A Glimpse into the Life of a Confederate Soldier Based on his Letters Home
While serving, Sgt. Penland wrote letters to his family, some of which were found in an old pillowcase stored in the attic of a Clay County home. They offer valuable insight into the soldier’s life during the war, from October 1862 until his death in August 1863.
In his first letter, written on October 12, 1862, Sgt. Penland described his state of well-being, the condition of his horse, the rainy weather, and his surroundings. He also remarked on the inflated prices for food and supplies: “[E]verything is the highest here that I ever saw. [S]weet potatoes are worth five dollars per bushel…[O]nions are bringing ten dollars per bushel … Be sure to have boots made for me, for shoes are worth $10…a pair and boots $9.”
Besides being a bit surprised and upset about the extra expense of things, Sgt. Penland was bothered by the fact that many Confederate soldiers were deserting: He wrote, “I help[ed] to take some deserters to jail yesterday. [T]hey had went home without leave but come [back] and the [C]olonel sent them to jail to give others warning.”
Although Sgt. Penland seemed to be adapting well to his life as a soldier, it was obvious that he missed his home and his family. At the close of his letter, he wrote, “Be sure and write for I will be glad to hear from home every day.”
In January 1863, Sgt. Penland disclosed that he had been involved in an action taken against Union soldiers who were “advancing on the bridge at Zollicoffer.” Sgt. Penland wrote that, while trying to find a secure position to defend against Union soldiers, he and his Company “heard that there was a crowd of what [they] call Tories in the crab orchard that was going to cut us off if the Yankees whipped us and we had to retreat.” Once resettled, a skirmish took place. Sgt. Penland was impressed by the Yankees’ weapons: “They were the best armed that I ever heard of in my life. [They] had Colts rifles that shot five or six times and two naval pistols a piece that shot six times.” Although the enemy’s gun power was intimidating, Penland was adamantly against running away. Again he mentioned his animosity for deserters: “[T]here were several of our men runaway a few days ago and they will face tolerable, tolerable rough if they get them. … I fear that deserters will be the ruin of our country if they keep a deserting…a deserter ought not to be [countenanced] in any shape nor form whatever.” That animosity was probably fueled by the fact that Penland wanted to face the enemy, win, and go home, but that plan was being compromised by the soldiers who were leaving at random, weakening the company as a whole. As a result, Sgt. Penland thought he had little hope of getting furlough (approved leave) to go home, and believed that the deserters deserved whatever punishments they received.
On February 16, 1863, Sgt. Penland wrote about some of the religious affairs at camp: “We have a chaplain now. I hope that he will stay with [us] and not do like the other one that we had. He stayed until he drawed a hundred or two [hundred] dollars and only preached one sermon, but I do not think that the one we have got is a very clever man. [H]is name is Harris.” Penland was comforted by the presence of a chaplain and the weekly routine of sermons on Sundays, and was relieved that his company would no longer have to put up with the former chaplain’s greedy “cleverness.”
On May 24, 1863, while in camp near Clinton, Tennessee, Sgt. Penland wrote to his father, revealing some of the difficulties the young soldier was facing. He wrote, “[W]e have had to give up our tents…I think it will be a tolerable bad chance when it rains, our mess has just a cloth but I do not know how long we will get to keep it. … [W]e are going to start to [Kentucky] this morning. [W]e have drawn last days rations of provisions…we have not been a getting much to eat since we have been at this place…We have been a pasturing our horses now for some days & feed a little on corn.” The lives of the individuals in Penland’s Company were more difficult with food shortages, weather exposure, and long distances to cover toward an unknown territory in their foreseeable futures. Furthermore, Sgt. Penland told his father that his company had been recently vaccinated, and concluded the letter with a promise to write again as soon as he was able.
On August 14, 1863, the young sergeant wrote from Camp Ebenezer, Tennessee to his parents to inform them that, although he was “still in the land of the living,” he had been sick for the past “five or six days.” Two days later, the letter continues with new return address given: Sgt. Penland was located at “Coal Creek, Tennessee 31 miles North of Knoxville and 11 miles below Big Creek Gap at Joel Bowlings” house. Sgt. Penland stated that he was still experiencing “symptoms of fever.” He explained to his family that when ordered to move to Big Creek, he stopped at Joe Bowling’s house to recuperate. Sgt. Penland wrote, “Father I would like you to cum…see me if you can… [I]f you cum, you cut through [on] horseback to Louden & Campbell Station & Clinton & Jacksborough. … We hear they’re Bushwhacking sum in Cherokee…Times is pretty hard here.” Finally, the last section of that letter was written by Joel Bowling: “Wm is here & wants you to be sure & cum & see him. We will take the best care of him that’s possible…[H]e may be well in a few days or he may get worse… I hope I will see you soon.” It is doubtful that Sgt. William Penland’s father ever saw his son alive again; William Chamberlain Penland died three days after that last letter was written, on August 19, 1863.