1861: John Calhoun Clemson to his Uncle

This letter was written by John Calhoun Clemson (1841-1871), the son of Thomas Green Clemson (1807-1888) and Anna Maria Calhoun (1817-1875. John’s father was born in Philadelphia and educated at the Alden Partridge’s Military Academy in Vermont. He afterward studied agriculture in France and upon his return, he promoted agricultural education and engaged in farming in South Carolina. During the Civil War, he supported the Confederacy and even served in the Nitre & Mining Bureau of the CSA in the last couple years of the war. After the war, he donated land and money to the establishment of an agricultural college which evolved into Clemson University. John’s mother, Anna Maria, was the only daughter of South Carolina US Senator, John C. Calhoun.

John Calhoun Clemson

20 year-old John C. Clemson entered the state service in 1861 as a private in Capt. James M. Perrin’s Company, 1st Orr Rifles. In October he was detached to the staff of Roswell S. Ripley of the South Carolina militia who had previously commanded the garrison at Fort Moultrie during the Fort Sumter bombardment. In August 1861 Ripley was appointed a brigadier general and assigned command of the Dept. of South Carolina and its coastal defenses. From this December 1861 letter we learn that John Clemson had already been commissioned a Lieutenant in the state service and contemplated taking a commission in the Confederate army. Sometime in 1862 he appears to have taken a post with the Nitre & Mining Bureau of the War Department. He was taken prisoner in September 1863 at Bolivar, Mississippi, and was not released from the prison at Johnson’s Island until June 1865. When he was released from prison he was described as having dark hair, grey eyes, and standing 6 foot 4 inches tall—he could have looked Abraham Lincoln straight in the eye.

John C. Clemson survived the Civil War (including over two years in a Union prison) but he did not survive a train accident that took place when a passenger train collided with a lumber train on 10 August 1871 at Hunnicott Crossing where the Blue Ridge Railroad crossed the G&C Railroad in Oconee County.

John wrote the letter to an unnamed uncle but my hunch is that it was Col. Andrew Pickens Calhoun (1811-1865). All of John’s paternal uncles were living in Philadelphia at the time, and Andrew was the only maternal uncle still living in 1861. Besides, Andrew held a plantation in South Carolina (“Fort Hill”) and was attempting to operate a cotton plantation in Marengo county, Alabama, where he may have been attempting to introduce “sea island” cotton.


Headquarters Provisional Forces
Department of South Carolina
December 30, 1861

Dear Uncle,

I received your welcome letter this morning and hasten to answer the same. Your plans are undoubtedly the best I have heard and I shall show them to the General as soon as he returns. But it appears to me that everything is carried on in such a way that common sense is just one side of nonsense.

What you say about the Governor is only what is repeated here every day and in fact, there has been some talk (entre nous) 1 of impeaching him for his conduct in certain matters that I suppose are well known to you. 2 The wrecks that were sunk on the Charleston Bar have been broken up by the last north easter and our coast is completely strewn with their fragments. Schooners, brigs, and other vessels have been going out from time to time and I see a ship in the dry dock getting ready for sea. Some vessels have carried out cotton, and rice is the usual freight. I do not approve of our produce going out at all for the sooner we starve them out, the better.

Since I wrote you, I have received an appointment in the state service as Second Lieutenant and I have been nominated for a Second Lieutenant’s commission by the Secretary of War in the Confederate army. I wish I had time to run up and pay you a visit for a few days but I am so busy that I have not the face to ask the General for a leave of absence.

You do not tell me how you are, or how you are getting on. In your next, you must let me know if the sea plants are growing and the other plants. How are the negroes with you? They are very troublesome in these parts and the trouble is not confining itself to the coast but is spreading very rapidly. Many have run away as far as thirty miles from the enemy.

Give my love to all enquiring friends. Your affectionate nephew, — J. C. Clemson

1 “Entre nous” is French for “In Confidence” as you might have suspected.

2 The Governor of South Carolina was Francis Wilkinson Pickens (1807-1869. He held the office from 14 December 1860 until 17 December 1862. I am unaware of any attempt by the State of South Carolina to introduce impeachment proceedings against Gov. Pickens.

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