The opening line still hurts across the years.
“Dear Mother — I am here a prisoner of war & mortally wounded.”
John Winn Moseley was writing home from the Gettysburg battlefield on July 4, 1863. He was a 30-year-old Confederate from Alabama being cared for by his Yankee captors.
“I can live but a few hours more at farthest,” he wrote. “I was shot fifty-yards of the enemy’s line. They have been extremely kind to me.”
Moseley died the next day. His letter — on delicate blue paper, stained with what might be blood — made it to his mother in Buckingham County, Va., and the family kept it ever after. Now it has come to light in a trove of Civil War documents that the State Library of Virginia discovered in a surprisingly straightforward way: It asked state residents to bring them out of their homes.
From 2010 until last year, as Virginia observed the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, archivists traveled the state in an “Antiques Roadshow” style campaign to unearth the past. Organizers had thought the effort might produce a few hundred new items. They were a little off. It flushed out more than 33,000 pages of letters, diaries, documents and photographs that the library scanned and has made available for study online.
The materials are a stream of fresh perspectives on the war, from North and South. There are new facts about battles and events, and new windows into the struggles of Reconstruction and emancipation. But most of all, it’s the details, and the raw human voices, that shortcut time and bring life to a terrible period in the nation’s history.
“Thomas I would like to no how you like to wash by this time or whether you wash your self or not,” Frances Fisher wrote to her husband eight days after he left to fight. She and their three children, plus a grumpy father-in-law, were home in Wytheville.
“Your father tries to quarel with me a heep a times but I wont listen to him and he soon gets tired of quarling by his self,” she wrote. She closed with an unexpectedly tender verse, saying she was anxious for the time “When you can come and see your sons three/ And love and sleep with me.”
She died of illness before the war’s end.
It’s not unusual to find such letters in the hands of private families — after all, millions of people were caught up in the Civil War, and letter-writing was never more popular. But to have so much surface at once is “overwhelming,” said author James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., the retired Virginia Tech historian who served as spiritual guide to the project.
As someone who has spent his career writing about the effects of the war on common people from both sides of the fight, Robertson reveled in the rich cache of new material. He agreed to write a book based on the documents — “Civil War Echoes: Voices from Virginia, 1860-1891,” published in September by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission — but was able to use only a small fraction of what was found.
Last summer, the state library delivered all the scans to his home, on the Northern Neck — boxes of color printouts, because Robertson, 86, dislikes using a computer. He rigged a magnifying device on the desk in his upstairs office and spent every morning and afternoon poring over the letters and diaries. “It was like Christmas around here for about six weeks,” he said. At lunch he would share some of the most moving accounts with his wife, Betty, sometimes overcome with emotion.
Out of 1,600 collections of materials, Robertson pulled from only about 140. He used less than a third of his notes for the book. “That little book could be written three or four times,” he said.
The documents opened vivid and intimate scenes of daily life, such as when Marshall Frantz of Roanoke wrote to his sister about missing the family routine:
“Sometimes on Sunday when we hardly know it is Sunday here I can picture you all off in my mind. . . . You all are fixing to go to preaching. There is Pappy dressed up with his shoes off sitting in his shirt sleeves reading and Ma telling Ange what to get for dinner, you dressing Marty and Charlie and Emory hollering after you and saying ‘doggone it, Jude, where’s my shirt.’ ”
But what stood out above all was the suffering and loneliness — and the creative phonetic spelling. Robertson logged 27 versions of the word diarrhea, “and that doesn’t include the s-word,” he said.
Disease killed more men than war wounds. Plaintive notes about sorry conditions and the aftermath of battle still ring with horror.
Wyatt Akers of Montgomery County, Va., wrote home about the battle of Seven Pines: “It would raise the hair on any man’s head to see the wounded and hear the groans. I was present when they commenced cutting off one man’s leg but I had to leave. I could not stand and see the performance.”
Maj. Henry DeShields of Heathsville described capturing Union cannons along the James River. Working in darkness to dislodge the big guns, he and his men realized what they were stepping on: “the wounded & dying Yankees that had fought bravely at their guns. I shall never, never forget what a night of nights — the cries and groans of the wounded calling for water & for help . . . .”
Such descriptions, Robertson said, should dispel any attempt to romanticize the war.
“People who see the Confederacy as some sort of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ magnolia and moonlight and sipping mint juleps — they miss the point completely,” he said. “The Confederacy was born in confusion and died in chaos.”
Some materials — such as the papers of DeShields and the diaries of Fauquier County resident Betty Gray — deserve to be published on their own as readable accounts of the period, Robertson said.
Many of the documents were gathered by Renee Savits, one of two state archivists who spent about five years traveling around with digital scanners. Local historical groups would put the word out and schedule events at libraries or community centers.
Savits was caught off guard by the long lines of people who showed up. “We didn’t realize what the response would be,” she said. “It was so exciting. People were so happy and so interested in it.”
Because the high-resolution scans took three minutes per page, a single diary could take hours. Savits usually didn’t realize what she had until much later.
After lengthy processing and cataloguing, all the images are available to the public on the state library’s website. The library is hoping readers will volunteer to transcribe the letters for easier study. Few of the materials wound up in the library’s possession; the archivists gave advice on preservation but didn’t want to discourage people from participating by suggesting that the state might take their family treasures.
Virginia Coleman Hoag was thrilled when she heard about the effort. Her family has been in Buckingham County about 300 years. She moved back to her ancestral property in 1969 and her uncle gave her an old Bible that held a folded letter on delicate blue paper — the dying words of John Winn Moseley. It was tattered, and at one point Hoag’s well-meaning mother-in-law tried to repair it with Scotch tape.
Moseley’s connection with her family had been lost over the generations. Moved by his letter, Hoag and her husband spent years traveling to Gettysburg, Pa., and visiting courthouses, trying to get more information.
They were rewarded mainly with odd coincidences. Driving around Antietam, they stopped the car at a random monument — only to find that it belonged to Moseley’s regiment. Volunteering in the Buckingham library, Hoag overheard two women from Texas researching an ancestor — and it turned out they were distant cousins of hers who had also run across Moseley’s name.
Strangest of all, Hoag and her husband were listening to NPR in the late 1980s and heard a historian quote from a particularly touching Civil War letter — their own. They had no idea how he knew about it.
So when the Virginia legacy project rolled through Buckingham County, it all came together. Hoag brought Moseley’s letter. Robertson eventually got a copy in the trove of materials sent by the state library.
He didn’t realize it right away, but Robertson had seen Moseley’s words before. He was the historian who had read the passage on NPR. As it turned out, one of Hoag’s relatives had sent Robertson a copy of a different family letter that quoted from Moseley. Now, Robertson was seeing the original for the first time.
Hoag was able to supply the few details she had gathered about her ancestor: He was born in Buckingham County, moved to Alabama at age 3, and joined the Confederate army in that state — which is why he had no records in Virginia. He had survived 11 battles before Gettysburg. His sister was Hoag’s great grandmother.
Today, his letter hangs in the foyer of Hoag’s home, behind protective glass, where the words haunt every visitor.
“I have no doubt about the final result of this battle and I hope I may live long enough to hear the shout of victory, before I die. I am very weak. Do not grieve my loss. I had hoped to have been spared but a righteous God has ordered otherwise & I feel prepared to trust my cause in his hands. Farewell to you all. Pray that God will receive my soul. Your unfortunate son, John.”
One mystery remains: the location of Moseley’s grave. It’s possible he still lies on the battlefield at Gettysburg, like so many others, unremembered but for his letter.