She is answering a previous letter from her cousin Daniel Rockwell Taylor, my great-great-grandfather, who lives at Woodlawn, near Batavia in western New York, 400 miles away. She seems to be very late in responding, probably close to a year. So naturally she starts out with an obligatory apology.
My Dear Cousins
I did not think when I rec’d your kind and welcome letter, so long a time should elapse ere I should answer it – but we little know what is before us.
Sarah’s mother is Betsey Walbridge Olmstead, younger sister of Daniel’s mother Phebe Walbridge Taylor, and the families are deeply religious. Also, Death was a much more frequent companion in those days and preachers made sure that hell and damnation and God’s heavenly rewards were foremost in their congregations’ attention. So Sarah elaborates,
One year less to wait and, as I say, nearer our long home – our frail barque is gliding swiftly along – soon it will be launched in the boundless ocean of Eternity.
Spelling and punctuation in the mid-1800s were not yet standardized. Still, Sarah employs some unusual conventions. For one, most of her sentences do not end in periods but, instead, she uses dashes to indicate that one thought is done and she’s on to the next. She also underlines words and phrases to add emphasis. More unusual is that she often does not use the pronoun “I”, replacing it instead with a quotation mark. So her letter does not actually read, as I say, nearer our long home. Rather, it reads: as “ say, nearer our long home.
Apparently Daniel and probably some of his siblings visited their cousins in Vermont a little over a year before and Sarah would love to see them again:
Yes many weeks & months have come & gone since my “warm hearted cousins” were here. In imagination I often live over those happy hours. I shall be glad when war is over if I shall hear the “tramp of your feet.”
I do hope you will visit us again & take Cousin Delia & a lot of the little ones with you – more than a year has glided away since you were here.
The underlines and quotation marks are in Sarah’s original letter. Delia is Daniel’s wife, Martha Cordelia Waller (who goes by Cordelia), whom Sarah seems never to have met. The war that she refers to is, of course, the Civil War, which by then had been raging for nearly three years.
She follows what appears to be a typical letter-writing trajectory: apologizing for not having written sooner, then discussing everyone’s health, then telling news of other family and friends. On its face, it’s not a very interesting letter. But then I look at it from the vantage point of 150 years later, when the lives she describes have wound down to completion a long time ago and I can look them up on the family tree on Ancestors.com.
That long view reveals that Sarah’s letter is important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say – indeed, what it cannot say. Sarah does not know what her future will bring. But I do, from the genealogical trail down through the decades. Sarah’s letter brings that cold genealogy list of dates to life with the breath of real people.
First, Sarah writes about her mother:
Now imagine to yourself how we are situated tonight – I am watching with my poor sick Mother. She has failed very much since you were here – she cannot sleep nights. Last night I made a fire three times. Tonight am going to set-up. I greatly fear I shall not have a mother long – We are alone.
Father does his chores, gets up the wood, had his threshing done with a machine. And darling Alma has left us. We sadly miss her, she is a dear good girl. I love her as myself. Mother is so unwell. I get very lonely but I try to do all in my power to alleviate her pain. I feel thankful my life has been spared to take care of her.
Alma is Sarah’s younger, 23-year-old sister. When Sarah says, “Darling Alma has left us,” no doubt she is referring to her sister’s marriage to Charles Cook, which occurred in 1863, possibly not long before this letter. But what does Sarah mean when she says she is “thankful my life has been spared”?
I presume Alma has wrote you that I have been sick with diphtheria. I did not much expect to live but I was spared for some good purpose. I was taken on the 8th day of November. Went to church and before night had the Doctor. I was taken sudden and pretty sick I think. This disease is raging here—there was three funerals here in one week. Hettie Cook was taken sick and died after I had it. My health is poor now. I have taken a severe cold and it’s settled in my lungs & I cough night and day. I sent for some cough medicine today. Shall get well soon.
We can guess that Hettie Cook was probably Alma’s new husband’s sister. What is not said – because Sarah could not yet have known it – is that her mother, to whom she has dedicated her caretaking, will die before the end of the year at the age of 63. Sarah’s father, Anson Olmstead, lives another three years, to 67.
But, not knowing all this, Sarah goes on to respond to a question from Daniel:
O what about that boy. I am afraid you have not waited for a yankee name. I don’t know of a prettier name than Willie or Charlie – I never trouble my head about such matters for I did not expect anyone would ask the Old Maid to name the boy.
Did Daniel’s earlier letter send news of his and Cordelia’s third child, born nine months earlier on April 1st? Sarah certainly does seem to have delayed in writing! Daniel seems to have asked her for suggestions for the baby’s name. I find it interesting that she demurs, claiming that she had never thought about babies’ names because, after all, she’s just an “old maid” – at 28! We know that Daniel didn’t wait for her reply, but his and Delia’s name for the baby, Carleton Walbridge Taylor, reinforces the connections to his mother’s – and Sarah’s – Walbridge family.
Now Sarah switches into the next portion of her letter: news about family and friends.
Frank is driving Government team. Have received no letter for some five weeks. Marilla’s husband came home on a furlough this fall, has returned to his Regiment. – I am not acquainted with the “Wolcott Cousins” but Father inquires where they were. I will send the names as he wrote it.
Seth has a bad cold, the rest of the Cousins are usually well – I thank you for the paper you sent me. They were good stories. I am sorry I did not have room to give some of that “good advice.”
I received a letter yesterday from Cousin Lizzie Titus. Uncle Lyman’s health is poor. Please write to your lonely cousin. May heaven’s choicest blessing rest upon you and yours.
Frank is Sarah’s 25-year-old brother, Franklin, who is driving a supply wagon with a team of horses for the Union Army. What is not said is that he survives the war, marries right afterwards, and has two sons. Tragically, his older son, Archie, was killed in 1901, when he was working as a brakeman on a train hauling granite from the quarries in Vermont. A newspaper report from the time says that Archie was walking between two cars when he fell and was crushed beneath the train’s wheels. He was only 31 and had married just a few months before.
Marilla is an older sister (Sarah is the seventh of nine children, all but two of whom were living at the time of her letter) whose husband, Orlando Munsell Tillotson, is also fighting in the Union Army. She must have been so relieved to have him home for a while. Clearly, it was not only the young men, nor only the unmarried, who were expected to go fight in the Civil War. Orlando was 35 at the time of this letter (and Marilla was 39) and they had at least four young children.
What is not said is that this furlough may have been the last time Marilla ever saw her husband. He returned to his Union Army regiment and died just a year later in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Most likely, he was in a military hospital and died of wounds from a battle or from one of the illnesses that felled many of the Civil War soldiers. Germantown’s Market Square still has a dramatic Civil War monument to Union soldiers (and one Confederate), erected there in 1883 atop a piece of granite from Devil’s Den at Gettysburg.
|Union Soldier Civil War Monument, |
David Swift Photography
So it is likely that Daniel asked about his cousin, Charles Noyes, who was his Aunt Mary Taylor’s son from Wolcott, on his father’s side. At the time, Charles was turning 30 in one of the Vermont regiments fighting in the Civil War. What is not said is that just five months later he was wounded in Virginia in the Battle of the Wilderness.
|Battle of the Wilderness, Painting by Kurz and Allison|
Soldiers on both sides who fought in the Battle of the Wilderness described it as savage and disorienting. The area consisted of a large tangle of small-bore but tall second-growth trees with vines, briars and thorn bushes choking the ground. Despite the difficulty of marching an army through the area, Union General Ulysses S. Grant chose that route in order to keep his supply lines as short and protected as possible. Confederate General Robert E. Lee evaluated the situation and decided to force the battle into the forest, despite the difficulty for men of getting through it, because he felt the site would neutralize the Union’s advantages of greatly superior numbers of infantry, cannons and cavalry. In such dense and tangled woods, the artillery and cavalry would be useless. The infantry would have a tough time maneuvering and could easily be panicked by surprise attacks they could not see coming nor respond to quickly.
|Confederate defenses during the Battle of the Wilderness|
Over two days of chaotic fighting, nearly 30,000 soldiers – Union and Confederate – were killed, wounded, captured or missing. Daniel’s cousin Charles Noyes was one of these. His wound at the time was not fatal and he held on for another year and a half. But eventually he died in October of 1865, possibly from tuberculosis, one of the many diseases that killed more Civil War soldiers than the battles.
Sarah mentions Seth, another of her brothers. He is 38 at the time of this letter, but we met him sixteen years earlier, when he was only 22, in his brother Andrew Jackson Olmstead’s letter (click HERE to see story).
At that earlier time, in fact, Seth was visiting Daniel in western New York and seemed to be a footloose young man with his whole life ahead of him. And indeed he does. He lives another forty years, into the next century, and dies in 1904.
Sarah also mentions Uncle Lyman. He is uncle to both her and to Daniel, since he is married to Elvira Walbridge, sister to both of their mothers. He lives in Wolcott and Lizzie, his daughter, is one of Daniel’s and Sarah’s “Wolcott Cousins.” What is not said is that Uncle Lyman dies on Valentine’s Day, little more than a month after she writes this letter.
Sarah adds sweet margin notes to her letter, each one separate:
Overlook all imperfections.
Please give my love to cousin E and keep a sizeable chunk yourself. Tell him his letter is coming.
Please come to our [home?]. Good night, my dear good Cousins.
Which “cousin E” she refers to is a mystery, since Daniel had two brothers and a brother-in-law whose names start with E. In fact, out of the nine children in Daniel’s family (six living at the time of the letter), four of their names start with E – Evander, Elliot, Emily and Elizabeth. We can guess, though, that her mystery man may be Elliot, since he is mentioned in other letters.
Sarah adds another note up the margin that her brother Andrew Jackson Olmstead is also living in Wolcott at this time. We first met him 16 years earlier, when he was just 20 years old and wrote an exuberant and lusty letter to his cousin Daniel, hankering to get out and go “a’cousining” to see the world, or at least the portion between Vermont and western New York. (Click HERE to go to story.)
It’s surprising that Sarah doesn’t write anything more about Andrew. (She refers to him as “Jackson.”) But it appears likely that he lived a rather troubled life. She must not have been aware of the great tragedy that was already breaking over him even as she wrote. What was not said was that the next day his seven-year-old son, Herbert Edgar, died. Three years earlier, a younger son had died, as well. In addition, Andrew Jackson married three times, with two divorces, at a time and in a community when this was rare. Remarriage after a wife’s death would be expected, but his first two wives lived far longer than he did. I'm wondering if he may have been an irascible man with whom to live!
After finishing the letter to Daniel, Sarah turns over the page and writes a short note to Daniel’s wife, Cordelia. It appears they have never actually met, even though by this time Daniel is 35 and has been married to Cordelia for 11 years, with three children. If he was one of the “dear cousins” who visited a year or so before, he must have come on his own or with some of his other siblings; Cordelia would have been pregnant then with Carleton. It’s also possible that some of Daniel’s other siblings were the visitors but that Sarah still feels a special affinity for Daniel. From other family letters, we know that he made earlier visits, as well.
Sarah’s note to Cordelia is interesting because it seems “chummier” and more tender than the letter to Daniel, yet she seems to know Delia only through letters – and possibly only through Daniel’s reports about his wife. Perhaps it is the easier familiarity of both being women. Maybe Delia had added a short note of her own onto Daniel’s letter of the year before. Still, not only does Sarah refer to Delia as her cousin (although technically she’s her “cousin-in-law”), but she also proposes that they be sisters and signs herself “your true friend.” It appears that the report that Delia had “fallen in love” with her was very persuasive!
Dear Cousin Delia,
I am happy to make your acquaintance “Cousin Delia” yet I would rather see you face to face. As that privilege is denied me, I must be content to talk in the silent way. Yet I would much rather take a seat by your side. I hope we shall do so some day. I hear you have “fallen in love with me.” I always thought someone would love me sometime. If you should get acquainted with me, you might change your mind for I am plain looking and a plain hearted homespun Yankee.
I hope you will come to Vermont. [When my] Cousin comes again I should enjoy it so much. Then I would go home with you perhaps. It will be impossible for me to leave my sick Mother. I should like to make you a visit to your house. . . . I will be sisters. I will send my picture to you when I get one, if you would like it. Please write again and I will not delay so long.
Tis eleven o’clock and I must bid you good night hoping these imperfect lines will find you and your family in health and prosperity.
From your true friend and Cousin, Sarah M. Olmstead
That’s nearly all the text of this 4-page letter, with omissions only for a couple of lines that are hard to decipher. It’s a typical letter that doesn’t say a lot on its surface – “sorry to take a long time to reply,” “people have been sick,” “here’s news of people you know,” and “how I wish we could visit again.” But when we match this letter up with the dates on the family tree, we find so much more revealed beneath the words.
Sarah refers to herself as an “old maid” and seems to doubt whether that will ever change, although she does confide to Delia that, I always thought someone would love me sometime. Sarah puts those emphases on “love” and “sometime” herself, and one can detect the wryness in her comment, since at this point it appears that it’s possible the only one who will love her is a woman 400 miles away whom she has never met. However, Sarah cannot yet know that her life will change dramatically when her mother dies before the end of the year. Just a year after that, this Old Maid marries Wilbur Chandler (she is 30, he is 25) and eventually has three daughters.
In the late evening of January 8, 1864, Sarah puts down her pen, looks over her letter to be sure that the ink is dry, then folds it to form its own envelope. The next morning she will take it to the post office and send it on its way to her cousin in western New York.
At first, Sarah’s letter appears to be breezy and superficial. But oh what history it tells us without her knowing it! Her writing about day-to-day happenings puts a family face on the national events that must have weighed so heavily on everyone at that time. All these families had endured losing babies and the elderly. Now they were losing their young men, as well. Such hauntings those family losses must have left! We are fortunate to have letters that reveal some of the real family life and love behind all that is not said.