James and Eliza Wilson were Presbyterian missionaries to India, including what is now Pakistan, from 1834 to 1852. Their five children, four sons and a daughter, were born there. Both James and Eliza were from Pennsylvania, and most of their families were in Ohio and Indiana. Eliza’s sister married a man who became a successful planter in Georgia and occupied a place at the top of the social hierarchy there.
When they left for mission service, partisan feeling in the United States could run high – for example, the 1824 presidential election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was bitterly contested and controversial. But what had not yet emerged was what would become the defining, and intractably dividing, issue of the 1850s and 1860s – slavery. When they returned in 1852, the United States seemed a very different place, one that was increasingly not united.
Their older sons had been educated in the United States, a common practice for missionary families. When the family came back in 1852, they settled in eastern Tennessee, not far from Knoxville. This area was not a bastion of pro-slavery sentiment, unlike the cotton-growing areas of western Tennessee.
When the time came to choose sides, all four of the Wilson sons would enlist in the Confederate Army. The father, James, was pro-Union, at least in the early period of the war. He eventually became a chaplain with the Confederate army. The Wilson’s daughter Bessie was an ardent Confederate sympathizer. The influence of their mother’s family seems to have been a factor but not a complete explanation. The oldest son, Luther, for example, was educated at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, although some of his observations suggest a pro-Southern perspective.
That we know what we do about the James Wilson family is because of their letters, and each of the family members wrote a considerable number of them. The letters have been collected and published under the title of Contemners and Serpents: The James Wilson Family Civil War Correspondence. The “contemners and serpents” comes from the lyrics of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
How the letters were preserved and found is a story in itself. Theodore Albert Fuller (1909-1990) operated a retreat in North Carolina. A daughter of the Wilson’s oldest son Luther would come each summer, and she would always bring her most prized possessions with her. She happened to die at the retreat one summer, and her executor decided her prized old documents were worthless, so he threw them out. Fuller, who had published books on local history, saw their value and bought them from the estate. He researched the family and developed a manuscript based on the letters, but never published it.
In the late 1990s, Thomas Daniel Knight was a graduate student at Oxford studying American history. He met Fuller’s daughter, who mentioned the manuscript. Years later, after receiving his doctorate, Knight was offered the opportunity to edit and annotate the manuscript. The result was this book.
The volume is extraordinarily well done. The letters appear in their entirety, with all names footnoted and identified. The letters are also placed in their historical context of battles fought and other developments (Eliza and Bessie, for example, were expelled from Knoxville after it fell to the Union Army). The father and all four sons would survive the war, although two of the sons were captured at the end of the war and spent time in prison camps.
What Contemners and Serpents provides is an inside look at the Civil War from the perspective of four sons fighting the war, a daughter and mother supporting the South, and a father who was something of a reluctant participant. They were writing to and for each other, of course, and not for publication. We are the beneficiaries of Col. Fuller’s saving of the letters and Dr. Knight’s careful and informative treatment and further development of what he was given. (Knight himself found additional letters of the family.)
Knight is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley. He received his B.A. in history and classics from Washington & Lee University; his M. St. in 18th Century English History and his M. Litt. In American History from the University of Oxford; and his doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. In addition to numerous awards for his work, he is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Oxford debating Society.
Top photograph: Both Eliza Wilson and daughter Bessie were in Knoxville during the occupation by Gen. Burnside’s Union army, Confederate Gen. Longstreet’s siege to retake the city, and the eventual rival of Gen. Sherman’s Union forces which forced a retreat by the Confederates. Both women were expelled from the city and eventually ended up with relatives.