Research Exercise (continued): Is This Letter Genuine?

You may recall yesterday that I asked readers to offer their opinion on the authenticity of a letter reportedly written in 1865 by a Union lieutenant that described the behavior of Sherman’s men in South Carolina.  In the links I included mention of a subsequent letter written by a Union officer in March 1885 in response to the 1865 letter, which appeared in the March 1884 issue of the Southern Historical Society Papers.  A commenter chose to reproduce the same letter; in his remarks he observed that there had been a later effort to refute the refutation.

I knew as much, which is why I linked to it.  But that letter, supposedly written in 1865 but which did not come to light until 1901, has its own issues.

The letter in question was a letter to former Confederate general James H. Lane (my Virginia Tech readers should know about him) from his adjutant, E. J. Lane.  It bears an 1865 date.  Lane’s papers at Auburn University contain two slightly different versions of the same letter:

Fayetteville, N.C. July 31st 1865

My dear General:

It would be impossible to give you an adequate idea of the destruction of property in this good old town. It may not be an average instance; but it is one the force of whose truth we feel only too fully:  My Father’s property, before the war, was easily convertible into about 85 to 100,000 dollars in specie – he has not now a particle of property which will bring him a dollar of income. His office with everything in it, was burned by Sherman’s order – Slocum, who executed the order, with a number of other Generals, sat on the verandah of a hotel opposite watching the progress of the flames, while they hobnobbed over wines stolen from our cellar. A fine brick building adjacent, also belonging to my Father, was burned at the same time. The cotton factory, of which he was a large shareholder, was burned; while his bank, railroad & other stocks are worse than worthless; for the bank stock, at least, may bring him in debt, as the stock-holders are responsible. In fact, he has nothing left–besides the ruins of his town buildings & a few town lots which promise to be of little value, hereafter, in this desolated town, & are of no value, at present–save his residence, which, (with Brother’s house,) Sherman made a great parade of saving from a mob (comprised of Corps & Div. Comdrs., a nephew of Henry Ward Beecher, &, so on down) by sending to each house an officer of his Staff, after Brother’s house had been pillaged & my Father’s to some extent. By some accidental good fortune, however, my Mother secured a guard before the “bummers” had made much progress in the house; & to this circumstance we are indebted for our daily food, several month’s supply of which my Father had hid, the night before he left, in the upper rooms of the house, & the greater portion of which was saved.

You have doubtless heard of Sherman’s “bummers.” The Yankees would have you believe that they were only the straggling pillagers usually found with all armies. Several letters written by officers of Sherman’s army, intercepted near this town, give this the lie. In some of these letters were descriptions of the whole bumming process; & from them it appears that it was a regularly organized system, under the authority of Genl. Sherman himself; that 1/5 of the proceeds fell to Gen. Sherman; another 1/5 to the other Genl. Officers; another 1/5 to the line officers; & the remaining 2/5 to the enlisted men. There were pure-silver bummers, plated-ware bummers, jewelry-bummers, women’s-clothing bummers, provision bummers, &, in fine, a bummer or bummers for every kind of steal-able thing – no bummer of one specialty interfering with the stealables of another. A pretty picture of a conquering army, indeed; but true.

Well, I am scribbling away just as if I was talking to you; for I feel, to-night, in humor for having one of our late-at-night tent talks – which poor Ed. Nicholson used to laugh about, while he would mimic you punching the fire & puffing your pipe. Ah! how the pleasures of winter quarters & the bivouac come back to us now, divested of a remembrance of every disagreeable incident. I can see the big tent on the Rapidan – I feel as if I were with you in the cosy little one on Jones’s Farm; smoke, smoke, smoke – talk, talk, talk – how we rattled away the hours far into the morning! Is our present humiliating freedom from danger a change for the better?

But I must blow away these [spectrer] of tobacco smoke & battle smoke, & tell you still more about myself – and I know you will pardon so much talk about self when you remember how necessarily egotistical must be the first letter to a friend – after an interval of months – since a parting such as ours at ill-starred Appomattox.

I forgot to say that I have not yet taken the oath; but, of course, will do so eventually. If I live in this Country, as I expect now to do, I shall feel it my duty to demean myself as a good & true citizen.

Yours affectionately,
E.J. Hale, Jr.

One of these letters was addressed to Lane at Auburn, Lee Co., Alabama; the other was addressed to him at Matthews Court House, Virginia.

At first, I saw why this letter might seem compelling to a reader, because it seems to have been another “lost letter” from a Union officer that described the same process outlined in the Myers letter (which first appeared in print in a West Virginia paper in 1883).  But upon second thought, something struck me as wrong.  What was it?

James H. Lane had no connection to Auburn (then known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama) until 1882.  He had returned to Matthew Court House after the war; how, in 1865, would Hale address a letter to someone at a place where the recipient did not live until 1882?  Moreover, Hale’s letter seems to tell the same story that the Myers letter published in 1883 did … which would lead one to believe that many Union officers were writing home about their horrible behavior, only to lose their letters in the streets somehow … and not a single one of these letters has turned up in the archives containing the actual letters of a Union officer with Sherman’s army.

Hale’s papers reside at the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collections (where a typescript of the Myers letter is also located).

Curious indeed.



11 thoughts on “Research Exercise (continued): Is This Letter Genuine?

  1. Ken Noe August 8, 2012 / 7:43 am

    The most obvious answer is that the Lee County address is a typo in the transcription, but one of my grad students is checking into it,

    • Drew W. August 8, 2012 / 9:16 am

      That will be quite the typo. Do keep us posted?

      The line of argument in challenging the likelood of the original Myers letter making it back to Columbia was interesting to read. There are myriad ways it could have occured, but no matter. That these letters are fakes is indicated by their very nature. That Myers would have written such a long and detailed letter, focused on plunder alone, is difficult to believe. Ditto Hale’s letter. Myers’ tone is gleeful, Hale’s excited. Who writes to his wife with glee in describing shameful behaviour (and acknowledges it, asking her not to share outside of the family)?

      Mr. Simpson noted the writers’ lack of “local knowledge” with respect to the north and the west yesterday. I will add that a Bostonian would have identified as such and that the reference to the “Old Bay State” is rather silly.

      How would a mere Captain with orders to march have known he was headed to North Carolina, much less Wilmington or Goldsboro? How would this Captain have known the number of gold watches General Sherman absconded with? His share was derived from an entire army’s plunder, presumably.

      These letters really are clever and good evidence of effective propaganda that, it appears, continues to this day.

  2. Tony Gunter August 8, 2012 / 8:57 am

    “I have not taken the oath” stands out. The oath was required at time of surrender. One could probably find paperwork indicating that “the oath” was taken by E.J. Hale at Appomattox.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 8, 2012 / 9:08 am

      I assume he means the oath outlined in Andrew Johnson’s May 29 proclamation.

      • Tony Gunter August 8, 2012 / 12:22 pm

        Thank you kindly … I am such a noob sometimes.

    • Andy Hall August 8, 2012 / 12:05 pm

      Hale’s CSR shows him paroled at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, but nothing thereafter.

  3. Al Mackey August 8, 2012 / 12:28 pm

    I attended ROTC classes in Lane Hall before they moved to the new (then) ROTC building, so I’m very familiar with Gen. Lane.

    I think it’s very interesting there are two versions of the same letter. Are we to assume the same individual wrote the same letter twice?

    It seems more probable to me that this is akin to the internet hoaxes that make their way around in slightly different versions. One can find a number of examples at the snopes website.

  4. Ken Noe August 8, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    Thanks to a very good grad student, I now have pdfs of the two “Hale letters.” What one notes immediately is that they are not in the same hand. The letter linked above but not reprinted is in Hale’s hand, and indeed is dated from Fayetteville in July 1865, and addressed to Lane in Matthews County, Virginia. The envelope is not stamped or cancelled, and thus is undated. I can’t vouch for it being written in July 1865, but as I note below, Hale writes that he wrote it then.

    The letter copied above, however, is in Lane’s hand. Based on a third letter from Hale, written in 1884, what seems to have happened is that sometime that year Lane excerpted the letter from the longer one, sent it to Hale for revisions and permission to publish, received it back (the envelope to Lane in Auburn, Lee County), and then submitted a copy to the Southern Historical Society Papers. It appeared there in 1884.

    In the letter he returned with the excerpt, Hale writes in 1884, “Now as to the extracts from my July 31, 1865 letter (herein re-enclosed) I hardly know what to say. I reckon, if you think it best, it can do no harm. Many of the particulars stated therein I have ‘clear’ forgotten. I presume they were stated on certain information at the time; for, you know, I am inclined to be cautious in assertions. I have changed several words as you will see. Use your judgement.” Hale then goes on to volunteer to look for more evidence against Sherman if Lane wishes. .Hale and Lane had worked together before on similar matters, as I note in my 2008 article in the Journal of Military History on Lane’s vendetta against Billy Mahone.

    The Archives intends to alter the online transcript to reflect what has been learned in this discussion, and I will send copies of all the pdfs to Brooks.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 8, 2012 / 3:59 pm

      Thanks much, Ken, and thanks to your student. Note the date in which the letter appeared in the SHSP … 1884. In short, it was available in print before Stone’s 1885 reply, and thus cannot be seen as challenging Stone’s letter, although one might use it in support of the authenticity of the Myers letter. Jones was aware of the Hale letter at the time he responded to the Stone letter … and so it appears he could not have changed his mind about the Stone letter because of the Hale letter (which would appear to support the Myers letter), because he had read the Hale letter before Stone wrote.

      No easy answers, eh?

  5. Will Hickox August 8, 2012 / 6:54 pm

    If 3/5 of the plunder was officially left to Sherman’s line officers and enlisted men, there would be numerous references to the practice in their surviving letters and diaries.

  6. Andrew Karnitz August 8, 2012 / 11:34 pm

    Without questioning the authenticity of this letter, I do question the claims within. The first paragraph, describing his family’s experiences is obviously second-hand information. The second paragraph also offers second-hand information, potentially more damaging because if the evidence- the letters supposedly written by Union soldiers- was actually presented and authenticated, it would be damning.

    But it’s hearsay, plain and simple.

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