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Aunt Janie vs. the Yankees — and me

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

My great-grandfather’s youngest sister has been dead for more than 130 years, but she’s still driving me crazy.

In fairness, she’s had a lot of help.

Janie Smith, who was living in the house I now occupy when William T. Sherman and William J. Hardee literally brought the war to the Smiths’ doorsteps and right across the thresholds, wrote the feistiest, head-tossingest letter you’re likely to see. “Gone With the Wind” devotees love it.

I dislike “Gone With the Wind” but I value Janie’s letter as a lucid and informative (if nakedly partisan) account of who did what, and where, and when.

For instance, Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler was in this house, sipping tea, at 2 a.m. on March 17, 1865. He prudently left ahead of Sherman’s bummers and Union Gens. Henry Slocum, Alpheus Williams and Jefferson C. Davis, who were impertinent and had dirty hands.

So, what’s the problem? Paper. Along with men, munitions, horses, anesthesia, clothing and optimism, it was in short supply. Janie wrote her letter on wallpaper — a sensible conservation measure. But, like many others of the war era, she had fallen into two habits that are unhelpful to us.

In order to stay within the approved number of pages and thereby ensure delivery by what passed for a Confederate postal system, Janie not only omitted paragraph indents; she “crossed” her letters — meaning that when a page was filled, she’d turn it sideways and continue writing across something she’d already written. Aunt Janie’s elegant finishing-school handwriting became, in places, a puzzle.

I’m pretty sure that at least one passage is misplaced in modern transcriptions. But you don’t just waltz in and blast the accepted wisdom on a hunch. I have to reconstruct the letter the way the verbal music tells me it should be — then somehow square that with verifiable facts and events now almost 150 years in the past.

Alternatively, I invest the same amount of work and am rewarded with a humility check.

Thanks a lot, Janie.

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