Covington Letter

Through-The-Lines
West Tennessee to North Carolina

John L. Kimbrough MD

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One of the fascinations that totally captures the Confederate Postal History collector is the history itself that drips from the covers and the letters from the Confederate period. The War Between the States is considered by many historians to be the defining point of American History. From the blood of the war emerged a stronger nation more unified then ever. But what was it like during the war itself? This deadly conflict touched so many lives and so many families during that four year period that virtually every citizen of the time was affected.

The original letters give us a look into the personal lives of those who lived during this tempestuous time. The soldiers letters filled with information about camp life and battles and fighting clearly show us what the soldiers suffered and endured. But what about the home front? What about the women who were left behind while the husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers went off to fight? Here now presented is a transcript of a letter written April 24th 1864 from one Elizabeth Smith to her sister Mrs. Angeline Barker of Salisbury NC. This letter helps to answer some of these questions.

Read the letter and immerse yourself into the history of the time. After reading the letter, we can then discuss the importance of the letter to an overall anaysis of the cover itself. The original style of the letter as well as the spelling and the punctuation have been preserved. The original letter was written as one long paragraph. I did break the letter into what seemed to be logical paragraphs for ease of reading.

Covington April 24th 1864

My Dear Sister

Rev D. H. Cummins the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Covington is delegate from this Presbytery to the General Assembly which meets at Charlotte & has kindly offered to convey a letter to you, it has been so long since there has been any communication between us that I cannot let this opportunity slip; I have taken severe cold, & have been quite unwell for several days, but I feel very much improved this morning & think I shall soon be as well as usual.

The last time I wrote to you I was at Bro John's in Shelby County, but Mrs Col Green, a warm friend of mine insisted on my living with her while her husband was in the army, but she died in less than twelve months, & a widowed Sister of hers, Mrs Sarah A Green would have me then to live with her, & as I felt so much attached to the family & she had such delicate health I could not refuse; I am as pleasantly & happily situated as I could ask in the present distracted state of the country, except in one thing, the Yankees stole our buggy horse, & as we live in the country it is seldom that we visit, or even go to church.

Untill Gen Forrest came into West Tenn & captured Ft Pillow, we were in constant dread of the wretches; one morning last summer about daybreak, we awoke finding the house surrounded by them, & an officer banging on the front door demanding immediate admittance, & before we had time to dress, they were in the house pistol in hand, talking to us like we were dogs, inquiring for soldiers, arms &c, but after searching & finding nothing but two women & a parcel of children they sneaked off. They had been informed by a spy that Col Green had made his escape from one of their steamers the "Maple Leaf" as he, with a large number of other officers were being carried to Ft Delaware, & that he was then at home, & to capture him was the object of their visit, but providentially he had left the neighborhood the morning before; they have given us several calls, but that is the only time they have searched the house.

I heard from Bro John a short time ago, his family was well, but the Yankees had paid him a visit, & robbed him of $360.00 in gold, & most if not all of his team, they also tried to persuade his negroes off too, but they absolutely refused to go, one of them however named Henderson, left him several months ago, before the Yankees had ever been in the neighborhood, his two sons Charley Judson & Newton have been in the army ever since the war began, Judson was detailed last fall to come home for clothing, & in crossing the lines was captured, he is now in Alton.

I haven't seen Sister Sallie for some time, but hear from her occasionally; the death of her younger son George, nearly killed her, & no wonder, he was such a noble boy, so kind & affectionate to his mother, he died more than a year ago of fever, near Murfreesboro. I haven't heard from Sister Ellen for two years, the people in North Mississippi have suffered terribly at the hands of the Yankees, & I am afraid she hasn't escaped.

From all I can hear, our Country has been peculiarly favored, true, several destructive raids have been made through it, & a few houses burned, but as a general thing we have escaped wonderfully, but the horrid suspense we have endured is hard to bear, to feel that we were completely in the enemy's power, and entirely left to his mercy, never for a moment feeling secure either in person or property isn't very pleasant. But we hope for better things in future, the prospect is brightening in our State; Forrest is making West Tenn too hot to hold the Yankees in comfort.

Mr Cummins will probably stay in Charlotte a week & if you receive this in time you can write by him, but if you do not, you can direct your letter to Capt Henry Sanford Quartermaster of the 51st Regt Tenn Vol Dalton Ga. He is a brother of Mrs Green's & will take pleasure in forwarding it to me, be sure to write & let me know how you are getting along these hard times, whether your husband or son is in the army or not.

How dearly I would love to see you, but as that cannot be, the first good opportunity you have, please send me your likeness, I shall never die satisfied till I get one, the one you promised to send my mail, I did not receive. If you live untill "This cruel war is over" do come and see us, you don't know the pleasure it would afford. Give my love to you, Mother, Mr Barker & the children & when you make us that visit bring them all with you. Mrs Green wishes to be kindly remembered to you. That God may bless you & yours & if not permitted to meet on earth, that we may meet in heaven is the prayer of your Affectionate Sister

Eliza Smith

What a wonderful letter giving so many insights into what it was like on the home front. The history in the letter can be analyzed and more information can be deduced. The letter is datelined "Covington," but no state is given. We know from the content that the writer was from West Tennessee. Covington is actually in Tennessee (Tipton County in far West Tennessee just a little northeast of Memphis). This area was under Union occupation in the Spring of 1864 when the letter was written. This letter therefore originated in Union occupied Tennessee and was handcarried through the Union lines by the Presbyterian Minister and put into the Confederate Postal System in Charlotte NC.

The incident the writer describes of the Union soldiers coming to her home in the Summer of 1863 was an all too frequent occurence in the occupied areas. We also know that her brother John was a slave owner. What is interesting is that she mentions the loyalty of the Negroes in that they would not leave even when the Union soldiers were there trying to make them go. The writer also does not mention any husband or children of her own but is living first with her good friend, Mrs. Col Green, and then with Mrs. Green's sister. We can reasonably deduce that the writer of this letter was unmarried.

The writer speaks in the letter quite a bit about Gen Forrest and Col Green. Nathan Bedford Forrest was of course a well known Confederate General. Gen Forrest's capture of Fort Pillow took place on 12 April 1864 (12 days prior to this letter). The capture of Fort Pillow was notorious in the history of the war because of the slaughter of the US Colored Troops that were defending the fort. It has come to be known as the "Fort Pillow Massacre."

The Col Green mentioned in the letter must have been Col John Uriah Green of the 12th Tenn Cav also known as the 1st Tennessee Partisan Rangers. This unit was part of Forrest's Cavalry Command. The unit was formed behind the Union lines in West Tennessee in early 1863 and then immediately joined Forrest. A skirmish (or small battle) did take place near Covington, Tenn involving the 12th Tenn Cav as well as other units of Forrest's command 9-10 March 1863. It was about this time that Col Green was captured but shortly thereafter made his escape and remained with his unit for the rest of the war. The last major action in which the 12th Tenn Cav took part was Nashville, Tenn 15-16 December 1864.

From a simple letter, so much can be learned about the writer and the times. That is what makes Postal History collecting so appealing to the history minded collector. This article is actually a plea to both the collector and non-collector alike -- If you find a Confederate Cover that still has the original letter with it, please leave the letter with the cover and do not separate the two. Without the original letter, this cover would have just been passed off as an ordinary Charlotte NC cover not in very good condition. We would never have known that it is actually a Civilian Through-The-Lines cover from West Tennessee to North Carolina.

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