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  • Rules of EngagementCivil War Courtship Letters and the “Home Front Imaginary”
  • Carol Lasser (bio)

On Christmas Eve 1863, twenty-six-year-old Elliott Grabill, a white captain in the 5th United States Colored Troops, wrote from Virginia to the young woman he had just begun to court by letter. The two had been classmates before Grabill enlisted in the army along with like-minded Oberlinians in April 1861 hoping to speed the emancipation of people of color. Explaining that he had just returned from an expedition through the Dismal Swamp, Grabill slowly and tentatively built toward the purpose of his letter:

I am not thinking now of the fugitives whose home it once was nor of its deep solitude, nor of its mossy garlands, nor of its missletoe boughs. I am not now thinking of my old comrades in Company C, Ohio Seventh terribly decimated. . . . I am not especially thinking of the part I am performing in the working of the great problem of human freedom in this most terrible war. None of these things require much thought as they flit through my mind.

But I am holding in my mind a question of the future. Am I always to remain alone in the world? Am I to always travel through the world without [End Page 26] an abiding place? What has the future in store for me? Am I outside of destiny? Or [am] I but subject to degrees of fate?1

He continued, admitting, “I am of no fortune of little education—a log . . . subject to every change of time or puff of wind, maybe the next hour to drift upon some lonely island or beach on some desert shore.” Then, after still more circumlocution, he finally arrived at his point: “I cannot give you much, but all I have and am I offer you as a Christmas Present, myself [with a double underline in the original], to be yours to love and cherish till death do us part.” Intending to further underscore the seriousness of his suit, Elliott wrote—in words that give us pause today, in a world where Facebook and Instagram promise immediate intimacy: “Think not that this is the whim of a moment. . . . You are probably as well known to me as you would be after a long courtship under ordinary circumstances. And you know my general character as well as being slightly acquainted with me personally.”2

He then repeated his “ask,” requesting from his correspondent that she agree to join “our lifes [sic] to flow in one stream down the vale of life till it enter the shadow of the stream of death,” concluding, “I shall look for an answer soon and hope that you will send as a New Years gift the acceptance of my love and of my life.”3

But the recipient of this remarkable letter seems to have been taken aback by the abrupt proposal from a man with whom she was only “slightly acquainted . . . personally.” Although little from her side of the correspondence has survived, it appears that Anna Jenney demonstrated her lack of enthusiasm for this proposal by failing to respond as immediately and as often as Elliott had hoped.

Undaunted, Elliott evidently wrote repeatedly to her, seeking her commitment, or at least her correspondence. In February 1864, disappointed again by the absence of a letter from her in his unit’s mail, he pressed her, [End Page 27] teasing that his friend, James Marsh, the quartermaster, had received the “prettiest” letter from his fiancée two days previous, and had chided him, “Don’t you wish you had a sweetheart too?” Elliott then described to Anna how he had volunteered to stay behind to take the mail to his regiment the following day after they moved on, all, as he underlined his careful script, “in the hope that I should get a letter from you!4

Pleading for her consideration he wrote, with guilt-inducing passive aggression: “Imagine my foolishness. We are going out on an expedition from which some of us may not return. And if I should happen to be captured, a bullet would be none the more painful nor a rope...


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pp. 26-47
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