Jump directly to Index of Letters
Introduction to the Shipman Family Correspondence
By George Rugg
The Shipman correspondence was occasioned by the Civil War service of Jesse Albert Shipman (c1843-1863), for two years a private in the Confederate States army. Shipman was the oldest child (and only son) of Andrew Robinson Shipman (c1820-1906) and Sarah Tow (or Towe), of Henderson County, North Carolina. On 20 May 1861 Albert Shipman enlisted in a cavalry company then forming at Asheville, the Buncombe Rangers, who that October would be incorporated into the Confederate army as Co. G, 1st Regiment North Carolina Cavalry. Shipman served in the regiment (in the Department of Northern Virginia, October 1861 to March 1862; the Department of North Carolina, March to May 1862; and the Army of Northern Virginia) until being fatally wounded in a cavalry skirmish near Martinsburg, West Virginia, 19 July 1863. He died three days later.
At the time of his departure for the army Albert Shipman was living on a Henderson County farm owned by his paternal grandfather Edward Shipman (c1776-1864), then over eighty years of age. The property is valued at $1,500 in the 1860 Federal census. It is likely that Andrew Shipman, who also lived on the farm but is not recorded as owning land, managed this property, and oversaw the ten slaves (also owned by his father) who resided on it. Henderson is a highland county, located just west of the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the South Carolina border. The $1,500 cash value of the Shipman farm is rather on a par with the average farm value ($1,354) for all North Carolina's mountain counties in 1860. But the ten bondsmen were far less typical. In 1860 only 10.3 per cent of North Carolina highland heads of households held slaves, and fewer than 2 per cent held ten or more. The same figures for Henderson County are 13.7 and 2.4 per cent. And those statistics are at least marginally inflated by the inclusion of slaveholding "summer people"—seasonal residents who traveled to the mountains (and to Henderson County in particular) to escape the oppressive Low Country summers. For native yeomen like the Shipmans (whose direct forebears had moved into the area in the eighteenth century) ten slaves were a substantial number—more, one supposes, than could have been kept productive working the relatively modest family farm. It is possible, even likely, that the Shipmans profited from their slaves by hiring them out for work off the property, agricultural or nonagricultural. This was a not uncommon practice elsewhere in the South, but it was especially characteristic of the slave economy in the mountains, as John C. Inscoe, in his study of slavery in highland North Carolina, has pointed out. In 1860 seven of the ten Shipman slaves were boys or young men between the ages of 12 and 28, likely deemed capable of the most demanding physical labor.
The Shipman family's situation midway through the war, a week or so before Albert's death, is evoked in the draft of a letter written to North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance, seeking Andrew's exemption from state service. The draft bears no signature, and is in an unknown hand. Vance himself was a native of Buncombe County, just north of Henderson:
govner vance dear sir owing to the condition of Andrew R Shipmans family we the under signed do ask you to exempt him from state service the said shipman is in his 44 year has only one son which was only 18 years old when the war Began he volunteert for 3 years or during the war in the 1st Redg of N C cav his wife is dead and he has 4 little girls and noboddy to leave with them his Father is 85 years old and A criple and will hav no one els to controle his negroes or protect him and his home [13 July 1863]
The Shipman correspondence includes ten letters directed by Albert Shipman to his father Andrew, and one more to Nancy, the oldest of his five sisters (b. c1845); two others are jointly addressed. Sarah Tow Shipman, Albert's mother, had died in 1860. The four earliest letters (2 June 1861 to 5 October 1861) were written while Shipman and the company were yet in training, at Asheville and subsequently at Fort Beauregard in Warren County. When ready for active service the 1st North Carolina Cavalry was sent to Virginia, where it spent much of the winter on outpost and picket duty around Manassas; three letters (23 October 1861 to 22 March 1862) date from this period. Then came several months in Kinston, North Carolina (one letter, 22 May 1862), followed by a return to Virginia during the Peninsula campaign (one letter, 19 June 1862). One brief letter (September 1862) was sent in the aftermath of Antietam. Shipman's final three letters date from 1 May to 2 June 1863, when Stuart's cavalry was gathered in Culpeper County, Virginia, prior to the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania.
Also in the collection are five letters to Andrew Shipman from other members of Co. G, postdating Albert's death. The earliest of these (20 July 1863) was written the day after the Martinsburg fight by Pvt. A. P. Corn of Henderson County. It relays the news of Albert's wounding but is unsure about his fate, since ". . . the yankees too[k] him off befor[e] we co[u]ld get him out . . . ." There follow two short letters (25 July and 27 August 1863) from Sgt. J. K. P. ("Polk") Shipman (c1845-1864), a cousin of Albert's from Buncombe County. Polk, who was not present at Martinsburg, asks Andrew about the disposal of Albert's horse, and later attempts to respond to inquiries about his death and burial. Finally, there are two letters from the following February (1864): one from Lt. Thomas L. Matthias, dealing with the matter of Albert's back pay, and a second, personal letter (5 February 1864) written over the signatures "E J. H." and "J Stepp". E. J. H. is almost certainly Pvt. Elias J. Hestiler (b. c1842), of Buncombe County, another cousin of Albert's. J. Stepp is Pvt. Jackson Stepp (b. c1827), also from Buncombe and a man who finds frequent mention in Albert Shipman's letters. The letter is in the hand (and voice) of Hestiler, and is most notable for the depth of its disenchantment with affairs in the regiment.
One of the idiosyncrasies of the Shipman correspondence is the fact that the thirteen letters bearing Albert's name were written in several distinct hands. Indeed, they appear to have been written in no fewer than four hands, distinguishable as follows:
- Letters 1-4, written 2 June to 5 October 1861.
- Letter 5, written 23 October 1861.
- Letters 6-10, written 6 February to September 1862.
- Letters 11-13, written 1 May to 2 June 1863.
Given their relative distinctness, it seems probable that hands A, B, C, and D were the work of four different persons. There is nothing to suggest that the letters are copies, or anything other than the original manuscripts sent by Albert to his father and sister in Henderson County. One is led to conclude that some—perhaps all—of the letters were written for Albert, possibly because his own handwriting skills were limited. There is no specific textual proof of this, however; the letters bear Albert's name, and are invariably written in the first person, in what purports to be his voice. None of the surrogate writers admits to performing the task. But this was typical rather than exceptional. Surrogate writers saw themselves as providing an essentially clerical service, assisting those who found it difficult or impossible to write themselves. But by the same token, these writers were not taking dictation. Each of the letter groups outlined above shows not just a distinct hand, but distinguishing qualities of spelling and grammar, vocabulary and epistolary style. While we cannot know precisely how Shipman communicated his ideas to the individual doing the writing, the end result was inevitably collaborative, making it worthwhile to ask who the collaborators might have been.
Albert's first four letters were almost certainly written by his cousin Polk Shipman, then sixteen or seventeen years of age, and a private in Co. G. The handwriting of these letters is very comparable to that of two later letters in the correspondence written and signed by Polk, from the summer of 1863. Moreover, one of the 1861 group, a brief letter to Nancy Shipman, closes with the names of both Albert and Polk ("your Dear Brother and Cousin in till Deth / J A Shipman and J K P Shipman to N A Shipman") though it is written in the first person singular, ostensibly by Albert. Polk's writing is very evidently informed by speech—more specifically, by pronunciations and usages grounded in the dialect of Southern Appalachia. The following passage, from the letter of 24 September 1861, is a particularly rich example:
. . . Dont think they is mutch A sturng Now at this time I think the yankeys has most giv it up all that was Don as wee cam Down Jack Dunkin got Drunk and him and charly hall fell out and Blasingame tryed to make him hush and he woldent Doit and Blesingame struck him tolerable Bad Dunkin said . . .
Letter 5, of 23 October 1861, indicates that "polk has got the meisels", and indeed, the letter is written in a different, much more labored hand—possibly Albert's own, though this cannot be proved. Polk was sick again the following year, and on 3 March left the field, apparently for a Virginia hospital. Thus, Albert's five letters of 1862 are written in a new hand and voice, which cannot be identified with certainty but may be the work of Jackson Stepp, Albert's cousin and messmate. In the letter of 6 February 1862 Stepp is the subject of an extended passage bearing an apparently involuntary switch from the third to the first person (". . . Jackson Stepp sends his best respects and he wants you to tell grandady and gang howdy for me . . ."). These 1862 letters are a good deal longer than those of 1861, and considerably more literate, though the spelling is still somewhat phonetic. As for Albert's letters from 1863, these are in yet another hand, though the earliest (1 May 1863) is partly the work of Polk Shipman, then with the regiment but soon to depart for North Carolina. Polk was captured in September 1863 and died in October 1864, after more than a year in Point Lookout Prison.
Provenance note: Eighteen of the items in the Shipman correspondence were purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries from Charles Hanselmann, of Yorktown VA (May 2006). One item, MSN/CW 5043-14, was purchased from Schmitt Investors Ltd. of Northport NY (September 2006). Acquisition funded by Robert and Beverly O'Grady.
Bibliographic note: For the North Carolina mountains before and during the Civil War, see John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina, Knoxville, 1989, and John C. Inscoe and Gordon McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, Chapel Hill and London, 2000. For Henderson County, see Sadie Smathers Patton, The Story of Henderson County, Asheville, 1947, and James T. Fain, Jr., A Partial History of Henderson County, New York, 1980. For a roster of Co. G, 1st North Carolina Cavalry, see http://www.confederate-cavalry.de/compgen.html.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5043-01||Letter||June 2, 1861||Camp Woodbury, North Carolina||[Jesse Albert Shipman]|
|MSN/CW 5043-02||Letter||September 24, 1861||Camp Beauregard, Warren County, North Carolina||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-03||Letter||October 5, 1861||Camp Beauregard, Warren County, North Carolina||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-04||Letter||October 5, 1861||Camp Beauregard, Warren County, North Carolina||Jesse Albert Shipman and J. K. P. Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-05||Letter||October 23, 1861||Richmond, Virginia||[Jesse Albert Shipman]|
|MSN/CW 5043-06||Letter||February 6, 1862||Camp W. N. Edwards, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-07||Letter||March 22, 1862||Camp Wise, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-08||Letter||May 26, 1862||Camp Morris, North Carolina||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-09||Letter||June 19, 1862||Camp Manchester, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-10||Letter||[September 1862]||Berkeley County, West Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-11||Letter||May 1, 1863||Halifax County, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-12||Letter||May 27, 1863||Culpeper County, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-13||Letter||June 2, 1863||Camp near Culpeper, Virginia||Jesse Albert Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-14||Letter||July 13, 1863||Henderson County, North Carolina||Unidentified|
|MSN/CW 5043-15||Letter||July 20, 1863||Martinsburg, Virginia||A. P. Corn|
|MSN/CW 5043-16||Letter||July 25, 1863||Culpeper, Virginia||J. K. P. Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-17||Letter||August 27 ||Head Quarters, 1st North Carolina Cavalry||J. K. P. Shipman|
|MSN/CW 5043-18||Letter||February 1, 1864||Camp 1st North Carolina Cavalry||Thomas L. Matthias|
|MSN/CW 5043-19||Letter||February 5, 1864||Cavalry Camp, Virginia||E. J. H. and Jackson Stepp|