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