Letters from the Front LinesOn April 22, 2020 by Elyse
When this you see,– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Memphis, Tennessee; February 1863
though many miles
between us be.
It is a truth universally acknowledged. . . that most people’s letters are insufferably boring. Mine included: If rambling on about the weather was an Olympic sport, I’d have several gold medals, not just millennial participation trophies.
Most of the Civil War correspondence between George Deal, an Ohio farmer-turned-Union soldier, and his wife, Sarah Cole Deal, is no exception. However, in between mundane comparisons of commodity prices and incessant updates about his weight, a vibrant, thoughtful, complicated human being emerges from the pages. That’s no small feat in any document meant to be read by others, even those closest to us.
When he joined Company K of the 20th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a private in October 1862, George was in his 30s. He left behind a wife and three children, all of whom were under six years old. More than 150 years later, poor Sarah still has my sympathy. Fifty-five of the letters he sent her are housed at Chicago’s prestigious Newberry Library and have been digitized and transcribed through its crowdsourced transcription project.
His alternatingly poignant, tedious and even humorous accounts reveal facets of the Civil War overlooked by textbooks. And unlike in the dry military records documenting my own connection to the conflict, we don’t need to imagine what George thinks or feels—he tells us in his own words.
Even with hindsight about the horrors of the Civil War, the excitement that goes along with the start of any journey transcends the centuries. Early in his tour of duty, George writes:
We go by the boat from Cincinnati to Columbus [Kentucky?], and no doubt the trip will [be an] interesting one and full of novelty to me at least as I have never been on the river.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Camp Dennison, Ohio; December 5, 1862
If you look at the handwriting in some of these letters, you’ll understand the depths of my gratitude to the Newberry Library and its supporters for their transcription efforts. When they’re legible—not all of them are—they’re rife with misspellings, and punctuation marks rarely make an appearance.
However, it’s not George’s fault: He was illiterate and relied on his fellow soldiers to read and write his letters for him, no matter how poor their spelling or handwriting. I’ve lightly edited the excerpts below and, in some cases, guessed at the scribbles to make them easier on our 21st-century eyes.
You may tell Ander Baker that he must not turn you out of doors, that I am helping to defend his property as well as anybody else’s. I think he is man enough to let you stay. If he is not, when I git home, I will make a man of him. If he will let you stay, you may let him have the calf, and I will make it all rite with him when I come home.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Memphis, Tennessee; February 10, 1863
It’s no doubt hard enough to go off to war in the best of times; for George, it must have been even more wrenching to leave his family in a precarious economic situation.
I was glad to hear that you was all well and that the children had good clothes for winter and that your hogs was ready to kill. This is good news to me for I like to hear of my family doing well and having plenty to eat. . .
Don’t git discouraged for there is no doubt about our regiment being mustered out next Spring. You have got along so far. Try and git along as well as you can a little longer, and I will be at home so you won’t have to chop wood and husk corn as you have to do now days.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; November 15, 1863
Amidst his advice, concerns and weather reports—he gives me a run for my money—the tone of George’s letters is often playful and, dare I say, even flirty. But I’m hardly an expert on flirting in the modern era, never mind the 19th century, so you’ll have to judge for yourself:
The weather here is gitting more pleasant and the nights cool. A good warm bedfellow would not come amiss, but I will try and grin and bear it til I git home.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; September 27, 1863
Lest Sarah worry about her husband succumbing to another warm bedfellow, he reassures her:
There is any amount of these public women here, but I am careful to let them alone for fear they will give me my winters wood.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; December 21, 1863
No amount of Googling reveals what “winters wood” meant in 1863—maybe that’s for the best.
Not all of George’s letters are filled with sweet nothings. He and Sarah bicker just like any other couple. Fortunately for the gossips among us, their disagreements left a paper trail.
You spoke about a selling that old mare. I am sorrow you sold that mare for thirty five dollars. I wish you would try and git that mare back again. I don’t no what you meant a selling the mare before you let me no anything about it. But now you have sold her and you didn’t git what she was worth. I wouldener took sixty five dolars fur her.
But I sorder think if you needed the money, it was all rite, and I don’t blame you for it.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; August 6, 1863
He and his wife were also not initially on the same page about his military service.
Now, don’t fret for me for I have had good luck so far, and I do hope I will come out as well as I have. You mention something about me a seeing the elephant. I have seen the tail, and I think I will see something else soon.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; June 2, 1863
Seven months later:
Well, you need not be uneasy about me a enlisting again. I have seen the elephant, and when my time is up, I am coming home.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; January 3, 1864
Given my track record, it’s entirely possible I’m reading too much into this. However, I believe these passages reference the parable of the blind men and the elephant, with the elephant being the war and George as the blind men. The parable doesn’t mention an all-knowing seer sitting atop the elephant, but that must be Sarah’s role. No surprise, she won this round.
These days, we roll our eyes when someone insists their texts have disappeared into the ether. However, in the 1860s, they may have been onto something.
You spoke about me not a writing to you, and you said you didn’t git a letter for four weekes. Now it wasn’t my falt, but I have wrote to you often as then that that is shure, and you said you thought I had forgotten you.
Now don’t you ever git a thinking that a way about me for I no I think as much of you as I ever I did, and I do write as often as I can.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; June 7, 1863
In case that isn’t enough to appease Sarah, George calls in the reinforcements. The soldier who wrote the letter for him adds a postscript:
Now I will write a fiew lines to you. George has done the best he could sending you letters. That is shure. I have wrote [a] good many of his letters.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; June 7, 1863
I’d be a hypocrite if I wasn’t Team Sarah all the way. Little things like war, illiteracy and an unreliable postal system are no excuse for infrequent communication. Front lines or not, nagging is the only appropriate response to him not texting me, er, I mean, writing her often enough. You go, girl.
One of the worst things you could be in George’s book was a butternut: someone who opposed the war.
If some of the butternuts up north was down here to live. . . for a while, and their living costs so high I think they would get sick of a butternut’s life and drowned themselves in the Mississippi river and go to hell, where they ought to go, for all men in the north that is a butternut had ought to be hung and then burnt and sent to hell without boots or shoes or shirt on. . .
Sarah, if your Father don’t do a little more for you, I will think he is a raw butternut.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; August 17, 1863
George obviously had great affection for his father-in-law.
Interspersed between his more serious musings, George’s sense of humor comes through loud and clear.
You sed that your toes almost froze this winter. You must try and not freeze your toes. If I have good luck and plenty of it, I will try and keep them warm myself.
You sed that if I got in a fight that you wanted me to fight like a man. I expect to fight like a man or run like dog.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Memphis, Tennessee; February 16, 1863
These words of wisdom are just as true now as they were 150 years ago.
He doesn’t confine his ribbing to his wife. In a letter to Sarah, he includes a message for someone with the unusual name of Permelia:
I was glad to hear from you again, but my opinion about the one that wrote your letter is about the same as about the Johnsons, or if any difference, worse. He sed his furlough was out. I think he had better keep it in his britches or he mite git the end of it frostbite, and then he would be in a pretty fix, wouldn’t he?– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; January 3, 1864
Raunchy humor is certainly not a modern invention.
No sense of humor can obscure the reality of war and the complicated emotions it evokes. George doesn’t let us forget that he isn’t on a camping trip.
The Southern men, I do say I do hate and despise to see one. I wouldn’t be to good to shoote any such man. They deserve killing. So they do, and that is to good for them or hangen is to good for them. I think hell will be full of such kind of men.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Lake Providence, Louisiana; April 8, 1863
The rancor in these few lines makes me squirm, even all these years later. It’s hard to imagine they’re written by the same man who professes such tender affection for his family and friends.
George’s letters are full of optimistic predictions for a quick end to the war and a speedy reunion with his family. However, it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s written for Sarah’s peace of mind and what he truly believes.
The sooner I git home, the better I will be satisfied. I dream about you and the children vary often and wake up disappointed. But one consolation it won’t be long till our time is out.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; January 3, 1864
Sometimes, his letters read like an inspirational—if un-spellchecked—greeting card:
I think it is likely that we will stay here this winter. It is sed and generally believed that our regiment will be mustered out of service next April. If that is the case, it won’t be long till my time is up so don’t be discouraged. There is a better day a coming. Live in hope.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Vicksburg, Mississippi; October 28, 1863
However, once in a while, sentimentality slips in:
You spoke about you hope for a better time a coming. I hope for to see the time I can git home to see you again and live with you as I used to do.
If I should not git home to see you any more, I hope I will meet you in a better land above where parting is no more, where sickness and sorrow is no more. Oh, won’t it be a happy time then. I long for the time to come when we will live together on earth, but I ain’t discouraged yet. I am as lively as I used to be.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Lake Providence, Louisiana; March 19, 1863
Am I the only one whose screen is suddenly a little blurry?
Some four weeks ago I wrote you a letter from Acworth [Georgia] and since then have written two letters from Big [Shanty?] Station and have not received any reply from you in return that I may know how you and family all are. I think it is my turn now to ask whether you are sick or what is become of you.– George Deal to Sarah Cole Deal; Atlanta, Georgia; July 11, 1864
I fervently wish I could tell you this wasn’t the last letter George wrote Sarah.
Despite his many assurances to the contrary, George’s luck eventually ran out. He died July 22, 1864 in the Battle of Atlanta, 11 days after writing that letter.
Even from a distance of more than a century, reading about his fate is still a punch to the gut. Sarah herself didn’t outlive George by many years; she died in 1873.
The correspondence stayed in the family until it found its way to the Newberry Library. Because of its preservation efforts, his words ensure his legacy as a brave soldier and loving father and husband lives on.
And given the jolly disposition shining through these letters, I suspect he wouldn’t mind that 150 years later, we’re still chuckling at his elephant metaphors and snarky comments about frozen toes.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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