One hundred seven letters , 1862-1864, written primarily by James Michael Barr (1829-1864) to his wife, Rebecca Ann Dowling Barr (1840-1921), while he served as a private in the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, shed much light on the concerns of a mid-nineteenth-century yeoman farmer.
James Michael Barr, the eighth of fourteen children of Michael (1791-1874) and Mary Ann Minnick Barr (1798-1871), grew up near Leesville in Lexington District, S.C. In 1853 he was commissioned as a major in the state militia in the Upper Battalion, Fifteenth Regiment of Infantry. Thereafter, he was often called "Major" by friends and family, even while serving as a private in the Civil War. On 21 June 1859 Barr married Rebecca Ann Dowling, the eighth and last child of Decania (1803-1857) and Elizabeth Zorn Dowling (1803-1865) of Barnwell District. Before the war, Rebecca gave birth to one son, James Dowling Barr, and during the war to three more children: John Wesley Barr, Charlie Decania Barr, and a daughter who died the day after her birth.
In January 1863 James Barr joined what would become Co. I, Fifth South Carolina Cavalry. Apart from some light skirmishing around Pocotaligo [Jasper County, S.C.], the unit had seen no large-scale action prior to Barr’s enlistment. As evidenced by Barr’s own urgings for his acquaintances to join him, many men saw service in the unit as a good way to avoid fighting in large engagements further north. Barr spent close to a year in the relative safety of the South Carolina coast. In McClellanville (Charleston County, S.C.), his main complaint was of sand flies. He wrote to his wife on 1 May 1863, "The sand flies is enoughf to wory the life out of our horses. If we want to sleep we have to cover head and ears up in a blanket and then they will creep through go up our sleeves and pants."
In late November 1863 his unit relocated to James Island, S.C. On 2 December 1863 he wrote home about the proximity of his unit to enemy soldiers: "A yankie offered a man the other day a fine Cavalry pair of boots for a peck of potatoes. One came down near our post Tuesday morning wanted to swap papers. He came in five steps so I heared. I was on picket at the time but had been relieved a short time before he came down. Our men are forbiden to talk with them. It is agains orders, but I expect the orders is violated by some. However I heard none of our men talks to them."
After James joined the army, Rebecca found herself in charge of managing the crops, livestock, and African-American slaves (who numbered twelve in 1860). Like many women during the war, she lived completely outside her traditional role of wife and mother by also assuming the daunting challenge of running a farm. Early on, James gave Rebecca detailed instructions on every aspect of farming, but by the time his regiment was ordered to Virginia, Barr seems to have felt more comfortable with his wife’s ability to manage the farm on her own.
Some of the most significant and interesting portions of the letters are those in which James details for Rebecca precisely what should be done on the farm, such as a letter written on 29 January 1863 in which he instructed, "dont let the cattle and sheep go together as they may get all the young ones killed" and further reminded her, "Bill will soon commence to hall manure for the cotten patch out of lot [and] stable manure for corn. Walter Quattelbaum will trim my young Peach trees. You would better tie more string to them." He told her to "have all the mold rubbed off the meat and you would better have the hogs that is up killed for I dont think they will get any better keep the meat smoked till it is dry dont forget to smoke with chiny bearies dont let no wone ride my colt." Barr also wrote often about the price of foods, especially salt, eggs, and meats.
Another valuable aspect of the Barr letters is found in their numerous references to the management of slaves on a small farm. From his letters, Barr’s attitude regarding his slaves can be surmised. After his wife wrote to him that one of the women had lost her baby, he wrote on 2 June 1863, "As for Cate loosing her young one is no more than I expected. Yet all told me they would take care and not toat anything heavie. If she did it purposely, it would be enoughf to hang her. But lazyness I should guess to be the cause. She ought not to have washed at the spring. I do not think you ought to worry yourself so much as to be loosing so much sleep on account of what one brings on themself. For Cate did do it herself and it is a great wonder she did not die too. Hope the rest has lernt better sence and will take warning." Rebecca informed James about various misfortunes that befell the farm, from lost pigs to poor crops. James inevitably blamed these incidents on the laziness of his slaves. He wrote on 10 January 1864 that "if the negroes do not work better they wont need no meat for if they dont work I dont care wheather I feed them or not."
Barr was proud to be doing his part for the Southern cause and he often wrote bitterly about those that he felt were not supporting the Confederacy, or worse, those who were profiting from the war. On 5 June 1863 he informed Rebecca that soon the men who had hired substitutes would be called to service and inquired, "Do you ever hear whether the patriotick Emanuel Quattlebaum has yet gone in servis or not. I guess not. A man can talk and act brave when he is at home." He wrote on 21 July 1863, "I suppose their are a many one at home wishing the war would stop for fear they will have to go in and yet never think of praying to God for it. Oh, how weaked our people are, and I do not think the war will stop whilst so much wickedness abound. All thinking how they can make money. That I guess is the chief object of their study." Barr expanded on these thoughts in a letter of 20 November 1863: "Yet it seemes that some will stay at home setting up to their tables and sleeping on good beds and thinking how they can make money hardly thinking of a poor soldier unless thinking how they can make money off of him. My dear those that is blest with the privolage of staying at home ought to do all that lay in their power for a soldier who is saccrifising his life and everything that is dear to him. But is this the case I fear not. Two much speculation buying and selling. Can our cause prosper when so much of this is done. Ought to put every such man in servis."
In the spring of 1864 the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry was ordered to Virginia, and James wrote to Rebecca on 10 May 1864 not to be "alarmed for me I came hear to fight for our freedom." Barr saw action at Chester Station, Drewry’s Bluff, Atkinson’s Farm, and South Side. He also took part in some of the largest cavalry engagements of the war, including the Battles of Haw’s Shop, Atlee’s Station, Cold Harbor, and Trevilian Station, where he was wounded on 11 June 1864 and taken to Charlottesville General Hospital. He informed his wife on 14 June 1864 that he "was wounded in the leg last Saturday the 11th. I was shot about one inch below the cap of my right k[n]ee on the inside."
Two days later, he gave more details about what had happened: "I had to ly on the battle field about one hour. Then two men toted me off to a hollow, then got a litter put me on it and carried me to an Ambulance and I assure you I had a ruff time in it running from the Yanks. They didn’t get me, but my leg was awfuly brused as the road was so ruff." Barr seemed to be mending well, but took a turn for the worse and his leg was amputated above the knee on 7 July 1864. The following day his friend George Meetze wrote for Rebecca to come immediately. She arrived with her brother after a long and arduous journey to find that James had undergone a second amputation in an effort to prevent further infection from spreading. However, it was too late. Rebecca was able to spend several days with her husband before he died on 29 August 1864.
These and other letters have been transcribed, edited and published in Let Us Meet in Heaven: The Civil War Letters of James Michael Barr, 5th South Carolina Cavalry, edited by Thomas D. Mays.