The Letters from Practical Strangers, Week 5: Nathaniel’s Devotion

I love you dearly, ardently, entirely, devotedly. Do you object? Do you call me lovesick? And I would throw millions in the scales if I could command them to feel that I deserved your love.”

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: Harper’s Ferry, May 17, 1861

Your long and interesting letter of the 9th was received yesterday evening with your mother’s note. I have written an answer which you must read and deliver if you like it. I have written it hurriedly under all the inconveniences of camp life with interruptions enough to vex a saint, and you must, as my fair and all- powerful advocate, make up for all deficiencies of style and matter in your speeches upon the subject. It is flattering to a sick and weary soldier to know that he has turned towards him the eyes of so gentle and witching a lady as those of my own dear Elodie, one who is calculated in all things to make him happy. You write just as I wish, naturally and freely, flattering to me and indicating how pure is the stream from whence refreshing cups of pearly dew are allowed to escape. The more I read your letters the more singular it seems to me that I have been so fortunate as to win your love. Had I not been a volunteer, I never would have known how rich were the imaginings of your mind and how pure and beautiful were the flowers that grow in the garden of your heart. Each letter discovers some new beauty and each hour spent with you will but add to the number of your charms and increase the boundless love now burning in my bosom. As your mother loves you very much, I have no fears upon the subject of her consent being eventually obtained. It must be a great pleasure to Mrs. White and yourself to have your sister and herself with you, and I regret that I am denied the pleasure of seeing them, but you know I am to take you to Kentucky when I will have that honor and pleasure. Tell your sister Kate (60) that I must employ her as an advocate and that if she succeeds well the fee will be a large one, but I had forgotten that, in you, I have an advocate con amore who will charge nothing for her services and whose success with her mother upon this point cannot be doubted. I hope sincerely that we may have peace, but the [illegible] of preparation is going on very briskly. . . .

Mr. Averitt went to Winchester yesterday and told me he was to write to Mr. White. He is a very clever gentleman, closely attached to me, but I fear is too tender for a soldier’s life. I never dreamed that I could accommodate myself to all of the privations so readily. If you were to see me now you would hardly recognize me. I am burnt black and have generally a savage appearance. At the first convenient place I will have a photograph taken and send you as a natural curiosity. You say my letters are short. When you receive the latest you will think otherwise. We left Dalton on the 3d May, reached Lynchburg on the 5th, and I wrote you daily I believe. It is a pleasure to chat with you, greater than it was, in the morning of my attachment, to send you flowers and write you pretty notes. Tell John to bring you flowers three times a week. In the stereoscope you had there are several views of Harper’s Ferry. Could you venture to have them brought to you by John? Your slightest intimation would find a ready obedience and the views would be interesting at this time. I love you dearly, ardently, entirely, devotedly. Do you object? Do you call me lovesick? And I would throw millions in the scales if I could command them to feel that I deserved your love. Why do you not tell me that you love me? Are you afraid to flatter me so much, or afraid that your letters will be captured?

My house must indeed look desolate and dreary (61). Some times will not my own loved Elodie go by it, merely to tell me that she has seen the flowers? One of these days, I hope her own hands will plant the beautiful garden flowers, made more beautiful because they have grown under her culture. And now sweet angel, goodbye. May God preserve us safely and may He guard and protect you at all times is the prayer of one who loves you fondly but not too well.

Ever and affty yours,

N. H. R. Dawson

P.S. I am much obliged to Mrs. White for her friendship but have flattered myself that she had given it to me some time ago. I know she will be all powerful, and I hope she will prevail for your sake as well as mine.

60. Nathaniel is referring to Catherine (Kitty) Todd (1841–1875), the youngest of the Todd sisters. Like Elodie, as the war progressed she became more staunchly Confederate and ultimately married William Wallace Herr, the man who would help carry Benjamin Hardin Helm’s body from the field at Chickamauga. See Berry, House of Abraham, 184–185.

61. Elodie and Matt lived at what is now called White-Force Cottage at 811 Mabry Street, an Italianate-style home built in 1859. It is not clear where Nathaniel lived before the war, but it may be that his house did not survive the Battle of Selma and its aftermath. Regardless, after their marriage and before the end of the war, Nathaniel and Elodie bought a home around the corner at 704 Tremont Street, which they had substantially renovated. See Berry, House of Abraham.

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