Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A letter home before the Battle of Shiloh

There's not much to this brief letter written home on April 2, 1862, by my uncle, James M. Rhea, to his younger sister, Lucinda Etheredge, then nearly 18 and living with her widowed mother and brothers, Robert and Dempsy,  in Cedar Township. It was found among my maternal grandfather's papers and the fact that it survived for more than 150 years is in itself notable.

From an historical standpoint, it is interesting because James wrote it at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., four days before the awful Civil War battle we know now as Shiloh commenced.

It also is the last surviving physical trace of James, who survived Shiloh but was killed at Vicksburg a year later, during the summer of 1863. He is buried among the "unknowns" on that battlefield.

James's mother, Elizabeth (Rhea) Rhea/Etheredge/Sargent, lost two sons to the Civil War. His younger brother, Robert, who became critically ill while serving, was sent home to Lucas County to die, and did so two months before James was killed. Robert, at least, has a marked grave --- in what now is known as Bethel Cemetery.

It was not unusual among Lucas County families to sustain such losses --- cousins, brothers, fathers and sons.

"tenasee camp pitsburg
aprile the 2, 1862

"dear sister: it is with pleasure that i take the opertunity in leting you know that i am well and harty at present and tolerable well sadisfied and i hope these few lines may find you and the rest of the folks well and doing well. i have ben well sense we have been here with the except a bad could. there is a heap of sickness here for there is so many here. there is one out of our company at the hospitle. there is a few that is not able for duty. the wether is warm and nice. the timber is green nice. in a few days catle can liv. we have plenty of hard crackers to eat and meat. it is geting late and i must go and eat some of the hard crackers. i am very lazy this evening. tell demcy to not hurt the oald blu hen and so also no more at present.

"James M. Rhea
lucinderia etheredge"


James was born Feb. 17, 1834, in Sangamon County, Illinois, to first-cousins who had married --- Richard Rhea, a farmer and Baptist preacher, and Elizabeth Rhea --- an amazing woman.

When James was 5, his father died; and Elizabeth married soon thereafter Thomas Etheredge, who brought the family to Iowa about 1849. James had two full sisters, Mary and Elizabeth Rachel (my great-great-grandmother); and three Etheredge half-siblings --- Lucinda, Robert and Dempsy.

About 1854, the family moved from the hills south of Columbia in far south Marion County to Cedar Township, Lucas County, where they settled on land that included the oldest part of what now is called Bethel Cemetery. This was, and is, located a few miles east of Chariton.

James was 27 when he enlisted in Co. I, Eighth Iowa Volunteer Infantry, on Aug. 10, 1861. His military records contain a brief physical description, so at least we have some idea of what he looked like --- 5 feet, 10 and a half inches tall with a light complexion, blue eyes and sandy hair. He gave his occupation as farmer.

His brother, Robert, lied about his age when he enlisted as a private in Co. F, 36th Regiment, Iowa Infantry, on 9 August 1862 at Iconium in Appanoose County, Iowa. He said he was 19, but was only 16.

Robert was discharged on Feb. 20, 1863, at Helena, Arkansas, due to disability, and somehow made it home to his mother in Lucas County, where he died 9 April 1863, three months before James was killed on July 25, 1863, at Vicksburg.

Their sister, Lucinda, to whom the letter was addressed, married Amos Hixon on May 6, 1864, and they settled on a nearby Cedar Township farm where their six children were born: Flora (Long), Anna (Cooper), Lenna (Carson), Mildred (Foster), Rocella (who died as an infant) and Harry Schwimley.

Lucinda developed diabetes, untreatable at the time, and died of its complications on June 11, 1882, when she was 38. She is buried at Bethel near her parents and her brothers, Robert and Dempsy.

More of this story is included in an earlier post, entitled "Faded letters and tattered flags."  I've just added image of this letter to that post as well.


Anonymous said...

Facinating as always! Thank u for sharing.

Gerald McRonald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.