The collective experiences of three generations of the family of Elihu (1798-1859) and Permelia Wright Niswanger Watson (1805-1895) of Cokesbury are revealed in this collection of forty-nine manuscripts that consists largely of letters chronicling the Civil War experiences of a household that sustained profound losses in the final year of hostilities. Elihu and Permelia, both of whom were natives of Laurens District, married in 1822 and reputedly were converted at a Methodist camp meeting in 1831. Such was their devotion to the Methodist church that they determined in 1839 to remove with their children to Cokesbury, a Methodist community that was the center of that denomination’s educational activity in South Carolina.
A number of letters included in the collection are addressed to Mrs. Watson as matriarch of the family. Her son Jacob Manly (1827-1854) wrote from Lincoln County, Ga., on 10 September 1847 to inquire about the family’s health and inform them of the failing condition of Aunt Linville. The letter also discusses the school where Watson taught, gives an account of a camp meeting he had attended, and reassures his mother that he was “striving to live according to the faith; which I trust I have received in Christ Jesus....Mother the hymns of earth are sweet. But if we are faithful we shall be permitted to join the choir in heaven where absence will be no more.” Jacob was still residing in Georgia a year later when he wrote on 18 September 1848. Thanking his mother and sisters for their letters and rejoicing that “you are all not only well so far as regards your health but are well with reference to your spiritual welfare,” he expressed uncertainty about remaining as a teacher in Lincoln County. Watson had recently been confined with a fever that caused him to miss a religious meeting at Cherokee—“it was not such a meeting as yours for gathering in of the rebellious sons of men, it was nevertheless not very far short...12 were added to the church and 20 were converted.” Jacob M. Watson died less than five years later, at age twenty-seven, from typhoid fever. An account dated 22 July 1854 reports the young man’s final words as he prepared to die.
Permelia Watson’s eldest son, Adolphus Kerr (1826-1853), a physician at Phoenix in Edgefield District, wrote on 22 March 1851 regarding the health of his wife and child and discoursing on the fervor of his religious convictions—“when Brother Brown preached I took care to leave the Devil at home that day, and ere he was done preaching I determined that come what might pray I would that night and somehow the old Boy did not care to pester me that evening.” Adolphus wrote again on 14 July 1852 to inform his parents of the death of his infant son Elihu Legare.
Another sibling, Elihu Wesley Watson (1835-1865), wrote from Cokesbury on 9 May 54 to tell his brother Jacob about the death of cousin Elizabeth Sims, report on the male and female academies and the new chapel—“It looks well what there is of it, but every one who has seen it ejaculates with a look of wonder and amazement why did they build it so small,” and relate community news, including the anticipated laying of the cornerstone of the Female Masonic Institute. Wesley was still awaiting word on his appointment to West Point and noted that he had attended a recent public debate at which the topic being considered was “Whether the safety of a country depends more upon the statesman or warrior” and a May party where the “young ladies” delivered speeches.
Wesley was attending South Carolina College in 1857 when he penned a letter on 29 June to thank his mother “that I have been trained up to read the Bible—to respect the Sabbath—to pray, and to visit regularly the holy sanctuary of the most high.” Mr. Pelham, he noted, had asked that he and a friend “give our aid in repressing some disorders in the campus” which they refused to do as “such a thing would be unprecidented.” The telegraphic dispatch announcing the death of Congressman Preston S. Brooks elicited the following observation from Watson—“It brings home the thought, and that thought induces the reflection that we are frail & miserable creatures destined at some distant day...to become the victims of worms and the occupants of the dreary tomb.”
Two letters posted by Wesley from Grahamville near Charleston reveal that he was teaching school there after graduating from college in 1858. The earlier one, 2 February 1858, comments on his living arrangements and activities—“shooting ducks, partridges, snipes &c. all of which abound here,” and alludes to his plans—“April I expect to devote to fishing, visiting the young Ladies—going to Savannah or Charleston, and as there is a great rage about Cuba now in Congress I may...go thither.” The subsequent letter, addressed to brother John Emory Watson, reports that Mr. Broughton and his wife were away in Charleston and Beaufort. “He has left as much powder and shot as I can waste—as many cigars as I can smoke—two fine horses and a buggy and boy at my disposal, which latter I may use in visiting my friends in Grahamville.” The locals Wesley characterized as “very polite and genteel—and sociable,—tho’ somewhat aristocratic in their mode of thinking and acting.”
Nineteen Civil War era letters attest to the involvement of the Watsons in this momentous sectional struggle and bear witness to the losses the family sustained at a point when the fighting seemed near an end. Five of the Watson sons fought for the Confederacy. Two survived the conflict but three died in April 1865. One, Wesley, died only days before Appomattox. Permelia Watson lost not only three sons in 1865 but a daughter-in-law and granddaughter as well.
With the onset of hostilities, Wesley Watson, who had removed to Alabama, enlisted for twelve months in “the Independent Rifles from Montgomery.” His letter of 28 May 1861 indicates that they were moving towards Corinth, Miss. He asked to be remembered in his family’s prayers and noted—“It is a matter of life and death with us now and all are expected to contribute a part to the defense of our liberty & our homes.” By 2 June 1861 Wesley had reached Corinth and wrote of his disappointment at not being allowed to attend church. A minister had come to the camp but that did little to allay Watson’s concerns over his own mortality. “I am confident that my life hangs upon a thread & I think it well for me to prepare for the final end of all men,” Wesley wrote. His fellow soldiers, he reported, “like all soldiers are very careless of religion as well as reckless of their lives.”
Wesley’s younger brother John Emory Watson (1838-1889) was a student at Wofford College when he wrote home on 29 May 1861 to ask his mother if she would consent to his joining the Confederate army. “I will trust in the Lord,” Emory Watson wrote. “Christ shall be my pilot. He will guide my bark through all dangers till it is safely moored in the heaven of eternal rest.”
The second year of war found Wesley Watson and the Sixth Alabama Infantry in Virginia. Writing from Yorktown on 29 April 62, he reported that the enemy was shelling them continuously and that he expected “a great & bloody battle.” “I never felt more depressed in my life—discouraged and disheartened on account of this odious oppressive conscript law, binding me to serve on in my present capacity when but for this I might secure for myself a better position,” he complained. Watson and his comrades in arms had been in the trenches two days after which they rested for two days. “If I have to stay in the war as a private,” he noted, “I must have Richmond if possible—or some servant. I can’t stand it this way.” Wesley Watson was promoted to sergeant major in 1862.
Wesley’s unit fought at Gettysburg in July 1863. Afterward he wrote from Staunton, Va., on 10 July to tell his mother that he had survived the fight. Gettysburg, he asserted, was “the greatest of all battles in modern times almost. It was terrific and destructive beyond all description.” Watson had captured an “elegant” sword, and during the march through Pennsylvania he had talked with citizens in Carlisle, including a Dr. Johnson, “an unmitigated abolitionist and a bitter enemy to the south.” Richmond, Wesley Watson’s body servant had been captured at South Mountain on the retreat from Gettysburg.
Two letters were sent by Wesley from the headquarters of the Sixth Alabama Regiment, near Orange Court House, Va., during August 1863. That of 19 August indicates that he had heard nothing of Richmond’s whereabouts—“I have given him up as lost,” and tells of his work on behalf of the executive committee of the Army Christian Association. Watson had shaved his beard and was superintending the construction of an arbor “from which our pastor is to preach.” Writing again two days later, he noted that it was a fast day with all operations suspended and three worship services. “I shall try to take more interest in these matters than I have done heretofore—and I trust that you will pray for me that I may have moral courage to do so,” he confided to his mother. The army was attended by three chaplains and services were held three or four times a week. Wesley’s final letter from 1863 is dated 23 October and was posted from a camp near Kelly’s Ford, Rappahannock River, where the troops were preparing winter quarters.
By the time Wesley wrote again to Emory, on 12 April 1864, preparations were underway for “another active campaign.” “I wish this horrid war would close,” he declared, “for I am tired of it if any mortal is. I trust through the Providence of God we will be able to bring it to close this year.” A 17 December 1864 letter from Alpheus Watson, Tullifiny Works, mentions the death in Virginia of “Mr. [W.H.] Blackmon....I sympathize deeply with the family, & pray the Lord to sustain them in their sad bereavement. Cokesbury has lost one of its most useful citizens.”
As the lifeblood of the Southern Confederacy began to ebb with the dawn of 1865, the letters of the Watson family take on a tone of greater urgency. Vinnie Watson wrote to Wesley from Marion, N.C., on 10 February congratulating him on his furlough and commending the beauty of the country where they were living although “these mountains are the dens of bandits from whence they come in stillness of night to annoy, plunder and murder the silent slumberers.” “I love the gallant soldiers who endure hardships for their country’s rights,” the letters continues, “& detest those who desert the post of duty to prowl the country committing the most atrocious crimes. They are men generally who have neither principle or property.” Wesley Watson, who had been promoted to the rank of first lieutenant and adjutant, was still on furlough at his mother’s home in Cokesbury on 19 February when he wrote expressing concern about his return to Virginia as the Union invaders continued their advancement through South Carolina—“There is considerable trepidation among the people about me lest the Yanks should pay me a visit. I think there is some probability of a raid passing through this section of country making Greenville their objective point as there are some manufacturing interest in that region.” The area, he maintained, was defenseless. “There are no regular troops...nothing but militia composed of the old farmers who have neither arms nor ammunition.”
The last Civil War letters in the collection were penned by Alpheus Turrentine Watson (1832-1865) and are addressed to his wife, Hannah “Hannie” Frances Herbert. From the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina State Troops, he wrote on 25 February 1865 to tell of the evacuation of James Island and the route afterwards which covered seventy-five miles in five days. He wrote again on 14 March from near Raleigh, N.C., reporting that they had been on the march ever since leaving Cheraw, expressing disappointment at being denied transportation on the trains which were “all busy transporting troops to Kinston,” and expecting to march to Greensboro and then Charlotte. By the time of the final letter, 24 March 1865, A.T. Watson and his fellow Confederates were encamped on a hill near the railroad depot in Spartanburg. The letter comments on the hardships endured since leaving James Island and speculates on the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds with them—“It was really distressing to see so many of the boys limping along with sore & blistered feet, a great many ragged, some almost naked, & some more or less sick. But notwithstanding all that, there was but little straggling in our Brigade of ‘State Troops.’”