: “…I think it makes me look very small for you to write the like to her when you know that she wont help them just for her to tell about all the country what you wrote her like you had moor confidens in her raising your children than me…” Francis soon responds by apologizing to his wife (Dec. 3, 1864).
The Poteet letters are full of information about family life during the Civil War, in particular the hardships that women faced after their husbands left home to fight. The topic of desertion comes up frequently also. Sickness and lack of food are mentioned in almost all the letters, including those written by Francis Poteet’s brother Peter Poteet (Aug. 7, 1861).
The Futch Letters are the next group of materials that we plan to add to the North Carolina Digital Collections and hopefully I will be able to begin working on them next week.