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Letters Chronicle Confederate Soldier's War

History: The correspondence with his wife helps descendants get to know long-deceased ancestor. They persuade an author to tell his story.

November 22, 1998|ALLEN G. BREED | ASSOCIATED PRESS

STATESBORO, Ga. — At 89, Paul Nessmith is one of the few in his family old enough to remember anything personal about his Grampa Wiley.

He recalls the huge pistol Wiley kept on a nail over his bed, and how he watched in awe during the sticky Georgia evenings as the old man picked off roosting bats from the front porch. When 7-year-old Paul begged to shoot the cannon himself, Wiley agreed, but on one condition: First catch that yellow butterfly fluttering in the yard.

"I didn't catch the butterfly--and I didn't get to shoot the pistol either," he says with a chuckle.

But Nessmith had no stories of his grandfather's Civil War exploits--how he was wounded in the Wilderness campaign west of Fredericksburg, Va.; how he survived battles at Petersburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, all in Virginia; how he came to be at that state's Appomattox Courthouse when Robert E. Lee surrendered. Wiley never talked of any of that.

The war was not something to reminisce about for the simple farmer who had never ventured outside the state before. The fighting took four of his five brothers and gave him a Yankee Minie ball in his leg as a remembrance.

"He just wanted to forget it," says his grandson.

But now the taciturn farmer is saying in death what he never did in life.

He's speaking through long-lost love letters.

Unabashed Language in Cache of Notes

"My Dear wife you dont no how glad i would be iff i could get to see you once more on earth it would be grate plesure ... to hear that pease was made so i could come home to see you and to stay with you the remander of my days and to injoy my self with you as i once hase in days that is paste an gone."

The ungrammatical but unabashed language of this note, sent by Wiley to his wife, Martha Ann, on March 15, 1863, typifies the cache of correspondence that is the basis for a new book, "Deep in the Heart," by Randall Floyd.

It is the latest in a string of novels by Southern authors about common Confederate soldiers. Like the celebrated "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, and "The Black Flower," by Howard Bahr, it is a story that has almost nothing to do with the South's "peculiar institution," slavery, and everything to do with just surviving and getting back home.

Floyd, a journalist turned history professor, was not interested in the project when Ann Wildenradt first approached him with her great-grandfather's letters, which had been found in a Virginia farmhouse. But Wildenradt and her husband, Wally, persisted.

The letters, 40 in all, had much in common with other Civil War letters collected over the years, and yet Wiley's words moved Floyd.

"It's a genuine, heartfelt, deep-in-the-earth type approach to explaining his love for his wife," he says. "Between the lines . . . I saw a great, beautiful, compelling story."

Using the letters as a map, Floyd has told that story in the book, released in August.

Letters Reveal Man's Homesickness

Wiley Nessmith was 21 when he enlisted on March 4, 1862, as a private in the 49th Georgia Infantry. He left his 20-year-old wife alone to care for their daughter, Joanna, just 8 months old.

Homesickness set in quickly.

"I want to cume home mity bad bad as you want me to cume," he wrote May 5, 1862, from Goldsboro, N.C. "Dear wife we cant git a fullw [furlough] under sixty days i want to cume home the fust of august if i can but dont now when it wil be."

But August came and went, and no furlough was granted. By December, he was in a hospital recovering from "newmoney" and apologizing for not sending any wages home.

"I would like for you to hav some of it but i dont see any chance to send it to you," Wiley wrote. "I hav to by some thing to eat for I dont get half a nuf."

Despite his hardships, Wiley worried about his family.

He sent instructions about taking care of the hogs, he bemoaned the loss of a pocketbook that contained locks of his wife's and baby's hair, and he wrote often of "littel Jay," telling Martha Ann to "kiss the baby for me and call it Shuger candy."

Although he could not have known the full import of the Battle of Gettysburg, it was clear Wiley was beginning to wonder if he would make it out alive.

"My Dear wife i want to see you to tell you a bout the big fight we had in Peen sail vaineea," he wrote on July 8, 1863. "if i liv to git in dicks [Dixie] land i will write you all the ness i have."

Whatever Wiley's motivations at the beginning of the war, two years of fighting had taken their toll.

"My Dear you Semh to think if we went back in to the union we woud be a ruining peapel but i can tel you it wont hurt as a tall," he wrote from Orange Courthouse, Va., on Aug. 19, 1863.

By February 1864, the war's privations had shriveled the 6-foot-2-inch farmer to 113 pounds. The following month, the man who had written so faithfully to his wife confessed that he had taken up with a "mity purty little Sweethart" in Virginia.

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