The Life of Col. Samuel M. Wickersham, based on his writings 1863-1894, ed. Edward Wickersham Hoffman

After a few days off (and very relaxing holiday) I’m back to bookblogging again. I have built up quite a backlog thanks to general downtime an also some shorter books, though this one is not very short.

Second paragraph of third letter (from Yorktown, VA, 7 December 1862):

My regiment is pronounced by the officers as the best that has ever landed at their shores and their arrival is a valuable addition to the strength of this important post. After reporting, leaving one company in barracks in the Fort I marched the other companies to the boat. Deposited guns and knapsacks and they distributed the rations and gave them privilege to go ashore and cook their vitals [sic] and a happy merry time they had. All are now on board, gone to roost, guards are stationed, and I am writing to my dear little wife. Tomorrow morning I go to Gloucester, across the York River, to select the ground for my camp and lay it out for winter quarters where I hope to succeed in training my men rightly. All are in good spirits and anxious to acquire knowledge in their art.

More of the correspondence of my great-great-grandfather, a Pittsburgh iron merchant who married his third wife, my great-great-grandmother, in 1860 as the Civil War loomed. She seems to have been very diligent about keeping his correspondence; none of hers to him or to anyone else survives, but we also have a few letters from the daughters of his earlier marriages, addressed to “Mother” (ie their stepmother).

The first volume in this series dealt with the courtship between Samuel Wickersham and Fanny Belt; they lived most of their subsequent lives together, so the only other substantial amount of correspondence comes from his six months of service in the Civil War (briefly in charge of the Pennsylvania 22nd regiment and then second-in-command of the Pennsylvania 169th), and then settling back into the swing of things immediately after when she was spending a lot of time in Philadelphia – partly due to her father’s illness, but also their relationship seems to have had the occasional rocky patch.

Wickersham did not have a terribly dangerous civil war. The Pennsylvania 169th lost a total of eleven men in the few months of its existence, all through disease and none in combat. The closest they got to serious action was pursuing the defeated Lee southwards after Gettysburg, but at that point the Confederates were too busy running away to shoot back. Most of Wickersham’s letters to his wife complain that he has not been paid yet, that she hasn’t written recently and/or that he has got diarrhoea again. There is also some rather sweet commentary on the children, including my great-grandmother getting her first teeth.

Content warning: racism

The most interesting thing for me is that although he was fighting in a war to end slavery, he was still pretty racist. From the 7 December 1862 letter:

4,000 contraband [freed slaves] are quartered about the town in tents or shanties. General Nagle says the best houses in these parts are occupied by them, and woe betide the officer who would displace them to accommodate the soldiers. I told him that if the needs of comfort of my men come into collision with those of the negroes, I fear I shall be recusant to any such orders.

From 13 February 1863:

I hope to do my whole duty to my country under all circumstances, but the negro I never did and never will acknowledge but as an inferior race. I am not and never was an abolitionist, but now to end this war, I would take from our enemies all that strengthen their arms to strike us and if we could afterwards deport the entire negro race to some other clime a source of the most wicked crimes and demoralising influences on our own race would be removed.

From 21 July 1863, after the post-Gettysburg pursuit:

The backbone of this heinous rebellion is broken and the end of it appears. Let us thank God for this. The reign of the n****r in the South ends with it and white man will take his proper place there and Virginia will yet be what nature has so fitted her to be the great state of the union.

It is quite an extraordinary leap to describe the antebellum South as being under the “reign of the n****r”. And I am left not quite understanding why he was so enthusiastic about the war, if he was so prejudiced against African-Americans and actually opposed to Abolition. I guess that there is context here that I have not seen.

One more point of historical mystery: on 25 October 1866, he writes to Fanny,

I have just been tendered the appointment of Asst. Secretary of War & asked for my acceptance. What say you? Mr. Stanton retires & Gen. Sherman takes the position of Secretary of War & ’tis under the new Secty that the offer is made to me.

President Johnson was in perpetual conflict with Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and indeed his attempt to fire him in 1868 would eventually lead to his impeachment. In October 1866, Johnson must have been hoping that the November elections would give him more room to manoeuvre. Wickersham was friends with Andrew Curtin, the Governor of Pennsylvania, who presumably would have recommended him in Washington.

In fact, the radical Republicans, who felt (entirely correctly) that Johnson was being too soft on the former rebels, won a crushing victory in the 1866 elections and we hear no more of Wickersham’s ambitions in the Executive Branch. (Forty-odd years later, his son was appointed Attorney-General by President Taft.)

There are some interesting personal glimpses as well. There is a mysterious incident where Wickersham fauxpologises, twice, to Fanny for destroying a photograph of her that he did not like, and then tries to guilt her into coming home from her parents, a pattern that is all too familiar to students of human nature. Wickersham’s oldest daughter, Katie, writes several letters to her stepmother about her courtship with a boy we know only as Will G. She never married and died of tuberculosis in her forties. A number of Wickersham’s sketches have survived, as has a single faded flower plucked from the fields of Virginia in the spring of 1863.

There is no point in sugar-coating the past; our ancestors were people of their time, and it is better to acknowledge the facts of racism and injustice than to pretend that they did not exist. This book is probably of limited interest except to the specialist, or to Wickersham’s (many) descendants, but you can get it here.