How an il­lit­er­ate wife ‘wrote’

Friends tran­scribed let­ters to help a Union sol­dier con­nect with his fam­ily

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

In 1864, an ir­ri­tated Union sol­dier named John C. Arnold wrote to his wife, Mary Ann, back in Penn­syl­va­nia, com­plain­ing that he’d had no re­cent let­ters from her. “Dear wife, what is the rea­son you don’t write of­tener?” he wrote from the front lines. He had waited for her epis­tles in vain, he said.

But John, 33, might have guessed the rea­son, as Mary Ann noted later.

“You know that I cant write my­self,” she re­sponded, so “I cant write when I pleas.”

Mary Ann Arnold, 31, was il­lit­er­ate. She could not write and signed her name with an X. She was then rais­ing five chil­dren by her­self in a vil­lage on the Susquehanna River, and had to ask friends and neigh­bors to write out her let­ters to her hus­band.

While John’s let­ters to her in Port Trevor­ton, Pa., al­ways ar­rived in his flow­ery hand­writ­ing, hers to him ar­rived in the var­ied hand­writ­ing of whomever she could get to write for her. On both sides, spell­ing was of­ten pho­netic and punc­tu­a­tion rare, but the let­ters are il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

Since 1937, the Li­brary of Congress has had the cou­ple’s cor­re­spon­dence, which in­cluded locks of chil­dren’s hair she sent to him, but it an­nounced in a Nov. 1 blog post that the let­ters have been dig­i­tized and posted on­line.

Sev­eral of their chil­dren wound up in Wash­ing­ton. One be­came a prom­i­nent doc­tor with the pub­lic school sys­tem.

Michelle A. Krowl, the Civil War spe­cial­ist in the li­brary’s man­u­script divi­sion who wrote the blog post, said Mary Ann’s let­ters ap­pear in the hand­writ­ing of three or four peo­ple.

Some­times, her let­ters iden­ti­fied who had writ­ten them.

“Hal­loo old John, I wrote this let­ter,” copy­ist Har­riet Straub wrote in the mar­gin of one.

Some­times, Mary Ann would men­tion who had writ­ten a par­tic­u­lar let­ter. In one case she mailed John a “pen­syl” and noted later that neigh­bor David Keller had writ­ten the let­ter that went with it.

Some­times, she could find no one to help her.

“I re­ceived your kind and well come let­ters,” some­one wrote for her on June 15, 1864, but couldn’t re­ply be­cause “I hat no­body to write for me.”

On Aug. 28, writ­ing from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., her hus­band urged her to try her hand at one. He wrote out an up­per and low­er­case al­pha­bet for her to study.

“Write your selfe,” he urged. “I can read any writ­ing. I will send you the let­ters in this let­ter, then you must learn.”

He signed off, “Your true and cin­sear hus­band till death,” adding, “kiss the babys for me.”

The cor­re­spon­dence is an in­ti­mate look at how one ru­ral fam­ily, with the help of its com­mu­nity, man­aged to stay in touch dur­ing the war. Mary Ann had to trust her sen­ti­ments to her writ­ers. And, as she prob­a­bly couldn’t read, John likely knew his let­ters were be­ing read aloud by some­one else.

The let­ters also re­veal the im­pact the war had on the small com­mu­nity. John Arnold fought in some of the war’s worst bat­tles, and he told in his let­ters of the deaths of lo­cal men. He of­ten re­ported on the well-be­ing of the lo­cal “Chap­man Boys,” sol­diers from Chap­man Town­ship, adja- cent to Port Trevor­ton, where he and oth­ers had en­listed and ended up in Com­pany I of the 49th Penn­syl­va­nia In­fantry Reg­i­ment.

John was slightly wounded in the leg at the bloody Bat­tle of Spot­syl­va­nia in May 1864 and was killed at the Bat­tle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6, 1865.

He had been home on leave in Fe­bru­ary 1865, and the cou­ple’s sixth child was born Dec. 4, 1865.

It is not clear how Mary Ann’s let­ters to him sur­vived, Krowl said. Per­haps some of his per­sonal ef­fects were sent home af­ter his death. And there is un­cer­tainty about where John is buried. Mary Ann died in 1911 and was laid to rest in St. John’s United Brethren Ceme­tery in Port Trevor­ton.

A tomb­stone there lists both names and says John “lies buried on the bat­tle field.” Sailor’s Creek is about 50 miles south­west of Rich­mond. But a 1937 let­ter from a grand­son to the Army sug­gests John may be buried as an un­known in the na­tional ceme­tery in Peters­burg, Va.

John Arnold en­listed in Fe­bru­ary 1864, rel­a­tively late in the war. He did so in part to col­lect an en­list­ment bounty, ac­cord­ing to the let­ters and Krowl’s re­search. Money was a chronic prob­lem for the cou­ple. John’s pre-war oc­cu­pa­tion is listed as “la­borer” in records, and there is a re­ceipt in his pa­pers sug­gest­ing he worked on a canal boat.

In the Army, he wor­ried about when he was to be paid, and how he would get money to Mary Ann. He told her how much coal to buy for the win­ter and ad­vised her to have the house plas­tered.

She wrote that she missed him.

“Now don’t for get to come home, for it is too cold for to sleep alone this win­ter and to make a fire in the morn­ing,” she said. “I did not sleep a half of dosen of nights since you left that I didn’t dream of you.”

She was not afraid of be­ing alone in the evenings be­cause she had a “grate big dog . . . and he is very cross at night.”

In Vir­ginia, John had seen hor­ri­ble sights. On May 19, 1864, he wrote that he had been as­signed hos­pi­tal duty af­ter one bat­tle.

“It was an aw­ful site to see,” he wrote. “The wounded came in big loads. Some had there legs shot off some there armes some were shot in there heads.”

On Tues­day, May 10, the 49th Penn­syl­va­nia was part of a 12-reg­i­ment as­sault on a Con­fed­er­ate po­si­tion at Spot­syl­va­nia known as the Mule Shoe.

“As soon as we got a lit­tle ways up the hill . . . the bul­lets came as thick as hale,” John re­counted. “But we run up to [the rebel] en­trench­ments and charged on them with our bay­o­nets. . . . They skedad­dled as fast as they could. About 6 or 8 thou­sand threw down there armes and gave up fight­ing.”

But the at­tack had been costly. Thir­teen men from his com­pany were killed and 15 wounded, ac­cord­ing to a his­tory of the reg­i­ment.

“Wil­liam Her­rold he is ei­ther ded or a pris­oner,” John wrote. “Wee haven’t herd any thing of him since the fight.” (Her­rold was killed.)

“And Edwin Shrauder I guess he is ded. I went to see him but he was . . . ly­ing with blood run­ning out of his mouth and nose,” he wrote.

“I still have been saved . . . so far, and hope that god will spare my life, ” he wrote on June 5, 1864. “That is my prayer. I feel con­fi­dent that iff it is not god’s will for mee to be shot [there] is no reb that can shoot me.”

On Sept. 23, he wrote: “Dear Wife and Fam­ily . . . I am still amongst the liv­ing." But he’d had an­other close call. He had been in a bat­tle out­side Winch­ester, Va. Four more men from Com­pany I were killed and two wounded. As he and his com­rades were un­der ar­tillery fire, a round struck and killed two men al­most right next to him. One man had half his head taken off. The other was struck in the body.

“On Tues­day morn­ing wee buried them,” he wrote. “Put them both in one grave . . . in a nice grave­yard in Winch­ester.”

“I feel sorry for them two boys for [they] ware two as a nice a boys as ware in our com­pany,” he wrote.


John C. Arnold’s epis­tles to wife Mary Ann were in his flow­ery hand, but hers were in the writ­ing of her helpers.


ABOVE: Mary Ann Arnold in­cluded a clip­ping of their chil­dren’s hair in a let­ter sent to her hus­band, John. LEFT: One of Mary Ann’s let­ters, which told of her life in Port Trevor­ton, Pa.

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