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  • Letters from a Father: Col. Joseph Snider to Miss Mary Edith Snider
  • Connie Park Rice

In recent years, examinations of fatherhood in the Civil War era have challenged old historical interpretations of fatherhood in the nineteenth century. While historians frequently maintained that throughout the nineteenth century fathers distanced themselves from child-rearing duties, Civil War letters and diaries reveal fathers’ attempts to remain actively involved in their children’s lives. Historian James Marten maintains that the Civil War itself created more intense relationships between family members, leading fathers to provide wide-ranging guidance and instruction despite their absence from home. According to Marten, soldier-fathers “instructed their children about beliefs, behavior, and assumptions—shaded by traditional gender considerations—that they believed carried more weight when propelled by paternal authority.”1

Letters from Col. Joseph Snider of the Seventh West Virginia Infantry and the Fourth West Virginia Cavalry to his daughter “Edie” illustrate the concerns of a Civil War father for the daughter he left behind. Born February 14, 1827, on a farm near Rosedale in Monongalia County, West Virginia, Joseph Snider was the son of Elisha and Edith Snider. In 1848, Joseph married Margaretta Miller. The couple had four children: Ollie (no date of birth); Mary Edith, born in 1849; Elisha M., born in 1853; and Frank, born in 1863.2

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Joseph Snider was a Democrat, but opposed secession. Elected as a delegate to the Second Wheeling Convention in June of 1861, Snider served as a Republican legislator in the Reorganized Government of Virginia. On August 22, 1862, Snider became colonel of the Seventh West Virginia Infantry. He fought in the Battle of Antietam, where his horse was shot out from under him, and Fredericksburg, where he was severely wounded in the head, before fighting at Chancellorsville in May of 1863.3 Suffering from heavy losses, members of the Seventh Infantry were mustered out of duty and consolidated into four other regiments in the summer of 1863. Snider was re-appointed as colonel [End Page 73] to the newly formed Fourth West Virginia Cavalry under the direction of General Kelley. The Fourth West Virginia Calvary saw action at Salt Lick Bridge on October 11 and 14, 1863, conducted operations in Hampshire and Hardy Counties from January 27 to February 7, 1864, guarded against guerrillas at Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Grafton, New Creek, Moorefield Junction, and other points on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad until June 1864, and mustered out on June 23, 1864.4

Snider wrote the following letters to his daughter Mary Edith between November 2, 1862, and January 15, 1864, while Mary Edith was a student at the Woodburn Female Seminary in Morgantown, West Virginia.5 In the letters, Joseph Snider attempts to remain actively involved in his daughter’s life despite the physical distance imposed by military duty. Snider speaks frankly about his love for his children and his concern for their future. Snider certainly did not distance himself from his teenage daughter or his parental duties and concerns. In the letters he stresses the importance of a good education and warns his daughter against the danger of violating traditional gender practices that could damage her reputation.


Harpersferry Va
November 2, 1862

Dear Daughter—This beautiful Sabbath morning, I sit me down to perform the pleasing task of answering your letter of Oct 19th inst—which came to hand the 28th inst—it was indeed a welcome guest—and afforded me much pleasure, in perusing its contents, there were so many items of interest, from home, and thereabouts, that I almost committed your letter to memory.

I learn from your letter, that you are going to school, at Woodburn, commencing the 29th, this I was glad to hear, And I hope my Dear Daughter, you will improve your time properly. Remember that your future life whether for happiness or otherwise depends to a great extent upon the way you spend the next few years of your life. Your mother and I are going to do our duty by you and give you the opportunity to cultivate your mind, and also your heart. O Daughter will you appreciate...


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