Tuesday, November 09, 2004
Eyewitness account of Civil War action in Southwest Virginia uncovered
Some 90 letters by Smyth County's John Preston Sheffey have been edited for publication.
John Preston Sheffey (1837-1905), who would go on to become a distinguished lawyer and judge after the war, provided insights into the skirmishes, men, terrain and strategies of the conflict in this mountainous part of the state. His letters have now been gathered together in a 272-page book, "Soldier of Southwestern Virginia: The Civil War Letters of Captain John Preston Sheffey," edited by James I. Robertson, alumni distinguished history professor at Virginia Tech and author of 12 earlier books.
The letters are owned by Betty Blair Stewart who, along with Martha Hull Copenhaver and Caroline Parrish Seager - all descendants of Sheffey - and other relatives were originally interested in reproducing them for family members. Stewart approached retired banker, book collector and history buff Don Francis about three years ago about how that might be done, considering how fragile they were.
Francis asked Stewart if he could take a photocopy of one of the letters to show Robertson in Blacksburg. Robertson read it and told Francis he had uncovered a historical treasure trove.
Francis arranged for a visit by Robertson at Stewart's home in Smyth County. The three descendants ended up allowing Robertson to take all the letters back to Blacksburg for study. They are now deposited in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. "I read the letters and just became enthralled with them," Robertson said.
Robertson, who has been studying the Civil War practically all his life, said he found new material in the letters, because the war in Southwest Virginia and along the Virginia-West Virginia border has not been researched as thoroughly as battles elsewhere.
While the Civil War in Southwest Virginia is often ignored, Robertson said, the region was vital to the Confederacy with its salt mines around Saltville, its coal resources and iron works, and the 209-mile Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, running from Lynchburg to Bristol. "It was literally the umbilical cord of the Confederacy," he said, and most of the Union raids into the region were aimed at destroying it.
Sheffey was captain of the Smyth Dragoons, part of the Eighth Virginia Cavalry. Robertson says this is the only chronicle available of the unit. "He was not with Lee's army, and we don't hear about Gettysburg all over again and Antietam all over again."
The letters also tell a love story. Sheffey was courting an 18-year-old Wytheville woman named Josie Spiller (1840-1904). Apparently she kept putting off his marriage proposals, Robertson said, until he began writing about the lovely ladies he was meeting up around Union in Monroe County, W.Va. Suddenly, Spiller agreed to marry him.
Robertson had to track down and identify many names in the letters, and became very familiar with the Smyth County census of 1860 during his editing. Letter writers at that time would refer to people by initials rather than first names. "It drives a historian crazy," he said.
Sheffey was captured toward the end of the war, but was paroled and returned to Marion shortly before the war's end.
Southwest Virginia has been a forgotten theater of the war, Robertson said. Its mountains and valleys ruled out large-scale battles, so it saw mostly skirmishes. "But Pres Sheffey was right in the middle of it and his observations are incredible," Robertson said. "He concentrates on things the normal soldier does not."
Perhaps the book will bring more attention by Civil War enthusiasts to the region, he said, and even boost its tourism potential.
"In all my years of Civil War history, I have never met a more intelligent Civil War soldier than John Preston Sheffey," Robertson said. "He sent me to the library about every day."
The letters were full of literary and Greek mythology allusions, which Robertson then had to track down.
"He taught me a lot of things from the grave," Robertson said. "He could have been a poet very, very easily."Quotes from the letters:
Shortly after he left for the war, Sheffey concluded a letter to his sweetheart this way:
"I think I will be quite successful in making myself a soldier. With your love to urge me and sustain me, I could accomplish anything."
Following a battle, Sheffey wrote a comment showing his attitude toward the enemy:
"One of the wounded Yankees lived more than a day with his brains shot out, conclusive evidence that they can get along almost as well without as with them." The book will be introduced in Sheffey's home county at 7 tonight at the recently restored Lincoln Theatre in downtown Marion. Admission to the program, sponsored by the Smyth County Historical & Museum Society Inc., will be $7 general admission and $3 for students.
Following a talk about Sheffey by Robertson, the book will go on sale and Robertson will sign copies on request. The book, published by Louisiana State University Press, will cost $39.95 but at this "first day" unveiling only, the society will sell copies for $30, cash or check. All royalties go to the John Preston Sheffey Scholarship Fund to assist Virginia Tech graduate students.
The Civil War Letters of Captain John Preston Sheffey
WHAT: Following a talk about John Preston Sheffey by James Robertson, the book will go on sale and Robertson will sign copies.
COST: $30, cash or check, at "first day" unveiling of the book. $39.95 a copy after that.*
WHERE: Recently restored Lincoln Theatre in downtown Marion in Smyth County.
WHEN: 7 tonight.
SPONSOR: Smyth County Historical & Museum Society Inc.
*All royalties go to the John Preston Sheffey Scholarship Fund to assist Virginia Tech graduate students.