Smith Family Letters
Four Carroll County, Virginia Soldiers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865

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The Letters and their Writers
The fifty letters in this collection cover the period from July 1861 to February 1865, spanning almost the entire duration of the Civil War. The four writers were sons of Alexander Smith (1807-93), a prosperous farmer living at Pine Creek in Carroll County, Virginia. The brothers were members of the 29th, 50th, and 54th Virginia Infantry Regiments; their letters are concerned with events on several fronts: fighting in northwest (now West) Virginia in 1861-62, the siege of Suffolk in 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville and the retreat from Gettysburg in 1863, and skirmishing in the New River Valley in 1864. They also concern events in Carroll County: recruiting, desertions, and an obscure family conflict between the Smiths and the Shockleys of Hillsville that culminated in the deaths of Barton Smith and his uncle John (“Jack”) Smith in 1863. The collection includes one miscellaneous letter by John N. Ridgeway, a sergeant in Company D, 58th Regiment, Virginia Infantry.
Most of the letters are either to, by, or about Stephen Mitchell Smith (1832-1913), Alexander Smith's second son who worked as a blacksmith at Pine Creek. The existing letters were part of a much larger exchange among the family members, but Stephen's correspondence is what chiefly survives. A running thread in the letters concerns attempts to shield him from conscription on account of his poor health. His family was also sickly; three young children died of diphtheria in early 1863. He did military service from December 1864 to February 1865 in a rag-tag detachment of the 54th Regiment guarding the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad under the command of Robert C. Trigg and William R. Hammet. The surviving letters by Stephen were written to his wife and cover only the brief period of his service. They are laconic, but in the absence of published records are of value as recording the closing days of the war in the New River Valley.
The chief letter-writer is William Alexander Smith (1835-1868) who worked as a schoolteacher in Carroll before volunteering for service in June 1861. He was quickly promoted to second lieutenant in Company I of the 50th Infantry, a unit that consisted of Carroll County men, many of whom seem to have been relations by blood or marriage. He has comparatively little to say about the fighting—of which he saw much in 1863-64. The burden of his letters is concerned with personnel matters. Lieutenant Smith was in a difficult position: as an officer he was responsible for keeping his unit full and ready for action; as a neighbor, he was concerned for the well-being of his social and kinship networks—which might involve keeping young men out of the army, turning a blind eye when they went absent to assist their families, or even covering for deserters. He made it his business to keep those at home abreast of what was happening to their children, much of which was distinctly unpleasant. William Alexander seems to have been a good officer: motivated, observant, and calm under pressure. He was captured with most of his regiment in the battle at Spotsylvania Court House in 1864 and managed to survive a year in Yankee prisons.
James R. Smith, the eldest brother (1831-1863), enlisted in the Spring of 1862, probably in Giles County in May, serving with William Alexander in Company I. In the letters he figures as the happy warrior, uncomplaining, optimistic, and finding beauty in the war-shattered landscapes about him. His health was broken in the retreat from Gettysburg—as he tells the story, wading back across the swollen waters of the Potomac. Suffering from exposure and rheumatism, and unable to keep up with the column, he would stagger ahead while the other marchers rested. In the end he was sent back to Carroll County on disability and died at home few months later.
The liveliest and most high-spirited of the brothers was the youngest, Barton Pierce Smith (1838-1863). Known as “Doc,” he was a medical apprentice before he enlisted in 1863, one step ahead of the draft. This permitted him some choice over his placement; William Alexander's Company I being full, he joined a company of Carroll men in the 29th Infantry, working as a medical steward. His regiment was sent to the tidewater swamps—utterly unappealing to Carroll County mountaineers—where they raided for provisions and laid siege to the town of Suffolk. The tone of Barton's letters changed dramatically soon afterwards: he was appalled to see his former patients abandoned when the 29th moved north, knowing that they would likely die in Union prisons. Several months later Barton deserted; neither William Alexander nor James knew his whereabouts, though presumably Stephen did since Barton had gone home to Carroll.
The Killing of Barton and Jack Smith
The circumstances of Barton's subsequent death are mysterious but here are three accounts. The first is from John Perry Alderman's 29th Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg: Howard, 1989):
When he came to the 29th, he was detailed as a steward to assist Dr. White, the regimental surgeon. From his letters home it can be seen that he was a reluctant soldier, but nevertheless reconciled to his lot in military service. The family tradition is that he went home in the summer of 1863 when he learned that his wife was sick. The wife, who was a bride of one year, died. Shortly after the funeral the Home Guard came to arrest the new widower. The records do not indicate whether he had come home without leave or had overstayed leave. Whatever his status, he and an uncle hid in an old pigsty when the Home Guard came to the house, probably on September 24, 1863, and there both nephew and uncle were shot and killed. (p. 30)
The second account is taken from the finding aid that accompanies the Smith Papers in Newman Library, Virginia Tech:
Barton Pierce married Mary P. Uttley in 1862. They had one daughter. He enlisted in Company D, 29th Regiment, Virginia Infantry, in February of 1863. He is often referred to as “Doc(k)” in his brothers' letters. He may have had medical training prior to the Civil War, as he was assigned as a steward to the regimental surgeon. He was shot and killed by the Home Guard while on furlough, September 14, 1863.
The third is an eyewitness account from Uncle “Jack” Smith's son, John Henry Smith (1855-1942), an itinerant preacher. It derives from an interview published in an unidentified North Carolina newspaper from 1950, as transcribed on internet genealogy sites. It goes as follows:
One of the most familiar and fascinating Characters of North West North Carolina is a traveling Preacher, John Henry Smith, now in his eightie-sixth year. He make his home at Reidsville, Rockingham County and in spite his advanced years finds traveling helps his living. He is a member of the Primitive Baptist Little Vine Church near Hillsville, Va., and has been traveling over the Eastern part of the United States as a Preacher for the past 46 years. Above all his adventures and travels he talks freely of the day during the Civil War when his Father, a Union sympathizer, was shot and killed by his neighbors. The Smith Family lived on a 600-acre plantation in Virginia. It was there that Jack Smith the traveling preacher's Father, fed deserters from the army. He didn't believe in slavery and as the Civil War neared it's close his activities became known to members of the Virginia Home Guard. Then the fateful day came. The Home Guard, All Neighbors of the Smith Family, advanced on the plantation. They fired and the preacher's Father slumped to the ground, dying an hour later. The Union Sympathizer's cousin Dr. Bart Smith, was shot and instantly killed. Joe, a brother of the traveling preacher was shot through the knee but recovered. Smith recalled that seen as his mother was on her knees in the field over her husband who passed away only an hour later. The hatreds of the Civil War have longed disappeared. The 85 year old man recalls, but he still remembers vividly that day in 1864. He now travels “Preaching where ever God sends him” As he puts it. He has recently taken a trip to Florida. Smith had another unusual experience in his youth. He was just 13 years old when he made a chance visit to the house of a friend named White. There he saw a 2 week old baby girl in her cradle. The baby he later made his Wife-Mrs. Rhoda White Smith. He was ordained in Traveling Primative Baptist Preacher.. Post Civil War: Noah Shockley, who shot John's father, called him to his death bed to ask forgiveness. When John was ask, Did you forgive him? John replied, That's between Me, Him and the Lord. [“Ancestors of Herbert Theodore Justice,” Website of Jeffery and Kaytrina Justice, 4 September 2010]
Noah Shockley would be John Manoah Shockley (1823-1917) of Hillsville in Carroll County, a member of the Home Guard and brother of Col. Legrand Shockley, killed in action at Saltville in 1864. There was certainly bad blood between the Smiths and the Shockleys. In a letter of 3 March 1863 Barton says, speaking of attempts to draft his brother the blacksmith, “I heard [Legrand] Shockley say that he was going to watch the mechanics and if he could get any hold he would send them off to the army.” On 22 September the mild-spoken William Alexander wrote to Stephen, “If those Hillsvillians or Shocklyvillians take or destroy your property, prosecute them for stealing. If they interrupt any thing of mine I will attend to them if I am fortunate enough to get through the war. I can’t find language to express my hatred for such men.” The Home Guard was within its rights to shoot deserters but this was not the usual practice; the killing of Barton and Jack Smith looks suspiciously like judicial murder.
While nothing is said explicitly, William Alexander's desire to run for county magistrate (23 March 1864) may have been motivated for a desire to get the whip-hand over those who had been harassing his family. The letters say nothing about the origins of the quarrel between the Shockleys of Hillsville and Smiths of Pine Creek.
This Edition
The Smith letters, deposited in Special Collection at Newman Library, Virginia Tech [Ms1996-018] were transcribed, edited, encoded in TEI markup, and annotated by Masters-level graduate students at Virginia Tech in a sequence of introductory research and digital humanities classes, 2009-11. The letters may be accessed in diplomatic and normalized editions, with accompanying facsimiles. Most of the editorial work has gone into punctuation and paragraphing. The Smiths are relatively accomplished writers; as the eldest son, James would have had the best education available in Carroll; Barton Smith (“Doc”) was receiving professional training as a physician; William was a schoolteacher. Stephen Smith, the blacksmith, writes a less eloquent letter in a more elegant hand. Sergeant Ridgeway’s prose is the most markedly nonstandard and closer to the norm for non-officers.
In the regularized form of the letters original spelling and grammar has been retained except in the case of obvious pen-slips. Where the sense is not imperiled it seems worthwhile to retain the nuances of dialect and to let the letters reflect the sometimes hasty or anguished conditions in which they were written. It was not then the custom to punctuate private correspondence; adding punctuation and regularizing capitalization renders the letters much more accessible to modern readers, though at the risk of disambiguating the sense in places. The textual editors on this project were Lindsay Ehrlich and Gracemarie Mike; the text was subsequently revised by David Radcliffe to restore original spellings. Radcliffe also revised and added annotations and made the style sheets. Professor Daniel Mosser supervised transcriptions and Professor Radcliffe the TEI markup.
To illustrate the letters the site includes a prosopography or “face-book” containing demographic information about persons mentioned in the letters drawn from Carroll County census records and the military records for Carroll soldiers. That the Civil War was a family affair is a truism which the Smith letters confirm in considerable detail. While information contained in these documents is often fragmentary and incomplete the prosopography enables one to see the demographic profile of the Carroll County soldiers and how the Smiths and their neighbors in Pine Creek were integrated into a larger social network.
We are grateful to Aaron Purcell and Mark Brodsky of Special Collections at Virginia Tech's Newman Library for making the Smith Letters available to us and for giving advice and instruction in conducting the research. For census information we are indebted to the web pages published by the Carroll Co VA GenWeb, and for military information primarily to the regimental histories of the 50th Virginia written by John D. Chapla (1997), the 29th Virginia written by John Perry Alderman (1989), and the 54th Virginia written by George L. Sherwood and Jeffrey C. Weaver (1993).