Letters From the Civil War Donated to Ole Miss, Lucy Weber, May 6, 2013, Clarion Ledger
Richard Bridges seemed like a typical college kid in his letters home: He tells his family he may need more money and definitely more clothes, talks about hanging out with old friends from home and sounds a little homesick at times. Through his letters, this one-time University of Mississippi student has returned to the Oxford campus 150 years later.
Mike Martin of Madison, his sister Pat Owen of Rankin County and two of their cousins in Memphis — Bridges’ great-great nephews and nieces — recently donated to the university the 27 letters that Bridges wrote when he served in the University Greys, the unit organized by students to fight in the Civil War. “We found out that it was significant in that these were only the second set of letters from one of the original 130 University Grays to ever find their way back to the university,” Martin said. “They were proud to receive them and we were proud to give them.”
The letters are housed in the university’s special collections and can be read online. Some of the letters are on display in a special exhibit that opened recently, “Preserving Our Past: Highlights from Archives & Special Collections.” “These letters are indeed one of our treasures,” said Jennifer Ford, head of archives and special collections at Ole Miss. “The Bridges’ letters are a significant addition to our collection.”
Martin said the letters were handed down to his mother in the 1960s from his great aunt, Dot Batton who lived in Crystal Springs where Bridges lived. “I remember Aunt Dot mentioned Uncle Richard and then she pulled out this tin box. She told her (Martin’s mother), “Martha, I want you to have these,” Martin said. “Mama went home and transcribed all those letters. We knew they were special.”
Through the years, the letters were tucked away for safekeeping. After Martin’s mother died, the letters ended up in Owen’s possession. “We talked about how to keep them safe,” Martin said.
Eventually, the family decided to contact officials at the university to see if they wanted them. “The letters needed to be back where he was,” Martin said. “I really thought this was no big deal, that they get stuff like this all the time, but in fact this is only the second set of original letters,” he said.
Written in the graceful penmanship of the day, Bridges’ letters tell of his life from 1861 to 1863. He writes of camp life, asks for more pants and blankets, asks for money when he hasn’t received his military pay, tells briefly of battles and reports on his health, including not-so-serious and serious wounds. There’s longing for home when he writes: “Wealth, honor and ease are but poor things to compare with the pleasure that it would afford me just to see you all once more.”
In the first letter, written Jan. 26, 1861, before he enlisted in his freshman year, he tells one of his sisters that he’s well despite a great deal of sickness, pneumonia and diptheria, in the college and how much he enjoyed the recent holidays at home. The last letter from Bridges is one he dictated on May 26, 1861 “thro’ the kindness of a Va. lady” following the amputation of his left leg after he was struck by a minnie ball during the Battle of the Wilderness.
The last letter in the collection, dated June 3, 1864, came from the woman who wrote the previous letter, Louisa A. Smith of Staunton, Va., telling the family that Bridges passed away peacefully the day before. Smith also enclosed one of his shirt buttons and a lock of Bridges’ hair, which the family kept with the letters through the years. Reading through the letters chronologically shows how Bridges changed over the course of his service that included seeing action in battles at Manassas, Ball’s Bluff, the Seven Days Campaign, and Gettysburg, Martin said.
“In the first letters, he was a peaceful sort of guy. Then, his attitude changed to not bloodthirsty but that he didn’t want to lose,” Martin said. “The guy’s been dead 150 years, and I still get emotional.”
After deciding to donate the letters to the university, Martin said the family delved into Civil War history, trying to learn more about Bridges. They found a picture of him — “he’s a good looking guy” — in a book detailing the history of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, which included the University Greys in Company A, Martin said.
In the book, Bridges is listed on the Confederate government’s Roll of Honor, dated May 5, 1864. “He was included after that last injury so I think he was considered particularly brave,” Martin said.
The special exhibit “Preserving Our Past” will be on display until January 2014 on the third floor of the J.D. Williams Library on campus. Besides select Bridges’ letters, the exhibit includes special pieces from the archives’ blues collection, including rare 78s of bluesman Robert Johnson, signed baseballs by Ty Cobb and Ted Williams and several pieces from literary collections.
Text and Image Source: The Clarion Ledger