All That Characterizes the Southern Soldier: A Memorial Day Remembrance

Today is Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday set aside to remember those Mississippians who served in the Civil War. For this Memorial Day, I thought I would share a remembrance of one of my relatives who wore the gray – My G-G Uncle, William A. Harper of Rankin County, Mississippi.

William A. Harper was born in 1844, and was the son of William C. Harper, an attorney in Brandon. His mother, Mary C. Harper, was my G-G-G Grandmother. William Harper was Mary’s second husband; her first, Lyttleton Johnson, died in the 1840s near what is today Huntsville, Alabama. A widow with three small children to support, Mary soon married William Harper and the couple moved to Brandon, Mississippi, and had three more children: Susan, William and Ella.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union, William was a cadet at Western Military Institute in Nashville, Tennessee. Before leaving the school to return home and join the army, William recorded the following message in his friend Pat Henry’s autograph book:

Western Military Institute

W.M.I., January 20th, 1861

Dear Pat,

It is with pleasure that I lay these few sentiments upon the sacred altars of friendship – It is useless for me to _____ to the happy scenes and associations of the past – enough that we have been true friends. A friendship which I hope will ever remain pure & sacred – and which it shall be my pleasure to cherish & strengthen. It is my fervent hope that the future may bring unalloyed happiness to you – and that the stars of _____ fortune may shed their selected influence upon your every undertaking.

Your friend & brother in the Bonds of EAE [Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity]

William A. Harper

(Patrick Henry Papers, Z/0215.000/S, Box 1, Mississippi Department of Archives & History)

Not long after William returned home, he enlisted as a corporal in the Rankin Greys, which became Company I, 6th Mississippi Infantry. Although he was only 17 years old, his time as a cadet at Western Military Institute mush have stood him in good stead, for in a few short months he had been made an officer. By September 1861 he was a 1st Lieutenant, having been transferred to Company D, “Lowry Rifles,” 6th Mississippi Infantry.

In the fall of 1861, the 6th Mississippi was ordered to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where they spent a long, hard winter guarding the town. In January, William wrote the following letter to his sister Mittie Johnson, giving her all the latest news from camp, and describing the hardships that he and his men were having to learn to cope with:

Bowling Green, KY, January 14, 1861

Dear Sister Mittie:

Your very welcome letter was received a few days since – as I had not had one from home in some time you know how eagerly it was perused & how glad to know you were all well & enjoying yourselves (as much as circumstances would permit). As the accustomed merry & jovial days of Christmas as the war necessarily throws a gloom over the whole country – one that penetrates every private sentiment where there are hearts to love & feel for the concomitant disasters, hardships & sufferings it necessarily produced. Still it is not necessary for you all to feel a deep melancholy for our situation. The duties are often severe & the sufferings great but it is sweet & honorable to die for one’s country – especially when the cause of that country is the perpetuation of liberty & independence, the defense of home & all its endearments from the desecrating hand of an invader, it is better to die thus, than expire [amidst] all the comforts & luxuries produced – ‘Better be where the extinguished Spartans still are free, in their proud channel of Thermopylae’ than lie ensconced amid luxuries & comforts, in the hour of our country’s peril.

We have not ourselves experienced many of the real severities of an arduous campaigner, as it is contrary to our policy to push forward into the enemy’s country & carry to his own home those sufferings & that destruction he would inflict on us. It is evident that our career is too tame & restricted for the spirit & character of our troops, in every field where our arms have been victorious & triumphant we have always been inferior in numbers. Why then not take advantage of this superiority in endurance, in valor & in all that characterizes the Southern soldier, instead of leaving them as prey to diseases of the most terrible nature – either to kill them, or sap all their spirit & vivacity – these are the melancholy reflections, from visiting our hospital & thinking of how many good soldiers have gone to their ‘last homes’ & how many are now prostrate with disease.

We have lost 85 soldiers since we arrived at this place. What an immortality we could have gained, how manfully could we have fought the invader without such fatality, but camp makes us welcome battle & deadly enemy that the bullets of the Yankees & he has thinned our ranks & broken our spirit. Our regiment is somewhat improving & I expect spring with its reviving and magical influence will do much for us. A day or two ago the air was balmy, the sun unusual & gave almost evidence of approaching spring, but the north wind arose & soon dissipated the warm influences – & it is now bleak & cold, the ground is white with snow & we have superabundance of ice & cold – although our tents with their fire places prove comfortable enough.

The climate here seems equally as mild & changeable as at home. We have had but little cold weather & that of short duration. I expect spring will be raw & bitter. I see no signs of a coming engagement, troops continue to pour into this place & both sides are well prepared to meet the advancing foe. We continue to fortify & so do the Yankees, which will probably be ‘never’. They will try to draw us out from this place by flanking  which is what we desire – but I really know no more than you & my speculations are not any better – we are all tired [of] waiting, & will welcome it anytime. I am glad that Sister Sue took a trip to N.O. [New Orleans] she has been so industrious & faithful all the time the change is needed – & especially so, will it prove pleasant to meet her old school mate & correspondent – whose letters give evidence of both good head & heart.

You say I have neglected Ma in my writings. I have written to sis Sue oftener than anybody else – because in my hurried moments it is easier – I have written to her often & she always answers so punctually then it is much more natural to write to her than any one. I am much pained that Ma should have felt slighted, especially as I know I have been as true to home associations & influences as any boy. I wrote to her about a week ago – & had not yours.

I remain,

Your affectionate brother,

Willie

(I wish y’d send the ‘Mississippian’ occasionally)

William Harper’s wish that his regiment would meet the Yankees in battle was granted all to soon. At a quiet Tennessee hamlet named Shiloh,  his unit, the 6th Mississippi Infantry, earned the name that they carry to this day: “The Bloody Sixth;” but that is a story for another day.

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Sister of the South: A Mississippi Wife Writes to Governor Pettus

By the summer of 1862, the Civil War was causing true hardships for the people of Mississippi. As in all wars, the

"Women on the Home Front" - North Carolina Museum of History
“Women on the Home Front” – North Carolina Museum of History

women and children left behind on the home front were the ones who suffered most. The following letter, written by Mrs. Julia M. Spencer of Terry, Mississippi, is a poignant reminder of the impact the war had on civilians far from the battlefield. I have left the spelling and punctuation just as Mrs. Spencer wrote it, as I think there is a certain power to her words, imperfect though her writing may be:

Terrys Stacion Hinds Co. August the 15 1862

Goviner Petus Dear sir

I have just received a letter from my housband Gilbert Spencer hwo [who] was musterd in survis on the first day of may 1862 and he has bin sick the most of his time he has bin with his company the most of his time he stood gard all day liast wednsday with a fever on him he has found that camp life does not agree with him and if he dos have to stay he will soon be so he will not be any sirvice to the southern confederacy nor his family either and it is his desire to do something as long as he is able now goviner will you please take him from camp life and let him do sumthink else for our country he could stand gard at the penitentiary or go and help make slt [salt] he can go to La [Louisiana] and make salt he nos whar their is plenty of strong salt watery and he would freely go and make salt for the goverment if you will releace him or do any thing else for you, driving stock in could not be as bad as camp life on him, now gov will you for my sake a sister of the south releace him from camp be fore it is too late fore him to get well and do any good for his country that is all that he is battling for he has no property to fight for he volintiered to fite for his cuntry and now he is not able to do it will you please anser my letter be candid with me as a father for I nead one or sum friend

yours respectfuly

Julia M. Spencer

he belongs to Captin Johnsons Co. Starks cavalry Co. I

– John J. Pettus Correspondence, Series 757, Box 942, Folder 6, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

Written on the back of the letter was a brief statement of its contents, probably written by Governor Pettus’ private secretary – it stated that “Mrs. Spencer wants her husband detailed for some other service than camp duty.” The answer to the poor woman’s plea was simply three words, scrawled in a shaky hand underneath: “Have no control.”

The writer was correct – Gilbert Spencer was a member of Company I, 28th Mississippi Cavalry; as such his unit was a

Flag of Company I, 28th Mississippi Cavalry - Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Flag of Company I, 28th Mississippi Cavalry – Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi

part of what was known as P.A.C.S. – the Provisional Army of the Confederate States. As a Confederate unit, Governor Pettus had no authority to release Private Spencer from his military service.

I was intrigued by the letter written by Julia, and decided to do a little research on the Spencer family. I found them in the 1860 United States Census living at Terry’s Depot, Mississippi, in Hinds County: Gilbert Spencer age 32; born in Mississippi; by occupation a carpenter; he reported the value of his personal estate at a paltry $200.00. Also living in the household was his 22 year old wife, Julia, who was born in Alabama, and daughters M.L. age 3, and L.A., who was less than a year old.

I pulled Gilbert Spencer’s CIvil War service record, and found that he enlisted in the 28th Mississippi Cavalry in the Spring of 1862, at Jackson, Mississippi. The date of Spencer’s enlistment is significant – the Confederate Congress had enacted a conscription law in April 1862, and there were a number of Mississippians who quickly joined up so that they could choose the unit they served in and avoid the stigma of being called a conscript. This is probably what Gilbert Spencer did. I can understand why he did not join the army sooner; a poor man with a wife and two small daughters to support, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by leaving them and going off to war.

Gilbert Spencer’s service record was very short – it consisted of only three cards. The first two had the basic information

A Card from the Service Record of Gilbert Spencer Giving the Information About His Death - Fold3.com
A Card from the Service Record of Gilbert Spencer Giving the Information About His Death – Fold3.com

about his enlistment; the last confirmed the worst fears of Julia – on the regimental return of October 1862 it was noted that Private Spencer had “Died Sept. 21.”

I couldn’t find any other information about the Spencer family during the war, but using the United States Census I was able to follow Julia and the children through the years. By 1870 Julia had remarried and her last name was Statham. Living in the household with her were the three children Julia had with Gilbert: Leona age 13, Lula age 10, and Sidney, age 9. In addition she had one child by her new husband; Jesse, age 3.

Sometime between 1870 and 1880, Julia and her family moved to Rayville, Alabama. I found her on the 1880 U.S. Census, once again listed as a widow. Making her living as a hotel keeper, she still had Lula, Sidney, and Jesse in the household; in addition there was another child, Hettie, age 9.

The last trace I could find of Julia was her listing on the 1900 United States Census; she was still living in Rayville, and was taking in boarders to make ends meet. Julia also had two of her grown children living in the household with her. After 1900 Julia disappears from the written record, she may have died, or perhaps moved, but her ultimate fate remains a mystery.

Julia’s story is a small one, just a little piece of a great big war. There were thousands of women like her in Mississippi, and I greatly admire their fortitude in the face of overwhelming hardships. Julia Spencer was made a widow by the Civil War, with three small children depending on her for their support. Life in the broken and defeated South must have been extremely difficult, but Julia managed to keep her family intact and raise her children to adulthood. A century and a half after the fact, her story had been all but forgotten until I found her crudely written plea to Governor Pettus. It’s a touching reminder of the impact the war had on the common people of the South.