Unforeseen Problems

While local defense concerns and the day-to-day hardships of life occupied the minds of most Southerners during the war, Civil War-era letters are filled with commentary about the war’s significant events.

John D. Pittman, a student at the University of Virginia from 1860-1862, wrote several letters to his mother, Martha Pittman, who lived in Jackson County, Florida. Well written and insightful, Pittman’s letters describe wartime life at the university and provide commentary on important political and military developments. 

In this letter from November 1861, Pittman comments on the Union’s capture of James Murray Mason and John Slidell, Confederate diplomatic commissioners to Britain and France, respectively.

The U.S.S. San Jacinto intercepted and arrested the Confederate diplomats on their way to Europe. Mason and Slidell were traveling onboard the Trent, a British mail ship, which they had boarded in Cuba after eluding the Union blockade. The British saw the incident as a violation of international maritime law, a belligerent act against British neutrality, and an affront to their honor.

Public opinion in the North hailed the capture of the Confederate officials, whom the North imprisoned, and called for defiance of the British government, which many Northerners believed to be sympathetic to the Confederacy. Despite public pressure, the Lincoln administration eventually decided to free the Confederates rather than risk a war with the British.

Pittman’s letter also addresses the question of wartime freedom of the press, which he blames for the capture of Mason and Slidell.

J. D. Pittman to My Dear Mother, November 18, 1861

(N-2005-9, Blackshear, Pittman, White, Dickens, and Drew Family Papers, 1700s-1970s)

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J. D. Pittman to My Dear Mother

Nov. 18th, 1861
University of Virginia


My Dear Mother:

I was delighted to receive your letter a few days ago. I am very glad you sent the 2 dollars in gold, for it is very hard to get any money for portage. I have a great many things to write about, but I don’t know which to begin with.

There a[re] a great many sick soldiers here. The So. Ca. hospital is just opposite Mrs. McKennie’s. All the professors of Medicine at the University attend the hospitals. They are very kind, and the sick soldiers are thankful for any little act of kindness. A great many of those who were so badly wounded at Ma-

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nassas go home to see their friends. Last Saturday everybody believed there would be another fight at Manassas. The dispatch said that all of our pickets had been driven in, and our generals had ordered their men to sleep on their arms, and be ready for battle at a moment’s warning. All were excited in Charlottesville, and a great many of the citizens prepared to go down and take part in the engagement. But the Battle did not take place, and every body was disappointed rather than otherwise. Last night a dispatch came which said that Mason and Slidell, our commissioners to Europe, have been taken prisoner while sailing under a British flag. It is said that they have been carried to fortress Monroe. I hope

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this is a false report. If true, the editors are to blame. They published all about this sailing of our commissioners—where they landed, where they were going, etc. No wonder they were taken prisoners. I hope the gentlemen of the press will learn how to be silent about such subjects. There are some things connected with this war which should not be published, it matters not how bad the people wish to know them. I am afraid that they will be hung, for the retaliation business has commenced. The Yankees have condemned some of our privateers, and our government has selected Col. Cochran and some of his followers to be executed—this is by the way of retaliation. This kind of proceeding will make it a dreadful war—

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a war in which no quarter will be asked, or given, I have no hopes of a speedy termination of the war. If it were to last ten years, I would not be surprised. I believe it was necessary for the South to have seceded; but I think that we will never have much more peace. How can we? The border states are infected; and in the course of time will become more so. Missouri and Virginia will both give us trouble; and if Kentucky secedes, she will be ready at any moment to revolt. No, I think the days of peace are over. There may be peace, but it cannot be permanent. I hope I will get an education, and then I will be more indifferent to what takes place.

My room-mate is named Mr.

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Gresham. He is from Virginia. The Yankees have been stealing negroes from the county in which he lives. He was in the army, but got out and came to the University. He is a very nice young man; he is studying Law. A great many study Medicine, because they wish to become surgeons in the army. I know a great many students from Alabama. That state sends next to Virginia! Gen. Lee has a son going to school here. The students have organized a military company. Gen. Lee’s son is Captain. So I have the opportunity of drilling every evening. I like it very much; it is such good exercise. Gen. Lee has gone to the coast; the Yankees have not attempted to invade So. Ca. They have taken some forts; [end Page 5] but I reckon they will soon be compelled to leave the coast. A dispatch says that our men have determined to neither ask nor give quarter. I hope this is not true, for it increases the horrors of war, and deadens the best feelings of the war heart. If they begin to retaliate, there is no telling when the War will end.

Where has gen (?) White’s company gone? Have they gone to Virginia? I think they ought to go on the Florida coast; they will have more work to do there than in Virginia. The Federal fleet has passed Fernandina. I expect Apalachicola will be attacked. Has the cotton been removed? The Yankees got some

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cotton in South Carolina.

I am very, very sorry to hear that Cousin Ben P__ has been taken prisoner! They will not hurt him unless they do so in order to retaliate. I know Little Pattie must grieve herself almost to death. There is no use for her to indulge in unnecessary grief. I hope they will give him patrol (?). Did you hear from him after he was taken prisoner?

Mrs. Mckinnie does every thing she can to make her boarders enjoy themselves. She sends for the young ladies and gives us a little party! We had one not long ago; I tell you people don’t ___ hard times up here. I am afraid you

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will not be able to get enough money for me. I will need a hundred dollars. That will bring me home. I cannot possibly get through for less than five hundred (500) dollars, including my traveling expenses. Most all the money comes to Virginia. I hope the government will get on some kind “medium.” Have you seen any Treasury notes. They are used a great deal up here. I reckon the government will give these notes for cotton. They are small like bank notes, and will do for circulation. Tell Sister Annie I will write her before long. Has cousin Pattie received my letter? I wrote her some time ago. Tell Aunts they must answer my letter. I have not written to Mary Blackshear yet. I will write before long. We have no chaplain this session. We have to go to town when we go to church. Love to all; to Aunts. Tell Little Annie howdy. Tell Jennie and Nannie I want to see them very much. Write soon.


Yr. aff. Son,
J. D. Pittman

Pittman’s description of the confused state of Confederate finances points to the difficulty the South had in trying to forge a nation out of a group of fiercely independent states.

Because secession happened so quickly, the Southern states still had to deal with outstanding issues from their recent membership in the United States. Many former federal employees now living in the Confederacy never received payment for work they had performed for the U.S. government in 1860. Some of these men petitioned their respective states to compensate them for salaries lost due to secession.

In the following petition, former U.S. Marshal E. E. Blackburn requests that the State of Florida pay money owed to him and others for work as federal census takers in North Florida. The petition lists the names of all the census takers in the Northern District of Florida, which was the former federal jurisdiction for the state covering all counties north of Charlotte Harbor.

Petition of E. E. Blackburn and Others, November 23, 1861

(Series 887, Florida Legislative Records, 1845-1911)

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Petition of E. E. Blackburn and Others, November 23, 1861

To The Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Florida in General Assembly convened: The petition of E. E. Blackburn late Marshal of the late United States in and for the Northern District of Florida, for himself and his Assistant Marshals, respectfully Shewith that he and his Assistants did during the year A. D. 1860, take the Census of the said Northern District of Florida; that the work was done to the entire Satisfaction of the Government of the late United States; that a large amount of the fees earned for the taking of the Said Census has not yet been paid; that he believes the following Sums are yet due, the parties hereinafter named to wit: himself and Clerk, by agreement with the Secretary of the Interior, he and his Clerk were to receive----$500.00 

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