“Cant Write When I Pleas”: Poignant Letters By An Illiterate In 1860s US

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Mary Ann Arnold correspondence with her husband was made public by Library of Congress.

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."

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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 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.

The Library of Congress has had the couple's correspondence, which included locks of children's hair she sent to him, since 1937 and announced in a Nov. 1 blog post that it has 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 that 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, West Virginia, 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, adjacent 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 of 1865, and the couple's sixth child was born Dec. 4, 1865.

It is not entirely 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, Virginia. But a 1937 letter from a grandson to the Army suggests John may be buried as an unknown in the national cemetery farther south, in Petersburg.

John 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 canalboat.

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 Co. I 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, Virginia. 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.

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