East New Market


5 February 1863 

Octavia Van Dorn Sulivane to her sister, Jane Van Dorn

(Murray J. Smith Collection, U.S. Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania)

Belvoir, [Md.] Feb. 5th, 1863

My Dear Sister,

I am at last able to write to you with some prospect of my letters reaching you. I arrived here two weeks since, & would have written to pan sooner than this knowing your anxiety to hear from home, but I have been quite sick, & am not yet well, but feel able to-day to write some letters for the first time since my arrival. I took cold in crossing the Bay which, from not taking proper care of myself, increased until I became quite ill with fever & neuralgia in my head, & my sufferings were intense. The fever left me some days ago, but the dreadful pain in my head remained—it is, however, gradually wearing off and I hope soon to be quite well again.

I left Port Gibson, or rather Gravelford,1 on the 28th Dec. I was in Town the week before I left, & all our friends were well. I believe none of them thought I would be able to reach Maryland or I am sure they would have written by me—it seems so hopeless getting letters to or from friends beyond the Confederacy that it is seldom anyone thinks of writing now. We never know whether you had received our letters after the death of your dear son. I heard only after my arrival here that you had received them. We all wrote then—Emily,2 Cousin Sarah,3 Sarah Shumaker,4 & myself. We had a good opportunity by a gentleman from Louisville, a son of Dr. Breckenridge of Oakland Col. He ran the blockade, spent a week or two with his Father, & on his return was willing to take any number of letters. We heard of his safe arrival in Memphis, but never knew whether he had succeeded in getting the letters through the lines.

I. have no more particulars to tell you about poor dear Aaron's6 last days, and the circumstances of his death, than you already know through those letters. Young Donalson Jenkins7—John's8 son—who is now on Earl's staff, & is a remarkably intelligent, promising young man, spoke to me at Grenada in the highest terms & very affectionately of Aaron—said there was no truth in the report that he had on a Federal uniform, so far from it, he had thrown off his coat on account of the heat, & was in his shirt sleeves, & was as cool, with his exceeding bravery & gallantry, as any man on the field—that Gen. Hindman9 said he never expected to have such another brave man on his staff. Donelson saw him fall—stationed a guard over his body, & afterwards had him buried decently, & his grave well marked. You know Earl with his command had not arrived there from Arkansas—Your letter to Gen.________ I have forgotten his name, —was sent by Gen. Rosencrans [sic] with a flag of truce to Earl at Holly Springs, after the battle of Corinth I think, requesting Earl to designate the grave, & he would comply with your request—which was done. Alas! how many distressing, heart-rending cases there are in this terrible war. Poor Mrs. Martin's for instance—her son James10 (Capt. Martin) was mortally wounded at the battle of Sharpsburg—fell into the hands of the enemy, & died in the field hospital at that place—that is all they know about him—poor Mr. Martin begged me with tears in his eyes, & heart too full almost for utterance, to write after I arrived in Md. and try to find out something about his last moments, & where his grave is, if possible, & have it marked that they might hereafter recover the dead body of their son—Not many of our friends in old Claibourne have been called on to mourn the loss of friends in this terrible conflict, when we consider how many have Fathers, sons & brothers in the army. Poor Edward Archer was killed in one of the battles before Richmond. Young Steven Archer died at home from some disease contracted in camp—Mrs. McAlpine’s two sons Edward and John, I think was the other, were killed before Richmond—Maj. Sidney Wilson was mortally wounded at Sharpsburg, & died afterward, in Virginia—Mrs. Lowry's son was killed also—I think those were all—John Coleman was severely wounded, & it was thought would be lamed for life, but has very nearly recovered & has returned to duty in Va. He is [a] Lieut. in Capt. George Fulkerson's Co. He has lost his left arm. George Lewis was discharged from duty on account of deafness. Andrew11 has been serving in the ranks in the 12th. Miss. ever since the war commenced—has been in most of the battles in Va. & has never been hurt, always writes home cheerfully. & never complains. Cousin George12 enlisted in the ranks at the time Port Gibson was threatened, and is one of the most doughty of Confederate soldiers—he is now Ordnance Sargent [sic] at Port Hudson with Isaac13 who is Chief of Ordnance on Gen. Beall's staff with the rank of Captain—he and Eugenia came on to Richmond with me—he having business there. Emily is living in her house in Pt. Gibson, which is a very nice comfortable little establishment. Bro Earl helps her some, besides Mr. M.14 a little only now—and she has some music schollars [sic] —Mary Stanford & Jeanie P. also board with her & live in Miss M. Leghowner's house across the street. Mary came from N. Orleans after its fall to be able to hear from Ford who is Lieut. in Capt. Latrobe's battery now at Vicksburg—Mary had of course to leave her servants in N. Orleans, which reduced her income so much that she is teaching school—about 20 children go to her & besides teaching them, she writes little plays which they perform at the Town Hal—have tableaux & recitations etc, all to raise socks for the soldiers, and were having grans success when I left—Those little children have made altogether a thousand pairs of socks—All that the southern ladies think of—talk of—or work for now is to make clothing for the army & our army was pretty well supplied when I left, & our people have a plenty to eat—not the least danger of starvation, in spite of the wishes & prayers of our enemies, & the reports they get out to that effect. The Southerners have, of course, to do without many articles of luxury they have been accustomed—to, but the necessaries of life are plentiful, & they are satisfied in doing without the luxeries [sic] —They do not wish to "return to the flesh-pots of Egypt." Many of the wealthiest family's have neither flour or coffee, and sit down to corn bread & potatoes, & potato coffee, or some other substitute, just as cheerfully as though they had all the luxeries in the land—They have learned to make corn bread so delicious, & in so many varieties, that I prefer it now to flour bread - and by sifting the corn meal several times through gause, as nice pound cakes & sponge cakes can be made as I ever saw. Mrs. Archer handed me some sponge cake (with home-made blackberry wine) so nice that I thought it was made of flour—This war has done the Southern ladies more good than anything that could have happened—they have become so industrious & managing and ingenious in inventing substitutes for what they cannot get—You scarcely ever enter a house now without hearing the sound of a spinning wheel or loom, & nearly every plantation manufactures its own clothing—There are any quantity of goods in the Confederacy now, from England, France, etc, etc. but are enormously high & hard to get—for instance, coarse red flannel is $5 per yd, & from that up to ten for fine. Ladies shoes $15 & 20—DeLaine dress patterns $60—pr of military boots $60—sack coffee $100—bbl Flour $100—and so on—How people live I cannot imagine, but all seem to get along very well, & I have never heard of any suffering among the poorer classes—I never was at Cousin Sarah's without her having a little flour & coffee—Emily generally has some—Eugenia has never been without—Mrs. Parker the same—At the time the soldiers were stationed there, I think most of the Port Gibson people supplied themselves by exchanging corn meal for flour—two bbls meal for one flour—with the Quarter Master of the Regt. —The soldiers encamped in Mrs. Parker’s woods near the Burkington15 lane—The girls nurse all in their glory at that time—Mrs. Coleman was manager general in the hospitals and every one took an active part in the good work.—

Well I have told pretty much all about Port Gibson that I can think of, & now will tell you what I know you are most anxious to hear—about dear Earl—You need not believe one of the falsehoods that have been circulated against him—he has been abused by the miserable editors because he offeneded them when he first took command of the Department of Miss. Up to that time no man in the army stood higher than he did—In the Army of the Potomac it was said "they had lost almost their right arm" when he was appointed to the command in Missouri & Arkansas, or the “Trans Miss. Dept." as it was called—That caused jealousy among Gen. Price's friends who were ready and eager to catch at anything to injure Earl—After the retreat from Corinth he was appointed to the command of Southern Miss. & East Louisiana, & was received with open arms—every one was delighted—the papers and all, said it had infused new life into the Dept. & given confidence to all—At that time it was said there were many traitors in Miss., many who tried to depreciate Confederate money & would give information to the enemy from different points on the river—the whole of which the enemy then had possession of with the exception of that portion immediately in front of Vicksburg. Soon after Earl came to Jackson it was represented to him that Judge Sharkey16 was trying to depreciate Confederate money—having determined to put a stop to it, Earl had him arrested as soon as he would the poorest man in the state—being a rich & influential man, with many personal & political friends, he & they have done all they could to injure him ever since. Judge Sharkey was acquitted after trial, but that did not make it seem any less Earl's duty to have him tried upon such a charge.

Earl also issued an order declaring martial law in the Dept., and saying that any editor who should publish anything relating to the movement of troops, or anything calculated to impair the confidence of the troops in the commanders the President had seen fit to place over them, should be arrested and the paper suppressed. All of which gave great offence to editors all over the country—hence the vile slanders they have originated & circulated against him. —Editors, you know, lead the people by the nose at will, & although Earl had many warm friends left, the people generally joined in the cry against him—particularly after the disaster at Corinth—he was terribly abused after that, until Gen. Bowen brought the charges against him & the Court of Inquiry was called. The charges were said to be trivial, such as that Gen. Van Dorn had made the attack on Corinth without due consideration—had not taken the precaution to acquaint himself with the topography of the country around, & half a dozen more charges of the same nature. It gave him an opportunity of self defence which he fully availed himself of, & requested that the charge of drunkenness (which had not been made by Gen. Bowen, but had been extensively circulated and believed, & which affected his character as an officer) should be investigated. It resulted in his triumphant acquittal, & Clem17 told me there had been a great revulsion of feeling in the Army since the Court of Inquiry had been held—and the people had begun to praise him as much as ever, at the time I left Miss. which was immediately after his successful cavalry raid against Holly Springs etc. It was that raid that saved Mississippi from being overrun by the enemy. Gen. Grant with a large Army was coming down on the Mobile & Ohio R.R. towards Columbus, Miss, flanking us on the right—when Earl with 5000 Cavalry went up suddenly, & with the celerity he is noted for, destroyed all of Gen. Grant's stores, and compeled him to retreat towards Memphis—that was before our reinforcements had arrived, or our fortifications at Grenada had been completed, & our whole Army in Miss, would have been obliged to retreat into Alabama, & not only the state but the river, & all the states west of it, would have been lost to us—Earl has done good service to the South, and it will be acknowledged some day—He established & fortified the important post of Port Hudson whilst he was in command and defended Vicksburg when, as his friends said, any other man would have given it up—& when the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry are published (as they have been by this time) full justice will be done him & he will not be blamed for the defeat at Corinth—that battle was a brilliant success at first, & would have been finally but for an accident which no human foresight could guard against, & which he has explained fully to the War Department.—At the time I left he was having published at Mobile 1000 pamphlets containing the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry to be distributed in the Army & among his friends everywhere. They were not out when I left but I read a copy in manuscript whilst at Grenada a week or ten days before I came on to Va.—After the summing up, Earl's defense was read in court by his Lawyer, and it was the most beautifully written & touching thing I ever read in my life—even old Gen. Price and the other Genls. sitting on the bench in the Court were seen with tears streaming down their faces. I wish I could remember something of it to tell you—After proving clearly as the light of day and beyond the shadow of doubt or cavil that the charges were all false—drunkeness & all—and making Brigadier Gen. Bowen appear so exceedingly small and ridiculous, & that without an ill-natured word against him or against anyone else—the defense went on, and alluded in one short phrase only to the vile slanders against him- saying they were of a nature that could not be presented before that Court—if true they would stamp him as a character too base for consideration— (or something of that sort)—"but that they were born of malice and falsehood, and only escaped vindication by escaping investigation"—It then alluded to his native state in whose defense he had been fighting for nearly a quarter of a century—it had been his pride to serve her—his blood had always been ready to flow in her defense—he well remembered with what pleasure he returned, after many years of absence in her service, to his native state & beheld the skies that canopied the spot where first he saw the light, & to the soil where reposed the ashes of his parents—that he had used every exertion & bent every energy of his mind to defend that sacred soil. Yet in the midst of it she had inflicted this blow, & had assailed his character as a gentleman & an officer which it was a soldiers pride to guard so jealously—and which had prompted him to place this defense as an antidote beside the poison of Calumny which had stung him.—

You understand- I do not pretend to give the language, for it was as I said written beautifully, but those were something of the ideas presented towards the close of the defense. I only wish I could have gotten one of the pamphlets before I left to send you. They must have been out as I came through Mobile, if I had only known it, for we travelled in the same car part of the way with the President and his staff, & they were reading one of them. They were seated very near me, and I heard their conversation, or rather a few remarks with regard to it. The President said "It was the most complete vindication he had ever see"—Gen. Joe Davis, his nephew said "Yes it sustained Van Dorn fully" and remarked how glad he was he had seen it—Dear Earl bore all the abuse that was heaped upon him most nobly—and conducted himself throughout with much dignity and good sense, and in the right kind of spirit—I was afraid his spirits and fortitude might sink under it all, as it was said poor Gen. A. Sidney Johnson's [sic] did, but no such thing, he looks as well as I ever saw him, if not better, and bears up bravely & nobly against it—he laughed and told me he had not a grey hair yet, nor had he lost a meal in consequence of it—and he relates anecdotes as well & with as much spirit as ever. He hates Mississippians though, and Clem says he is a very unhappy man—Clem loves him better: than any body in the world, except his mother, & says he would lay down his life for him at any moment. Earl says he has the satisfaction of knowing that those who know him best love him the most. Clem thinks him a great man, & that he has not his superior in the Confederate Army—Another thing I must tell you that Clem says—he will make oath, he says, that he has not seen the Genl. drink too much, or seen him under the effects of liquor, since he has had a separate command—that once or twice in the Army of the Potomac, at about Christmas time, when Gen. Beauregard was presenting battle flags to the different regiments, all the Genls. used to to dine with each other around at their different head-quarters & that all of them sometimes indulged a little too freely, but not since, so far as his Uncle was concerned.— Earl said to me whilst I was at Grenada that he had been under a cloud, but that he thought it was breaking away, & would soon pass—I said I hoped so indeed, & that I thought there would be a reaction so soon as his defense was published, that the people would find they had done him an injustice and would love him more than they ever did.—"But," said he, "they can never repair the injury they have me—before I came to Miss. I stood first on the list for promotion, & now I stand seventh"—He vould have been the senior Lieut. Genl. but for all the injury they did him by writing this abuse to the President.—The defeat at Corinth alone would not have done it—Just before that battle he had been removed by his own request from command in Miss. & appointed to the Dept. of West Tennessee—He had to fight the enemy at Corinth, or Memphis, or some other place in that vicinity before getting up to his head quarters, that was in accordance to orders—he & Gen. Price had been in correspondence on the subject for weeks & had agreed to unite their forces and attack Corinth as the most assailable—In the Meantime Gen. Pemberton had been appointed to take command in Miss. & when the defeat of Corinth threw Earl back into the Dept. of Miss, and all the abuse came so thick & fast upon him, then it was injustice was done Earl by the President & War Dept.—Gen. Pemberton was made Lieut. Gen. that he might take command over a Senior Major Genl. and five other Genls. were also made Lieut. Genls. which threw Earl back to the seventh on the list—I hope that after the President having seen & approved of his defense, he will yet do something for Earl—Of course that is all false about his having left his wife, or of her suing for a divorce from him—I do not know whether he had heard the report or not, he did not mention it, but told me he had received a letter from Caroline18 a few days before, and told me how affectionately she had spoken of me—He intended going down to see her, & was to have gone that far with me, when the Cavalry expedition was decided on and he could not go—I left home for Va. just as he returned from Grenada, he & Clem all safe, and the people were then loud in Earl's praises—I believe I have told you everything you would like to know about him, & my letter is getting entirely too long—Did you wonder at my leaving the South at this time? It was very hard for me to do, but I thought my duty called me here to be with Octavia19 during her trying time and besides, I owed money here which I was anxious to come and pay—I was too late to be with poor Sis though—her little boy was five weeks old when I arrived. I was glad to hear Douglas20 had been here on a visit, but very sorry I had missed seeing him—Mr. Henry21 was charmed with him, & he & Sis were sorry when he left them—They both send much love to yourself, Mag. & Douglass—to which you must add mine also—Mr. H. says he would not inflict one of his letters upon you, but got Mrs. Murray to write instead—he never write to any one. When he is obliged to write he gets Octavia to write for him—he says he has sent you enough papers to keep you busy as long as the war lasts—Mrs. Murray has written you a long letter, & will write again, & sends you the "Baltimore Weekly Sun" every week. Mr. Henry says tell Missie he intends to kiss her the first time he sees her for what she said about him in her last letter to Octavia—she says she had a letter on hand to you, & had nearly finished it when I arrived—She is so bad about writing I doubt whether she will ever get through with another to California or elsewhere, now that I have come back—Poor child! Has she not had a servitude to babies? Married only three years and has had three babies! Dear little Hans22 [?] is a little angel now and time has tempered our grief for his loss—but the memory of his sufferings causes a severe pang whenever we think of him—

I have tried Dear Jane23 think of every thing to tell you that you would like to hear, but you know I am rather a poor letter writer, and although this letter seems long, I have a suspicion that there is very little in it of interest. You must question me as to all you would like to know & I will write to you faithfully, without any more procrastinations, & whether I hear from you or not will write immediately whenever I hear anything of interest from the South that is of private & particular interest—You of course see the general news in the newspapers—Sit down and ask me all the questions you like & I will answer them immediately. I feel great concern about Miss. We are very strong & very confident of success at Vicksburg & Port Hudson, but the enemy is making such gigantic efforts to capture them and reopen the River we cannot help feeling some uneasiness—The battle, however, "is not always to the strong" and we will continue to put our trust in Him who has already helped us so wonderfully. How terrible this war is! All others sink into insignificance in comparison with it—May God in Mercy soon send us blessed peace once more.—

Isaac24 has not been in a battle yet & has only been under fire once, just before our Army left Corinth last summer—but Clem has been in four or five, & has distinguished himself for bravery. Earl says "he is as gallant as the bravest of men could be." He was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Hatchie—was paroled & came down to Gravelford and spent nearly a month with us there before he was exchanged—I had so much satisfaction from his visit that I told him I was glad he had been taken prisoner—

I did not tell you of EarI's25 (Emily's) being in the Army. Bro. Earl got him a commission as Cadet, & he gets $40 per month, and is serving in the Army at P. Hudson. Marshall26 enlisted last summer when P. Gibson was threatened, but being under age, Emily succeeded in getting him discharged & he now goes to school to Mr. Moore, who is still living in Mrs. Butler's27 house. She's at “The Hill”28 which you know she bought from Isaac & has improved very much—They are all delighted with it as a residence—everything else is pretty much in status quo—Dr. Abbey has bought & lives at my old home the Oaken Squares29—Syd & George30 both in the Army—& nearly every one else excepting Mr. Miller,31 Leonard,32 & a few others who ought to be in—John Parker has a substitute & stays at home to attend to the business of the two families—Jimmie is in the ranks at Port Hudson in a cavalry company & is a gallant soldier—his health would have exempted him, but he would go in spite of everything—Sam Duncan & a great many of the wealthiest, men, of his stamp, are at home doing nothing—

Henry Hughes33 died last summer—William34 is at home—so is Jim Wood—Mary has two children—Sarah three—Mrs. McCoy is living in her new house on the hill by Mrs. Coleman's—Mrs. Chaplain & all well as usual—Wm. Ellett & Katie Stowers are engaged to be married—Job Routh & Priscilla Jeffries were married just before I left home—and now I believe that is all the news—Give my best love to dear brother Aaron38—tell him he never will write to me, but I love him as much as ever, and never pray for myself without praying for him & all of you. You do not seem so far off whilst I am praying to Heaven for you in connection with those I love nearer to me. When you write tell me all about yourselves—You, Mag & little Hattie—Aaron—& Douglas—I hope & trust he may have success in his new undertaking—I was charmed with Aaron's account of his exploring expedition & would be glad to see everything from his pen—Sis sends her love to her Uncle Aaron also—

Ann Murray & Elizabeth send love to you—the former seems extremely grateful to you for your efforts to find out [about] her son—

I hope you will write to me soon. I pray that the blessing of Heaven may rest upon you all my dear Sister, & that we may all meet once more—if not in this world in a far better one, where the weary will be at rest forever.

Believe me ever your affectionate Sister,

O. Sulivane

[Annotations written in July 1993 by Edgar Crisler (deceased) are available at the Octavia's Letter page at Rootsweb.  Transcription by Phil Miller through Rootsweb.]