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Guide to the Jesse Wilkerson Papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1864-1865
Creator: Wilkerson, Jesse (-1869)
Extent: 35.00 items.
Collection Number: msc0926
Repository: University of Iowa Special Collections
Summary: Twenty-nine letters, from January to July 1865, mostly between Jesse Skinner Wilkerson and his wife Sarahett.

Access: This collection is open for use.


Acquisition: Gift of Pamela A. Lee.

Preferred Citation: Jesse Wilkerson Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.

Repository: University of Iowa Special Collections
Address: Special Collections Department
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5921
Curator: Greg Prickman

In July 1862 the Congress passed a draft law, more to encourage enlistment than to actually draft men into the Union army, but some were drafted, apparently among them Jesse Wilkerson. He served in the Thirteenth Iowa Infantry, Company C. His brothers Benjamin and George Washington apparently stayed at home and another brother, William, served in the war as well, probably in the Twenty-ninth Iowa Infantry, Company E. He was killed in the war.

The writers of these letters are educated enough to write, but standardization of the language is still in the future and "hear" is written for "here" and other such examples of what would today be considered misspellings. However, these letters are easy to read, and give us an example of how Iowa farm people spoke during the Civil War, and are charming on that account. The letters usually start with a formal statement like "I now take my pen in hand to write a few lines to you and I hope they find you in good health" then go on to address happenings in the life of the writer. This formal opening shows some education, of which the writers are justifiably proud.

Jesse leaves a pregnant and unhappy wife at home. She must cope with running the farm, in Hamburg in Fremont County, Iowa, by herself, helped out by a succession of friends and hired hands. For a time, she had a young neighbor girl living with her to take care of the children while she did chores such as milking. Their child is born on December 31, 1864 and she will not name her until she hears from Jesse. They apparently named her Ginevra.

In her letters she tries to conduct the business of the farm to Jesse's liking, and she asks questions such as should she sell the wheat and telling him such things as that she has rented the farm and had the cattle branded. In each of her letters she reiterates how she misses him and wants him at home, even at one point suggesting that they pay $500 to have a substitute go in his stead. All of this is complicated by the fact that due to his moving around from Iowa to Arkansas to Tennessee to North Carolina to Ohio to Virginia to Kentucky, he does not receive her letters in a timely manner, and when he does, he gets three or four at a time. She repeats herself in these letters because she does not get his letters and thinks he has not gotten hers, as was the case.

Jesse had the opportunity to see a lot of the world. From November 1864-June 1865 he was in seven states and the district of Columbia. Rations were sometimes poor, and he states in this letter of January 21, 1865,"I ame in hopes that we have seen our hardest times for we sertenly have had a hard time of it since we have been out hard marching and harder rations [.] If I were to tell you that I have marched all day and at night have two spoonfuls of corn meal you will think it a hard story but such is the fact." Though no integrationist, he takes the black people in his stride as shown in this excerpt from February 18, 1865, "Now I will tell you about the smoaked Yankeys (negro) as soldiers [.] they are the very thing that we want[.] they are good fighters that is one thing sertin[.] if there is any one that dose not belive it why just let him come down and storme the rebles works with them an if they do not go as far as he will why I will give him all of my hardtack. . . I have not found any but was willing to let them march ahead when their was danger ahead. All the fult that I can find there is not enough of them."

He has perceptive comments to make on the war, such as this from March 4, 1865. "You may look to hear for some hard fighting now very soon or else not much fighting for the Jonneys has got to fight or run and I think they will chose the later from all accounts that I can gather from all sorces. The deserters comes in to our lines fast and they all tell one story and that is they think that the Rebelion is about plaid out." In a letter to his brother of April 2, 1865 "You nead not be anywase uneasy about the rebles whiping us for this army think that it cannot be whiped and you know that makes a good deal of difference with soldiers afighting and as far [as] numbers is concernd we have got enouf hear to whip the hole Confederacy if they will only come out and fight us but trust that they will lay down their arms before this army moves from hear for we mow a swath 60 to 70 miles wide and you may bet their is not much left behind[.] Deserters comes in to our lines evry day and they all say that the dog is dead with them."

After the surrender, the troops are marched to Washington for a final review, then take trains and river boats to Louisville, Kentucky, where they wait impatiently to be mustered out. It is July and the busy season and most of the men are farmers, chafing to be released. In a letter dated July 18 he writes to Sarahett, "You wanted me to send you my likeness[.] I would do it with all pleasure but I think that I can bring the principle in 2 or 3 weeks and I think that will suit you better than my picture would." From the same letter, "I will have traveled five thousand miles or upwards and some of it the hardest kind of traveling." And "Our officers is very slow about makin out the papers[.] We mite of bin home by this time if they had tryde since the order came to muster us out but they are agiting big pay and are not in any hury about giting out[. ] If half of the curses has any effect they will go to hell sure." This letter of July 18 is the last one in the collection and records in the collection indicate that he was mustered out on July 21, 1865.

This story has a sad postscript, for in the collection there is a story about Jesse's murder in 1869. Apparently he was in a bar and given liquor until he was intoxicated. The bartender and another man tried to get Jesse to sign some documents that would implicate him in a phony deal. Although inebriated, Jesse refused to do so. One of the men attacked him and knocked him to the floor. The bartender kicked him in the face and head. He was put into his wagon and the horses found their way home. Three days later Jesse died.

Twenty-nine letters, from January to July 1865, mostly between Jesse Skinner Wilkerson and his wife Sarahett, but Jesse also wrote to and received letters from his parents, his wife's parents, his brothers, and his brother-in-law (Sarahett's brother, Solomon Carman). To form a more cohesive narrative these letters are arranged in chronological order. These are accompanied by related documents, such as affidavits for widow's pension filed by Sarahett, clippings of marriage and death notices, Sarahett's calling card, and a photograph of Jesse's son Jesse and his wife Kate. Gift of Pamela A. Lee.

Browse by Series:

  • Box 1:
  • Little Rock, Arkansas; J. T. Hindman to Jesse and Sarahette Wilkerson. November 26 - 1863
  • Camp McClenin [McClellan], Davenport, Iowa; Jesse to Sarahett. November 23 - 1864
  • Camp McLenin [McClellan], Davenport, Iowa; Jesse to Sarahett. November 27 - 1864
  • Nashville, Tennessee; Jesse to Sarahett. December 14 - 1864
  • Cotland, Alabama; Jesse to Sarahett. January 2 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. January 8 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. January 15 - 1865
  • Nashville, Tennessee; Jesse to "Brother". January 16 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. January 21 - 1865
  • On the Ohio River above the Cumberland River; Jesse to Sarahett. January 21 - 1865
  • Helena, Arkansas; Solomon Carman to Libnia and Elizabeth Carman. January 24 [14?] - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. January 31 - 1865
  • Newberne, North Carolina; Jesse to Sarahett. Febraury 15 - 1865
  • Newberne, North Carolina; Jesse Wilkerson to G. [George] W. [Washington] Wilkerson. February 18 - 1865
  • Newberne, North Carolina; Jesse to Sarahett. March 4 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. March 5 - 1865
  • In the woods near Kingston; Jesse to Sarahett. March 13 - 1865
  • Sivel Bend, Fremont County, Iowa; George W. Wilkerson to Jesse. March 19 - 1865
  • Goldsborough, North Carolina; Jesse to Sarahett. March 26 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. April 2 - 1865
  • Goldsborough, North Carolina; Jesse Wilkerson to Benjamin Wilkerson. April 2 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. April 11 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. April 18 - 1865
  • Camp 8 miles west of Ralagh, North Carolina; Jesse to Sarahett. April 18 - 1865
  • Richmond, Virginia; Jesse to Sarahett. May 19 - 1865
  • Camp 3 miles west of Alexandria, Virginia; Jesse to Sarahett. May 21 - 1865
  • Camp 4 miles west of Washiton, D.C.; Jesse to Sarahett. June 4 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. June 14 - 1865
  • Camp 7 miles below Luisville, Kentucky; Jesse to Sarahett. June 14 - 1865
  • Hamburg, Iowa; Sarahett to Jesse. July 5 - 1865
  • Camp near Louisville, Kentucky; Jesse to Sarahett. July 18 - 1865
  • Handwritten half-sheet with birth, death, and marriage dates for the Wilkerson family
  • A post office notice and a note about a knapsack awaiting retrieval
  • Documentation

This collection is indexed under the following subject terms.