Book Review: An East Texas Family’s Civil War: The Letters of Nancy and William Whatley, May–December 1862


by John T. Whatley, editor

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. l, 152. Maps, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $36.95. ISBN: 0807170690

One Family’s War

Many memoirs and correspondence collections from the Civil War era span years and even decades. They marvel at or grapple with the great changes, dramas and tragedies the war brought to Northern and Southern lives. ?

??So it is striking to read the beautiful letters William Jefferson Whatley and Nancy Falkaday Whatley shared between May and December of 1862. Within a time span of little more than six months, the loving parents of four children recorded and endured transformations of their lives which they never overcame.????

William owned a northeast Texas cotton farm and a dozen slaves. He joined a cavalry unit and was deployed to central Arkansas. His letters glittered with optimism that the Confederacy would soon win its freedom. He assured his wife that his health was excellent, and he enjoyed the camaraderie shared with his fellow troopers. 

News of 1862's most famous battles trickled into his narratives – many of the reports and rumors were completely wrong – and they only bolstered his confidence that his sacrifice of domestic bliss was wholly justified. He tried to advise his wife on management and financial matters. He yearned for the moment he could hold his children again.????

Nancy stayed behind to assume command of the farm's operations. Neighbors promised to help her but did not. Relatives did their best to assist with child care. From her perspective, slaves seemed less willing to work because William was gone. They likely understood a new era had dawned long before she did.??

Disease ravaged both the home front and the front lines. Measles carried away familiar faces from home and comrades-in-arms. At one point William wondered who was having a better time of this -- he who had given up his family to fight for a future built on slavery or the slaves them-selves whom he imagined lounged with their loved ones in familiar and peaceful surroundings.??

The letters illustrate a fascinating evolution in William's and Nancy's outlooks. Time was the most brutal reality both husband and wife faced, as the war dragged on month after month, as loss and privation drained away the familiar joys of antebellum life and as William's belief that Confederate victory was inevitable began to slowly fade.??

He grew disgusted with his fellow troopers as they wiled away time in camp with drinking and gambling. He grew doubtful of the long-term competence of Confederate leaders. Most importantly, he grows worried for the family he left behind, whose livelihood and health are both slipping away while he helplessly imagines the worst.? Nancy worried about the fate of their farm, the health of their children and if she would ever see her husband again.?

The letters they shared encapsulate the essential challenges and dire dilemmas many Southerners faced throughout the four-year Civil War. The tragic beauty of this collection of letters, ably edited by their great-grandson John T. Whatley and with an excellent forward by UT Austin scholar Jacqueline Jones, is the love William and Nancy shared. It swirls through the language and the sentiments, fueling irrational hopes, steeling nerves and enriching imaginings of a better future for their children.??

Any letters are priceless for their insight into the flawed fascinating people who authored them. But this particularly intimate collection offers one of the sharpest, clearest and most tragic glimpses into how war inevitably inspires those ignorant of its cost and scorches all aspects of life that came before it. The Whatleys hoped for a better world would emerge from the war.

Such a world did emerge, but it was not for them. ?


Note: An East Texas Family’s Civil War is also available in several e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Fernando Ortiz, Jr., is an historian and writer in San Antonio. He has taught U.S. history as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio College, Northwest Vista College, and Texas A&M-San Antonio. He edits Stillness of Heart, a blog that explores U.S. history, culture and current events. At the 2011 NYMAS Conference “Civil Warriors: Profiles of Ordinary Americans and the Great National Crisis, 1860-1865,” he presented the paper “Three Lives Grappling with a New Reality: Joseph de la Garza, Manuel Yturri, Kate Stone and Their Civil War.” His current academic projects include profiles of Emma Koehler, a San Antonio business leader, and Mary Edgerton, a groundbreaking Rio Grande Valley physician. His previous reviews include The Union War, Women in Civil War Texas, and Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: Fernando Ortiz, Jr.   

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