CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Civil War’s 150th anniversary is playing out with scarcely a nod to Charlotte, which is not surprising given the city’s big contribution was serving as home to a land-locked Confederate Naval Depot.
But there are stories to be told of what the city endured, details of which are now coming to light in the most unexpected of places: Long forgotten mail preserved at the city’s Main Library.
Leading Charlotteans of the era left behind hundreds of wartime letters filled with images of a chaotic town that by the war’s end was populated mostly by old men, women and children.
Library employees are now transcribing the letters, the most revealing of which come from Jack and Jane Wilkes, a couple whose extended family is chronicled in nearly 1,000 documents. The collection was bequeathed to the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, along with Jane Wilkes’ autobiography.
Librarian Shelia Bumgarner says the transcription project is recreating Civil War-era Charlotte, as seen through the eyes of a slave-holding family who struggled, but had money enough to cushion them from some of the worst deprivations that befell the city.
Recounted in the letters are numerous small intrigues and curiosities, including tales of worthless overseers, mysterious smokehouse thefts, complaints of segregated Sunday School classes and the “tyrannical acts of Mr. Ab.”
Bumgarner has spent three years transcribing the letters and still isn’t finished, in part because of a 19th century cost savings trick (“criss-cross writing”) that had authors writing horizontally then vertically on the same page.
She estimates it will take another three years to finish transcribing the collection.
Meanwhile, Bumgarner said she has learned to pay attention to the little details in the letters, which are often the most telling. An example is Jane Wilkes’ recollection of a party in late December 1860, where it was announced that South Carolina had seceded from the Union.
“The men become solemn until Dr. Bob Gibbon and Billy Owens raise the spirits of the party. ‘Oh, somebody had to play the fool, you know,’ said Dr. Gibbon.”
Laughter followed, she wrote.
Five months later, North Carolina seceded.
Jack and Jane Wilkes are now to be found at Elmwood Cemetery, and have been all but forgotten by a city that they forever changed.
Jack’s many accomplishments include getting a charter to create the first bank in what has now become a nationally-recognized banking town. And Jane helped found two city hospitals: St. Peter’s Hospital for whites and Good Samaritan for blacks.
The letters, 300 of which were written during the war years, show nothing came easy for them in Charlotte.
Both were upper crust Yankee transplants who once moved freely through the social elite of New York City and Washington, D.C.
Odd coincidences abound in their story, including the fact that Jack’s Mecklenburg Iron Works became the Confederate Navy Yard, while his father, Charles Wilkes, served as an admiral in the Union navy.
Jane’s letters note Southerners abused her husband for his Northern roots, yet the couple worried like their neighbors about what Union troops might do, should Charlotte be captured.
His letters to her, written on business trips, talk of “terrible scenes” of deserted towns, decimated male populations and relatives fleeing homes so close to the battles that they could hear the gunfire all day.
“The (Union) landing at Hatteras and capture of the fort will bring the war to our doors with a vengeance,” he wrote of the August 1861 Battle of Fort Hatteras.
And should that happen, he concluded, towns like Charlotte might be defenseless.
“It makes me angry to hear men talking, who every one knows would leave as soon as the danger draws near,” he wrote.
Back in Charlotte, Jane Wilkes was raising five children in a town where she says lawlessness and arson had become common.
Some historians suspect the fires may have been the work of slaves. However, the town’s troubles were worsened by a constant flow of war refugees and the wounded, who followed railroad lines to Charlotte from other parts of the South.
Letters from the period talk much of cholera, malaria, constant humidity, mosquitoes, endless rain and poor drainage that kept the town’s unpaved streets a muddy mess for months at a time.
It was little better in neighboring communities. Jane writes of a visit to Cleveland County that left the family surviving for a week on cornbread, sorghum, baked beans and coffee made of rye.
Still, the Wilkeses were among the lucky ones. They had a home on East Avenue with a yard large enough to host a garden. And they owned or leased about a dozen slaves, who worked as servants or gardeners.
Jack and his brother, Edmund, also oversaw hundreds of slaves who labored to build a railroad between Greensboro, N.C., and Danville, Va. The Confederate government covered the cost, but Jack’s letters express concern over treatment the slaves endured, including shortages of food and clothing.
“The negroes, poor devils….have had no care taken of them and my only wonder is that none have not run away,” he wrote in March 1863.
Among the mysteries Bumgarner is still trying to solve is the fate of a boarding house reportedly built in the heart of Charlotte to hold the community’s slave population at night.
Letters talk of the house being under construction, yet Bumgarner says she can find no published accounts of such an unusual structure ever existing.
A soap opera
A descendant named Julia Settle Wilkes Black left the collection to the library in 1982, six years before her death. A concerted effort to catalogue the collection began in 2009.
Bumgarner, who was assigned the job, says it hasn’t been easy, with some letters taking up to a week to decipher. However, once she got started, it quickly became clear that they held historical importance. “These weren’t just ordinary letters, but contained historical accounts of some of our nation’s movers and shakers.”
Handling such items is a specialty of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, which is known for its large genealogical collection covering the southeast United States.
The room also holds other large collections of family archives like the Wilkes letters, including at least two collections that have yet to be processed: The Hunter-Ranson collection and the Torrance collection. Those two hold thousands of documents, letters and photographs.
Bumgarner said it was easy to get hooked on the Wilkes family soap opera – once she created footnotes to tell all the Johns, Henrys and Janes apart. Everyone seemed to have the same name back then, she joked.
Another observation: Letters exchanged with family members in the North did not discuss the war or slaves. This was partly because letters between the warring states were delivered only “under flag of truce” and had to avoid any hint of insurrection.
It was also considered good manners to avoid matters of discord, Bumgarner said. “And they were part of a society in which politeness was everything.”
Letters after the war showed some division among family members, but by then the Wilkeses had become pros at adapting and assimilating.
That explains why Jane Wilkes, a former slave owner, would campaign for a Charlotte hospital devoted to treating the community’s black population.
And it explains how Jack so easily found himself back in business after the war, chartering the First National Bank of Charlotte, becoming a town alderman and reopening the Mecklenburg Iron Works to build steam engines and saw mills.
Jack, along with other leading citizens, also formed the Charlotte Literary and Library Association, which was the city’s first library open to the public.
He died on July 6, 1908, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church was standing room only for his service.
Jane died five years later, of pneumonia, at their home on West Trade Street.
Her funeral, also at St. Peter’s, was conducted by the Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. Mourners reportedly included people of all races and backgrounds, and spilled from the building onto the church grounds.
Bumgarner believes they have no surviving family in Mecklenburg County, but do have relatives in Cabarrus and Orange counties.
Tom Hanchett, staff historian of Levine Museum of the New South, says Bumgarner’s work is a boon for historians, providing intimate details and rare personal views from a century and a half ago.
“Before this, we had no good window of what it was like to be in Charlotte in that war. This has given us that window,” he said.
However, it’s just one perspective.
“It’s one window. The Wilkes family was fairly well-to-do city dwellers, and those things shape how you look at your world. That’s especially true in war time. People fight over differing points of view.”