Ancestral Civil War Letters

During their down time, Civil War soldiers often spent time writing letters to their loved ones, even though many of them never received proper schooling.

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

By Dr. Thomas Cloer, Jr. – Special to The Courier

How many mementos do you have of your grandfather? I have two or three, and cherish them as if the objects were solid gold. I have one object that belonged to my great-grandfather, Jacob Miller Cloer, a tool he used in making wooden white oak shingles for roofs. It very well could have been used by his daddy, William Marcus (Mark) Cloer, the Confederate soldier described in this article. These Civil War letters are like that tool. For my grandchildren, these letters go back eight generations!


Pickens and Oconee counties of South Carolina contain part of the Blue Ridge Escarpment that joins the rugged mountains of South Carolina with the Appalachian Mountains of North America, running from Georgia to Maine. The writers of these Civil War letters lived in mountainous, undeveloped Macon County, N.C. Macon County includes the mountain towns of Highlands and Franklin, lying immediately northwest of our beautiful South Carolina mountains.

There is one question I had to try to answer before sitting down and doing the most tedious, but for me riveting, job of transcribing the original old letters. Why would my great-great-grandfather Mark Cloer and his cousins and in-laws in mountainous Macon County, leave their farms and families to fight and possibly be horrifically wounded, imprisoned or killed in the Civil War? Why?

Ex-Confederate soldiers gather for a reunion.

Ex-Confederate soldiers gather for a reunion.

Reasons for Mountaineers to Join the Confederacy

In order to try to answer the question, I made great use of earlier work done by The Macon County Historical Society. Its 1987 book titled “The Heritage of Macon County” was most valuable. These scholars had already researched the question just now reverberating in my brain.

The states’ rights issue hardly mattered in mountainous Macon County. There was a county government where taxes were paid, where marriage bonds were taken, and disputes settled. County government was much closer and better known by my ancestors. But while the states’ rights issue was probably not a big deal, slavery was involved, although not to the degree it was outside the mountains. In the South as a whole, slaves made up 35 percent of the population at this time in history. In Macon County, slaves made up less than 12 percent of the population.

Surprisingly to me, however, there were 520 slaves in Macon County, according to the 1860 census. Eighty-three different households owned slaves. One slaveholder had 95 slaves. Although my poor mountaineer ancestors had no slaves, there were other factors that brought the issue closer to them. For example, there was a court decree in Macon County that actually encouraged militia patrols to “correct” any slaves found to be out at night without written orders from their owners. The wealthy county leaders who owned slaves knew how to get the poor mountaineers involved. The status quo, according to “The Heritage of Macon County,” was maintained by slaveholders who “exerted influence that far exceeded their numbers.” These slaveholders as a rule were leaders of the county that had the money and time to influence others.

“It was certainly in their best interest to maintain the status quo and to sway others to their point of view,” according to the book. Eight of the 10 captains of Confederate companies for Macon County troops were slaveholders on the 1860 census.

Other reasons for Mark Cloer and his cousins joining the Confederacy were peer and social influences. His cousins were with him all the way, even into Union prison camps. Can you just imagine the influence when Mark’s family, friends and neighbors started to volunteer? How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall listening to the emotional rhetoric about the compelling reasons why there must be volunteers! After all, why not volunteer before being conscripted (drafted)?

Most Civil War soldiers on both sides were volunteers. Both sides, however, passed conscription laws. The Confederacy actually passed the first draft in America. The Confederate Congress passed a law on April 16, 1862, that required military service for all males in the Confederacy 18-35 years of age. Wealthy people with at least 20 slaves were exempted. This would later breed resentment and serve to anger poor mountaineers who saw it as “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Since volunteering was still allowed after conscription began, it made those conscripted appear as weak men who had tried to avoid fighting. Some historians have concluded that this threat of conscription during the Civil War had an enormous effect on the volunteering of poor whites. Such was probably the case with Mark, who volunteered about three months after the first draft law in America was passed.

Ostracism during such times is also a powerful motivator. Shunning someone is a powerful tool of persuasion. If these things don’t work, the conflict may escalate to an even higher level. For example, my grandfather, W.T. Cloer, grandson of the Confederate soldier, operated a sawmill in the very early part of the 20th century at Shelton Laurel, N.C., in Madison County. Madison County had the infamous nickname of “Bloody Madison.” My father told me that 17 men working in some capacity with my grandfather’s sawmill “died with their boots on” while my grandfather was superintendent there for Gennett Lumber Company. Thirteen men and boys were slaughtered there in 1863 because they did not support the Confederacy and openly favored the Union. The youngest killed was 13 years old, the oldest 51 years old.

But I would be fooling myself, and possibly, you, not to mention another reason for Mark and his cousins going to war in 1862. They were all poor mountain farmers. Farming in the mountains was hot, laborious, and unexciting. (Been there; done that.) And, after all, this war was to be short-lived, and the great adventures the men would encounter would soon be over. They could then return home to take care of things. There was no way Mark Cloer could ever fathom that he would become totally disenchanted with the whole thing, including his Confederate leaders, be thrown into a Confederate prison for weeks at a time and become terribly distraught to the point of wishing for death. These were just the opening scenes before the real horror that awaited him.

If there was one factor that would define an Appalachian mountaineer of this era, it would be rugged individualism. Kowtowing to a captain of his Company D, 62nd Regiment, would end as soon as Mark disagreed with that captain. Keep this in mind as you read the letters.

The Writing and Reading

of Civil War Letters

There are a few things one needs to know about these Appalachian writers during the Civil War. There was no public schooling for these ancestors. We’re talking about Appalachian mountaineers of 150 years ago. The school districts of Macon County did not come into existence until after the Civil War. There was no compulsory school attendance law in Macon County until the 20th century. There was no such vehicle as a school bus until 1927 in Macon County; state-operated buses came even later, in 1933.

Writing paper and ink were scarce. Therefore, there is very little spacing in the original letters to preserve space. In my transcriptions, I will change all cursive writing to print, and put space between sentences to expedite the reading since there also is no punctuation, nor, for the most part, any capitalization. There are no paragraphs; be always ready to change topics immediately. I chose not to change the invented spelling in most instances. If there is one thread that warps and weaves through all the language of Appalachia, it is the thread of inventiveness.

These Cloer ancestors were all fluent in language acquisition, language recognition, language prediction and language production. It is easy to ascertain that their auditory discrimination was remarkable. Only when transcribing a language invention that might interfere with meaning for modern readers will I show in parentheses the standard spellings.

The deep structure of language in our brains takes over as we attempt to create meaning for the writing of others. This is why texting is so in vogue today. The surface structures — the words and punctuation for example — are important to a degree, because they ignite and initiate our predictions of what our text messengers are saying. If the surface structure is hard to see, of course, we encounter a block to meaning; we must see the letters. But after I have transcribed the old cursive writing, and you can see the print clearly “on your screen,” please notice and celebrate with me how easily these most isolated Appalachian mountain people relate, even to us, over the centuries. The texting of people back and forth today on smartphones highly resembles their language processing of 150 years ago, except for modern spontaneity. Someone had to physically carry the text messages from person to person in 1862.

Confederate Soldier

William Marcus Cloer

My great-great-grandfather Mark Cloer, enlisted at age 34 in Company D of Colonel William Holland Thomas’ 62nd North Carolina Regiment of the Confederate Army in Macon County on July 11, 1862. Thomas was the legendary white Cherokee Chief who was responsible for the establishment of the Eastern Band of Cherokees and the Qualla Boundary. My great-great-grandmother, to whom Mark was writing, was Susannah (Ann) Ledford Cloer. She was born in 1835 and married Mark in 1856.

?(Here, insert picture of Colonel William Holland Thomas, Confederate leader of Mark Cloer’s 62nd Regiment?)

One can see in this letter from Camp Zollicoffer, Tenn., that Mark was getting really homesick and wanting badly to see his wife and children. When other factors emerge, such as efforts by leaders to affect his natural mountaineer instincts of rugged individualism, Mark will go AWOL. My transcription from original cursive writing:

Camp Zollicoffer (Tennessee) Oct 16 1862

Dear Ann I am very glad to tell you that time I was writing on the 12 of Oct my health is a good deel beter … and I would be glad to know that you are all well I am about as well as ever onle I am very week (weak) yet … we have two mor tories (Union sympathizers) in the gard house but that is not new to us it is a old thing with us we get some good news from Kentucky There has been a big fight in Ky our men joined the battle and took the —- of 7000 prisnors besides arms and other goods and a heavy loss on each side and Kentucky in three weeks past has made up 32 Redgments for southern servis and is still making more but we here (hear) no mor talk of peace nor we here (hear) no mor talk of us moving to Charlston SC we will take winter quarters here I expect that is the talk the Tenn voluntiers that turned out since we come here wont be took they have to go as conscrips And I want to se you all worse every day and every day seems longer and the nights is very lonsom the weather is getting cool there has been no frost here yet we (don’t) get fruit to eat nor no chestnuts and if I was home I would show you how to eat apples I will write you enough to back a letter to me commence WM Cloer Zollicoffer P O Tenn 62 Redgt NC troops Co D in care of Capt R M Henry

The next letter, from Ann back to Mark, is one that she wrote just before the first Christmas he would be away from home. This letter was dated Dec. 19, 1862. Everyone at home knew how independent Mark was. His wife and parents tried in almost every letter to encourage Mark to get along with his officers. Ann tells how mischievous the children are. She tells how Jacob Miller (Bud), age 3, my great-grandfather, found a chestnut and gave it to his sister. His sister, Sarah, pretended to roast the chestnut for their grandmother, but Sarah actually went outside and ate it. Ann says to say hello to Mont, her brother.

December 19 1862

My Dear Marcus I have the pleasure this evening of writing you a letter whearin you may know we ar all well I received your kind letter last monday which gave me greate joy to hear you wos well … we ar all doing very well so far but I am very uneasy about our hogs that is our pets the children all grow right on and if any odds they git wors for mischeaf evry day they talk something about you every day Lucy is beginning to talk right smart Bud found a chestnut an(d) Sarah would put it in to roast for ther graney pretendingly an(d) went out and eat it an(d) then made Bud think it had burnt up … tell Mont howdy for me an(d) tell him if he has no comfort(er) (bed cover) to tell me an(d) I will send him one if I can if you want any more pants writ(e) to me as soon as you can an(d) I will send them if we have any chance we heard that Kelly(an officer) is out after clothing but I don’t know whether you want me to send them or not try to do the best you can an(d) have the love of all your company I wount you to bea cearful at all times an(d) particular about christmus keep out of all kind of mischeaf I wish I knew how you ar doing to night but it is not worth my while to think about that it dos no good I must conclude my letter and remain your best lover untill death the Lord bless you forever so farwell to WM Cloer Sousanah Cloer

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.