Category Archives: President James K. Polk

1849: John Wiley Gulick to John Taylor Coit

This letter was written by John “Wiley” Gulick (1829-1898), the son of John V. and Margaret Young (Wiley) Gulick. Wiley was residing with his father in Fayetteville, Cumberland county, North Carolina when he penned this letter in January 1849 (he erroneously datelined it 1848) during the height of Polk’s popularity as President and nearly a year after the close of the War with Mexico. He was married in 1858 to Margaret Jane Sutherland (1835-1879) and moved to Washington county, Texas, where he made a living as a physician. During the Civil War, he served as surgeon of the 18th Texas Infantry, reporting to General Bragg.

Gulick wrote the letter to his friend, John Taylor Coit (1829-1872), the son of John Caulkis and Ann Maria (Campbell) Coit of Cheraw, Chesterfield county, South Carolina. Coit graduated from Princeton University in 1850 and returned to Cheraw where he practiced law. In 1858 he married Catherine Malloy Bunting and relocated to a 320 acre farm straddling Dallas and Collin counties in Texas. During the Civil War, Coit raised a company of cavalry and he became captain of Co. E, 18th Texas Cavalry, later Lt. Col. of the regiment. He was take prisoner with the surrender at Arkansas post in January 1863 and after he was exchanged and returned to his regiment, he was wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga which ended his career as a field officer.

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

Transcription

Fayetteville, North Carolina
January 20, 1848 [should be 1849]

Dear Friend,

You may be a little surprised on receiving this epistle from me, but when you consider the intimacy that has subsisted between us for some time, you may take it as a natural consequence. I hope that our intimacy may not be broken by miles but that we may at least think enough of each other as to write occasionally. Your father passed through town on his return from the North. He stayed a short time. I called on him at Mr. McIver’s. He said you had gone to P[rinceton]. Before then I had not heard & that he would like me to write you. So according to promise, as well as inclination, I will make the effort. Hoping that you will have patience in reading until you get through with the above exordium, I will proceed.

You have doubtless heard of the many changes that have taken place in Cheraw & of your uncle’s death. Such, I dare say, you was prepared to hear. But there is another shade over the first. It is this. There being some misunderstanding as to the place where Mr. [John] Taylor’s remains should rest. He was first buried in the Presbyterian Church yard & removed a few days ago to be carried to Georgetown to be placed by his wife [in the Episcopal Church yard]. His body was taken up & in the charge of [John Taylor’s nephews] Mr. David & John McFarlan to be taken to Georgetown. The body was placed in the steamer Richland. Allen McFarlan did not go with them owing to a law case he had on hand which he was obliged to attend to. He, when through, started by land to meet them at Georgetown, but dreadful to relate, when the boat was [descending the Pee dee River] near Britton’s Ferry, the boiler bursted and carried away everything in its reach. The whole was soon consumed by fire to the waters edge. 1

John McFarlan was standing by Mr. David when the explosion took place. He instantaneously disappeared and has never been heard of since. It is thought that he fell in the burning mass. Several were killed (16). A Mrs. [Henry] Davis and daughter [niece] was killed. Capt. Brock had an arm & leg broken and his body badly burnt. Mr. David not hurt. What a sad state of affairs! How can poor Allen stand it? Oh! it is shocking. John was consumed and the body of his uncle.

There has been no deaths for the last two months or more. Nearly all those who went to Mexico have died. No marriages have taken place. Cotton is coming in very fast. They say more business has been done in this than in last season. Col. H. & LaCoste are about to return from the field. James Presley Harrall has become the lion of the Cheraw market. He has the name of J. P. Napoleon on account of his buying so much cotton (nearly all). It is said if cotton shall rise this spring, that he will make a great deal of money. Very little sickness.

I must now try and give you the news of this famous city. I suppose you know that I am hard at the monotonous duty of a school boy’s life & news are very scarce. We are very pleasantly situated on Hay Mount—we call it “Literary Hill.” Have a little fun now and then and a good laugh over our lessons, for we do come across some of the smuttiest that I ever saw. I suppose you have noticed in the Georgian &c. we have the two Smiths (Jim C. and Alex R.) Alex rooms and boards here. We stay in the same room & have a great deal of fun. The old coon is sitting back reading Polk’s Message—it being the first time he had seen it. 2 He is almost a Democrat & is much pleased with it as far as he has read. Don’t you think it an able & well written document? Don’t you think Polk one of the, or the greatest man of the age? Has he not immortalized himself? I think so.

Alex says he is alive and kicking and that his Uncle John’s Billy don’t grow any smaller. He wishes you much happiness and success, &c.

How do you like General Taylor? Don’t you think he is a pretty Old Coon to be President of the United States? If the northern fanatics should, from their encroachments upon southern rights, cause a civil war, would you not fight? Calhoun is a wheelhorse, is he not? He has taken a bold stand & so ought a southern members. I watch his movements with interest. If you are acquainted with David E. Smith, please give him my regards & kindest shake of the hand. Tell him if he has cut my acquaintance, let him say so & if he does not write me a letter soon, I will be after him.

I shall be glad to hear from you soon & as much news as you can possibly sed. Tell me all about the college & the town people, &c. &c. Believe me to be your friend, — J. Wiley Gulick

To; John T. Coit

1 Lawsuit testimony taken long after the incident revealed that the Richland “left Cheraw for Charleston, taking in Cotton at the landings along the river. On Sunday morning, January 12, 1849, the steamer stopped about two hours at Woodberry’s landing to take in wood. Seven or eight miles below that place, at or near a bend in the river, while the boat was underway, the boiler burst. All the officers, and five or six deck hands, were killed or disabled. Some of the passengers were killed or blown overboard…The anchor was dropped by some person unknown, and the steamer lay about thirty yards from the shore. The boat took fire, which spread so rapidly as to prevent the rescue of several passengers who were not injured by the explosion. All the cotton [1,000 bales] aboard was burnt or destroyed. All the witnesses concurred that, after the explosion, by no efforts of the surviving crew could the cotton have been saved.”

2 Wiley is referring to Polk’s 4th Annual Message to Congress (equivalent to today’s State of the Union Address) which was published in the newspaper in early December 1848. In his message, Polk wrote: “In reviewing the great events of the past year and contrasting the agitated and disturbed state of other countries with our own tranquil and happy condition, we may congratulate ourselves that we are the most favored people on the face of the earth. While the people of other countries are struggling to establish free institutions, under which man may govern himself, we are in the actual enjoyment of them–a rich inheritance from our fathers. While enlightened nations of Europe are convulsed and distracted by civil war or intestine strife, we settle all our political controversies by the peaceful exercise of the rights of freemen at the ballot box.”