Students study Civil War letters

August 2, 2005

BY DAVE NEWBART Staff Reporter

In a letter written during the heart of the Civil War in the summer of 1863, the Confederate soldier confidently boasts of heading to Mississippi to take on the Union army.

We "are going to Vicksburg to give the yanks a fight,'' he wrote to his family in Louisiana. "I think that we have the yanks in a trap.''

As it turns out, he was wrong. The city fell to the North after nearly 20,000 soldiers from both sides were killed.

But the soldier, John P. Nugent, was also lucky: He never made it to Vicksburg and lived through the war, although he lost a leg.

His letters home are now being analyzed by University of Chicago student Robin Scheffler, 20.

Scheffler is the first historian to study the papers, part of a collection of 60,000 documents housed at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York.

With 14 other students around the country, Scheffler spent the last six weeks as a Gilder Lehrman Scholar. The students inventoried the letters and wrote historical pamphlets about their contents.

"They are powerful letters, and no one had ever looked at them before," said Scheffler, of Berkeley, Calif. He hadn't studied the Civil War extensively before but now wants to teach American history. "It was really interesting.''

1,200-mile march

Scheffler studied 30 hand-written letters totaling 120 pages and dating between 1860 and 1868. They were sent among the nine members of the Nugent family, devout Methodists who lived on a cotton farm in southern Louisiana.

Scheffler focused on the writings of son John P. Nugent, who was around 21 when he enlisted in the Confederate army.

The letters paint a picture of a brutal campaign. At one point, Nugent was forced to march for 1,200 miles through Kentucky, including 500 miles barefoot after his shoes gave out.

"My feet were so Sore [sic] that I could hardly walk," he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 18, 1862. "One of them had thirteen blisters under the bottom.''

Many members of his unit, the 16th Louisiana Volunteer Regiment, fared even worse. Although it started with 112 men, by 1862 it was down to 47. And it didn't necessarily strike fear in the hearts of the enemy.

"You can hardly think how the poor men looked," he wrote, "marching Twenty five miles a day barefoot and hardly clothed enough to cover their nakedness."

Nugent was later hospitalized with dysentery, and likely survived because a female volunteer looked after him in the hospital.

"Dysentery was a pervasive presence," Scheffler said. "Battles in the South would not be fought because everybody was sick."

Nugent was no doubt a product of the South, Scheffler said, and his family had slaves. "Tell the darkies howdy for me," was how he ended one letter.

Union soldier's letters reviewed

Union troops were also susceptible to illness. Laurens Wolcott, of Batavia, Ill., wrote his parents in Batavia, describing a fever and other symptoms and a three-day ambulance trip to a hospital.

Like other soldiers, he probably had malaria, said Max Felker-Kantor, a Tufts University student who analyzed 33 Wolcott letters.

Wolcott, though, got better, and in another letter described the battle of Dallas, Ga., which the Union also won.

"About 4 p.m of the second day it 'turned up' in the shape of the charge by 10,000 volunteers," he wrote of the May 28, 1864, battle. "By 10,000 volunteers for the job, it came right up to the first line of works, our boys just mowing them down and suffering very little loss themselves but only one.''

"They won the battle handily," Felker-Kantor said.

After the war, Wolcott wrote repeatedly of wanting to return to Illinois.

Wolcott eventually got out and moved to Michigan and became a lawyer. He died around 1907, said Felker-Kantor, 21, of Salt Lake City.

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The above article was sent to Louisiana101.com by

Eric Sharfstein

Communications Manager

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History