Ancestral Civil War Letters (part 2)

The author at Cumberland Gap, location of Confederate Fort Raines, where Mark Cloer wrote.

Doubt, decline and the destiny of duty

By Dr. Tom Cloer, Special to the Courier

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on Civil War letters from Courier contributor Dr. Thomas Cloer Jr.

 The next Civil War letter is from the oldest Cloer ancestors for whom I have personal letters. John B. Cloer and Aggatha S Cloer are my great-great-great-grandparents. How moving it is for me to see the precious handwriting of these old calloused hands! They were writing just before Christmas 1862 to their son in the Civil War. They mentioned that their son, Mark, had written that he had reunited with his Company. Mark had obviously come home for a November 1862 visit, as he had talked about doing in his correspondence.

Notice the information in this letter about salt. Why would this be important? Coffee, tea, sugar and salt were in very short supply in the mountains during the Civil War. Many of the mountaineers even used okra seeds for coffee during this time. Molasses was used for sugar, but salt was a very different matter. My brother, Nat, and I, growing up in Southern Appalachia during the 1940s and ‘50s, were responsible for providing a smokehouse full of salt-cured meat; we can attest to salt being an absolute necessity for preserving meat.

Here is the Dec. 19, 1862, letter of John B. and Aggatha Cloer, my great-great-great-grandparents, both of whom were born in the 1700s. My transcription:

N Ca Macon Cty (County) Dec 19. 1862

My Dear Son I take the pleasure this evening of writing you a letter to let you know we ar all well and hope these (lines) will find you in good health we received a letter from you last Monday it was grate pleasur to us to hear you had got back to your companey and was well … tomorow the conscript(s) is to bea inroled so it is sade … we ar giting along very well so far only I am uneasy about your pet hogs I have not saw nor heard of them sence you left home I got 3 dollars worth of salt at 6 pound to the dollar … we wont (want) you to bea very watchful an(d) pin your fath (faith) to no mans sleeve thear was something in your last letter that wee would bea glad to know mour about wee was sory to hear you was not in a good frame to write bea cearful for a mans best friend some times grow to bea his worst enemy … the neighbours is well so far as I know do the best you can I must conclude my letter I wold bee glad to see you wee could talk more than wee can write wee send you our love and good wishes so farwell this time my son to W M Cloer John B an(d) Aggatha S Cloer

This next letter is the last letter of 1862 that we have seen from William Marcus to Susannah Cloer. I find the Native American name interesting that Mark mentioned. Remember, this 62nd Regiment of Mark’s was the regiment of Colonel Will Thomas, the white Cherokee Chief. One of Colonel Thomas’ sons, William Penn Hyde, an illegitimate son of Catherine Hyde and Colonel Thomas, gave documented federal court testimony in 1908 about the Hydes’ direct Native American bloodline, and was indispensable in my tracing of the Cloers’ bloodline back to the Cherokee tribe. My Cherokee blood comes through Anna Hyde, sister of this Catherine Hyde. Anna Hyde was Anna Cloer’s grandmother.

Here is Mark’s letter from Dec. 27, 1862, written from Camp Zollicoffer, Tenn.:

Dear An this rainy morning I take the opportunity to tell you that I am well as I want to be only that old pain in my rite eye it hurts me very bad and I indulg the glad hope that my very few lines will find you in good helth I waited I thought a long time for a letter and last night at 11 oclock the mail com and I went to the .po. and to my great satisfaction got a letter from you and you may know about how glad I was I red it twice last night and this morning I red it again … our companey is in good health all able for duty only Pink Clover and he is getting beter He has been bad off I have no news to tell this time only we all in ill humer yet we have not hered from Capt Henry yet and we all have agreed and pledged our honor that if Kelly becomes our Capt that we will disband and go home …We have drawed hats and shirts and briches the close (clothes) was so noaccount I would not take any of them … write as soon and often as you can and do the best you can I will be at home some time if I live… They say we will get money next week So I will conclude for this time Take good care of the children nothing more good by W M Cloer

Rugged Independence

Mark was captured for the first time by the Union Army in the spring of 1863. He was then involved in a prisoner exchange and reported back to duty in the Confederate Army in early April 1863. On May 11, 1863, Mark wrote that “Four men cut out for home, and they are not all that will go… Stonewall Jackson is dead. He was shot in a mistake by one of Longstreet’s men.”

Stonewall Jackson would often scout at night, and on this fateful night his own army apparently mistook him for the enemy.

After this correspondence, Mark became very disenchanted with Confederate Army regulations, food, officers and treatment of soldiers. He went AWOL and came home to Macon County after forwarding the following information dated May 11, 1863, from Greenville, Tenn.: “I want to see you and my babies the worst I ever did and think the time very long and I am so lonesome I can hardly live…don’t you write nary nother letter to me til you hear from me…Men will see their wives when other men is not thinking of such a thing.” ( Uh-Oh! Mark is definitely “getting rabbit in his feet.”)

After coming home, Mark must have worried about the consequences of going AWOL and not fulfilling his perceived duty, because he decided to go back to his regiment. His 62nd Regiment had moved from Camp Zollicoffer to the Cumberland Gap, ostensibly while Mark was AWOL. In an original letter found in The Special Collections Library of The University of Tennessee dated June 24, 1863, Mark Cloer said while writing at Morristown, Tennessee, “We can’t here (hear) where our regiment is…it will take us 3 days more to get to the gap… We have had a good spell of weather for traveling and pretty good fare. I left home with 12 dollars and got here with 6 and spent 2 dollars for tobacco 1 for a dram (whiskey)”.

Doubt and Further Decline

As soon as Mark found his troops, he was put in the Confederate guardhouse at the Cumberland Gap. While in the guardhouse, he became very depressed. In a letter (edited by me for spelling) dated July 12, 1863, after two weeks in the Confederate guardhouse, Mark wrote the following. “The fog is so thick here every morning that we can’t see the sun til about ten o’clock and there has been but one day since I came here that it has not rained and that was yesterday…I am so lonesome … I know it will end some time and then I can go home…I am so lonesome and low in spirits and so much dissatisfied and so much out (of) heart that my life is a burden to me and if it was not for 2 or 3 things I had rather die than live and without some change I don’t feel like I could live much longer.”

This next letter had Mark out of the Confederate guardhouse, but still unhappy. It is important to note that Mark often addressed his letters to “wife and friends.” He often ends his letter as “Your best friend.” He is not being cold to Ann; he is simply addressing Nantahala Mountain neighbors living near Cloer Creek.

Cumberland Gap Ky July 26,1863

Dear wife and friends I again take the opportunity of writing you a very few lines to tell you that I am well except (a) bad cold and I hope that my letter will find you all well and hearty and doing well … the yankees has made another rade in Va. and has Conel both (Colonels) killed and nearly all the rest captured and report say that they have taken Richmond and they have been fighting at Charleston S.C. 9 day and was still holding on the last account … I want you to do the best you can and don’t get out of heart and think I will get home some time They kept me in the gard house from the 28 of June to the 23 of July but don’t you fret about that for I am sorry that they took me out for I done heep better in ther than I am doing since I got out ump and Josh and rile (Riley) is all tolorable well (cousins) … Write to me as often as you can and do the best you can I send my best respects to you and all the neighbors So nothing mor I still live your best friend Good by W.M. Cloer


In September 1863, shortly after Mark’s last letter home, Confederate General John W. Frazier and his garrison of 2,300 rebels surrendered the Cumberland Gap to Union Forces, led by Major General Ambrose Burnside. Mark was taken to Camp Douglas in Chicago as a Confederate prisoner of war.

Camp Douglas was located across the street from where the campus of The University of Chicago is located today. Camp Douglas was the Union’s closest equivalent of Andersonville in the Confederacy. Camp Douglas has been denounced as an extermination camp. Six thousand Confederates died there, the largest burial ground of Confederates outside the South. Most of the Confederate bodies were laid in large, mass, unmarked graves. Torture and brutality were a way of life there. Colonel Charles V. Deland took command of Camp Douglas just before Mark Cloer arrived. George Levy, in his book, “To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-1865,” reported that Deland said “no” to beauty, hope and life. The White Oak Dungeon, a hole in the ground containing 18 square feet, was for special punishment, as was the unique torture of hanging prisoners by their thumbs. If torture and brutality didn’t kill the Confederates, pneumonia, dysentery and smallpox would.

On Dec. 3, 1863, 100 prisoners tunneled out of Camp Douglas. Camp Commander Deland ordered all floors removed from the prisoners’ barracks. This put prisoners on the ground in the bitter Chicago winters. Mark Cloer suffered through two such winters there. Deland acknowledged it would increase sickness and death, but “will save much trouble and add security.” The place was terribly, horribly overpopulated, with thousands upon thousands of more prisoners than could be accommodated. When Mark arrived in September 1863, there were 4,234 prisoners. At the end of 1864, there were 12,082.

Mark amazingly survived 18 months at Camp Douglas, and returned home to his beloved Ann. Stories have been passed down to the present about Mark’s condition upon arriving home in Franklin; he was unrecognizable. He had to be washed down and decontaminated some distance from his mountain cabin to prevent the infection of a household who really wanted to embrace him without taking in too many unwanted guests. Sadly, Ann became very ill and died six short years after Mark returned home to her.

In closing, there was a handsome, young and greatly talented Shakespearean actor who made his debut in downtown Chicago just prior to Mark’s imprisonment there in 1863. When Mark arrived, the town’s privileged class was still abuzz about the greatness of the actor. This new Shakespearean star in his 20s was getting rave reviews from the upper-class drama critics in 1863 from Boston to Washington, D. C. He played the title roles in Hamlet and Richard III, and played leading roles in Romeo and Juliet. Critics called him “The pride of the American people.” He was called “genius,” “never failing to delight,” and would soon be known nationwide after an appearance in still another theater in Washington, D.C. The theater was Ford’s Theater; the fresh talent was that of John Wilkes Booth.

Dr. Thomas Cloer Jr. is Professor Emeritus, Furman University. He was awarded the Outstanding Alumni Award from his alma mater, Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky. He has received The Medal of Honor and has been inducted into The Hall of Honor at Cumberland. Dr. Cloer has served as a member of the Editorial Board, and different terms as a member of the Board of Directors, and as an officer for The American Reading Forum.