This letter was written by 52 year-old Charles Bingley Polk (1809-1886), the son of Thomas Independence Polk and Sarah Isham Moore. In 1834 Charles married Sarah John Le Noir in South Carolina and two years later moved his family and slaves to Fayette County, Tennessee. He moved again in the late 1840s to Jackson Parish, Louisiana, and in the 1850s to Bastrop, Morehouse, Louisiana, where the 1860 US Census gave his real estate value at 59,200 and his personal estate at 130,520. The 1860 Slave Schedules informs us that Charles owned as many as 126 slaves.
Charles’ plantation was located in Morehouse Parish in Louisiana’s northeast “Delta,” just south of the Arkansas state line. Just prior to the Civil War, it is estimated that there were nearly 7,000 slaves living in Morehouse Parish. Charles was one of 19 slaveholders in the Parish who owned 50 or more slaves. Leonidas Pendleton Spyker, mentioned in Charles’ letter, also from Morehouse Parish, owned 122 slaves in 1860.
Charles wrote the letter to his relative, John Houston Bills (1800-1871), a prominent Tennessee merchant and plantation owner, out of concern for the health of John’s daughter, Ophelia, who was married to Horace Polk and living near Charles in Louisiana. Included in the letter, written less than two weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, is a synopsis of current events in Louisiana where the male portion of the population was “full of war and gunpowder.”
April 22, 1861
Maj. J. H. Bills
I have been trying for some time to make up my mind to write, and now that I have began, I don’t know that I am doing right but trust the kindly feeling and high regard that you must know I have for yourself & family will hold me blameless in the step I have concluded to take. And if I err in judgment and may be thought meddling with what does not concern me, set it down to that portion of scripture which says, “do unto other as you’d have them do to you.”
What I wish you to know is about Ophelia’s health. I do not think she ought to spend this summer here and I fear at this particular time that Horace would be troubled to get funds to go away on. He seems to be in a good deal of trouble about it and would sacrifice anything for her welfare.
If it can be so managed as to get her to spend the summer in Virginia at some of the Sulphur & Hot Springs, her health no doubt would be greatly benefitted. We would with pleasure keep her children if she can be induced to leave them here. I write this without the knowledge of anyone but my wife, and hope if you open any communication with them on the subject, you will not let what I have said reach them. You will know best how to act in the matter.
Horace’s overseer has been very ill and will hardly be able to attend to business for a month yet. The rest of our community are all quite well and the male portion full of war and gunpowder. A fine company leaves Monroe tomorrow and another from our Parish on next Saturday. We received the news of the Baltimore fight, Scott’s resignation, Virginia & Arkansas [seceding] and so on yesterday—and I hope Tennessee will do something handsome if it’s only to show the South that Andy Johnson is not her God.
You are in a bad position. You’ll have to go north, or come south, or all our battles will be fought on your soil [in Tennessee]. But we feel very well satisfied that as soon as the Rip Van Winkles all get their eyes open, they’ll know where to find their friends.
I have a little company getting up here myself for home defense and have in the ranks [Leonidas P.] Spyker, Tom & Horace [Polk], and if you want a lot of mean sausages, send down your [“Andy”] Johnson, [Emerson] Etheridge, & [“Parson”] Brownlow—but I’m afraid the latter would [be] tough. We sent off this morning for some Maynard rifles and have no doubt will kill something before it’s all over. We raised over $2,000 for our company that leaves Saturday, and the Monroe Company had twice that given them. I’m afraid they won’t give my boys anything.
We are most awfully behind with our crops. No cotton planted yet. I have 200 acres land for cotton not touched yet and 100 acres of corn to plow, and I’m about up with the rest of your friends here. Too much rain.
Please give my kindest regards to my kinfolk and accept for yourself the best wishes of — C. B. Polk