Monday, February 17, 2014

Civil War Letter


While happily googling the Internet, I found that the Arkansas History Commission had a small manuscript collection of papers that had belonged to Algernon Sidney Holderness (1834-1904).  Algernon was the youngest brother of my husband’s great-great grandfather and I’ve researched the Holderness family for about twenty years.

One of the items in the collection was characterized as a “fragment of a letter from a brother”.  Of course I had to write and obtain a copy of this letter – presumably the brother wasn’t identified since the description was worded thusly.  There were seven brothers in the family, but I was sure I knew enough about them to be able to tell which brother – if the fragment had enough detail.  And I was so curious!

When the letter arrived, it had obviously been written on a folded sheet of paper and had four pages of writing on that sheet.  It ended in mid-sentence so there had been even more.  There was no signature, but the heading was “My dear brother” and it came from “Camp near Selma, Ala” and was dated June 9th, 1864.

Now of the seven Holderness brothers I have found records of only three of them that had a role in the Civil War.  Algernon was a Lieutenant and a surgeon in the 1st Arkansas Cavalry throughout the entire War – his written discharge was also part of the collection.  My husband’s great-great grandfather and Algernon’s brother, Robert Charles Holderness, was also a doctor – he had attempted to enlist in Hopkins County, Texas, where he had moved from Arkansas just prior to the outbreak of the War, but was refused on the grounds he was the only doctor in the community and was needed most at home.  A third brother, George W. Holderness, born 1829, served as a Sergeant Major in Owens Battery (Light Artillery) of the Arkansas Volunteers.  George had enlisted at Monticello, Arkansas on 8 February 1862 for one year which was later extended to three years or the War.  I knew that George had served in Alabama, so there was no doubt that the letter came from George to Algernon during the conflict.

As I read, I had to go back to the Internet to find out more about the facts contained in this fascinating letter.

Here is a transcript along with my own comments and discoveries in italics.  George liked to capitalize freely and never indicated a paragraph – the letter was written as one paragraph.  His spelling was good but not always perfectly accurate.

Camp near Selma, Ala.
June 9th 1864
My Dear Brother
I have no letter of yours to answer.  I have had none from you Since Feby last which was as I have written to you Several times Since and forwarded by persons going to the Trans Miss Dept. 

Algernon’s unit was part of the Trans Mississippi Department of the Confederate Army on the West side of the Mississippi River.  Mail must have been most uncertain for the South. It’s quite possible this is the only letter that reached Algernon.

I hope you have received them. I have the satisfaction to inform you again that my health is Still very good and has been Since I last wrote you.  I hardly know what I can write that will interest you.  I Suppose you have all the army news from this side of the river before I could communicate it by letter.  There have not any general engagements taken place yet in Lees and Johnston’s armies. 

Surely refers to Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston of the Confederate Army.

The Enemy have made assaults upon diferent points of our lines in both armies almost daily but have been repulsed with heavy losses in every instance, and every thing looks well for us and our army and people are perfectly confident of our ability to hold Richmond and Atlanta from the enemy.

This, of course, was prior to Maj. Gen. Tecumseh Sherman’s taking of Atlanta, November 15, 1864.

I hear of no movements of much import any where else on this side the Miss. River.  We learn that The Confeds have gained great victories over Steel and Banks in the Trans Miss. Department but have never yet received a reliable Statement of the actual result. 

Refers to Union Army Gen. Nathaniel Banks and Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele who were marching through Louisiana and Arkansas at this time with mixed results.

I hope you have freed Ark. Of the Vandals.  I learn that they have committed great depredations in Drew County. 

And there is an opinion of the Union Army!  Drew County, Arkansas, had been George Holderness’s home since coming to Arkansas from Caswell County, North Carolina, about 1848/9.  He had never married but was in business with his brother Thomas.

I do not know what they done in other parts of the State.  Our Company has been for Several months attached to Genl. Wirt Adams Brigade of Cavalry under command of Col. Mabry and we have been operating between Big Black and the Miss. And Yazoo Rivers and have been in very active Service there as There have been yankee raids out from Vicksburg most all the time. 

Col. Hinche P. Mabry, from Texas, had been given command of a number of under-strength Arkansas and Mississippi units in March of 1864.  His brigade was under special command of Brigadier General Wirt Adams. Vicksburg had fallen into the hands of the Union Army on July 4th, 1863.
An interesting genealogical coincidence.  Col. Mabry was a descendant of Francis Maybury/Mabry who died 1712 in Sussex County, Virginia through Francis’s son Hinshia.  I descend from the same Francis Maybury through son George.

Since we crossed Big Black, We have, however Succeeded in driving them all back.  Our Battery assisted by Col. Griffiths 11th Ark Cavalry and a detachment from Woods Miss Cavalry captured the U.S. Gunboat Petrel at Yazoo City on the 22nd Apr.  It was a fine Prize.  We saved all her guns consisting of Eight 24 Pdr. Dahlgreen guns, and a good many valuable Small arms and a great quantity of Stores.  I have been drinking pure coffee ever Since The capture of the Petrel. 

The USS Petrel was a tinclad wooden steamer in the U.S. Navy.   She had been cruising Mississippi Rivers since May of 1863, capturing rebel vessels and military stores.  In February of 1864 she had pushed up the Yazoo River, eventually attacking Yazoo City.  She did indeed carry eight 24-pounder howitzers. The Dahlgren gun was a muzzle loader designed by Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren. The Petrel was burned after the removal of her guns and stores.
It’s obvious from George’s comments that good coffee was a rarity in the Confederate Army.

We have only had one man killed, John Young, Sandusky’s Step-Son – Head Shot off with Shell, and one wounded severely (Dr. F. T. Crockett of Drew Co. a Sergeant of the Battery) in the battery in all the engagements we have had lately.  On the 28th May we were ordered by Maj. Genl. S. D. Lee to turn over our Battery to a company of Withers Artillery and report at this place, which we did immediately and arrived here on the 5th Inst. 

I have been unable to find out anything additional about John Young or Dr. Crockett.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee(1833-1908) had served throughout the 1863 siege of Vicksburg and was a prisoner of war, later exchanged.  Lee was in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the War, but resigned to enter the Confederate forces in the South Carolina Milita.  After his exchange, he was given command of the Department of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana, 9 May 1864.  Lee was promoted to Lt. Gen. on 23 Jun 1864, making him the youngest at this grade in the Confederate Army.

Our Boys were very much mortified at the idea of giving up our Battery to another company, and thought that Some disparagement to the company was meant and a good many of them left forthwith to go back to Arkansas and Said they would never support him under the circumstances, fifteen left at the time….

And here the letter ends, but not the story.  Four months after writing the letter, on the 19th of October, George W. Holderness would be sent to Ross Hospital in Mobile, Alabama with acute diarrhea.  He died there on November 17, 1864.  His Effects were listed as "sundries" and he was owed $91.75 by the Confederate Army.  It is not surprising his brother kept the letter.