1862: Unidentified to James Reed Burchett

Not holding back, this vitriolic attack on James Reed Burchett of Salem, Virginia, reveals just how cruelly some citizens—or soldiers suspected of “playing off”—could be treated if they did not pick up the musket in the defense of their country’s “rights.” I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed in letters by Union soldiers but this is the first time I’ve seen it written by a soldier wearing the butternut.

Military records indicate that James R. Burchett enlisted on 4 June 1861 at Salem in Co. E, 42nd Virginia Infantry, but he was mustered out six weeks later at Lynchburg. James died single at the age of 25 on 28 August 1864 while attending school at Roanoke College. The cause of death was said to be typhoid fever. His death record identifies him as “Soldier and Student.”

The letter is not dated by I suspect it was written sometime in 1862 as that was the first year that the Confederate government introduced the draft.

[This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and is transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Mr. Burchett,

As I sit musing upon the past, my thoughts settled upon one prominent subject and that was of you not taking a part in defense of our country’s rights. I am indeed truly sorry that the Southern Confederacy holds such as you. I have heard of you frequently, You talked very extravagantly when the first volunteers were called out. To hear of you, I thought you would be the first to go into service. But alas! it was all talk.

It was thought when the militia was called, you would certainly be dragged out. But you even lied out of that. I declare, it is shameful. I understand you were almost frightened to death when the militia was called out. How are you getting along by this time? But I suppose very well since you have led enough to get a discharge. It surprised me when I heard that you fitified 1 (Poor soul, how I pity you. I fear you will have to be sent to the lung asylum).

As for my part, I would rather be a soldier than to have every person, old and young, pointing at me and shunning my company whenever they possibly could do so. I suppose you have not forgotten the time when you visited Manassas & there was not noticed by even your old schoolmates, and when asked to join that company your reply was you was going to volunteer & I suppose did. But after joining a company you got some unprincipled person to go to the physician & lie you off (a disgraceful act). I would much rather gone into the army than to lie out and have everybody in the country laughing about such shameful acts.

But I do not suppose you care for anyone. I reckon you think nothing won’t make against such a wealthy intelligent young man as you think you certainly are. I swear that you are the only person that thinks of your qualification as being anything more than any fitifed other persons. I have heard it spoken of as if you was going to marry soon. I hope you will get a lady that will take care of you when in your insane condition. Some say that they think if you would of told the [Draft] Board that you was going to marry that would of been a better excuse. If will so allow me as I am anxious to hear from you to ask it of you, how many fits have you had lately. It is reported in camp that you have gotten entirely over them. I hope it may be true as I received a letter some time since and in that letter a person that knew you well told me that your disease was a hereditary one—that she knew your grandma and she was in your fix—that is, she had something of the same nature as you have—spells of insanity. I hope when you get married, you will come out and try the Yankees a shot or two.

If you ever have an idea of joining any company, I would be glad if you would join this company as there are several of your friends that belong to this company that will take care of you if you should have any of your fits in their presence. I will advise you to marry if you have a chance to do so for after the war is over & peace is made and we all get home, some of the boys will try to cut you out & as you say you have spasms, they probably would take the advantage of you in some way or another. As you know, some persons will take the advantage of a poor, fitified person as you profess to be.

As I fear my letter will not be interesting, I will close by sending your dearest dear my never dying respects & love. One of your old friends. Yours respectfully. [no signature]

Write soon as I wish to hear from you.

1 Afflicted with fits.

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