Category Archives: Impending War

1861: James William Denver to Patrick Henry Harris

Brig. General James William Denver

The following draft of a letter was penned by James William (“Jim”) Denver (1817-1892), an American politician, soldier and lawyer. He served in the California state government, as an officer in the United States Army in two wars, and as a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from California. He served as secretary and Governor of the Kansas Territory during the struggle over whether or not Kansas would be open to slavery. The city of Denver, Colorado, is named after him.

Though a native of Virginia, and a staunch conservative Democrat, during the Civil War, Denver would cast his lot with the Union. He was appointed a Brigadier General in the Union army by President Lincoln in August 1861.

In the following two documents, Denver expresses his views on the deepening divide between the North & South from his residence in California in January 1861, some three months before hostilities erupted. The second document, written in June 1861, is his retrospective reaction to the dashed hopes expressed in his first document and includes the rationale for pursuing his personal course of action as a Union Democrat. The first document was clearly a draft and includes handwritten corrections by Denver. The finished letter was known to have been submitted to Harris because there is a reference to it in George C. Barns’ book, Denver, the Man, published in 1949.

Denver wrote the letter to his old friend, Patrick Henry Harris (1819-Aft1861) of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, who served as a 1st Lieutenant in the 16th Regiment of the US Infantry during the Mexican War. I believe the appellation of “General” was simply a term of affection for a former military comrade. In the 1860 US Census, Patrick was enumerated as a lawyer and later District Attorney in Butte county, California, where he had been in practice since at least the mid 1850s in partnership with J. M. Burt. The last record I find for him in Butte county is in 1862.


Sacramento, California
January 26, 1861

Gen. P. H. Harris, Sir,

At your request I proceed to give my views in regard to the troubles at present existing in the southern states of our Union and the course which I think ought to be pursued to restore harmony to the country. About these matters, I have no concealments and if anything I can say or do will contribute in any degree to the preservation of our government and the restoration of good feeling in our hitherto prosperous and happy country, I shall always be ready to respond. That we are surrounded by dangers the most threatening our country has ever yet encountered, no one will deny. So long as the government was in the hands of a great national party, there could be no real danger. But when it became evident that that power was to pass into the hands of a sectional party who entertained opinions hostile to what the other section of the country believed to be their constitutional rights, it it not to be wondered that the very foundations of the government are shaken.

The political issues of the past year belong to the past, and the crisis which I have so long feared and deprecated is upon us. The Democracy have been divided in this state because they differed as to the policy that ought to be pursued in order to avoid it, and upon the construction of the Constitution with reference to the Territories. The question now presented is not what shall be our construction of the Constitution, but how shall we maintain the integrity of the Union? To effect this, two modes present themselves. The one is to insist on the construction given by the Republican Party as to the powers of Congress over the Territories and the manner in which thy shall be exercised, and by physical force compel the submission of the southern people; and the other is to amend the Constitution in such a manner as to define specifically the powers of Congress over the Territories and over the question of African slavery.

The first carries with it war—civil war, as much more horrible than the civil wars of the times of Charles V, in all its consequences, as the energy of our people and means of destroying human life at the present day are superior to what existed at the time of the thirty years’ war in Germany. The physical resources of both sections of the country are immense and no one can even calculate upon the result of a resort to the sword. If the present movement in the southern states was confined to the politicians alone, we might hope to see them checked by the conservative masses of the people, but almost all accounts agree in representing the excitement in the popular mind as being far in advance of the mere politicians. All accounts agree too in representing the people of the South as being almost a unit on the questions now agitating the community. A resort to the sword would inevitably drive the border slave-holding states to take sides with the extreme southern states, which would at once and forever terminate this confederacy.

Suppose, however, those states should be conquered. What then is to be done with them? We cannot compel the people there to elect members of Congress. We cannot compel them to exercise any right which is secured to them by the Federal Constitution. How then are they to be governed? Congress has no power to supply a government. Even then in the event of a successful invasion of the southern states (which is hardly probable), the Federal Government would find itself in a worse condition at the termination than at the commencement of hostilities.

Our government is based upon and dependent on the affections of the people. Destroy the confidence and affections that attach the people to the government and it can no longer exist. Confidence cannot be secured by merely conforming to the forms of the Constitution while grossly violating its spirit. Neither can a great section of the confederacy composing a number of states, be coerced by military force to accept a construction of the Constitution which they believe will deprive them of their rights and deprive them of their equality in the government. A small community or even a single state might be compelled to submit and give but little trouble, for the opinion of their neighbors would force them to do so, but the case in point is very different.

Looking at the subject then from this point of view without finding any solution for our present difficulties, let us turn to the Federal Constitution itself. That instrument was framed by the patriots of the revolution and was the result of many compromises and concessions. After a trial, it was found to be defective and it was amended so as to meet the requirements of the times. Are we of the present generation less patriotic than our forefathers? Can we not imitate their example of moderation, of concession, or magnanimity? Are we incapable of upholding and maintaining that glorious inheritance—that monument of their wisdom, which has been so long the pride of Americans and challenged the admiration of the civilized world? Shall we throw away everything—shall we destroy the best government the world ever saw and bathe our hands in the blood of our relatives, our friends, and our neighbors, in quarreling over abstract propositions about a servile race? God forbid.

Let us then meet together in a spirit of harmony as did our forefathers, and by mutual forbearance and concession amend the Constitution so as to meet the emergency. I have an abiding confidence in the patriotism of the great masses of the people. The Constitution has been their pride and glory through life, and their fondest affections cluster around the stars & stripes—the glorious emblem of their country. The southern people (whether right or wrong it is not now necessary to inquire), think that their rights have been invaded by the people of the northern states by a misconstruction of the Constitution—by unfriendly legislation and by obstructing the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law. Amend the Constitution & let the northern people remove these causes of irritation, and I have no doubt but the southern people would readily and patriotically respond, for they know as well as we do that united we are a great people, while if divided we would be as nothing in the affairs of the world.

The more ultra of the Republican Party I know strongly urge coercion, and seem to forget that their own conduct in passing heir Personal Liberty Bills (thus nullifying a provision of the Constitution and a law of Congress), differs only in degree from the conduct of the people of the South, while those of them here who are most noisy for such measures only a few years since took the law into their own hands and set the state authorities at defiance; but I doubt not there is a conservative element even in the Republican Party strong enough and resolute enough to throw aside false philanthropy for the African race in order to preserve this government for the white race. It is not to be expected, it is true, that those men who have been for twenty years struggling to bring the country to its present condition will be willing to yield anything, but those who have assisted them in the heat and excitement of a political canvass will pause before taking a step which must finally plunge us into civil war.

California occupies a position in the Union at this time that would very well justify her in presenting herself as a mediator, and she cannot in my opinion pursue any other course with safety. Among our population is to be found representatives from every state. The great mass of the people are eminently conservative/ They love their old homes, their old friends, and they love their whole country/ There are few among us who would regard with any kind of favor a proposition to dismember the Union and I apprehend there are not many who would be willing to have the state take part in a war in favor of the North against the South, or of the South against the North, for such an act would surely bring civil war to our own homes.

I would cling to the Union as long as the Union has an existence, but I would not engage in a fratricidal war which would result in the destruction of the Republic. By pursuing the course indicated, I believe our government can be preserved, and any other course I am certain will be its destruction. These are great emergencies when the strongest governments must yield to the force of circumstances. Such a crisis is upon us now and it remains to be determined whether we will yield to reasonable demands or adhere to abstract propositions and destroy our government.

You will observe that I have confined myself to the examination of the single proposition—the best means of preserving the government under existing circumstances, and being clearly of opinion that an attempt at coercion by military force would be impracticable and disastrous in its results. I am in favor of peaceable compromises and reasonable concessions.

Very respectfully your obedient servant, — J. W. Denver

June 1861

The foregoing was written at a time when it was believed that everything could and would be settled peaceably and by the adoption of some compromise. The South as, however, chosen to precipitate a bloody contest by the uncalled for attack on Fort Sumter and other hostile acts, thus taking the first step to initiate practically the doctrine of coercion. So long as they desired a full and complete recognition of their constitutional rights, I was in favor of an unequivocal settlement and authoritative declaration of the same; but when they declared their intention to set aside the Constitution and endeavored to destroy the Union of the States and the best government the world ever saw, I could see but one course left for any man who really had the good of his county at heart. No matter how much he may condemn the fanaticism of the north (which has been the chief cause of our troubles), he cannot approve the rebellion of the South.

My lot must be cast with the Constitution and Flag of my country. I acknowledge no divided allegiance. I am amenable to the laws of the State or municipality within which I reside, but my allegiance is due to the National Sovereignty which is represented by the President of the United States.

All the troubles heretofore predicted loom up in still greater magnitude than at first, but the die is cast and we must accept things as they are presented to us. I have done all that it was in my power to do to save my country from plunging into the gulf into which it is falling, and have, therefore, not to reproach myself with any dereliction of duty on that score. In the future I will endeavor to act as earnestly and disinterestedly as in the past, and trust to the kindness of al All Wise Providence to open the eyes of those deluded men who seem for the moment to have got control of affairs, but who heretofore have been known only by their turbulence and hostility to all government.

1861: Edward H. Spooner to Trueman Gardner Avery

March of the 7th New York Regiment down Broadway (New York Digital Collections)

This letter was written by Edward H. Spooner (1838-1888), a native of Wampsville, near Syracuse, New York. His parents were Dr. [Stillman W.] Spooner (1802-1880)—was one of the original abolitionists, and Lucretia Lydia Thorpe (1813-1888). Edward taught school for a year or two before coming to New York prior to the Civil War where he practiced law in partnership with his cousin, Trueman Gardner Avery. He soon married Frances (“Fanny”) Bush, the heiress of Dr. Ralph Isaacs Bush (1779-1860), making him independently rich.

Edward was counsel for the American News Company when it was formed which was later purchased by the firm Beadle & Co. (publisher of Beadle’s Monthly). In the New York City Directory for 1860-61 he was listed as a lawyer with an office at 4 New Street. His name appears continuously in the directories until 1882, with the exception of 1864-65 to 1866-67, inclusive, when he lived in Madison county, New York, and 1868-69, although his address was not always the same. From 1863 to 1881 he lived in Brooklyn, after which he moved to New Jersey, and in 1887-88 he lived in Plainfield. From the Registry of Voters in Brooklyn, we learn that his birth year was 1838. He left a wife and a son named Robert (b. 1865) when he died in 1888. Obituary notices in The New York Tribune, March 30, 1888 and the Plainfield Daily Press, March 29, 1888.

Edward wrote the letter to his cousin, Trueman Gardner Avery (1837-1914), the son of Jared Newell Avery (1803-1880) and Cornelia Benham (1808-1877) of Wampsville, Madison county, New York. Avery was prepared for college at the Oneida Conference Seminary; was graduated from Hamilton College in 1856; studied law with Judge Israel Selden Spencer at Syracuse; afterward at the Albany Law School where he was graduated LL. B.; was admitted to practice in 1859; practiced in New York City; removed to Buffalo in 1860; soon gave up the law for mercantile pursuits. He is a member and a trustee of the First Presbyterian Church; a Republican in politics; a director of the Merchants’ Bank; a trustee of the Fidelity and Guaranty Company; a trustee of the Buffalo Orphan Asylum; president of the board of trustees of the Buffalo General Hospital; a life member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, of the Young Men’s Association, and of the German Young Men’s Association; president of the Niagara Frontier Landmarks Association; and a Son of the American Revolution.

As far as I can learn, neither of the correspondents served in the military during the Civil War.

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


Addressed to Truman G. Avery, Esq., Counsellor at Law, Buffalo, New York

4 New Street, New York
May 1, 1861

Dear Cousin TGA,

Your letter reached me in due time & was read with great pleasure though its patriotic sentiments did not in the least surprise me. It was to be expected from one who loves his country as I know you do & I am glad to hear that you have enlisted though I hardly hope that you will be called upon to suffer the hardships that I know are attendant upon a soldier’s life.

I had a strange dream the other night. What do you suppose it was—that I had gone to the war & at the first battle met Frank 1 fighting on the other side—that we concluded we would not hew each other to pieces & so with locked arms stepped one side & enjoyed a pleasant chat while our comrades continued to fight. Don’t you think we did sensibly? A matter of fact, however, I do not believe that Frank will enlist for the Southern treason. But my dream illustrates the horrors of civil war in which cousins & brothers are likely to meet each other in deadly conflict. But this I think is much exaggerated. Peoples sympathies seem to lean very much to the land of their birth & so very few born North will fight for the South & vice versa. Therefore, I would not put arms in the hands of any of the [border?] State men. They cannot be trusted until there is no chance for successful rebellion.

I met J. O. Benett a few days since. He was warlike enough & said he had offered to take charge of Uncle David’s business if he wanted to go to the war as Major. I thought it a very good joke for I should as soon expect Uncle David would turn pastor as soldier. A gentleman who is afraid to walk through Buffalo 5 Points in the evening—Uncle David will admit it—would not hurry to face the music of bullets and shells. I do not know after all but you will have to go for the credit of the family. Do you hear anything of Henry?

As to business, I am doing something. But I think law is not going to be very good with anybody here for the next year & I expect to do a small, but I hope increasing business.

This is May 1 & there is due from you $15.62 rent & I suppose you will be very glad to have your liabilities here cease. I made a small fortune today on the furniture I bought of you which I sold in order to “raise the wind.” I sold your desk for $9, stone for $5 and the biggest thing was your chair & my two small chairs for $1. The things ought to bring more but the 2nd hand dealers won’t pay any more; and besides, this war has upset things that such goods are a drag and many law offices will be without tenants the coming year. Mr. Wheeler has the office where we were. I could have had it for $100 but did not feel that I can afford to pay any more than I am paying here $60. Law offices are renting very cheap, Soldiering may be the best business going next year.

My love to Uncle & Aunt & hope I shall see them next time I am at [ ].

Very truly yours, cousin Edward H. Spooner


I have just come from the City Hall where I got my certificate as Notary Public—not worth very much however, in this building as there are now 4 notaries it it. When I found two of the County Clerks defending secession and maintaining the novel doctrine that Jeff Davis is not a traitor & cannot be punished according to law for anything he had done, I told them that if that were so, he would be punished contrary to law. In such cases, if there is no law, we will have to extemporize a little. But there is law enough & if Jeff Davis ever gets into our hands, he will find it out. Amen say you to that.

As for my enlisting like everyone else, I felt that all should respond to the country’s call if necessary, & those who were adapted should volunteer. Even unadapted to the rough work of a soldier as I know myself to be. I went so far as to present myself to the 7th [New York] Regiment on the invitation of one of the captains with whom I am acquainted. Butthose who joined were required to remain for two years & not wishing to play soldier in time of peace, I declined to enter into the arrangement & have concluded to fight the opposing counsel only for the present.

“This going to war is no child’s play & is something much more wearing & burdensome than either of us ever endured. I have no desire to go and regret it afterward. However, I would have gone in the [New York] 7th for the war only as that is the crack regiment of the Nation & each man in it is a hero—at least with the ladies.”

— Edward H. Spooner, lawyer, New York City

This going to war is no child’s play & is something much more wearing & burdensome than either of us ever endured. I have no desire to go and regret it afterward. However, I would have gone in the [New York] 7th for the war only as that is the crack regiment of the Nation & each man in it is a hero—at least with the ladies. And besides, I am acquainted with a number of young men in it & would have had plenty of company though probably soldiers are never lonesome for the lack of it.

Father, it seems, has been urged to go as surgeon. If I was a doctor, I would go in that capacity in a moment for [just think] how a surgeon could improve himself with so many subjects to experiment upon. If I went to war, I should want to take my own surgeon with me. I expect army surgeons cut and slash at a great rate.

1 Franklin (“Frank”) Newell Avery (1840-1864) was Trueman’s younger brother. He died on 19 November 1864 in the military hospital at Keatchie, Louisiana. After the Battle of Mansfield (Sabine Crossroads) on April 08 1864, Keatchie College was converted into a hospital. Many Confederate Soldiers were treated there and the ones that died were buried in this cemetery. There are a number of unmarked graves, some graves marked with a “CSA” headstone, some with only bricks or stones. A number of Union soldiers were also treated in this same hospital.

1861: Polly (Sackett) Giddings to Claudius Joseph Giddings

An unidentified Northern Mother (Rob Morgan Collection)

Though I cannot confirm it, I believe this letter to have been written by Polly (Sackett) Giddings (1822-1864), the daughter of Thomas and Lucy Sackett and the widow of Emery Sidney Giddings (1815-1851). The “Grandmother” mentioned in the letter would have been Polly’s mother-in-law, Philothea (Fish) Giddings (1782-1868)—the widow of Elisha Giddings (1780-1855). “Maple Grove Farm” was the name of the Giddings estate in Cherry Valley that eventually was taken over by Sidney’s brother, Josiah Marvin Giddings (1812-1892). The “Grandpa” mentioned in the last line of the letter would have been Polly’s father, Thomas T. Sackett (1794-1864) who resided in Geauga County, Ohio. Polly Giddings was known to be a member of the First Congregational Church of Wayne in Ashtabula County. According to the History of the church, she became a member in January 1847. Her husband’s parents were charter members in 1832.

If the letter was written by Polly, then it was addressed to her son, Claudius Joseph Giddings (1843-1928) who was apparently in relatively poor health and living with an Uncle’s family, possibly working as a printer while attending school. Polly’s son, who later went by the name “Claude J. Giddings” moved to Vasalia, California, in the 1870s and became a banker. According to his obituary, he attracted attention when at age 64 he married 21 year-old Anna Olsen.

The letter contains a well-crafted statement that captures the sentiment, undoubtedly, of many mothers who resided in both the North and the South who saw the approach of war unfold before them and despaired that they might lose a son in an irrational conflict brought on by extremists with opposing views, drawing the “conservatives into the perils and horrors of civil war.”

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


Maple Grove Farm
April 22, 1861

My dear Joseph,

Your Grandma is anxious about you and insists I should write although my last is unanswered. There is so much excitement all over the country and especially about you in Pitts. Yesterday while at church, Esq. Abel Krum, 1 our Representative to Columbus, entered the church direct from that City with exciting war news. He went into Mr. [Heman] Geer’s 2 pulpit to announce that when he left [Columbus], Jeff Davis was marching to take Washington and probably now they were engaged with the Federal troops fighting. He then came on to our [Congregational] church requesting that our citizens would call a meeting and see who would volunteer for defense of the Southern part of our state [Ohio] where they had already been skirmishing. He had not yet been to call on his family. Returns to Columbus this Monday morning again.

Tomorrow evening the citizens meet. The cannons have been heard here this morning and again since three o’clock, the wind very strong in the east and the air filled with smoke ever since sunrise. Shouldn’t be surprised if its from the fire of our public buildings. And so the antagonist factions have succeeded in drawing us conservatives into the perils and horrors of civil war. If the fire eaters of the South and ultraist of the North alone could meet and both get whipped, it might cool off their excited blood. But here we are in a family quarrel like naughty children trying to break the Will of a deceased parent. So we of the South and North, trying to break the Constitution, having lost in a manner respect for the opinions of the Fathers who with wisdom framed it and adopted the motto, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

“And so the antagonist factions have succeeded in drawing us conservatives into the perils and horrors of civil war. If the fire eaters of the South and ultraist of the North alone could meet and both get whipped, it might cool off their excited blood. But here we are in a family quarrel like naughty children trying to break the Will of a deceased parent.”

—Polly (Sackett) Giddings, 22 April 1861

Well politicians have their plans, military men theirs, and Jeff Davis his. But above all, God has His and “causes the wrath of man to praise Him” and the remainder “He will restrain.”

Your Grandma fears you may be so enthusiastic that you may be persuaded to volunteer. I trust not. I should not be willing except you have first given your heart to God and then, if prepared to die and it was necessary to thus take your life in your hands and go to defend your country’s honor, I should not object.

George proposes to visit us in July or August and we wish you to accompany him as he will stat but a few days. Grandma thinks it would do you good, improve your health, &c. We think if you would come home and work on the farm a little, it would help your health and divert disease while this night printing will fasten upon your system. George has an engagement to teach in the institution for 10 months—salary 200 dollars. teaches algebra, geometry, philosophy, Latin, &c., and gets time to study. Commenced the 12th of April. I know you must be very busy but I do want you to write.

John Brown is in Canada. 3 Has been all winter drilling the colored people (for active service somewhere—so say the abolition friends here). The professed purpose has been to help and persuade them to emigrate to Haiti. Alfred works for Wolcott. Spends the Sabbaths at home and when you and George come, I will keep house at home and entertain you. I shall not got to Illinois at present.

Have late news from Aunt H. and C. Both are well. Carrie is so happy with that blue-eyed baby. George says Cousin Virginia’s boy weighed 11.5 pounds. How are they all at Uncle Robert’s? Have you joined society again. So write soon. From, — Mother

Grandma is bad. Can scarcely get up or down. Grandpa is doing alone. Shall have 9 cows. Have 5 calves.

1 Abel Krum (1805-1881) was born in Kinderhook, Columbia county, New York. He died in Cherry Valley, Ashtabula county, Ohio.

2 Heman Geer (1819-1892) was a Congregational Clergyman in Ashtabula county, Ohio. He was in the pulpit of the Wayne Congregational Church from October 1857 to January 1867. He died at Tabor, Iowa.

3 A reference to John Brown, Jr. (son of the martyr). The Detroit Free Press on 19 May 1861 had less than kind things to say about Brown’s attempts to relocate escaped slaves from Canada to Haiti: “That notorious character, John Brown, Jr., is now at Windsor, accompanied by an ebony-colored individual who styles himself Captain Tate and hails from Hayti. Does John Brow for one moment entertain the idea that, by bringing his Haytien friend with him to exhibit as a specimen of what Hayti produces, he will prevail upon the Canada niggers to leave a country where they can subsist by stealing, and go where they will be obliged to labor for a livelihood? It cannot be accomplished; it is beyong the power of man.”