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John W. L.. Tylee Letterbook, 1865-1873

The letters of John W. L.. Tylee, a Charleston bookkeeper, depict Reconstruction as viewed by a white-collar worker of modest means. Tylee's family appears to have come to South Carolina from New York not long before the Civil War, and John served in the Confederate army. Beginning in 1853, when he was about sixteen years old, he had kept a continuous journal. Although Tylee's journal has not come to light, the South Caroliniana Library has acquired his letterbook, which records both historically significant and commonplace matters.

At the close of the war, Tylee and his wife Elvina ("Viney") Willis resided at his mother-in-law's Charleston residence at 7 Line Street. "Our house," he wrote, "is on the outskirts of the City, is pleasantly situated and very healthy & cool being open on all sides over 100 feet." His wife's mother, Mrs. Willis, had come out of the war on good terms with the winning side. "Fortunately for her, her husband was a thorough Union man and opposed to the war or she might have today been in much distress."

However, the postwar domestic help situation took some getting used to. "I want [from New York] a good smart girl or woman (German preferred) as a child nurse and to attend to two bedrooms and a parlour. Such I cannot get here for it seems as tho every thing like a servant both white and black in Charleston is corrupted and fit for nothing. I have now an Irish girl at $8.00 per month who works well enough but is so dirty and offensive that we are actually afraid to let our baby go to her for fear of taking vermin from her."

In the spring of 1867 they visited Mrs. Willis's former haunts on Sullivan's Island. "I took Mother and Viney to the island on Saturday aftn. 18th [May]. It was the first time since 1862 that Mother has seen the island and as you may suppose her heart was full when she ascended the steps of her old island home. Strange to say not a house on Sullivans Isld. that ever belonged to any of the Willis family has been removed or irreparably injured, while on the entire island there is not 20 left standing. It is now inhabited by squatters there being only 2 col[oure]d soldiers left even in Moultrie that place being almost entirely destroyed and uninhabitable."

In Tylee's letters to his brother-in-law James S. Drayton, a resident of Texas, he related specifics of the situation in Charleston. "On Monday night," he wrote on 21 March 1867, "Viney and myself went to a concert at the Citadel Square Church, where we passed a very pleasant evening and enjoyed a feast of good music. It was given in aid of St. Michaels bells, destroyed by Sherman and recast in England and detained in our Custom House until the duties were paid."

"I suppose the papers will have informed you," he reported two months later, 23 May 1867, "of the failure of Fraser Trenholm & Co. for about $30,000,000.00 some £4,000,000 sterling. There are various rumors about in regard to it but I think it has more in it than a mere loss in cotton speculations, and that (intentionally) there is nothing left to pay the U.S. Govt. duty on all the goods imported by them during the war." The Trenholm bankruptcy was the darkest aspect of a bleak business climate. "Grocers are doing well," Tylee advised another out-of-state correspondent on 17 December 1866, "because people must eat, but any fancy business is ruinous to him who undertakes it."

The situation in real estate was equally downbeat, Tylee advised on 23 July 1867. "You will hardly believe it when I tell you that property is now being sacrificed every day. Mr. Heywards mansion Cor. of East Bay, Wentworth & Society streets...a fine residence and outbuildings costing before the war over $20,000 sold last week for $7,210....If you can hold on to yours you had better do so for you will not get half what it is worth now."

The elements added to the manmade chaos. "News has come in that the Santee, Combahee and other rivers in this State have overflowed," he reported on 21 March 1867. The spring deluge was followed by a summer gale, a 23 July 1867 letter relates. "We had a very severe storm of wind and rain which did immense damage to the crops. Corn was in many places levelled and where the wind could not harm it was overflowed, Cotton almost entirely ruined and wheat, ready to gather was blowed about the feild. I have seen some who say they have given up in despair and will not try any more."

Tylee's efforts to find steady employment in these uncertain times make up the bulk of his letterbook correspondence. At war's end, he found a position with a Cuban business firm run by the brothers Ramon and Francis P. Salas, later by José Bonafont and Ramon Salas, and finally by Ramon alone. The Salas firm was a general and commission business involved in imports and exports and headquartered at 118 East Bay Street.

Imports did not prosper in the postwar economy, and the Salas firm made real profits only from its cigar factory, a Charleston branch of the "La Valentina" cigar company of Havana, Cuba. "Our segar business," a 10 October 1867 letter explains, "is extended over the Country and New York city is one of our best markets while St. Louis & Chicago also stand high on our list of customers and we are anxious to increase our resources in order to supply the large orders coming in from all directions. We manufacture segars purely Spanish, the Tobacco, boxes, ribbons, and even paper being imported from Cuba and there is not a man in the factory who can speak English. There is no domestic Tobacco used at all and therefore we offer to the trade a real Havana segar, cheaper than the Imported and equally as good and which challenges competition at the same time we make a handsome profit."

Unhappily, Tylee had landed in a position where two serious drawbacks existed to his future employment. First, two of the partners grew discouraged, departed, and left affairs in the hands of Ramon Salas, the least reliable member of the firm. Then a revolution broke out in Cuba. On 22 February 1869 Tylee circulated a form letter to prospective buyers that read, "Having some real fine Imported Havana Segars, for sale cheap on commission, for a refugee just from Cuba, I take the liberty to solicit your attention to them....These Segars were imported in Charleston direct from Havana and are lower than can be bought for again in a long while on account of the troubles in Cuba."

For a while, Tylee remained unemployed. He finally found a position in the South Carolina Railroad office. During his later years, he worked for Edwin Welling's planing mill and lumber yard at the east end of Columbus Street.

Tylee's political sentiments often surfaced in letters to northern correspondents. On 17 April 1867 he wrote, "Gen. Sickles has given general satisfaction to I believe the whole community and seems disposed in the execution of his onerous duties to be mild and gentlemanly to all. I am glad we have such a man with us for instead of trouble and riot as many predicted every thing goes on more quiet and peacible than before and there is much more confidence exhibited than we had any reason to hope for. Gen. Sickles though vested with power has no inclination to use it and has and is making warm friends among our entire people."

A letter of 5 February 1868 comments on the Radical convention that was drawing up the new state constitution-"a greater set of renegades, scoundrels and theives was never convened together yet than is now making laws for gentlemen," while an 18 July 1868 letter suggests that "The Ku Klux Klan...is altogether an imaginary organization, the report being raised by the Radicals themselves for political effect, like a good many other reports of a sinister nature and all equally without any foundation."

In February 1868 Tylee contacted the New York book dealer and bibliographer Joseph Sabin, who had advertised for an original five-volume set of John Marshall's Life of George Washington. Tylee was acting as agent for a Charleston widow who owned the set. "They would not be parted with on account of being a family relic but the pinching time with many of our Southern people has compelled my aged friend to sever like the rest all that was near to her."

Still fuming a week later over the plight of his aged friend, Tylee vented his spleen in a letter to another correspondent-"Nothing prosperous, nothing bright, nothing to cheer us up, but the nigger supreme, takes the lead and almost makes me ashamed to say he is a citizen of the U.S. May God in mercy grant a change soon and put us once more under the constitution our forefathers fought for and won....Oh how my blood boils when I think of the way our Country is going to ruin and the people to want and destitution. While I am one of those who acted in the late struggle I am nor never was one to wish the constitution trampled under foot by any one and I am therefore bitter against those who will attempt it now. I wish the Country as it was in the time of Washington and there is no reason now that it should not be so."

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