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unday Reflections: Stories from the University of South Carolina Press
that celebrate the sporting life and great outdoors

The Civil War Letters of Alexander McNeil
by Mac Wyckoff

Introduction

For more than a century the descendants of Alexander “Sandy”
McNeill saved and preserved the hundreds of letters he wrote during the
Civil War to Almirah Haseltine “Tinie” Simmons, the beloved friend who
became his wife. Beginning in the 1960s, McNeill’s great-granddaughter,
Cora Lee Starling, spent fourteen years sorting, organizing, and typing
the letters with the goal of someday having them published to make their
content available to a larger audience.

A Southern merchant, McNeill served in the Secession Guards, Company
F, 2nd South Carolina Regiment, from April 17, 1861, to May 2, 1865.

The McNeill letters are the largest and best collection of Civil War letters I
have seen in thirty years of working with such documents. The letters begin
less than three weeks after the war erupted at Fort Sumter and continue to
the last week of April 1865, nearly two weeks after General Robert E. Lee
surrendered at Appomattox. In his frequent and lengthy missives, McNeill
emptied his mind to Tinie, describing in great detail his own experiences
and thoughts about being a soldier. The reader gains a great understanding
of what day-to-day life during the war was like as McNeill described
camp life, the building of winter quarters, marches, company election of
officers, weather, food, and morale. McNeill, an opinionated man, voiced
his personal views on political, religious, and military events, allowing the
reader to get to know him. It is not only the quantity of letters but also
their quality and the wide variety of topics covered that distinguish this
collection from others.


Chapter 1 - McNeill Goes to War


The first paragraph of Alexander McNeill’s first letter serves as a
wonderful introduction to this collection. Here McNeill told Tinie that
while they have long known each other and been friends, he would now
like to change their relationship. He then proceeded to announce his
deep love for her. His next few letters reflect his agony as he awaited her
definitive and, he hoped, positive response.

McNeill and the men of the Secession Guards departed for Richmond
on April 30, just two and a half weeks after Fort Sumter.
***
Camp Charleston
Richmond Va
May. 6th 1861
Dear Madam:
I know you will be somewhat surprised to receive a letter from me,
but I know your generous and compasionate nature will influence you to
overlook the liberty I am taking. We have long known each other; I might
say that we have been brought up together, received instructions from the
same source. I have always esteemed you as a friend and now I feel stealing
over me a feeling which tells me that you are now held in higher estimation
than that of a friend. All that is wanting to kindle into a flame that
feeling is for you to breathe upon it your gentle encouragement. I confess
to you that I love you and offer you all of my best and holiest love. I will not
attempt to deceive you in any way. I will say that untill now I have never
felt that I could take upon my shoulders the responsibility of a family.
But, thanks to a kind Providence, after several years of close attention to
business, I have succeeded in laying up a few thousand dollars. It is true a
small sum, but sufficient with continued industry to enable me to support
a family decently.

I tell you truly and conscientiously I have never felt the want of some
gentle and confiding nature with whom I could commune if not in words
spoken, in words written at any time so much as now, many miles from the
home of my friends. I may say encamped on the borders of the territory of
our enemies; I feel that a word of encouragement from a loved one at home
would tend (?) my hand in any emergency.

I sincerely hope that you will overlook this liberty and if your heart
does not incline you to look favorably upon my proposals, that you will
attribute it to its proper cause and not accuse me of a want of courtesy.
I will close this letter by giving you an imperfect description of our tour
from Charleston to this place and of our encampment here. We left camp
in Charleston Tuesday night last and reached this place on Thursday following.
We were received all along the rout[e] with the most enthusiastic
demonstrations, and at Wilmington, N.C. and Petersburg, Va. our path
was literally strewed with flowers. The fair daughters of the old North
State and the Old Dominion vied with each other in their attentions to
our Company. The finest in rank, beauty, and intelligence turned out at the
stations and conversed with us as though we were old friends. In parting
they expressed a lively interest in our welfare and presented us with their
cards and beautiful boquets in token of their sincerity. We are now encamped just outside of the corporate limits of Richmond in a beautiful
pine grove well shaded and abundantly supplied with good water. Within
a few hundred yards of our camp the James River, familiar to all from its
historic associations, tumbles over a ledge of rock, continually reminding
of its near proximity by the rumbling of its waters. This is a lovely place
within full view of the city and nearby is the tomb containing the remains
of the Patriot President James Monroe.

Since our arrival here the weather has been very cold and is now wet
and raining.

While I am writing, our cook is lying at my feet, sick with Pleurisy and
nearby are my four mess mates, all confined to the tent by the inclemency
of the weather. The place where I have to write, together with the surrounding
circumstances, must answer as my excuse for any errors in this disconnected
epistle.

In conclusion, allow me to assure you that the professions made in this
letter are the true expressions of a heart constituted to idolize your every
virtue.

Hoping that I may hear from you soon, I subscribe myself your...
Devoted Friend
Alexander McNeill



Disappointed in mailing my letter yesterday, I add a few lines giving you a
very imperfect description of our camp during last night. The clouds seemed
to grow darker and more lowering untill near nightfall, then when all of the
powers of the Storm “God” seemed exhausted and the pent up furies of the
Storm cloud could no longer be controlled the lightnings flashed, the thunders
muttered, the rains descended in torrents and the winds raised our tents
from their moorings. In fact, our camp was entirely submerged and the only
refuge was to perch upon the top of a trunk or valise. For hours we remained
in this condition and the rain continued unabated. The sentinels tramp was
undisturbed. I tell you, last night will long be remembered by the members
of the Secession Guards. I remain[e]d awake as long as I could and when
sleep finally overpowered me I did not occupy a bed of down but on the cold
wet ground with no covering but a wet cloak, passed the night.

I awoke at the tap of the drum this morning to find the clouds cleared
away and the first genial Spring morning since I have been in Va.
The prospects for war seem to grow more threatening each day. We
cannot tell how soon we may be called to play our part in a sanguinary
engagement.

Again, in conclusion, let me conjure you to deal leniently with me and
hope for an early answer.

Ever your friend if no more,
Alexander McNeill
Direct your letter thus
Capt. Perrymans Company
Alexander McNeill
Camp Charleston,
Richmond, Virginia


Excerpted with permission from The Civil War Letters of Alexander McNeill edited by Mac Wyckoff, published by the University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina, © 2016 University of South Carolina. uscpress.com/The-Civil-War-Letters-of-Alexander-McNeill






 

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Thanks as a civil war “nut” I have read many biographies and diaries. This one sounds like co H, but more details. I look forward to getting a copy.
Also it is a nice change from daily politics!
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
The book is available from the USC Press for $41.99
 
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