1861: Mary C. Stewart to Sarah Elizabeth Russell

Libby Russell, ca. 1855

This letter was penned in June 1861 by a young school teacher who signed her name “Mary.” The content of the letter suggests to me that she was actually from the same same village as the young woman she was writing to which was her friend, Sarah Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Russell (1834-1925), the daughter of Luther Russell (1802-1878) and Polly E. Russell (1806-1896) of Streetsboro, Portage county, Ohio. The 1860 US Census for Streetsboro reveals a school teacher by the name of Mary C. Stewart (b. 1832) who was single and living with her parents. Since it was not uncommon for school teachers to leave their hometowns and teach in rural school districts while boarding with families of the students, my hunch is that this letter was written by Mary C. Stewart though of course I cannot confirm that by anything in the letter.

Mary’s patriotic envelope and stationery immediately arrest the eye but what is most interesting and appropriate is the postmark “Freedom, Ohio” given the content of her letter. Written prior to any major battle, Mary’s letter foreshadows the “blighting scourge” that is about to descend on the Nation, delivering “horror and despair” to the mothers and sisters who are already “shedding bitter tears over loved ones that have left them for the battlefield.” Mary lays the cause of the war on the evil “Slavery!” but also expresses her belief that the “agitators” (abolitionists) are as much to blame for sparking the war because they “sought at once” to eradicate the evil rather that trust that task to God.

The recipient of this letter (Libbie) never married. Her younger sister, Helen M. Russell (1841-1881), was betrothed to Corp. James (“Jimmie”) Fitzpatrick of Co. D, 104th OVI. He was shot in the head in the fighting near Dallas, Georgia on 28 May 1864 and died two days later.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent.]


Addressed to Miss Libbie Russell, Streetsboro, Portage County, Ohio
Postmarked Freedom, Ohio, July 1 [1861]

Freedom [Portage county, Ohio]
June 21, 1861

Dear Libbie,

Your kind letter was received long since and would ere this have been answered had not time laden with its many duties sped so swiftly onward giving me no opportunity to perform the pleasant task of writing to you.

I am teaching. Have a pleasant school of about thirty scholars. Plenty to do have I not? Yes, I find no time to loiter by the way to cull the flowers of ease and pleasure. Tis well for to the clarion call of duty so we owe strength of purpose and earnestness of life. Rousing the soul from its lethargic slumber and thrilling its inmost recesses, it breaths an inspiration that bids us, “do and dare”—noble things. I love to think of the many hearts that have responded to this call and gone forth to gladden the world by their deeds of love, silently and patiently they tread the uneven places, evincing that spirit of self forgetfulness that seeks not its own.

In the unwritten history of such lives, is a moral heroism, unequaled by many whom the world calls great, and I doubt not that in the day of final judgment, hearts that have thus lived and suffered will have won the brightest crown.

There is Libbie now but one topic of conversation in our little village. “War” is on every tongue. Mother and sisters are shedding bitter tears over loved ones that have left them for the battlefield. Is it true that the war-cry is sounding throughout our land? That our nation, once so prosperous. is to be visited by such a blighting scourge, making desolate our homes and spreading horror and despair all around? To me it seems like a fearful dream. I cannot realize it.

Our glorious Union, purchased by the brave heroes of ’76—gone forever. And what has been the rock upon which it has been wrecked? Slavery! a fearful evil that has ever been a dark stain upon our nation, and now threatens to prove its overthrow. The subject of slavery has been agitating the political world for many years and I can but think that many of the agitators have lost sight of that declaration—“Vengeance in mine. I will repay saith the Lord.” In their mistaken zeal they have sought at once to utterly eradicate an evil—that time and the power of which is ever on the side of right can alone destroy. Evils exist all around us over which we may weep and pray, and yet they be not removed. We can only commend our cause to God, believing that in His own time He will remove them. The question of slavery and all party distinctions are now forgotten in the desire to “save the Union” and I trust that it may yet be preserved, that the stars of our national banner may never be diminished but sustained by the brave descendants of the patriots of ’76—may continue to float proudly over our land. May God speed the right.

Oh Libbie, I want to see you “so bad” and all your friend at home. Present my kind regards to them and Helen. Tell her that I think of her often. May God bless her in her labors and make her useful in training the tender mind of youth.

Give my love to the Miss Combs. Tell Addie I do want to write to her but cannot find time. My love to Nancy Russell and tell her that she need not be surprised if she should receive a letter from me for I am thinking of writing. Libbie, please write soon—very soon. I have enclosed a letter to the scholars which Hellen will please give them. Also a note to Addie and Emma Patterson. When will [you] visit me Libbie? Ever your friend, — Mary

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