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Introduction to the Read Family Correspondence
By George Rugg
The Read correspondence has three principal authors: Martha White Read, her husband Thomas Griffin Read, and Griffin's brother John Henry Read. The most memorable of these voices is that of Martha White Read (b. 1833/34), called Mattie. At the time of the 1860 census, Mattie White was living with her father, Robert M. White, whose 162 acre farm was located four miles from Waynesboro in Augusta County, Virginia, in the central Shenandoah. Also residing there were Mattie's older brother James and two younger sisters, Nancy and Mary (a married sister, Lucy White Shirey, also figures in the correspondence). Like most farmers in the Valley Robert White grew grain and raised livestock; he owned one slave. In 1860 or early 1861, Mattie White was wed to Thomas Griffin Read (1835-1895), a tailor by trade, lately of Rockingham County, Virginia (just north of Augusta County, down the Valley). Where the couple might have settled is not evident from the surviving correspondence; in the event, Mattie spent the war years at the White farm.
T. G. Read was born in Culpeper County in the Virginia Piedmont, but moved thereafter into the Valley (possibly to the area around New Market, Shenandoah County, where the elder Thomas Read still lived during the war). On 11 July 1861 Read enlisted in Company I of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, the "Rockingham Confederates"; he served in Company I, as private and sergeant, until the regiment's consolidation in May 1864. The 33rd Virginia was one of five regiments constituting the Stonewall Brigade, which served most famously under Thomas J. Jackson in the Valley District and in the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Read himself fought in the Shenandoah Valley campaigns of 1862 and 1864, and in many of the Army of Northern Virginia's major actions from the Peninsula to the Wilderness. He was wounded in the thigh at the Wilderness on 5 May 1864, returned to the army in July, and was captured at Winchester the following September. He spent most of the rest of the war in the Federal prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, being exchanged on 15 March 1865.
John Henry Read was born in Culpeper County on 11 December 1839, and was living at Lantz Mill, Shenandoah County, at the outbreak of war. On 22 April 1861 he enlisted in the Page-Shenandoah "Eighth Star" Artillery Battery, with whom he served in western Virginia in the summer and fall of 1861. On the evening of 3 October, following an action at Greenbrier River, Read went on the sick list; he would be absent sick for most of the following year. In September 1862 he transferred to the Monroe "Dixie" Artillery Battery, attached to the Department of Western Virginia. He was later captured, and by the autumn of 1864 was imprisoned in the Federal camp at Rock Island, Illinois.
Of the 28 wartime letters in the correspondence, fifteen were written by Mattie Read, mostly to her husband. Four of these letters date from the summer of 1861; another five from the months between February and August 1862; and five more from October 1864 to January 1865. Six of the ten letters of T. G. Read were written from Point Lookout prison, from September 1864 to January 1865. Of the others, one (dated 27 July 1861) was written from camp at Manassas shortly after First Bull Run; a second (11-12 July 1863) was written on the retreat from Gettysburg; a third (6 May 1864) from the Wilderness, a day after Read was wounded; and a fourth (26 March 1865) was written from Waynesboro to Read's parents at New Market, after his release from Point Lookout. John Henry Read's three letters include one written to Mattie from western Virginia (23-24 June 1861), and two written to T. G. Read from prison (10 November and 9 December 1864). The Read correspondence thus spans nearly the full course of the war, though the long months between August 1862 and May 1864 are represented by only two items.
The collection also includes three pre- and post-war letters and several non-epistolary manuscripts (including two furlough passes for T. G. Read, for 12 to 22 February 1862 and 13 May to 11 July 1864). There are also two wartime newspaper clippings, and a group of nine Read family Confederate covers not immediately identifiable with any of the letters.
Mattie Read's letters of 1861-62 are ardent in their support of the Confederate cause. The Shenandoah Valley was not historically secessionist, but Lincoln's call for troops following the surrender of Fort Sumter was viewed with outrage, and swayed public opinion towards separation. On 17 April 1861, two days after the president's proclamation, the Virginia convention passed an ordinance of secession, later ratified in Augusta County by an overwhelming margin. Nowhere in the surviving letters does Mattie seek to rationalize Southern independence; rather, she justifies the war as an essentially defensive measure, against a Northern policy of wanton aggression. On occasion the vehemence of her prose is quite marked, as in her reaction to the death of Private William Finley in the letter of 16-17 February 1862 ("Northern demons. . . . fiendish wretches. . . . murdering vandals. . . . degraded specimens of humanity.") And in more than one letter she acknowledges the necessity of sacrifice: "Hard as it would be for me to give you up, dearest one, I would rather that you and many others would fall in sacrifice to Lincoln's bullets than that his ruffian hordes should lay waste our country . . . but God grant that there may be little bloodshed in our future, and may He bring you back safely to me." (7-12 August 1861).
These sentiments were surely reinforced by the proximity to the Valley of much of the early fighting, including several campaigns mentioned prominently in the letters. The defeats suffered by the Confederate General Robert Garnett at Rich Mountain and Carrick's Ford in present-day West Virginia (11 and 13 July 1861) took place just across the Alleghenies from Augusta County. Mattie describes the consternation at home in her letter of 16 July (for it was believed that Federal control of western Virginia would leave the Shenandoah open to invasion). And in the spring and early summer of 1862, fighting came to the Valley itself. This was Stonewall Jackson's brilliantly successful Shenandoah campaign, the culmination of which is described in Mattie's letters of 13-15 and 19-21 June. "Last Sunday was the first time the sound of hostile cannon ever assailed my ears," she writes of the Confederate victory at Cross Keys in Rockingham County on 8 June. The following day, at Port Republic, Mattie's brother James of the 52nd Virginia was wounded, and returned home (where he recuperated for a time alongside John Henry Read, still absent sick following his service in West Virginia). Thomas Read, who served throughout the Valley campaign but had not been home since February, was encamped from 12 to 16 June at Mount Meridian, only fourteen miles from Waynesboro. Then he left the Valley, passing through the Blue Ridge at Brown's Gap as Jackson was ordered east to join Lee on the peninsula. The Stonewall Brigade would not return to the Shenandoah in earnest until 1864; Mattie's observations on 19 June are thus only partly prescient:
I do not feel concerned about the army crossing the mountains, for I dont think they will stay over there long. I believe that God leads Jackson, and Jackson his men, just where it is best they should go. My only fear is that people are in danger of worshiping Gen. Jackson instead of God, who rules over all. If we idolize him, he will be taken from us.
Of course, it is difficult to isolate Mattie's patriotism from her very evident devotion to family and community. Serving in the army alongside her husband and brother were a great many other young men of her acquaintance. Mentioned with particular frequency is the Brooks family, cousins and close neighbors of the Whites. The brothers Andrew, William, Charles, and Moffett Brooks all served with the "Liberty Hall Volunteers" of the 4th Virginia Infantry, a company made up almost entirely of students from Washington College in Lexington. Mattie writes of attending the family as William and then Moffett fell sick and died in 1861-62. Mattie also worked to ease the suffering of the sick and wounded in the Valley's improvised military hospitals, serving as vice-president of the Bethlehem Soldiers' Aid Society. And for her husband and brother she provided such material assistance as she could, most notably by sewing and by supplementing their rations with parcels of food. But mostly she worried, and sought solace in her faith. Particularly trying were the intervals between the first rumors of an engagement and confirmation of Thomas's or James's survival, as in the letters written after Second Bull Run (31 August-13 September 1862) and Gettysburg (8 July 1863). Mattie was also keenly aware of the prevalence of disease in the camps; her advice on learning of her husband's victimization by "that insidious and troublesome malady" (i.e., diarrhea) is encyclopedic (7-12 August 1861).
We cannot know how Mattie's sympathies might have evolved over the course of the war, since most of her later letters were written to Thomas at Point Lookout prison, and thus were constrained by Federal censorship policies. Thomas's own letters are of some military interest. His account of First Bull Run, written six days after the battle, is not that of an eyewitness. Companies D and I of the 33rd Virginia had remained in the Valley when the newly formed First Brigade left for Manassas on 18 July. Read arrived on the field only on the 23rd, and was thus spared an engagement in which the regiment lost 136 killed and wounded. The casualty figures Read cites are of course grossly inflated.
Read's Gettysburg letter was written at a time of crisis. By 10 July 1863 Lee's retreating army had gathered at the Potomac in the vicinity of Williamsport, Maryland. But a crossing could not be effected; days of rain had left the river swollen, and a pontoon bridge assembled on the way north had been destroyed by the Federals. Lee could only entrench and wait until the falling water made the construction of a new bridge possible. Meanwhile the army was vulnerable, and though the Federal pursuit was cautious, Lee would not have shared Read's confident assertion that "no one thinks [an attack] probable." In fact the attack came on the 14th, but the Confederate defenses were empty for as Read predicted on the 12th, the new bridge was completed "in a day or two," and the army crossed to Virginia the night of 13 July. Of Gettysburg itself, Read's statement that his unit was "in it the second day" actually refers to 3 July, the third and climactic day of the battle. The Stonewall Brigade arrived on the field late on 1 July, and remained in a supporting role the next evening as the rest of Edward Johnson's division assaulted Culp's Hill, on the extreme right of the Federal line. The next day the brigade participated in Johnson's renewed (and unsuccessful) efforts to take the hill; these are the actions described by Read. Casualties were a good deal higher than he suggests, both in the 33rd Virginia and in the brigade as a whole.
The "good furlough wound" Read suffered at the Wilderness on 5 May 1864 spared him the ordeal of Spotsylvania, a week later, where the Stonewall Brigade was all but destroyed. When Read returned to the field in July it was to a 600-man unit called Terry's Brigade, made up of remaining members of the 33rd and thirteen other Virginia regiments. Read's service as a combatant ended during the second Valley campaign, on 19 September 1864, when he was captured at the third battle of Winchester (Opequon Creek). A week later he arrived at Point Lookout, located on a low, sandy spit at the juncture of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. His brother, John Henry Read, was by this time also a prisoner, in the camp on Rock Island in the Mississippi, just east of the Illinois town of the same name.
Article XVII of a Federal circular of 20 April 1864 lays out the policies governing prisoner correspondence:
Prisoners will be permitted to write and receive letters, not to exceed one page of common letter paper each, provided the matter is strictly of a private nature. Such letters must be examined by a reliable non-commissioned officer, appointed for that purpose by the commanding officer, before they are forwarded or delivered to the prisoners. (Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 75).
Prisoners typically used the space at their disposal to reassure family members of their safety and to solicit aid that might enhance their standard of living. Given the reality of censorship, it scarcely behooved them to condemn their captors, and indeed, little in the Read correspondence expressly criticizes conditions in the camps. In fact, the fall and winter of 1864-65 saw a good deal of suffering at most Northern camps due to inadequate rations. The standard ration was reduced on 1 June 1864, partly to save money and partly in response to conditions in Southern camps; subsequent measures on 10 August made the acquisition of supplementary rations (from prisoners' families, and from the camp sutlers) difficult. T. G. Read mentions (19 December 1864) a lack of vegetables, and this was perhaps the biggest problem, the reduced ration being heavily weighted toward protein and starch. Still, the Read brothers were ultimately fortunate; compared to the other large Northern camps, both Point Lookout and Rock Island had fairly low monthly mortality rates during this period. According to the Official Records the worst month at Point Lookout was February 1865, when 223 prisoners died (out of a population of over 12,000, the largest in the system). The worst month at Rock Island was January 1865, with 108 deaths among 6634 prisoners.
That same January the prisoner exchange cartel that had been suspended in 1863 was once again functioning, and prisoners could realistically look forward to their release. On returning south in March, John and Thomas Read met in Richmond at the home of their cousin, William H. Read, before proceeding to the Valley. The final wartime letter in the correspondence, dated 26 March, suggests that Thomas Read planned to rejoin the army despite the apparent entreaties of his close friend Lemuel Vawter to "throw off the yoke".
Thomas G. Read died on 3 January 1895 in the Richmond, Virginia Soldiers Home. John Henry Read was still living in New Market, Shenandoah County, in 1908. The unsigned letter dated 23 November 1886, written from New Market, can be safely attributed to Mattie Read.
Bibliographic note: A wealth of information on wartime Augusta County may be found on the Virginia Center for Digital History's excellent Web site, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, at http://Valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/. See also Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, New York, 2003. For the 33rd Virginia, see Lowell Reidenbaugh, 33rd Virginia Infantry, Lynchburg VA, 1987; the volume includes an annotated regimental roster (pp. 111-147), compiled by Robert K. Krick and others. See also James I. Robertson, Jr., The Stonewall Brigade, Baton Rouge, 1963; and Jeffry D. Wert, A Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade, C.S.A., and the Iron Brigade, U.S.A., New York, 1999. For the service of John Henry Read, see Robert H. Moore II, The Danville, Eight Star New Market and Dixie Artillery, Lynchburg VA, 1989. For Point Lookout, see Edwin W. Beitzell, Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates, Abell MD, 1972; for Rock Island, see Benton McAdams, Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison, DeKalb IL, 2000.
Index of Documents
|MSN/CW 5015-1||Letter||[September, 1850] ||Unknown||E. A. White|
|MSN/CW 5015-2||Letter||June 23-24, 1861||Camp Garnett, Rich Mountain, Randolph County, Virginia||John Henry Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-3||Letter||July 9-13, 1861||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-4||Letter||July 16, 1861||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-5||Letter||July 27, 1861||Manassas Junction [Virginia]||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-6||Letter||August 7-12, 1861||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-7||Letter||August 20, 1861||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-8||Newspaper Clippings||January 25, 1862||Northern Virginia|
|MSN/CW 5015-9||Furlough Pass||February 12, 1862||Camp Zolieoffe, Virginia||George C. Eastham |
|MSN/CW 5015-10||Letter||February 16-17, 1862||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-11||Letter||June 13-15, 1862||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-12||Letter||June 19-21, 1862||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-13||Letter||July 29, 1862||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-14||Letter||August 31 - September 13, 1862||Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-15||Letter||July 8, 1863||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-16||Letter||July 11-12, 1863||Camp near Hagerstown, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-17||Letter||May 6, 1864||Hospital, Orange County, Virginia||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-18||Medical Pass||May 13, 1864||Staunton, Virginia||J. C. M. Merillar |
|MSN/CW 5015-19||Letter||September 28, 1864||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-20||Letter||October 13, 1864||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-21||Letter||October 19, 1864||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-22||Letter||October 22, 1864||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-23||Letter||November 8, 1864||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-24||Letter||November 10, 1864||Rock Island Prison, Rock Island, Illinois||John Henry Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-25||Letter||November 16, 1864||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-26||Letter||November 16, 1864||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-27||Letter||December 9, 1864||Rock Island Prison, Rock Island, Illinois||John Henry Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-28||Letter||December 19, 1864||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-29||Letter||January 1, 1865||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-30||Letter||January 25, 1865||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-31||Letter||January 26, 1865||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-32||Letter||February 4 ||Point Lookout, Maryland||Thomas Griffin Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-33||Letter||March 26, 1865||Waynesboro, Augusta County, Virginia||Thomas Griffin Read and Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-34||Song Lyrics||[1862-1863]||Martha White Read|
|MSN/CW 5015-36||Currency||February 17, 1864||Richmond, Virginia|
|MSN/CW 5015-37||Letter||November 23, 1886||New Market, Virginia||[Martha White Read]|
|MSN/CW 5015-38||Letter||[20th century]||"Mamma"|