A substantial addition of two hundred sixty-six manuscripts to the papers of John Charles McClenaghan (1835-1863) documents the courtship of McClenaghan and Mary Sophia Betts whom he married in 1856 or 1857. A native of Marion District, McClenaghan studied at Winnsboro’s Mt. Zion Institute before enrolling at South Carolina College in 1853. Mary Betts, daughter of itinerant Methodist minister Charles Betts, was also from Marion.
Between 1854 and the spring of 1856, when Charles McClenaghan left South Carolina College following his involvement in the “guard house riot,” there are ninety-two letters between Charles and Mary, both of whom expressed their love for each other with nineteenth-century eloquence. On New Year’s eve 1854, Charles wrote Mary between the hours of 11:00 and 12:00—“’Tis the last of ’54 and how am I engaged? There is something to me sweetly appropriate in dedicating this parting moment to you.” Writing on New Year’s day 1855, Mary informed Charles of her sadness upon leaving Marion—“Dear old Village, twill be a bright spot on memory’s page....The Village and ’54 will always be associated together in my mind.” On 26 January, Charles, writing late at night as he usually did, let Mary know that “counting the beatings of my heart as it speaks a story of love, am thinking of this, and vainly sighing to be near you.”
As did many courting individuals who seldom saw each other, Charles and Mary exchanged daguerreotypes. Mary showed Charles’ to her mother—“She likes your face very much indeed” (7 March 1855). Charles sent her another daguerreotype in September; and although he did not think it a good one, he urged her, “when you get it think of all my Love as I will think of thine” (29 September and 1 October 1855). Mary intended to reciprocate, for as she was preparing to leave for Charleston, 25 October 1855, she wrote—“when you get your Picture you will see that I have not fallen away a single bit, oh I intend to surprise you in that, for I will look so well.”
Charles’ letters occasionally contain references to his studies and activities and to events at the college. His letter of 26 January 1855 informs Mary of the fire that destroyed the “old chapel and annexed college buildings.” Charles received an invitation from Dr. Lieber to meet some young ladies who were staying with the Lieber family but declined because “[he] did not have a decent suit of clothes” (10 March 1855). In May 1855 the students participated in “a revel on the campus,” and although his class faced the prospect of temporary dismissal, he was certain that “it would not interfere with my ultimate graduation” (29 May 1855).
The resignation of President Thornwell in the winter of 1855 produced uncertainty and controversy on the campus—“Thornwell’s quitting is precisely what I do not wish—and if McCay is selected it will be more than precisely what I don’t wish” (18 November 1855). He was at home in Marion in December and was under pressure from his father to transfer to Harvard—“let me say that I am going back to Columbia. This does not much suit Father; it provokes me, and pleases Mother since it happened as a consequence of a direct request from her” (30 December 1855).
McClenaghan was uncertain about remaining in school when he returned after the first of the year. Mary was of the opinion that he “would like to graduate” (15 February 1856). But there was unrest at the college as students opposed the presidency of Charles McCay. McClenaghan apparently took a leading role in fomenting opposition. He proclaimed in a letter of 17 February—“The whole of my plotting and electioneering, and tugging...was put to the test. and went through splendidly.” He added that all but five or six students “have voted a petition to the Trustees that they turn out McCay, and reorganize the Faculty.” Within days after this letter was written, McClenaghan’s classmate Duncan McIntyre had to inform Mary of an altercation between students and the police “during which John got his right-hand quite badly hurt, so much so, that he has requested me to write.”
While recuperating, Charles stayed at the home of William Campbell Preston. He was grateful for the Prestons’ hospitality and for Col. Preston’s assurance that he would not be indicted for assault and battery, but he now lamented that “college days with me are over.” He was uncertain whether he faced “dismissal, as a rebel,” or suspension, but he was resolved that “if I am not in gaol I will be in Marion in three weeks” (24 February 1856).
There are two letters from McClenaghan’s friend James Wood Davidson, an 1852 graduate of South Carolina College, who later authored School History of South Carolina and compiled Living Writers of the South. The first letter, 21 October 1855, written from Winnsboro where he was teaching at Mt. Zion Institute, expressed his unfavorable opinion of William John Grayson’s The Hireling and the Slave—“I concluded...that it was an ephemera whose sin was the agitation of that subject and of course destined to doubly die with the ‘going down thereof.’ I have politically little sympathy with that blood-and-thunder policy so popular in our state which gloats on occasions for outraging the feelings of our natural enemies, the abolitionists, and feel that the cause of truth usually suffers in every such encounter.” As he often did in his letters, Davidson included commentary on several female acquaintances. A second letter, 1 February 1856, opens with a discussion of daguerreotypes of two female friends. Davidson noted that one of the women, “the confiding ‘Allidine’....is ambitious beyond the wont of women—cold to many, a sister to me—cold, and yet a favorite with the many...the confidante of few—liberal in her opinions for a woman, and yet a devout Christian.” Davidson included in this letter critical commentary on thirty-one South Carolina writers, male and female.
There is a gap in the correspondence between 1856 and 1861 except for single letters in 1857 and 1858. Charles and Mary were planning their wedding in 1856, and it is likely that they were married in this year. By January 1861 Charles McClenaghan was in the army and wrote “My Own Dear Wife” from the Moultrie House in Charleston. He described the firing on the Star of the West which he observed from the piazza of the Moultrie House. Mary complained that although she read the newspapers “closely and thoughtfully,” she did not understand the current state of affairs. She could not comprehend South Carolina’s policy—“It cannot be possible that she will allow that Flag to wave over our Harbor and still declare ourselves free.”
McClenaghan was serving in Virginia in June 1861. Writing from Richmond, 8 June, he noted—“There is not one-tenth the excitement and feeling in reference to the war in this city, that there is in Marion.” Later that month from Camp Carolina, Charles informed his wife that four “Carolina Regiments” constituted the First Brigade of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Gen. M.L. Bonham (21 June 1861). McClenaghan was present at First Manassas but did not offer a detailed account of that battle. He did advise his wife—“All I ask of you my own, now, is that you will school your love to submit with resignation to any fate which may befall me. I am trying to live right: so that should I fall you may be happy in the thought of meeting me again.”
Mary McClenaghan traveled with several others to Virginia in August. She stayed there more than two months. Shortly before leaving for Virginia, she informed her husband of affairs at home and around Marion. Apparently there were a number of runaway slaves in the area as Mary had seen in town “about a dozen Gentlemen with guns on their shoulders and mounted...with about the same number...on foot, with a crowd of dogs.” The runaways were rumored to have a camp in the swamp—“they are becoming outrageous coming into peoples houses...in the Village stealing” (30 July).
His wife informed him of the occupation of the South Carolina coast in a letter of 10 November. He obviously had heard the news from another source as he commented on the occupation in a letter to her on the 11th. He also complained about the poor morale of his unit—“there is little cordiality and less efficiency.” His irritation extended beyond his immediate unit to the President of the Confederacy—“I could curse with a bitter heart our President....May God forgive me if I do him injustice. May God punish him with the last pains if he is deceiving the country.” Later that month he related to Mary the details of a duel between Capt. Cuthbert and a Mr. Courtenay. He was present and may have had a role in the affair for he told his wife—“Yesterday satisfied me of two things: a well conducted affair of honor is a good thing. 2nd The wisdom of being prepared for it under the code” (22 November).
By January 1862 McClenaghan’s unit was preparing winter quarters. In a letter of 12 January he expressed concern for the future of the Confederacy—“We have, as a people fallen short of what was expected of us. And I really feel that our Revolution will prove radically imperfect.” The “old Union,” he observed, “was broken not for any act; or acts committed against us. But it represented a false principle,—and to put this right we dissolved it.” Because the South had become apologetic about slavery, “[w]e are begging for recognition and don’t care to offend the polite and delicate sensibilities of those we beg by hiding the negro. In diplomacy we call him Cotton, Rice, Tobacco, anything but negro.” His somber mood continued in his letter of 19 January in which he noted the observation of the Sabbath—“[it] disgraces the Government and reflects shamefully upon the character of our people.” He also commented on “facts as related in History” and called into question the accounts of the war. He specifically cited John Bachman’s sermon on “the Great Battle of Fort Sumter?” and accounts of Bull Run. His next complaint in a letter of 25 January was the mail service—“These little grievances constantly at work...while nothing but imbecility characterizes our Government in high and weighty matters, are enough to break down the spirit of less than a Southern people.”
The final wartime letter was written from Charleston where McClenaghan had been transferred to serve as first quartermaster on Col. R.F. Graham’s staff. Having just heard Gov. F.W. Pickens’ message, he admired it as “an able State paper,” but thought it “a pity that so good a writer should be such a fool in all the wisdom of life.” There was uncertainty about who would be the next governor, but that mattered little as there was “a general feeling of disappointment when the men of our day pass in review. ‘A plentiful crop of small potatoes.’”
Charles McClenaghan remained in South Carolina and died in Charleston on 6 March 1863. His widow Mary married their mutual friend Duncan McIntyre.