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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The Perry family's intimate letters

by Tom Dillard | June 13, 2021 at 8:52 a.m.

Last week I wrote about Dr. Charles Brackett, a Union Army physician stationed in eastern Arkansas before his untimely death of disease at age 38. Dr. Brackett was a prolific letter-writer with strong opinions and kept a journal, resulting in a fascinating account of his two years in Arkansas.

This week I want to take a look at a Confederate officer from Texas, Theophilus Perry, who was stationed in Arkansas and Louisiana about the same time Dr. Brackett was writing letters home to Indiana. Perhaps more importantly, his wife, Harriet Person Perry, wrote often and was remarkably open in discussing intimate matters as she tried to carry on and raise a child, bury a young daughter, have a son, and stay sane in a threatening world.

Both Theophilus and Harriet came from prosperous North Carolina planter families. Theophilus (he did not go by Theo or another nickname) was born Feb. 5, 1833. He attended a private school in North Carolina, then graduated from the University of North Carolina.

In college he developed a reputation as an orator--able to produce "a thrilling effect without a gesture." Harriet, three years younger than her husband, grew up in a large and close family. She attended Raleigh Female Classical Institute, a sort of finishing school popular with the daughters of Southern aristocrats.

After graduating from UNC, Theophilus relocated to Marshall, Texas (Harrison County), adjoining Louisiana and close to his father's large plantation. In 1856 he opened a law office in Marshall, and soon his father gave the fledgling lawyer 130 acres of land and 10 slaves. As was typical of his class, Theophilus returned to North Carolina to find a wife.

Theophilus and Harriet, who were distant cousins, married in February 1860, and set up housekeeping in Marshall with the aid of eight enslaved people. The couple had a happy marriage from the beginning.

On one occasion, having finished a large meal, Theophilus stated: "The desert [sic] you sent me [at his office] was excellent. The tart was very good, but as for the apple pie, allow me to say that I think the French Cooks might learn a profitable lesson in your kitchen."

Harriet was an avid gardener with more than 30 varieties of roses alone. This wedded bliss was not destined to last as civil war loomed.

Theophilus, who was not an avid secessionist, did not volunteer for Confederate service immediately, waiting more than a year until the Richmond government instituted conscription. Meantime, his daughter Martha was born, making his departure for the war doubly difficult. Apparently he did not try to hire a substitute, then a common practice for those who could afford it.

Accompanied by his Black "servant" Norflet, Theophilus joined the 28th Texas Cavalry, a regiment organized near Marshall by Col. Horace Randal, a 29-year-old alum of the U.S. Military Academy. His initial unit was a company of lancers: "We will [be] armed with a britch [sic] loading carbine, pistols, and a lance 10 feet long."

Harriet was devastated by their separation, made worse by the impending birth of another child. She did not like being pregnant, a fact she let her husband know on more than one occasion. In an Oct. 4, 1862, letter to Theophilus she wrote of planning to see a doctor about her advanced pregnancy: "I should like for him to get it so much--I must go soon, for I am past all decency even now ... I expect to have twins."

Yet she was still weeks from delivery. On Christmas Eve 1862 Harried delivered an almost 9-pound son whom she named Theophilus.

Harriet's mood grew worse as daughter Martha failed to thrive. By January 1863, "Sugar Lumpy's" condition worsened to the point that a borrowed slave nurse, "Aunt" Betsey, was administering both calomel and opium. In August 1863, Martha died.

A grim situation grew worse a few weeks later when two of Harriet's brothers died from earlier battlefield wounds. Theophilus' brother Hugh was severely wounded at Gettysburg, though he survived.

Meantime, Theophilus was detached from his unit and given quartermaster duties which took him to Little Rock in November 1862. He stayed at the famed Anthony House hotel, which was filled with legislators and delegates to a Masonic meeting, and had to sleep on the parlor floor, "but rested very well."

At breakfast, coffee "was given to me in a small bowl, a little larger than our big cups. I took two bowl's full."

Theophilus saw very little battlefield action. In late 1862, his unit tried to relieve the Confederate forces trapped at Fort Hindman near Arkansas Post, but got there too late. He was then ordered to build an eight-mile road south from Pine Bluff to White Sulphur Spring, where Confederate planners intended to establish a large storage depot.

On April 25, 1863, Theophilus' brigade set off to the sound of a military band, bound to provide relief to the embattled Confederate river city of Vicksburg, Miss. Again, Theophilus' unit was held in reserve, though he was close enough to hear the cannons.

The 28th Texas Cavalry spent the winter of 1863-64 encamped near Marksville, La. While stationed there, Theophilus witnessed "some trading" with the enemy, especially in exchanging cotton for needed supplies.

Theophilus' luck ran out on April 9, 1864, when Confederates were fighting desperately to keep Union forces from capturing northern Louisiana and opening Texas for invasion--what became known as the federal Red River Campaign. While leading his company of now-dismounted cavalry, Theophilus received a leg wound which required amputation. He lived another eight days, probably dying of infection.

Eventually the widow Perry moved back to her family home in North Carolina. Historians owe her and other family members a great debt for preserving the Perry family letters. The value of this collection is in the rich commentary on subjects ranging from hog killing (Harriet took credit for butchering a dozen hogs, though she does admit that an enslaved woman did the actual work) to the devaluation of Confederate money. However, it is Harriet's willingness to discuss personal matters openly which make her letters so valuable.

She openly wrote of the taboo subject of breastfeeding, which had been difficult: "... he [baby Theophilus] is very fat & large--I give the greatest quantity of milk as much again as I did before ... he nurses a great deal & my breasts are always full, often painful ..." The letters are unclear, but one of the enslaved servants possibly served as a wet-nurse for a time.

In 2000, the UA Press published the letters in a volume titled "Widows by the Thousands: The Civil War Letters of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862-1864," expertly organized and thoroughly annotated by historian M. Jane Johansson. It is still in print.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

CORRECTION: The UA Press published "Widows by the Thousands: The Civil War Letters of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862-1864." An earlier version of this story misstated the title. In addition, an incorrect photo was used to illustrate this story.

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