Research Exercise: Is This Letter Genuine?

Historians frequently come across documents that tell a fascinating story … so fascinating, in fact, that they have cause to wonder whether the document in question is genuine.  Here’s a case in point:

Camp near Camden, S.C. Feb. 26, 1865

My dear wife – I have no time for particulars. We have had a glorious time in this State. Unrestricted license to burn and plunder was the order of the day. The chivalry (meaning the Honourable & Chivalrous people of the South) have been stripped of most of their valuables. Gold watches, sliver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, &c., are as common in camp as blackberries. The terms of plunder are as follows: Each company is required to exhibit the results of its operations at any given place – one-fifth and first choice falls to the share of the commander-in-chief and staff; one-fifth to the corps commanders and staff, one-fifth to field officers of regiments, and two-fifths to the company.

Officers are not allowed to join these expeditions without disguising themselves as privates. One of our corps commanders borrowed a suit of rough clothes from one of my men, and was successful in this place. He got a large quantity of silver (among other things an old-time milk pitcher) and a very fine gold watch from a Mrs. DeSaussure, at this place. DeSaussure was one of the F.F.V.s of South Carolina, and was made to fork over liberally. Officers over the rank of Captain are not made to put their plunder in the estimate for general distribution. This is very unfair, and for that reason, in order to protect themselves, subordinate officers and privates every thing that they can carry about their persons, such as rings, earring, breast pins, &c., of which, if I ever get home, I have about a quart. I am not joking – I have at least a quart of jewelry for you and all the girls, and some No. 1 diamond rings and pins among them. General Sherman has silver and gold enough to start a bank. His share in gold watches alone at Columbia was two hundred and seventy-five. But I said I could not go into particulars. All the general officers and many besides had valuables of every description, down to embroidered ladies’ pocket handkerchiefs. I have my share of them, too. We took gold and silver enough from the damned rebels to have redeemed their infernal currency twice over. This, (the currency), whenever we came across it, we burned, as we considered it utterly worthless.

I wish all the jewelry this army has could be carried to the “Old Bay State.” It wood deck her out in glorious style; but, alas! it will be scattered all over the North and Middle States. The damned n@gg#rs, as a general rule, prefer to say at home, particularly after they found out that we only wanted the able-bodied men, (and to tell the truth, the youngest and best-looking women). Sometimes we took off whole families and plantations of n!gg&rs, by way of repaying secessionists. But the useless part of them we soon manage to lose; (one very effective was to “shoot” at their bobbing heads as they swam rivers” after the army units crossed over), sometimes in crossing rivers, sometimes in other ways.

I shall write to you again from Wilmington, Goldsboro, or some other place in North Carolina. The order to march has arrived, and I must close hurriedly. Love to grandmother and aunt Charlotte. Take care of yourself and children. Don’t show this letter out of the family.

Your affectionate husband, Thomas J. Myers, Lieut., &c.

P.S. I will send this by the first flag of truce to be mailed, unless I have an opportunity of sending it at Hilton Head. Tell Sallie I am saving a pearl bracelet and ear-rings for her; I am trying to trade him out of them. These were taken from the Misses Jamison, daughters of the President of the South Carolina Secession Convention. We found these on our trip through Georgia.

A typed copy of the letter resides in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina.

If one were to claim that Yankee vandals swept through South Carolina, plundering as they went, with no interest in the fate of African Americans, and with their officers in on the game, this letter would seem heaven-sent.  But there are some problems with it.

If the letter is genuine, we’d expect to find a Thomas J. Myers of Boston, Massachusetts, serving as a lieutenant in a Massachusetts regiment under Sherman’s command.  How many Massachusetts units were with Sherman during his march through the Carolinas?  Can one find a Thomas Myers from Massachusetts in the Soldiers and Sailors database?

There is no doubt that Sherman’s men came through Camden during his march through the Carolinas, on February 25, 1865.   Yet the city is northeast/east of Columbia, and the claim is often made that this letter was found in the streets of Columbia … which Sherman’s men had entered a week before.  How would a letter written in Camden a week after the occupation of Columbia make its way back to Columbia?

Okay, folks.  I hear that some of you like to watch History Detectives.  Others watch Pawn Stars.  Both shows address the issue of authentication.  So I leave it to you: is the letter authentic?

I’m not the first person to ask this question.  Others have looked into it before.   But many people still cite it as evidence.  What do you make of that?  Is the letter itself, as well as its use, evidence of anything?

Happy hunting, happy commenting.

 

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19 thoughts on “Research Exercise: Is This Letter Genuine?

  1. “… Gold watches, sliver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, &c., are as common in camp as blackberries.”

    I wonder how common blackberries were in February.

  2. This stuff drives me nuts. Even William Jones admitted in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers that the letter was bogus. But some people are, plain and simple, overtly sloppy researchers who consider themselves some sort of genuine historian. Worse than that, some people are so desperate to prove a point (i.e. the Yankees were/evil and Southerners were just righteous victims) that they continually post this kind of nonsense. A simpleton could easily find out that the only Thomas Myers who was an officer was attached to a unit that wasn’t even in the area of Camden at the time.

    This reminds me of the incessant posting of the alleged “black Confederates” from Louisiana photo, but which is actually a photo of Federal troops at Camp William Penn with the clearly identified U. S. officer neatly cropped out. When confronted about such things the typical response is not to admit an error, but claim that their overall point is still valid. That’s the kind of response I’d expect from a 5-year old. But hey, why let the facts stand in the way? Combine the cut and paste feature with the Internet and you have legions of adults researching about as well as a 5-year old. :)

    • And from the gift that keeps on giving … the usual definitive discussion.

      Connie Chastain gets angry when she says I question people’s intelligence (including hers, of course). I guess she sees this discussion as an example of the intelligence of the Confederate Heritage ™ movement.

      So do I.

      Please save Confederate heritage from those who proclaim that their job is to protect it. “In order to save that heritage, we had to destroy it.”

  3. A Bummer’s Letter: Fact or clever hoax??

    The following is the now famous letter that was found in the streets
    of Columbia, South Carolina after Sherman’s army had left. Many
    southerners pointed to the letter as proof of a grand design to
    Sherman’s army’s vengeful nature in the state. However a fine
    rebuttal was supplied by Colonel Stone who commanded a brigade of
    Sherman’s 15th corps. Ironically Stone’s troops were the first
    troops to capture Columbia.

    Camp Near Camden, S.C.,

    February 26, 1865.

    My Dear Wife:

    I have no time for particulars. We have had a glorious time in this
    State. Unrestricted license to burn and plunder was the order of the
    day. The chivalry have been stripped of most of their valuables.
    Gold watches, silver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, etc., are as
    common in camp as blackberries. The terms of plunder are as follows:
    The valuables procured are estimated by companies. Each company is
    required to exhibit the result of its operations at any given place -
    - one fifth and first choice falls to the commander in chief and
    staff, one fifth to corps commander and staff, one fifth to field
    officers, two fifths to the company. Officers are not allowed to
    join in these expeditions unless disguised as privates. One of our
    corps commanders borrowed a suit of rough clothes from one of my men
    and was successful in this place. He got a large quantity of silver
    (among other things an old silver milk pitcher) and a very fine gold
    watch from a Mr. De Saussure, of this place (Columbia). De Saussure
    is one of the F.F.V.’s of S.C., and was made to fork out liberally.
    Officers over the rank of Captain are not made to put their plunder
    in the estimate for general distribution. This is very unfair, and
    for that reason, in order to protect themselves, the subordinate
    officers and privates keep everything back that they can carry about
    their persons — such as rings, earrings, breastpins, etc., etc., of
    which, if I live to get home, I have a quart. I am not joking. I
    have at least a quart of jewelry for you and all the girls — and
    some No. 1 diamond pins and rings among them. General Sherman has
    gold and silver enough to start a bank. His share in gold watches
    and chains alone, at Columbia, was two hundred and seventy five.

    But I said I could not go into particulars. All the general officers
    and many besides have valuables of every description, down to
    ladies’ pocket handkerchiefs. I have my share of them, too.

    We took gold and silver enough from the d—-d Rebels to have
    redeemed their infernal currency twice over. This (the currency)
    whenever we came across it we burned it, as we considered it utterly
    worthless.

    I wish all the jewelry this army has could be carried to the “Old
    Bay State.” It would deck her out in glorious style; but, alas! it
    will be scattered all over the North and Middle States. The damned
    niggers, as a general thing, preferred to stay at home –
    particularly after they found out that we wanted only the able
    bodied men, and, to tell the truth, the youngest and best looking
    women. Sometimes we took them off, by way of repaying influential
    secessionists. But the useless part of these we soon managed to
    lose — sometimes in crossing rivers — sometimes by other ways.

    I shall write you again from Wilmington, Goldsboro’, or some other
    place in North Carolina. The order to march has arrived and I must
    close hurriedly. Love to grandmother and Aunt Charlotte. Take care
    of yourself and the children. Don’t show this letter out of the
    family.

    Your affectionate husband,

    Thomas J. Myers, Lieutenant, etc.

    P.S. — I will send this by the first flag of truce, to be mailed,
    unless I have an opportunity of sending it to Hilton Head. Tell
    Sallie I am saving a pearl bracelet and earrings for her. But
    Lambert got the necklace and breastpin of the same set. I am trying
    to trade him out of them. These were taken from the Misses Jamison,
    daughters of the President of the South Carolina Secession
    Convention. We found those on our trip though Georgia.

    T.J.M.

    Colonel Stone responded in the following Letter.

    NDEPENDENCE SQUARE,

    BOSTON, March 19, 1885.

    Rev. J. WILLIAM JONES, D. D.,

    Secretary Southern Historical Society, Richmond, Va.:

    DEAR SIR,–In the number of the SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS
    for March, 1884, under the heading, “How they made South
    Carolina ‘Howl’–Letter from one of Sherman’s Bummers,” you publish
    what purports to be “a letter found in the streets of Columbia after
    the army of General Sherman had left.”

    The contents of the letter are enough to satisfy any unprejudiced
    mind that it could not have been written by any officer of General
    Sherman’s command–except, possibly, as the broadest kind of a hoax.
    But conceding, for the moment, that such a letter might have been
    written by “one of ‘Sherman’s Bummers,’” it is demonstrable that the
    letter under consideration is not genuine. If any such letter
    exists, it is a forgery.

    The statement is that it was “found in the streets of Columbia after
    the army of General Sherman had left.” The last of that army left
    Columbia on or before February 21. This letter purports to be
    dated “Camp near Camden, S.C., February 26, 1865.” Camden is at
    least thirty miles east of Columbia, and on the opposite side of the
    Catawba river. By the roundabout course pursued by the army, it is
    double that distance. The crossing of the river occupied several
    days, and was effected twenty or thirty miles north of Camden. The
    waters were very high, and once across, there was no such thing as
    returning. Everybody and everything was moving away from Columbia as
    rapidly as possible. Only a small part of Sherman’s army marched
    through or near Camden. The knowledge or consideration of these
    facts shows how improbable, if not absolutely impossible, it was,
    under the circumstances, that any letter written by one
    of “Sherman’s Bummers,” near Camden, South Carolina, could
    afterwards have found its way to the streets of Columbia.

    It so happens, also, that no officer named Thomas J. Myers–the name
    purporting to be signed to the document you have reprinted–belonged
    to General Sherman’s army. The records show that, throughout the
    war, there was but one officer in the military service of the United
    States with that name, and he was not in Sherman’s army, and did not-
    -as is implied in the direction, Boston, Mass., and the reference in
    the letter to the “Old Bay State”–belong to any Massachusetts
    regiment. “Alas,” cries the weeping Thomas, “it (the captured
    jewelry) will be scattered all over the North and Middle States.” It
    so happens, also, that of the ninety regiments of Sherman’s army
    which might have passed on the march near Camden, South Carolina,
    but a single one–a New Jersey regiment–was from the Middle States.
    All the rest were from the West–never called the North, in the
    local idiom of Western people. A letter from the only Thomas J.
    Myers ever in the army would never contain such a phrase.

    To crown all, Thomas J. Myers resigned from the military service on
    the 18th of February, 1865–eight days before the date of the
    pretended letter–while his regiment was in Northern Alabama.

    I should not have taken pains to look up and analyze these facts if
    I did not think it matter for profound regret that a periodical,
    presumably published in the interest of historical truth, should
    give currency to this document. No possible good can come of its
    publication, if genuine, but much harm. It throws no light on one
    single fact or method by which the war was conducted. As to General
    Sherman’s procedure, on his famous march, history will judge it on
    acknowledged and recorded facts–which are ample and accessible–not
    on any such irritating and preposterous assertions as are contained
    in the document under consideration. General Sherman has never
    shrunk from any responsibility for his actions. The genuine
    recollections and experiences of men and women in that exciting and
    passionate time are legitimate and useful matters for publication,
    even when they reveal things which, in the cooler days of reason and
    law, everyone must regret, if not condemn–Inter arma, silent leges.
    Till men become perfect, war will be full, always, of cruelest
    outrages. When they do become perfect, there will be no war. So far
    as it may help to restrain men’s passions or ambitions, and lead to
    the adoption of better methods for redressing wrongs, real or
    fancied, than killing and robbery–which all war is, in its last
    analysis–every tale of suffering, privation, injury, spoliation,
    may prove useful, and so its publication justifiable. But when, as
    certainly seems the case in this instance, nothing but the
    provocation and perpetuation of ill-feeling and bitterness can
    result, I submit that a periodical of the character of the SOUTHERN
    HISTORICAL PAPERS might–as I am happy to see it does, in most
    instances–find better material than reprinting from obscure
    newspapers, matter which throws no real light on any single act or
    motive during the whole of the great contest.

    Your periodical is taken by a society of which I am a member, but I
    did not happen to see the March number earlier, or I should have
    earlier written you. I do not write now for publication–though to
    that I have no objection–but simply to give you the facts, and let
    your own sense of justice decide what you will do.

    Very respectfully yours,

    HENRY STONE,

    Late Brevet-Colonel U. S. Volunteers, and A. A. G. Army of the
    Cumberland.

    Its important to note that the Southern Historical Society papers
    responded in the following way to Stone’s rebuttal:

    We are frank to admit that Colonel Stone seems to make out his case
    against the authenticity of this letter, and we regret having
    republished it.

    There is another southern response claiming to refuting Stone’s reply,But I had a hard enough time finding this,finally did a search of my old posts on civilwar2

  4. If it smells it’s Bravo Sierra, and indeed this one stinks.

    The writing is in a contemporary style of grammar and vocabulary. All the sentences are complete and it appears to me it is written as a well thought out essay. It doesn’t appear to be a letter home from a soldier.

    I think it’s a false document and was planted by a frustrated person who is still brooding over the CSA losing the war and wants the Yankees portrayed in the worst possible way.

    Even if an original handwritten copy appears, that should be thoroughly examined.

  5. Well, having combed through Orders of Battle for Sherman’s Army, I find only the 33rd and 2nd Massachusetts [not the one fighting alien invaders on Falling Skies!], and having combed
    through histories and rosters of both, I find no Thomas Myers among the officers of either regiment.

  6. The one item that really stuck out as odd to me immediately was the term “F.F.V.’s of South Carolina”. Why would anyone refer to South Carolinians as First Families of Virginia (of South Carolina)? Wouldn’t he just say First Families of South Carolina? Was the term FFVs even in use in 1865? Honest question. I don’t know one way or the other.

      • Ned,

        Fair enough, and interesting. I’ve learned something new today. I wonder how far back the term goes. I also still think the term “F.F.V.’s of South Carolina” is a little weird, but now it’s impossible to prove conclusively this letter is a fake from it.

        • Should have added that F.F.V. was a term used by Confederates, too, and not always with the dignity and respect the F.F.V.s themselves might expect. Val Giles, in his memoir, Rags and Hope, talks about F.F.Vs he encountered early in the war in Virginia in less-than-admiring terms.

      • F.F.V. was a common term then — but that card is specifically referring to Butler’s actions at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

        I’ve never heard of “F.F.V.s of South Carolina.” It’s an awkward construct, although the intent is clear enough.

    • I’ve seen “FFVs” somewhat frequently used sarcastically in letters by Union soldiers referring to the Southern aristocracy, sort of like how they started to call themselves “mudsills” from the “Cotton is King” speech.

      • To be more precise, the Union army’s march through South Carolina was certainly severe, as probably described best in Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War. For anyone who is interested, here are two real letters from Corp. Henry M. Geiter of Company I, 79th Pennsylvania, published in the Lancaster Intelligencer:
        January 25, 1865, Savannah, Georgia: http://tinyurl.com/93cl22x
        April 19, 1865, Goldsboro, North Carolina: http://tinyurl.com/8ksmtnf

        • I would not dispute that Sherman’s men had it in for South Carolina. The question remains as to whether the letter in question is an authentic description of that behavior. For example, I note nothing in Union sources that would affirm the report of a division of spoils as therein described … and the letter to James Lane simply proves that some southerners believed it to be true from an early date … and that’s assuming that the letter to Lane is legitimate.

          • Yes, it’s pretty clearly a fabrication. As is usually the case, enough truth to make it seem reasonable to those who want to believe it, but ultimately not even close to reality.

  7. Of the troops who were involved in both the Meridian Campaign and the March to the Sea, the first-hand accounts are fairly innocuous by comparison. Why would men who wrote about burning the log cabins of dirt farmers, shooting livestock, and stealing blankets from women and children on the march to Meridian not mention the same on the March to the Sea? The entries for the March to the Sea generally read something of this nature: “The countryside is beautiful, marched past many stately mansions.”

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