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,


(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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