1864: Samuel Manley Williams to Mr. Peterson

This letter was written by farmer/trader Samuel Manley Williams (1827-1904), the son of Robert Williams (1786-1865) and Sarah Ann Manley (1787-1875). Samuel was married to Frances Jane Browder Jackson in 1845 in Blount, Tennessee. In the 1860 US Census, Samuel and Frances were enumerated in Roane County, Tennessee, with their five children ages 12 to 2. Residing with the family was Mr. Halbert, a 27 year-old cabinet maker from New York state.

Samuel wrote the letter just days after returning home after resigning his commission as chaplain of the 1st Tennessee (Union) Infantry. His military record indicates that he enlisted at age 35 on 31 August 1861 and suggests that his resignation on 9 January 1864 was brought on by declining health (bronchitis and heart disease). Samuel’s personal observations of the impact of war on the resident population in East Tennessee as a result of the two armies occupying the region is heart-rending to read.

I have not determined who Mr. Peterson was to whom Williams addressed this letter.

[Note: This letter is from the collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]


Sulphur Well, [Henry county] Tennessee
January 31, 1864

Mr. Peterson
Dear Sir,

I am now at home with my family and Mr. Halbert ¹ is here. All are tolerable well. I am just off of a very tiresome trip of 8 days travel from Knoxville by the way of Kingston. Roads very bad, forage very scarce, and robbers very bad and I must say I feel much relieved to know that I am once more where I can feel somewhat safe and get something to eat.

I left Knoxville on the 23rd. There was great excitement when I left. Our forces were falling back to Knoxville and the rebels were expected to follow and there were strong probabilities that Knoxville would be again besieged again but our forces were very sanguine of success and hoped to make a good thing of it. But I have had my fears that Longstreet will prove stronger than is anticipated and may give some trouble though Knoxville is strongly fortified and a large army of good and tried troops.

There are many reports since I left but I can give nothing as substantiated true. There are rumors that the rebels are again around Knoxville and have attacked Cumberland Gap. The country is nearly exhausted as to supplies and many families are bound to suffer and my fears some must starve to death. Many who are able are coming out and for one to see them on the road, packing their children on their back through the mud, are bound to feel sad and have their feelings moved in their behalf. If I had been called to witness what I have during the last 8 days some 4 years ago, I should have felt like getting off of my horse and letting him be packed with weeping women and starving children. But I am sorry to say 30 months experience in seeing such suffering hardens one’s heart and learns the important lesson that charity begins at home.

East Tennessee is being laid waste almost as fast as the consuming flames can do it, much of which could and should be avoided. But there is no describing the ravages of an army. It would make the blood run cold through one’s veins to hear the poor women telling how they have worked to make something for their children to live on and then have it tore from them by friends and foes. There are many women in my neighborhood who plowed ad made corn enough to do them who have not now a bushel of corn or wheat and very gloomy prospects to get any more. Some parts of the country are not so destitute where the army has not passed. My farm has some seven females, one discharged soldier from disability, and one sickly man. The women cut wood, plow and go to the mill and what is worse, some have lost or rather had their old horses taken and now have to pack to mill on their back.

You may think this is giving high coloring but I tell you I cannot do the subject justice. The half can’t be told. But if people ever bore it with more fortitude—these poor women will cook the last loaf for a hungry soldier. But I am sorry to say many of the soldiers are acting very bad and will go after night and steal the last chicken or burn the rails around their lots. Oh what a time we are having. Men choose to do wrong when it would be so much better to do right.

I have resigned and am going to stay about home. Yours, — S. M. Williams

¹ In the 1860 US Census, “A. W. Halbert” is enumerated in the Williams household in Roane county, Tennessee. This was William A. Halbert (b. 1833/34) who learned the cabinet maker’s trade from Charles P. Hyde in Pitcher, Chenango county, New York. William was married to Samuel’s daughter, Sarah E. Williams (1841-1907) in November 1864. 

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