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.