Friday, November 22, 2019

About Sister Mary

In his Civil War letters home to Pendleton, South Carolina, Tally Simpson seldom referred to his one sister, called Mary, simply by her name. His letters often mentioned her as "Sister Mary" or, in some later posts, merely "Sister M."

In strategizing with his Aunt Caroline over a likely candidate to court, once he returned home from the war front, he had noted to her in 1863:
I heard through Sister Mary of the reports that were getting out concerning my humble self. They actually had my wedding clothes nearly completed and reported that I was daily expected home on furlough for the express purpose of consummating my happiness by my marriage....

In later letters with family members, particularly when caught up in strategizing over that "Fair Unknown"—the visiting Fannie Smith, refugee in Pendleton from war-torn Charleston—Tally would resort to code talking, referring to specific individuals under discussion only by initials. Even his own sister Mary, he mentioned as "Sister M."

In one of Tally's later letters to Mary, he addressed her complaint that, when she wrote her brother, she was concerned about being in an "uninteresting mood." He responded,
it was one of the most interesting epistles that I have received from you in a long, long time, and if such are the productions of your dull hours, I must ask you to write me a letter only when you feel in an dull and uninteresting mood.

Yet, despite her own "uninteresting" mood, Mary seemed to have keyed into signals from Tally's own letters, writing that she was concerned that he was "very desponding." True, he had written others in the family concerning his assessment, in the summer of 1863, that Charleston would fall "sooner or later" and that "several other of our important cities" would likely fall at that stage in the war, as well. Despite the details of the circumstances, she seemed to zero in on her brother's feelings.

Perhaps there was good reason for Mary's sensitivity about her brother. Mary, herself, had already lost her own sweetheart, Colonel Benjamin Conway Garlington, to the war. The brother of Tally's brother Dick's fiancee, Benjamin Garlington had left for the war, secretly engaged to Tally's sister Mary. Upon hearing the news that Ben Garlington fell at the Battle of Savage's Station in 1862, Tally confessed to his confidante, his Aunt Caroline,
Never in all my life have I had any occurrence to so overwhelm me. I have felt mournfully sad, and tears have often filled my eyes when I think of [Mary's] deep affliction.

And yet, when he had occasion to write his sister after her tragic loss, his letter seemed to address anything but her current circumstances. In a postscript, however, Tally explained himself:
Perhaps this letter may not suit you nor may it be such as you would wish. But I am persuaded that it is best to make no further allusion to your bereaved condition, for it could tend to keep fresh in your mind thoughts and remembrances which open anew the wound in your gentle heart...

Mary did, eventually, step beyond this great loss in her life. By sometime in the early 1870s, she was married to Captain Thomas Lanier Williams of Greeneville, Tennessee. By the time her father's genealogy of the extended family from Pendleton was published in 1913, Mary and Thomas had six children living: Eliza, Richard, William, Thomas, Maria, and Anna.

Mary's husband, several years older than she, died in 1895, and was buried in Greeneville. Mary followed her husband twenty years later.

Though I have yet to trace the descendancy of each of those lines of Thomas and Mary Williams' children, hopefully they have some great-grandchildren left today who are aware of, and have read, Tally Simpson's letters to his sister Mary during those tumultuous times during his service in the Civil War.


  1. These letters are such a treasure.

    1. There is nothing like a stack of letters to help get a closer glimpse of just what our ancestors were really like. Yes, they are a treasure!


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