Introduction to the book

The justification for publishing another lengthy account of the Illinois 129th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War1 lies in the new views and additional insights provided in the letters of a volunteer who served from August, 1862, until June, 1865, in the Western and Southern theaters. The young man, Joseph F. Culver, of Pontiac, Illinois, which lies about seventy-five miles south and west of Chicago, had left Mary, his wife of less than a year, “to walk in the path of duty” (August 19, 1862), and he felt moved to write her a newsworthy letter several times each week. As the young husband repeatedly explained, he wrote, often under difficult physical conditions, because he simply wanted to talk with his wife. Lieutenant (“Captain” after June 28, 1864) Culver’s letters were written as if he were engaged in conversation with a person seated across from his desk or writing table, and he took the time and trouble required to furnish a plenitude of detail because he wanted to share his life in uniform with his young wife at home. Because most of the men in his regiment resided in Pontiac or elsewhere in Livingston County, many of them were known to Mary, and Culver reported on their activities as well as his own. Similar circumstances led Mary Culver to write from Pontiac about occurrences there which possessed interest for her husband and others in his unit. The extent to which families of soldiers in a unit composed largely of residents of the same locality could become involved with each other is illustrated by Captain Culver’s letter of July 4, 1864, written from the field near Marietta, Georgia:

Thos. Moran [a young farmer] of my Company was killed. It will devolve upon you to convey the painful intelligence to his family; they live near you. He was a noble man & excellent soldier. . . . Tell his wife that if my life is spared 1 will write to her as soon as we get quieted down.

Many of Joseph Culver’s observations about men in the 129th Illinois Regiment will interest few who are not concerned with the history of Livingston County in Illinois, but the richness of detail about the experiences of soldiers in his unit gives to the entire series of letters an importance which might not appear in reading selected documents in their entirety or many excerpts. For example, the number of individuals from Pontiac who visited the troops in the 129th Illinois Regiment and the number of men from the unit who traveled to Livingston County for one reason or another could not be realized unless one learned of the comings and goings of civilians and soldiers from letters in which Joseph Culver tried to keep his wife informed about the movements of mutual acquaintances. Young Culver’s desire to share with his wife his experiences and reactions provides valuable glimpses into the mind of a Union soldier. Thus, the first report of the assassination of President Lincoln to reach Captain Culver was officially communicated on April 17, 1865, to the Union Army at Raleigh, North Carolina, yet not until April 23 when he had read the story in a New York paper did the writer conclude, “The death of the President is now established beyond doubt.” Joseph F. Culver’s 233 letters to his wife written during the Civil War constitute a rich source of information about the lives of soldiers who marched under Generals Rosecrans and Sherman across Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, because their author was keenly aware of most of the events experienced by troops in his regiment and he found the time and took the trouble to write, and write, and write.

The ancestry and family relations of Joseph F. Culver are easy to delineate because the history of his family and that of his wife’s (Murphy) have been detailed in carefully prepared genealogies compiled by a daughter-in-law, Etta I’Dell Clarke Culver. According to her work, published in the 1920’s and 1930’s in typescripts, the first in this line of Culvers to come from England, James, settled about 1765 in Pennsylvania, where his wife (surname of Peterson) bore him three children, including a son, Joseph, who was born in 1791 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Joseph Culver married Elizabeth Carey in 1812, and between 1813 and 1828 (?) the couple had eight children. Joseph’s second wife (nee Martha Dunmire, bom in 1809 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania) bore him six children, the second being Joseph Franklin Culver, who was born on November 3, 1834, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Joseph Franklin Culver, the author of the Civil War letters in this volume, married Mary Murphy (born on March 17, 1842, in New Hartford, New York) on December 12, 1861. He left his wife before the birth of their first son (Franklin Allen Culver, born on September 21, 1862), and he was with his regiment in Tennessee when the boy died on October 30, 1863. Mary visited her husband in Nashville at the end of 1863, and their second son was bom on August 25, 1864, while his father was with his regiment near Atlanta, Georgia. Six more children came of this union, including Chester Murphy Culver (born on October 5, 1870) who married Etta I’Dell Clarke, and their last, Essae Martha Culver (born November 15, 1882), who was to achieve national prominence as a librarian before her death in January of 1973. The Chester Murphy Culvers had two children, one of whom was William Clarke Culver, born on July 21, 1903, in Detroit and removed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he opened in 1936 “Culver Motors,” an automobile dealership. His son, John C. Culver, born on August 8, 1932, in Rochester, Minnesota, followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to Harvard University, and entered into the practice of law in Cedar Rapids before he was elected in 1964 to the Eighty-ninth Congress from Iowa’s Second Congressional District. He was reelected four times, and in 1974 he was elected to the United States Senate. Senator Culver is the present owner of the Culver Collection, which includes the letters written during the Civil War to one of his great-grandmothers (Mary Murphy Culver, 1842-1920) by her young soldier-husband, Joseph Franklin Culver (1834-1899).

According to genealogist Etta I’Dell Clarke Culver, her father-in-law, Joseph Franklin Culver, who ordinarily will be referred to in this volume by his initials, attended common schools and an academy in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before he entered Dickinson College. J.F.C. subsequently was graduated from the Iron City Commercial College in Pittsburgh, and he read law with attorneys in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Wooster, Ohio, and Pontiac, Illinois. He taught in and served for two terms as the principal of a normal school at Burbank, Ohio. According to one account, J.F.C. moved to Pontiac, Illinois, because of the opportunities there described by a young friend, Samuel S. Saul, a native of Pennsylvania who had settled in the community. Another indicates that J.F.C. was induced to move to Livingston County to accept the position of deputy clerk which he held from 1859 to 1863. Like many other professional men in the nineteenth century who had located in small American towns, J.F.C. was engaged throughout most of his career in commercial activities, including banking and insurance, closely related to his practice of law. According to his military record, J.F.C. was five feet and ten inches tall, his complexion was dark, and his hair was “hazel black.” Photographs of J.F.C. and of his wife taken while he was in the Army reveal them as alert and independent individuals who probably possessed considerable physical vigor.

The biographical sketch of Mary Murphy in Etta I. C. Culver’s genealogical compilation entitled “Robert Murphy and Some of His Descendants” (1931) says little about her as a young woman other than that she was a Presbyterian who had a clear contralto voice. Her education, according to this source, was acquired through the efforts of two brothers and at a private school in Cleveland. She taught school for a brief period in Ohio and seriously considered returning to a classroom in Pontiac while her husband was away during the War. Mary Murphy had married on December 12, 1861, when she was nineteen and her husband was twenty-seven, but before the birth of their first child on September 21, 1862, the prospective father had enlisted on August 2, 1862, in the 129th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers.

J.F.C. became the first lieutenant of Company “A” in September of 1862, and he was promoted to captain on June 28, 1864. He was mustered out on June 8, 1865, at Washington, D.C. Particulars about the record of the 129th Regiment are given in the Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Vol. Ill, p. 1100), but the activities may be grouped for convenience in several chronological periods. The regiment traveled from Pontiac by train to Louisville, Kentucky, where the men received basic training. During the remainder of 1862 and all of 1863, the regiment was assigned to guard railroads and other communication lines, chiefly in Tennessee, and in February of 1864 the regiment moved south to Atlanta and in November to Savannah. J.F.C. was detached from his regiment during General Sherman’s celebrated “March to the Sea” to serve as a witness in a trial in Chicago, but he rejoined his unit in North Carolina and marched with his company northward across Virginia and down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in the grand review held on May 24, 1865.

After the War, J.F.C. served for two years as mayor of Pontiac and was elected to a four-year term as county judge in Livingston County. He was active in local Republican politics and had a part in the establishment of the State Reform School at Pontiac. In 1879 J.F.C. removed to Emporia, Kansas, where he continued in the careers of banking and law begun in Illinois and was active in community affairs until a few months before his death on January 20, 1899. J.F.C. had received in 18% a pension to compensate in part for certain physical disabilities believed to have resulted from his military service, and his widow received amounts varying from eight to thirty dollars per month until her death on November 27, 1920.

Before he enlisted in the army at age twenty-eight, J.F.C. had developed certain character traits which are manifested in his letters written during the War and which stayed with him during his post-war years in Illinois and in Kansas. Prominent among these was the unquestioning Christianity which pervaded his daily life. Before he entered service he had been licensed as an “exhorter” in the Methodist Church, and he was superintendent of a Sunday school in Pontiac. While in uniform J.F.C. attended religious services whenever possible, and he frequently delivered sermons and organized revival meetings for troops. Almost at the end of his military service, he wrote on April 18, 1865:

Our meetings continue, & God is doing a great work for us. There were 10 forward Sunday night & 9 last night & numerous conversions. Over 160 have joined the church. … I preached last night from Mark, 16 Chap. & 16 V., and God was pleased to bless me.

In the 1870’s he served without salary as the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Pontiac to assist the congregation to free itself from debt, and later in Emporia he was active again in Sunday schools and he helped to found the Grace Methodist Church.

J.F.C.’s relationship with his God was simple and direct; his letters are sprinkled with gentle Christian phrases relating to prayer and immortality, and he possessed unswerving faith in the wisdom of the Divine Will as it appears in human events. A telegram from Mary brought J.F.C. word of the death of his first son, and he responded that evening (October 31, 1863), “Let us cheerfully submit to the will of him who doeth all things well.” J.F.C.’s complete confidence in the way events work toward ultimate good and his strong sense of duty left him free of fear and devoid of concern for personal safety. He volunteered for military service, because, as he wrote shortly after he left home (August 19, 1862), “I thought God & my country was calling me.” His priorities were clear and clearly ordered. “Next to my God and my Country, I love my wife,” he wrote on April 13, 1864, to Mary who was pregnant back in Illinois.

Other persistent characteristics of J.F.C.’s to be found in his letters are his preoccupation with his own health and that of others, his affection for his comrades in Company “A,” his enjoyment of popular music, and his affiliation with Masonic orders. In almost every letter to his young wife, J.F.C. reported his physical condition which usually was superb: “I have almost reached my old weight, 186; I weighed 182 about two weeks ago. I believe I never enjoyed better health in my life” (August 28, 1863); and he described with precision the ailments and disabilities which beset others in his regiment. Moreover, he worried continuously about the health of his wife at home or on a trip to and from her and his early homes in New York and Pennsylvania.

J.F.C. served for a few months in the regimental headquarters and could have continued there, but he preferred to lead the men of his beloved Company “A.” He wrote that his expenses had increased while he worked as a staff officer for his regiment and division, but he missed his relationships with the soldiers from Livingston County and desired to return to them. Before the fall of Atlanta, J.F.C.’s company experienced hours of “murderous” enemy fire, and in a letter to his wife he exulted, “I have a noble Company & my earnest wish so long cherished has been granted. I have been permitted to lead them in all their battles.” And, when he rejoined his regiment after five months of detached service, he wrote to Mary, “I am at home again. I found all the boys present in good health & most of them glad to see me.” During the days which immediately followed his return to his company, the men teased J.F.C. about his lack of intimate knowledge of their memorable marches through Georgia and South Carolina (March 30, 1865).

J.F.C. had been a member of a cornet band in Pontiac, and it fell to him to try to raise money for the purchase of musical instruments for his regiment’s band. He wrote to Mary about the airs played by bands in various camps, and he found enjoyment in singing with fellow soldiers and with others he met in the South. He requested his wife to send him the lyrics of a popular ballad, “Mother Dear, Oh! Pray for Me,” which she dutifully did. While garrisoned in Tennessee, the colonel of the regiment, Benjamin Harrison, later to become a president of the United States, on March 27, 1864, invited J.F.C. and several clerks “into his house to sing.” Colonel Harrison selected from the Golden Shower “those pieces with which he was familiar, & we all sang with him. . . . We have been thus employed for over three hours. It was a very pleasant time for me, and I hope also profitable.”

The only mention made of Masonic connections in J.F.C.’s Civil War letters are passing references to emblematic pins exchanged between him and his wife, but the affiliation maintained for more than forty years must have been important to him for J.F.C. listed his achievements in Masonic orders in the letterhead of the stationery used in his Emporia law office the year before he died.

J.F.C.’s death evoked memorials from the Logan County (Kansas) Bar Association and from his Emporia Sunday school, and his funeral attracted a crowd of mourners. One Kansan noted, “I presume there were few present who had not been befriended by him in some way. All the standing room was occupied inside and for about twenty feet outside each door.” The lawyers in Emporia observed, “He [J.F.C.] had accumulated very little wealth. In one sense his life was a failure, in another and better sense it was a grand success.” J.F.C.’s body was taken to Pontiac for burial in a plot marked by a vertical stone which lists on its four sides the names of the Culvers and Murphys (including Mary Murphy Culver) who are buried there.

As was mentioned above, J.F.C. as a soldier wrote letters to his wife because he wanted to talk with her, and most of his letters are in a relaxed, conversational mode. He introduces a topic of interest, moves to another, and returns to the first when and if additional thoughts come to mind. Events are described as he perceives them, and he realizes that a participant in a military campaign has next to no notion of the roles played by units other than his own. Rumors of unconfirmed events which circulated among J.F.C.’s troops are branded as such until the stories are supported or dispelled, and in most of his letters J.F.C. carefully notes his location and the date (and occasionally the hour!) of his writing.

J.F.C.’s letters to his wife were written amidst the difficulties encountered by the men in his regiment, and it is remarkable that he was able to surmount almost all of them. At times the extreme cold stiffened his writing hand, and he hastened to bring a letter (April 20, 1865) to a close when wind threatened to blow out his candle and leave him in darkness. A surface for writing frequently had to be improvised, and J.F.C. was resourceful enough to employ a cracker box for the purpose and he once carved a seat out of the side of a trench and used the level ground for a writing table. “It is very comfortable and has all the advantages of a cushioned arm chair.” (August 5, 1864). Writing paper understandably was in short supply (May 3, 1864), but J.F.C. managed to secure enough sheets to continue sending letters to his wife. In one written on July 19, 1864, J.F.C. directed Mary, “Tell Lt. Smith [then at home on leave] we have used all his letter paper & envelopes and to bring a large supply with him.” J.F.C. used the same pen throughout most of the War (June 10, 1864), and most of his letters were written in black ink and are easily read today. A half dozen letters were written in pencil, and these and letters written during the Atlanta campaign in light blue ink are barely legible. “This is blue but is better than none.” (July 23, 1864). Five of J.F.C.’s letters written in August of 1864 defy accurate transcription and are not included in this compilation.

Recipients of mail from soldiers in American armies in Europe and in Asia will be surprised at the shortages of stamps experienced by men in Union armies in Tennessee and Georgia; J.F.C.’s need for postage was so acute that he asked his wife to send him “a dollar’s worth” which she did more than once. Letters were sent home by the mails or by a soldier or civilian who was to travel from the regiment to Pontiac or to a town nearby. At times Confederate depredations of railroad lines interrupted the mails, and exchanges of letters between J.F.C. and his wife were delayed for weeks and, in at least one instance, for months. J.F.C. fretted when others in his regiment received mail and he did not, yet most of the letters written by Mary were delivered within a period of time which would seem reasonably short except to a young man who anxiously awaited news from a loved one at home.

Probably through his training in a commercial school in Pittsburgh, J.F.C. early developed an even and legible hand, but certain peculiarities which repeatedly appear have posed problems for the editor which had to be resolved. The size of particular letters, such as J.F.C.’s initial C’s, leave his intentions regarding capitalization in doubt, and his final s, be it an old style 5 with a descender in a word such as “loss” or an s formed as a curlicue which flows into the formation of the first letter of the next word, did not confuse the recipient of his letters, but they present puzzles for the transcriber. J.F.C.’s informal prose was written without benefit of paragraph structure and regular punctuation, and these omissions have been filled by the introduction of indentations to mark new paragraphs and of commas, semicolons, and periods whenever the use of a convention will assist the reader to understand the meaning of the writer. J.F.C.’s misspellings are curious in that at times he will spell the first name of a close friend “C-H-R-I-S” [Yetter] and at other times “C-R-I-S”, and he invariably left the / out of the name of General Joseph E. Johnston who commanded the Confederate army throughout General Sherman’s campaign in North Carolina. J.F.C. was consistent also in his misspellings of certain frequently used words, notably “oportunity” and “immagine,” and these have been corrected without ado. J.F.C. was not an illiterate; he wrote many letters under extremely trying circumstances, and he did not have at hand a dictionary. No attempt has been made to correct J.F.C.’s ungrammatical constructions, such as his frequent use of singular verbs with plural subjects and vice versa, because these do not hinder the reader’s comprehension of the intended meaning. J.F.C.’s word order and his use of perfect tenses are susceptible of improvement, but these characteristics were of little or no consequence to him or to his wife and are reproduced without change in the transcripts which follow.

In addition to the 238 letters written by J.F.C. in wartime to his wife (the number includes five which are illegible), there are more than a hundred letters in the Culver Collection written by his wife, brothers and sisters, business associates, and fellow soldiers, plus a handful written by J.F.C. to his wife before and after the War and to others during the War. Mary Culver must have taken pains to preserve the letters from her husband, because she did travel to New York and Pennsylvania while he was away from home. The letters which she wrote and which are to be found today in the Culver Collection presumably were retained by J.F.C. until she visited him in Tennessee, and then she carried them back to Illinois. Late in the War J.F.C. reread letters from Mary still in his possession and then destroyed the documents to keep them from being read by others in the event of his capture or death (March 20, 1864, and April 9, 1865). J.F.C. received letters from members of his and his wife’s family, which after answering he usually sent on to Mary for her information and enjoyment.

Many of the additional letters in the Culver Collection possess sufficient interest to warrant publication, but a halt had to be called somewhere, and this editor decided to limit the documents to be printed in this volume to those written during the Civil War by J.F.C. to his wife. Edwin C. Bearss, a professional historian, drew on the other letters in the Culver Collection in the explanatory notes prepared for the printed edition of J.F.C.’s 233 wartime letters to his wife. The existence of additional documents in the Culver Collection is mentioned here because some of them illuminate J.F.C.’s letters, and their retention for more than a hundred years reflects the value placed on these records by Mary Culver and by others in her family.

This edition of J.F.C.’s letters to his wife written during the American Civil War is a publication of the Friends of the University of Iowa Libraries, an organization formed in 1964 to encourage the development of collections of rare books and manuscripts in Iowa and at the University in Iowa City. The Friends publishes twice a year a periodical, Books at Iowa, devoted to scholarly articles describing books and manuscripts in the University Libraries and a Newsletter which contains information about recent developments in collections and services. The Friends has published important bibliographical compilations such as Frank Paluka’s Iowa Authors (1967) and Frank Hanlin and John Martin’s Heirs of Hippocrates (1974), and has distributed copies of these books and of others published by the University Libraries, such as The Publication of American Historical Manuscripts (1976), as bonus publications to members. These and related activities caused the Friends to welcome an opportunity to publish the Civil War letters written by Senator John C. Culver’s great-grandfather.

The possibility of publishing this sizable group of letters had been considered about a decade ago by Senator Culver, and rough transcripts of most of the documents were typed and helpful explanatory notes were prepared from published sources and from unpublished documents in the Culver Collection and in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., by Edwin C. Bearss, historian in the National Park Service, who undertook the work as a labor of love. Comparison of the earlier typescripts of J.F.C.’s letters with the originals made plain that new transcriptions were needed, and the corrected typescripts and transcripts of letters which had not been copied at all were typed by my secretary, Doris Stuck. The index was prepared by John Schacht, and proofs were read by reference librarians in the University Libraries. Substantial encouragement for this very considerable undertaking has come from President Willard L. Boyd of the University of Iowa and from the University of Iowa Foundation.

On behalf of the Friends of the University of Iowa Libraries, I wish to thank Senator John C. Culver for the opportunity to publish his great-grandfather’s Civil War letters and for his support of the project through loan of the original letters and related materials and through his keen interest in seeing the project brought to a successful conclusion.

Leslie W. Dunlap
Dean of Library Administration

Iowa City, Iowa
July 19, 1978

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  1. A History of the One Hundred and Twenty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, a volume of 283 pages by William Grunert, was printed in 1866 at Winchester, Ill., and a compilation of letters written by two brothers who served in the regiment, A. A. and Charles Dunham, was edited by Arthur H. DeRosier, Jr., and published in 1969 under the title Through the South with a Union Soldier. []

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