The Letters from Practical Strangers, Week 7: Nathaniel Prepares to March on Washington

To be apart of yourself, to share your troubles, and to mingle my tears with yours, will be a duty and pleasure, while to do all to make you a happy and contended wife will be the great, leading object of my life…  ”

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: Winchester, Virginia, June 26, 1861

This day two months ago I bid you goodbye, and as the boat proceeded upon her way your image, my dearest Elodie, was lost in the distance, but not one moment has passed since that sacred hour when your image has been absent from my mind. It is so intimately associated with my thoughts that is has become a part of my existence, and I must be very busily occupied not to be able to abstract myself to be with you. Indeed, it would require a greater effort than I am capable of making not to think of you always. Is such love as I give you worth anything? Or is it simply the homage that man pays to your sex? I am much deceived if many men love as ardently as I do. God grant that this love of mine will be gratified in a speedier reunion with you than the dark clouds of war, which overhang the political skies, would indicate. I console myself with the reflection that others are as hardly situated as myself and that their fate is as bad as mine, but still this is a very uncharitable consolation. One sixth of my time has passed, and I hope the term will find me as well as I am now. I would send you my likeness again, but as you seem to dislike my face in uniform, I deem it hardly proper to disturb your equanimity.

Our regiment has been transferred to the brigade of Gen. Bee (107). He is a West Point officer and lately resigned from the U. States army. He is a So. Carolinian and the son of an intimate friend of my father. He is a very fine officer as you can judge from Mr. Davis having raised him from a captain to the command of a brigade. We will be associated with two regiments from Miss. and one from Tennessee. The transfer will be a pleasant one. I have not formed a favorable opinion of Col. Duncan. He says Mr. Breckinridge (108) is buttering his own bread. I am so great an admirer of Mr. B. that I have no respect for any one who detracts from him. I do hope he will be able to accomplish something for his state and that with her three loving sisters, she will yet join her destiny to the galaxy of her southern sisters and become one of the arches of the Confederate states.

I love you so much that I love any object that you love, my dearest, and this will explain the control you will exercise over me. Yours will be a reign of love, and if you have any dexterity at all, you will preserve this influence so essential the happiness of husband and wife. I can conceive of no happiness where a wife has no influence over her husband. I mean of course a control obtained by the exercise of those gentle and winning offices of love, entirely different from the reign of terror acquired by some female despots. To live with you in the bonds of wedlock would seem to be a foretaste of paradise, and I look forward to the time with the most sanguine hopes of happiness and comfort. The separation to which we have been subject and the circumstances under which we have loved will do much to call into being all the love of our hearts, and we will have felt in advance many of the pleasures of love and friendship.

I love you as the friend and intimate sharer of all my thoughts, in whose ear I can think aloud and upon whose bosom, in the day of trial and trouble, I will have a right to confide and to ask sympathy. To be a part of yourself, to share your troubles, and to mingle my tears with yours, will be a duty and pleasure, while to do all to make you a happy and contented wife will be the great, leading object of my life. . . .

I find that I have filled three pages with sentences that you will probably say are foolish contributions to the literature of love, less florid perhaps than the effusions of Eloise and Abelard (109). But they are intended to indicate my love for you [so] you must pardon them. We move this evening to another camp, in a grove alongside of our new friends, the Mississippians. From present appearance we are here for some time— at least this will be the headquarters for Gen. Johnston’s “Army of the Shenandoah.”

The weather is now very warm and pretty, and we will find our duties very fatiguing if we are put on a march. I will be very fatigued to march down on Washington. I think Gen. Beauregard evidently contemplates an advance movement upon the capital and whenever he does make it this division will cut in concert with his. We have about fourteen thousand men in the district and county commanded by Gen. Johnston, besides the militia of the country. We do not get as many little niceties as eggs, butter, and chickens, as we did at Harper’s Ferry. I presume the reason is that the city takes all of them.

I have been endeavoring to get up a band of brass instruments for the Reg. We have the performers but can get only one set of instruments, which will cost $800. We will decide on tomorrow whether we can afford to pay such a price. Music will add greatly to our pleasures. I never hear music but that I think of you, my own dear Elodie.

I have just received from Selma an [illegible] cloth cape, sent by Maj. Haden, with one each for Grey Haden, Rev. Tanner, Lewis Thomas, and Turner Vaughan (110). Dearest, you are no doubt tired and will be relieved by the ending of this letter. Think of me always as your dearest friend who would do all that man would dare to defend you from harm and who loves you fondly and well. With my mos respectful regards to Mr. and Mrs. White and your mother and sister, I remain,

Very affty and sincerely yours,

N.H.R. Dawson


107. Barnard Elliott Bee Jr. (1824–1861) was born in South Carolina, moved to Texas as a child, attended West Point, and spent most of his army career in the West. In June 1861 he was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate army and would lead Nathaniel’s brigade at Bull Run, where he was mortally wounded. For more, see John H. Eicher and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 125.

108. John Cabell Breckinridge (1821–1875) was a Kentucky lawyer, politician, and vice president of the United States from 1857 to 1861. He would serve as the final Confederate secretary of war and would flee to Cuba to avoid capture.

109. Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem Eloisa to Abelard was inspired by the twelfth-century tale of Heloise’s illicit love for (and secret marriage to) philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard. See Peter Abelard, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

110. James Grey Haden, age twenty-two; Lewis Thomas, age twenty-one; and P. Turner Vaughan, age twenty-one, were all privates in Nathaniel’s company. He thought especially highly of Vaughan, noting “he has no superior [and] hardly any equal in the company.” Vaughan would rise to the rank of second lieutenant. Alabama Civil War Soldiers Database, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

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