|Date(s):||April 5, 1862|
|Tag(s):||Confederate Army, Civil War|
|Course:||“America, 1820-1890 (2010),” Furman University|
The letters written from a Confederate soldier to his “Charming Nelly” tell the stories of a Confederate regiment throughout the Civil War. Between 1862 and 1864, J.B. Polley, the Confederate soldier, wrote 28 different letters to the same person. Curiously, “Charming Nelly” was someone who Polley had only met three times in his life and all three meetings were very brief. Polley joined the war effort in 1861, but his letters to “Charming Nelly” did not start until 1862 with the first letter being written from Camp Hood (the location of his Texas regiment in 1862, his regiment is better known as the Hood’s Texas Brigade). No one knows whether these letters were actually sent to Nelly or just an excuse for Polley to write about the stories of the Civil War and his regiment. Some say his only motive was to publish a book. Never the less, these stories tell and reveal a great deal of unknown instances that took place on the front lines.
Entitled, “Humorous Incidents," Polley’s second letter (written on April 5, 1862) tells the story of Jack and Jack’s huge misfortune one night. Jack was a fellow soldier, but rejected the ordinary uniform that the Confederate Army provided to their soldiers. Instead, much to the disliking of his comrades, Jack decided to buy a five dollar overcoat and spent twenty-five extra dollars on the rest of his uniform. One of the first nights out, the weather was intensely cold and Jack decided not to remove any of his garments to sleep in and also decided to wrap himself in four of his new blankets as well. Jack fell asleep that night very comfortable, but laid too close to the fire the soldiers had built. At about midnight, Polley recalls, Bob Murray (another fellow soldier) wakes up and smells the scent of burning clothing. Polley says, “He had only to look once to discover that as the fire burned lower and lower, Jack had edged his black nearer and nearer to it, and at last a stray coal had lighted a flame that was playing sad havoc with his blanket and coat.” Polley goes on to explain, in a very humorous manner, how Jack was probably the last to wake up from Murray’s screams. It was too late, however, for his beloved uniform. Polley explained, “altogether [the garment was] too open at the back to be comfortable, and with two pointed tails hanging in front, instead of in the rear.” After Jack tried to fix his unfixable uniform, the entire regiment starts to ask him questions and by night fall, Jack is “too hoarse to talk.”
While this story may at first seem of no historical importance, there are two main underlying things this story speaks to. First, The story speaks to the fact that the Confederacy had constant challenges to acquire and maintain equipment. In “A Survey of Confederate Central Government Quartermaster Issue Jackets” Leslie D. Jensen writes, “Despite some truly important work by members of the Company and others, we still remain ignorant of much of the inner workings of the Confederacy's supply system and clothing procurement practices. Perhaps, too, we are still too easily lulled by an appealing image of the ‘ragged rebel,’ and therefore naively accept the concept of ‘Johnny Reb’ being supplied indefinitely by the folks at home, conveniently ignoring the fact that no army, however resourceful, wages war very long if it doesn't develop a workable supply system.” Jensen goes on to mention that the uniforms that were supplied to the Confederacy may not have been “fit for issue.” This was a decisive fact in the war because the South struggled to keep up with the advances in equipment that the North had available.
Secondly, this story reveals why the South thought they had a chance at winning the war. For example, why would the other Confederate soldiers not like the fact that Jack had decided to go against the Confederate uniform and purchase his own? The answer could be due to the fact that the only chance the Confederate Army had at winning the Civil War was to stay together. The Confederacy was facing an uphill battle, but had two things going for them. First, they were fighting on their own lands and, secondly, they were fighting for the same cause. When writing about Polley’s brigade, the historian Charles E. Brooks said that this togetherness in the same cause gave the South a greater chance of success, slim as it was. By buying his own uniform, Jack separated himself from the other Confederate soldiers in his regiment. Thus, Jack was seen as not totally for the Confederate cause, something the Confederate leaders hated in their soldiers.