The Letters from Practical Strangers, Week 3: Nathaniel Responds

I do not know when we will be one, nor do I know our destination. Can’t you prevail upon your brother-in-law, A. L., to change his policy & make peace?”

BerryElder_PracticalStrangers_jacketThis summer we’re launching New Perspectives on the Civil War Era, a new series dedicated to the publication of primary sources (letters, diaries, speeches, etc.) of the Civil War era from a wide diversity of perspectives—respecting the soldier’s voice, but not privileging it over every other as is the case in most such edited volumes. The first volume in the series is Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln edited by Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder. 

With texting, Snap Chat, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, it can be difficult to appreciate what it used to feel like—the worry, the anticipation, the excitement—for long-awaited letters to arrive, especially for those engaged in courtship. In an effort to simulate the sort of anticipation Dawson and Todd might have felt, we’re running a new blog series meant to reintroduce a forgotten but important ingredient of correspondence: time. So each week between now and publication we will feature a letter by Dawson or Todd, followed the next week by the letter’s response. To add another layer of anachronism to the fun, be sure to follow Nathaniel and Elodie on Twitter!

From Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Todd: Camp near Lynchburg, May 8, 1861

I have read repeatedly your sweet letter of May 2d and hope my dear Elodie will indulge frequently in the pleasure of writing. It is to me a luxury to read anything from you here, and I do not flatter you when I tell you that your heart must be full of goodness to write as you do, so easily, sweetly, sensibly. I love you too well to flatter as our relations are now too close to permit us to indulge in it. You must express your own feelings freely because it is a happiness to know that you are willing to confide them to me. I would speak all my thoughts aloud to you, and, as I have told you, I have as much confidence in your fidelity as I have in the existence of the world. How so pure and gentle a being could be willing to confide the keeping of her affections and her happiness to me is frequently a subject of reflection, and I confess the enigma remains unsolved.

We began our duties today in earnest. I rose at daylight, attended officers drill from six to eight, breakfasted at eight, mounted guard at nine, acting as officer of the day, drilled from nine to twelve, and in the interval am writing you this letter using the pen you gave me. This morning I plucked from the side of the mountain the wild violets which are enclosed. They cover the ground, and there is a blue flower, which covers the ground in clusters like the oxalis. Does John (25) supply you with flowers? I intended him to do so.

I am very anxious to hear from your mother, and I hope she will interpose no objections. What would you do if she did? I would feel very badly and deeply chagrined.

I hope to return safely to claim your hand, and if I do not you will always know that I have regarded you, in all things save the ceremonials of the Law, as mine. At this point, I have just been handed your letter of 3d May, (26) which I have read with renewed pleasure. You are a noble woman, worthy of all my love, and I should bless Heaven you have promised to be mine.

I do not know when we will be one, nor do I know our destination. Can’t you prevail upon your brother-in-law, A. L., to change his policy & make peace? It would add greatly to our happiness. I have thought that in case of the continuance of the war during the year that I might with your consent, during the summer, obtain a furlough and return to claim your hand, if you will consent to do so. To wait for a long, weary year [for] the fulfillment of all our hopes is hard. Are you willing to share my dangers and my privations? I dare to ask you, as I love you too well to have you subjected to them. You could remain at home and get some one to stay with you in our home. I wish to see you there as its mistress. It would be pleasant perhaps to spend the summer in Va. near our
camp in company with Mrs. Hardie. (27) What do you answer to this my dear angel, Elodie?

Should you not agree to this cheerfully, don’t hesitate to decline as I know you will have good reasons for anything that you do. I love you so truly and so well that if you were to decline to marry me at all, I would not have the desire to blame you, though it would almost craze me.

I long to be in a condition to gratify all my wishes in respect to your happiness without your having it in your power to decline allowing me to do so. My heart is full when I think that fortune may still separate us. But even in Heaven, I will be able to claim that you gave me your love on earth.

Goodby dear girl, sweet Elodie. Write me frequently. God keep and preserve you always is my prayer.

Affectionately your own,

N. H. R. Dawson

25. One of Nathaniel’s enslaved house servants, John, was frequently called upon to deliver flowers to Elodie and was described by Nathaniel as an “excellent servant” both “honest and trustworthy.” In 1860 Nathaniel owned fifty-three slaves, most of them residing on his plantation. “N H R Dawson,” 1860 U.S. Federal Census—Slave Schedules, Selma, Dallas County, Ala.
26. This letter does not survive.
27. Twenty-three-year-old Margaret Isbell married Joseph Hardie in 1856 and traveled with him throughout the war. Joseph had been born in 1833, took his bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1855, and owned a grocery store in Selma before the war. A lieutenant colonel in the Fourth Alabama, he helped R. T. Coles write the unit’s regimental history after the war. Thomas McAdory Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, vol. 3(Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1921), 774.

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