1855: Samuel Vance Fulkerson to Catherine Elizabeth Fulkerson

This interesting letter was written by Samuel (“Sam”) Vance Fulkerson (1822-1862), the son of Abram Fulkerson, Sr. (1789-1859) and Margaret Laughlin Vance (1794-1864) of Abingdon, Washington county, Virginia. He wrote the December 1855 letter to his 23 year-old sister, Catherine (“Kate”) Elizabeth Fulkerson (1832-1903) teaching a select school in Tazewell. Claiborne county, Tennessee.

Samuel was born on his father’s farm in the southern part of Washington County, Virginia, but he was principally raised in Grainger county, Tennessee. He enlisted as a private in Colonel McClelland’s regiment during the Mexican war, and served throughout the war. He studied law and began a law practice in Estillville (Gate City) and Jonesville in the southwestern Virginia counties of Scott and Lee. In 1846, Samuel was elected to the Constitutional Convention of 1850, and then elected judge in 1856. He served as judge until the spring of 1861, when he was elected and commissioned colonel of the 37th Virginia Regiment of Infantry, and commanded that regiment until June 27, 1862, when he was mortally wounded while leading the 3rd Brigade in a charge against a strong Northern position on the Chickahominy. He died the following day, and was interred in the Sinking Spring Cemetery, Abingdon, Virginia. Of his death, Stonewall Jackson wrote, “Col. S. V. Fulkerson was an officer of distinguished worth. I deeply felt his death. He rendered valuable service to his country, and had he lived, would probably have been recommended by me before this time for a brigadier generalcy. So far as my knowledge extends, he enjoyed the confidence of his regiment and all who knew him. I am, Sir, your obdt. servt, T. J. Jackson”

This letter was written in 1855 after Samuel returned to his native Washington county with a view of making it his permanent home. He purchased a handsome property near Abingdon, known as “Retirement,” which is located at what is now known as the Muster Grounds. In the letter, Sam mentions visiting his younger brother, Abram (“Abe”) Fulkerson, Jr. (1834-1902) while he was attending the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington in 1857, where he was a student of Prof. Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson. According to his records at VMI, he had a reputation for being a prankster and wore an “outlandish collar” on his cadet uniform: the collar being the only part of the uniform not covered under regulations. After graduation, he taught school in Palmyra, Virginia, and Rogersville, Tennessee, until the beginning of the American Civil War when he entered Confederate military service in June 1861 as a Captain of Co. K, 19th Tennessee Infantry Regiment at Knoxville. His was the first company of volunteers organized in East Tennessee. He was elected as Major of the 19th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. He was wounded in the thigh and his horse was shot from under him at the Battle of Shiloh and was reassigned in the resulting reorganization to the 63rd Tennessee Infantry after recovering from his injury. He was elected as Lieutenant Colonel of the 63rd, and was later promoted to full colonel by President Jefferson Davis on February 12, 1864.

I have previously transcribed two letters from the Fulkerson family of Abington, Virginia. The first was an 1852 letter by Kate Fulkerson to her younger brother Abram and the second an 1860 letter from John Fulkerson Tyler to Samuel Vance Fulkerson, who was later to distinguish himself as the commander of the 37th Virginia. Many of Samuel Vance Fulkerson’s letters can be found at the Fulkerson Family Papers in at the Virginia Military Institute.

Aside from family chit-chat and a description of Richmond Society, there isn’t anything particularly newsworthy in this letter although I found the holiday tradition of passing a jug of whiskey between the school master and his or her students which Samuel called a “time-honored treat” somewhat fascinating. Whether this tradition was unique to Tennessee or more widely “honored” is not stated in the letter and I suspect it was not the kind of thing normally documented in writing.

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


Addressed to Miss Kate E. Fulkerson, Tazewell, Claiborne county, Tennessee

Abington, Virginia
18 December 1855

Dear Kate,

I wrote to you since you have to me, but as I am not particular about these little matters of etiquette, I will just write again though I now so seldom write more friendly letters that I am almost out of practice in that line.

By the time this reaches you, I suppose you will have turned out, or been turned out for Christmas, and of course will have given the old time-honored treat of a half gallon of whiskey and two bushels of apples. This was the old custom, and if the “master” would not submit to stand the treat, a ducking in the nearest pond, soon cooled down is obstinacy and brought him to a sense of his duties and obligations. Of course on such occasions, everyone felt himself or herself privileged to get tight and kick up a row on his or her own hook, and every row was conducted on the principle of a free fight. Of if the fight was a single handed one and was particularly interesting, the thing was conducted on the plan of “fair fight; no man touch” which was generally religiously observed by the boys and girls present; the least show of “foul play” being instantly resented by all hands present. As a matter of justice, the “master” must be neutral on all such occasions, and take no note in his official capacity of anything which is then and there done. So if the time is not already past with you, you will know how to act as becomes you when the time for action comes. As a matter of courtesy and respect, the “master” is always permitted and requested to “knock the bead 1 off the jug” by taking the first horn before it is passed around to the juveniles. After that there is no priority, but the jug goes round much after the fashion observed in a free fight.

You must write to me how you spend your Christmas, who you see, what they are doing and everything of a particular and special nature.

A few days [ago] I returned from Richmond where I had been gone ten or twelve days. As everybody did not know what I was going for, why “in course” I went a courting, or rather I went for the purpose of seeing Miss Ernest home, who lives below Richmond and was going home at the same time. But like all of my other reported courtships, nothing come of it.

I come back by Lexington and staid a day with Abe [at the Virginia Military Institute]. He and Jno. [Fulkerson] Tyler are well and doing well. John is now very well satisfied and has improved very much in his appearance, and is getting on well with his studies. They were very much pleased with their visits to the fairs at Petersburg & Richmond to which places the whole corps was marched. Abe seems to be doing well and stands high on some of his studies, particularly mathematics. He is standard bearer for the corps which relieves him from a good deal of military duty.

I was at home the other. Mother and Balf are well. Father was not there, having gone to Dees Davis. I have not yet been to Dee’s. Indeed, I have not visited any since I have been here, except to see Eliza G. a few times. She is well and has great fears of becoming fleshy. I saw her at church the other night where she had a fainting fit, and was taken home. But I think there was not much the matter with her. I am almost ashamed to say that I have not yet called on Mary & Ann Preston. I started once but found that they were not at home. There is nothing said now about Mary & Joe C. getting married. In fact there is no prospect of anybody marrying about here unless it is Jno. Kreger and Sally McCulloch, and that may be nothing but talk. [Elizabeth] “Lizzie” [B.] Hill is to be married shortly after Christmas but I can’t get her. She is going to marry Dr. [Charles Clement Johnson] Aston [1832-1905]—a very clever young man lately of Russell county but now of Jonesville. I expect I will have to call on Cousin Sally for help yet as it is doubtful about my getting a wife without help from somebody. Tell her to hold herself in readiness to help the distressed.

Mr. Parrott’s folks have [come] down on Smith’s Creek but Tom McConnell has not moved out yet & will not this winter. Jno. Bradley has not yet got into his new home.

The prospect now is that there will be a very dull Christmas here. Save a few egg-nog and hunting parties, I know of nothing unusual to take place. Balf says that the Miss Rhea’s are to be up and that I must come down and we will spend the holiday with them. It’s doubtful with me. I believe there is to be a big frolic of some sort at Estillville. I reckon it will be a buster. You know how things are carried on there. McIver has gone to the legislature and Mrs. McIver & Em are attending to the house.

While in Richmond I visited some of my acquaintances and was invited to a good many places and to a large party at Mr. Lyons, but left the morning before it come off. Richmond is a very pleasant place to anyone having acquaintances there. The people of all eastern Virginia are the most social people in the world, and enjoy life better. I wish the manners and customs here were more like they are there. They are so free and easy in their manners and so full of life.

I will not read over this letter so you must correct mistakes. Give my love to Frank & Lizzie, cousin & Jane, Miss Mary & all.

The Court of Appeals is in session here. Write soon.

Your brother, — Samuel V. Fulkerson

1 If you shake a bottle of whiskey, the bubbles that form on top, known as the “bead,” are an indication of the amount of alcohol in the whiskey. It was a common practice to shake a bottle of whiskey to detect whether one was being sold cheap whiskey—in mass production before and during the Civil War. The consumption of whiskey was far more prevalent among the youth of the 19th Century than most people probably realize. Lincoln once said that “intoxicating drinks were commonly the first draught of the infant and the last draught of the dying man.”

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