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Charming Xrlmk The long-unidentified "Charming Nellie," Civil War correspondent ofJ. B. Polley, who served in Hood's Texas Brigade. Photo from Polley's A Soldier's Letters to CharmingNellie (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1908). Notes and Documents Who Was "Charming Nellie"?: A Research Note By Richard B. McCaslin* In igo8, Neale Publishing Company produced A Soldier's Letters to Charming Nellie byJoseph B. Polley, a compilation of letters that had previously appeared in the Confederate Veteran over several decades. Instantly popular among both laymen and scholars, this book was frequently cited in other works on the Civil War, especially those about Hood's Texas Brigade, in which Polley served for almost four years. In ? g84, a second edition of Polley's letters to "Charming Nellie" appeared in response to continuing strong interest. The most recent incarnation, which I edited for the University of Tennessee Press's acclaimed Voices ofthe Civil War series and published in 2008, provided hundreds offootnotes to identify the people, events, and literary quotes within Polley's text.1 But one nagging question remained unanswered in all three editions: who was Nellie? Polley coyly refused to publish the woman's name even as questions arose concerning the authenticity of his letters, which were at least embellished for publication ifnot completely fabricated. The idea that Nellie never existed undercut the assertions of those who maintained that Polley wrote the letters during the war, then later improved upon the originals for his literary audience. If Nellie was imaginary, then "Richard B. McCaslin is a Professor of History and chair of die Department of History at die University of North Texas. He has written or edited fifteen books, including Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862 (LSU Press, 1997), which won die Tullís Award, and At the Heart ofTexas: One Hundred Years ofthe Texas State Historical Association (published by the TSHA, 2007), which received die Award of merit from die Philosophical Society ofTexas. 1 The first book-length collection wasJ. B. Polley, A Soldier's Letters to CharmingNellie (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1908). Harold B. Simpson wrote an introduction and Robert Krick contributed a foreword to a later edition of A Soldier's Letters to Charming Nellie (Gaithersburg, Md.: Butternut Press, 1984). The latest edition, which includes annotations and additional letters, is Richard B. McCaslin, ed., A Soldier's Letters to Charming Nellie: The Correspondence ofJoseph B. Polley, Hood's Texas Brigade (Knoxville: University ofTennessee Press, 2008). Vol. CXIII, No. 4 Southwestern Historical QuarterlyApril 2010 47°Southwestern Historical QuarterlyApril how could the letters be real? Unfortunately for those who wanted to defend Polley's credibility, no one—not even the editors of two new subsequent editions of his letters—could discover Nellie's identity. Ironically, just months after the production of the latest version of Polley's compilation, his letter to Frank B. Chilton, his wartime comrade -in-arms and postwar partner in recording the history of Hood's Texas Brigade, was found in the Texas Collection at Baylor University. Clearly unconcerned about keeping a secret that would vex several generations of readers, Polley wrote to Chilton in January igo8 that he would certainly send a copy of his book to the lady who had originally received the letters: Mrs. Frank Holt, who lived on Bay Prairie "on the edge of the Caney valley lands."2 Because there is no Frank Holt of the correct age and color to be Charming Nellie's spouse in the censuses of Texas for the last half of the nineteenth century or the first decades of the twentieth century, knowing that name did not solve the old dilemma. Fortunately, Polley provided other clues. In i8g6, when he published some of his letters in the Confederate Veteran, he explained that Nellie was an "intimate friend" ofanother young lady "to whom I wrote frequently before and during the war." References within the letters themselves make it clear that the unnamed mutual acquaintance was Polley's fiancée. More importantly, on the same page as Polley's explanation, a note from Harriet Talbot of Galveston affirmed that she knew Nellie well during the war. Talbot did not provide her friend's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9560
Print ISSN
0038-478X
Pages
pp. 468-476
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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