Every once in a while, I commit the cardinal sin of cataloging: I read a single letter all the way through. Since our goal is to publish as much of the collection as possible, this isn’t very reasonable. But this week, something caught my eye, and I did just that.
I was working on the papers of John P. Gillis—Wilmington native, commodore in the U.S. Navy, and veteran of the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. The collection contains assorted documents kept by Gillis from 1825-1873. The letter that caught my attention was signed “R. Semmes.” A bit of internet research confirmed this was Raphael Semmes, officer in the U.S. Navy who served with Gillis during the Mexican-American War and who resigned his post in early 1861 to join the Confederate forces. It turns out we have two letters from Semmes to Gillis in our collection, dated January 29, 1861 and February 11, 1861. Considering the timing and what I’d just learned about Semmes, I took a closer look…
A major theme of this first letter is Semmes’s fear that the Union has been lost for good. He writes, “In a comparatively short life time…we have almost doubled our proportion and material wealth; but all, as it would seem, to no purpose, since this great Union is now fast disintegrating, and is, beyond all peradventure, I think, doomed!” He laments the loss of patriotism and virtue of the American people, accusing them of being arrogant and too politically divided.
Semmes openly confesses his Confederate sympathies, foreshadowing the major decision he made just weeks later. He discusses the recent election of Abraham Lincoln, who he believes was “elected wholly by the North to govern the South.” He concludes the letter on an ominous note, writing to Gillis, “I fear you will never go to sea under the old confederacy. You will probably have your command under the fragment of the government which will be left; if you elect to abide by it, and if it should fall to my task, old friend, to take you prisoner by and by, I will deal with you very kindly.”
The second letter discusses the death of a mutual Navy friend. Semmes recalls his last meeting with Edward G. Tilton, only hours before he committed suicide. He writes, “I have never had anything to shock me so much in the whole course of my experience.” He goes on to report that Tilton had suffered from Chagres fever three years earlier, and although he recovered physically, the illness altered his brain. According to Semmes, his doctor attributed the “fit of mental derangement” to “nervous apprehension arising out of the troubled state of the country.” This apparently caused Tilton to entertain delusions that his friends had turned on him and that his family was unsafe.
The first striking thing about the correspondence is that the friendship between Semmes and Gillis survived at all. We don’t have the letters from Gillis, so we miss the full conversation here; but it’s enough to suggest that the two remained close. The other intriguing part is how the issues of 150 years ago are the very things we grapple with today: political divisiveness, the questionable future of the country, mental illness, and depression. I’ve written about this many times, but I think it’s so important in maintaining perspective about our world today.