“Dear Nellie”: The Civil War Letters of Ellen M. Sherman

By James M. Prichard

"Dear Nell" From Belts Sherman Family Papers, Mss. A B453 6

In a letter dated 18 November 1862, Myrtilla "Tillie" Galpin scolded her childhood friend: "Nellie why for mercy's sake don't you write? Do you ever think that we only have a short time to enjoy the comforts and blessings of this world…."  Tillie was not the only correspondent to chide Ellen M. "Nellie" Sherman (1840-1914) of Marietta, Fulton County, Illinois for failing to write more often. However the irony behind these comments lies in the fact that the young school teacher left behind an extensive collection of letters that reflected her family life, courtship, and the stirring events of the Civil War era.

Patriotic Stationary, Belts-Sherman Family Papers Mss. A B453 1While no photos of her are known to exist, Nellie must have been considered a genuine beauty to the young men of her town. In addition to her future husband, Conrad Welch "Will" Belts (1837-1920), her correspondence includes letters from other local men serving in the Union army. Other correspondents included relatives who donned a blue uniform in defense of the "Old Flag."  The outbreak of the war found her cousin, John C. Hicks, in Iowa where he enlisted in the 35th Iowa Infantry.  In a letter dated 15 February 1863 from Island Number Ten in the Mississippi River, he describes the strategic post's defenses and advises Nellie that Confederate troops were arrayed on both sides of the river. He condemns the prior abandonment of the position by "Our dam Cowardly Gen. Davise" (Jefferson C. Davis of Indiana) and reports that Union gunboats shelled the woods daily to keep the enemy at bay.  Before the year was out, Nellie's cousin would be dead from disease. In a letter dated 2 October 1863 to her fiancé, Nellie reports that her uncle "has returned from the South bringing the saddest of intelligence," adding, "I am going to Canton (Illinois) tomorrow with the friends of him who we have loved and lost."

Another of her soldier correspondents was 18 year old Charles Ellison Norcott, a Marietta neighbor who served as a musician in the 132nd Illinois Infantry. In a series of letters written in the summer of 1864, "Charlie" described his service at Columbus and Paducah, Kentucky.  In a letter from Paducah, dated 23 June 1864, he reports that Union troops have destroyed over 67 houses in the vicinity. While there was guerrilla activity nearby, he boasted to Nellie that the town was defended by three regiments, a strong fort, and eight gunboats. He also describes their camp as "a nice place" with "good water" and "plenty to eat."

Paducah and Its Defenses [PR280.0024]

Paducah and Its Defenses [PR280.0024]

Not all references to the conflict are found in letters from the front. Nellie's female correspondents also shared their views on the war. In a letter dated 18 November 1862 Nellie's aforementioned friend Tillie Galpin of Elyria, Ohio comments on the recent removal of Gen. George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. She writes, "Well how do you like it?" adding, "I can't say I do very much." She continues, "I suppose it is for the best." She then confesses that she wept while reading McClellan's "Farewell Address" to his men. In a letter from Prairie City, Illinois dated 7 July 1863 "Sallie" describes the celebration in town when they learned "our boys" had "taken Vicksburg."  She continues, "they illuminated the city (and) during the evening there were five or six speeches, firing of cannon, music fife and drums, singing." She adds, "Almost every lady in town was out marching & one of the gentlemen said in his speech that we were going to have the fourth (of July) all this week."

Yet the bulk of the collection consists of letters between Nellie and her "Will," who served as a musician in the 29th Illinois Infantry. In a letter from Cairo, Illinois dated 22 October 1861, he states that he is writing by campfire light and mentions the death of three comrades from disease. He also laments that there was only one Bible in his company and reports the command was about to move into their barracks for the winter. In a letter from Fort Jefferson, Kentucky dated 24 January 1862, he describes the hardships the command endured on a recent expedition from Cairo through western Kentucky to Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi River. Will misses Nellie: "It seems almost an age since I saw you and only two letters in nearly two months." He adds, "No, I will not grumble. I am truly grateful for these two."

The Girl I Left Behind Me - Patriotic Cover [Mss. BC A615a 161H]

The Girl I Left Behind Me - Patriotic Cover [Mss. BC A615a 161H]

Following his discharge from the service in 1862, Will Belts courted Nellie until their marriage in 1866. Their story, and in many respects the story of a nation divided by war, are reflected in Belts-Sherman family letters - a collection carefully preserved by a young woman often scolded for not writing enough.

James Prichard

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