Saturday, January 5, 2019

"I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back": The Long Journey of Elizabeth Wright's Letter


On Sunday, August 29, 2010 I posted an entry regarding a letter picked up on the battlefield by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Holmes had travelled from Boston to Sharpsburg in search of his wounded son, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 20th Massachusetts. 

From the blog post of that day:

Harvard Law School Library
As he walked the field, Holmes picked up "a bullet or two, a button, a brass plate from a soldier's belt." He also picked up a letter "directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken. 'N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright.' On the other side, 'A few lines from W.L. Vaughn,' who has just been writing for the wife to her husband, and continues on his own account. The postscript [written by Vaughn], 'tell John that nancy's folks are all well and has a very good Little Crop of corn a growing.' I wonder [Holmes wrote], if, by one of those strange chances of which I have seen so many, this number or leaf of the 'Atlantic' [Atlantic Monthly] will not sooner or later find its way to Cleveland County, North Carolina, and E. Wright, widow of James Wright, and Nancy's folks, get from these sentences the last glimpse of husband and friend as he threw up his arms and fell in the bloody cornfield of Antietam? I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps, look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it."

Years later, Jon Hill, a genealogist specializing in Civil War research, read the blog entry. After researching James and Elizabeth Wright mentioned in the letter, Jon contacted Harvard Law Library “to try and restore the letter to James and Elizabeth’s descendants who still live in North Carolina.” After a few months, Jon wrote with an update: “The Harvard Law Library made an exact replica of the letter from their archives and mailed it to me so that I could send it to the descendant of James Wright. I reached out to his descendant who was thrilled! I'm putting the letter in the mail tomorrow and it will finally be returned to the family after 150 years!”

Jon’s excellent research and his faithful diligence to getting the letter back to the family (as Holmes had hoped it would) is such a compelling story that I asked Jon to give us an account of his efforts. Below, then, please find Jon’s reply. 

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When Elizabeth Wright penned a letter to her husband on August 13th 1862, I doubt she would have foreseen what the future would hold for her words.  However the thing that makes this letter stand out from the thousands of other letters that were sent during the Civil War is the fact that this letter was not delivered. But the letter was never returned as undelivered. At least not for over 150 years.
               
Elizabeth’s husband, Private James Wright, was serving in the 14th North Carolina Infantry in the Fall of 1862.  Soon after the letter was written, James became ill and was sent to General Hospital Number One in Richmond Virginia. Within a few days the 14th North Carolina Infantry fought in the bloodiest single day in American History.  Exactly how Elizabeth Wright’s letter ended up loose on the ground after the fighting ended at Antietam will remain a mystery. My theory is that the letter was delivered to James Wrights regiment just before Antietam. The letter probably was dropped in the fighting before it could be forwarded to the Hospital in Richmond where James was recovering.
               
Meanwhile on the other end of the battlefield, a young Union Officer from Massachusetts was lying in a field hospital gravely wounded. His name was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He was the eldest son of one of the most prominent doctors of the time, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
                
When Dr. Holmes learned of his son’s injuries, he immediately traveled to the battlefield to be with his son. As he traveled the battlefield looking for his son, he picked up relics off the battlefield. One item found was of particular interested to him. In Volume 8 of the Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dr. Holmes wrote:

“A letter… directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken.  N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright… I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it.”

Dr. Holmes never found the Wright Family though. When he died the letter went to his son Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and upon his death, it was given to the Holmes Collection of Harvard University where it remained in an archive for over 75 years. That was until I heard about it. My name is Jonathan Hill. At the time I was a senior in high school with a passion for Civil War research. I have worked with organizations all over the country doing Civil War research. I happened to stumble across a blog post on this very website about Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr’s search for his son on the Battlefield of Antietam.

After reading about the letter that he found, I decided to try and carry out the wishes of Dr. Holmes and ensure that the letter was returned to the family of James and Elizabeth Wright. My first step was finding out more information about James and Elizabeth Wright and searched the 1860 Census for any references. Sure enough I found them. There were only two James Wright’s that resided in Cleveland County North Carolina in 1860. One of the two had a wife Elizabeth and a Civil War Record.

Furnished as a substitute, James became part of the 14th North Carolina Infantry in June of 1862. After being sent to the hospital, he drops out of the Confederate Army Records. He eventually returns home to North Carolina, appearing in the 1870 and 1880 Census records. He lived out the rest of his life died in the 1880s.

The couple had quite a few children, and I was able to find a living descendant. I contacted her and she was excited about the possibility of getting the letter returned to her family.

I reached out to the then President of Harvard University. With her permission, as well as the permission of the Harvard University archivists, an exact replica of the letter was created and mailed to me. I then sent the replica letter to the great great granddaughter of James and Elizabeth Wright.

It took over 150 years, but a long lost letter from the Battle of Antietam finally found its way back home.”