We often think of the civil war in terms of swords, bayonets, and the deadly exchange of lead. It was a man’s time, a period in our history most remembered in terms of valiant military engagements. However, and regardless of whether Union or Confederate, the ravages of war truly found their way home in the form of private thoughts penned by the soldiers, their wives, family, and friends. For instance, realizing he was on the losing side, and sitting in camp around a fire, my own family member Michael Garmon Love wrote the following to his wife Phoebe:
November 16, 1863
“Deare wife I wish that this civil ware wod stope soe that we all cold come home to live with our famles a gain as we Did Be for this ware tuck plase and I am in hopes that we all will be at home til Spring – hit is thought that N. C. will go back in the Union and I hope that she will and that Be fore Spring for I cant help but think that we are on the wrong side.”
Such sharing of thoughts must have played out many times as soldiers came to grip with the realities of war and how history would eventually record their roles. Much more than the sterile documentation appearing in combined military records, such descriptive letters offer a hugely valuable glimpse into the lives of our soldiers. And as for their families and friends, the soldiers were not alone as during the tumultuous years, communities grew vocal. Like those on the fields of war, families and friends expressed their thoughts concerning the war. Whether writing in complaint or support of actions, they did all that was humanly possible to alleviate very real hardships.
About our remembrances of early letter writing, there is a valuable collection of documentation stored at North Carolina State Archives known as the Governor’s Letter Box. Now contained in a large series of document boxes, all the known letters ever received by each and every North Carolina Governor is chronologically preserved for posterity.
Imagine reading your ancestor’s complaint’s about goings-on during the Revolutionary War? Maybe some letters about business and life in the back country? Thoughts were shared pertaining to everything from slavery to marital infidelity.
Covering the period of the Civil War, the largest availability of such letters was those addressed to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance. It was among letters written to him that I discovered the following which was penned by Ms. Margaret Perry. Her return address was identified as Big Lick N. C.
Feb 7th 1863
Dear Govrnor I once more take my pen to address your Excellency concerning my husband which has not returned to his family yet, nor we have heard nothing of him since he was forced off. Dear Governor I can inform you with truth that if he does not return shortly, nothing but starvation, devastation & final ruin to his family will be the consequence. The news was afloat here that he was released but if he would return to his family. Col. Simpson of Stanly County & others say he is in Castle Thunder in Richmond.
According to Stanly County census 1850 – 1860, John Perry would have been 53-55 years of age in 1862. He was well above the 45 years old age limit enacted in September of that year and was even older at that time than the 50 years old limit set in 1864, near the close of war. John Perry may have been conscripted though something else seems to have been in play. Maybe John had been taken away because of some belief he espoused or possibly for something he had done.
Recorded in records as Lieutenant, Col. John Brantley Simpson mustered out in April 1862 at which time his military record includes a resignation letter which simply reads: “I have the honor of tendering my resignation as Lieutenant in “H” Co. 14th N. C. Troops, unconditionally for good and sufficient reasons.” Recommending that the resignation be accepted, the receiving officer noted: “as I am satisfied that Lieutenant Simpson is mentally incompetent to perform the duties of his office”. From this point I have no thoughts concerning further roles John B. Simpson may have played in the war. However, mentions by him and others that John Perry had been sent to Castle Thunder is seriously noteworthy. Let’s look deeper.
For every warring party there must be a place to quietly dispose of unruly citizens deemed to be spies, political prisoners, or those having been charged with treasonous crimes. For the Confederacy, such people were sent to a prison in Richmond VA known as Castle Thunder (photographed to the left). A brutal place, many sent to Castle Thunder never returned home as they were quickly sentenced to death.
Is it possible that John Perry had committed treason? Well over age, was he wrongly conscripted and lost among the action or was he being held as prisoner at Castle Thunder? Exactly a year later, following the first letter to Governor Vance, Margaret penned the following:
Feby 7th 1864
Dear Governor I would be very glad if you would give me an Answer & let me know what I may depend on as I have to break up house keeping in a short time if he don’t return. Also receive my kindest repsects due to your excellency for your kindness – yours truly
To His Excellency Z. B. Vance
Address – Stanly County
Big Lick P. O.
[I have demanded this —– but heard nothing from it – Z. B. V]
So, for more than a year Margaret Perry was living without her aging husband who she suspected from the word of others that he may have been sent to Castle Thunder. From online family histories, it is said that John Perry died ca. 1865 in Stanly County. Is that true or did he perish from multiple gunshot wounds from a firing squad occurring out of public site behind the fence at Castle Thunder? Had he been hung for actions? Or, did John Perry ultimately return to Stanly County where tradition says he would later die? It seems those are all valid possibilities.
Below are scanned copies of the two letters written by Margaret Perry:
The war ended in 1864 with all those involved returning to their homes. Looking into the Stanly County loose estate papers, in November 1865, Margaret Perry petitioned the court (below) for her rightful widow’s dower:
North Carolina Court of Please & Quarter Sessions
Stanly County November Term 1865
To the Worshipful, the Justices of said County, the Petition of Margaret Perry would respectfully show that she is the widow of John Perry who died intestate since the last Term of this court leaving your petitioner wholly unprovided for. She shows that he left a personal estate out of which she is entitled to a year’s provision for the support of herself & family & to this end prays your worship to appoint a Justice of the Peace & three freeholders unconnected with the parties to allot & set apart a year’s provision for the support of her self & family out of the crop, stock, & provisions on hand and in case of a deficiency to make up the same in money. ….is bound your petitioners will ever pray & c.
[Committee chosen:G. D. Whitley, B. L. Whitley,
Benjamin Hathcock, Alex’r Dry]
For some reason, John Perry is not identified above as being “deceased,” which was customary used in such writing. However, Margaret states in the petition that her husband died AFTER the last session of court which would have occurred in the spring of 1865. That statement indicates he was alive in 1865, well beyond Margaret’s February 1864 letter seeking to locate her husband. Leaving you with that bit of information, I’ll begin to close this post realizing multiple scenarios exist that could account for the sequencing of John Perry’s death. The old man could have followed a regiment into battle, coming home at the end of war unaccounted for along side the unit. He could have been held prisoner at Camp Thunder though surviving, was able to later return home. And yet, I’m poised to consider the words of Col. Simpson. He would not have mentioned Castle Thunder unless he knew of reasons supporting the possibility that John Perry may have been sent there. From the letter there is no doubt that John Perry had done something wrong in the eyes of the Confederacy. He was not a true Johnny Reb, whatever that means. And as for Margaret, it seems her concerns all along were about bringing her husband home, …but her concerns were also about self-preservation. Whatever was going on, I would love to have a moment to speak with Margaret. Who was she?
Born ca. 1805 to George and Sylvia Bloom Springer, Margaret married John Perry, son of Elijah and Sarah Perry. John and Margaret acquired numerous tracts of land in the vicinity of present-day Ridgecrest and Austin Roads in Stanly County. Also living nearby were Joshua Burris who married Margaret’s sister Sarah. There were others including members of the George Whitley family. Having platted the area, for me it is an eye-opener seeing the family lands spread out on a map identifying where the folks lived in the early 1800’s. The stories we hear become imaginable like a kid staging war with little plastic army men. More on that later but for now I’ll leave you with the following concerning Margaret Perry’s resting place.
Dated 30 Aug 1834, and recorded 1844 in the newly formed Stanly County, Lewis Springer sold to John Perry fifty acres (Stanly 1-197) located on present-day Ridgecrest road. This is not your normal fifty acres as one line of the little square tract is identified as joining Lot 1. Another line adjoins Lot 4 and yet another joins Lot 5. The deed occurred before the formation of Stanly County though was later registered in the new county. It references what appears to be an even earlier estate division. Whose? More too on that later, though I’ll let you know that fitting together those other tracts (1, 4 & 5) as prior mentioned has been a fun exercise during our present pandemic way of life.
A little graveyard is nested within a tree line along Ridgecrest where the gravestones of Margaret Springer Perry and others stand. The cemetery happens to be located on the 50 acres possibly acquired from Margaret’s parent’s estate. If so, and I hope that soon you’ll help me make that determination, Margaret was laid to rest on her land she likely was awarded as dower following the unusual death story of her husband John Perry. It may also be the land the couple acquired following the death of Margaret’s parents. Margaret’s gravestone is pictured at the top of this post. The resting place of her husband John Perry remains unmarked.
A final thanks to Pam Holbrook, Brenda Combs, and Tammie Rabon Hudson. Working lots with land records, it is vitally important for me to make contact with those who live in the area and of those who study and know the families involved. I invite the thoughts of anyone related or of those who now live in the area. This will especially be true pertaining to my next post which will discuss the lands surrounding the Margaret Perry Cemetery. Wow! …what if her parents were buried at that site? What if she and her husband John had received a share of the George Springer estate upon which he was buried? Wouldn’t that be cool?