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Civil War correspondence sheds light on life of Wharton slaves

Civil War correspondence sheds light on life of Wharton slaves


A cache of Civil War letters from Radford that may be the largest yet found documents the lives of the Wharton family and gives rare details of an enslaved couple serving on the homefront and the battlefield.

Sue Bell, great-great granddaughter of Confederate Gen. Gabriel and Nannie Wharton, and Civil War historian William C. “Jack” Davis have worked together for two years to transcribe and annotate more than 500 letters written by the Whartons dating from their marriage in 1863 to the end of the war in 1865.

Co-authors on the project, Bell and Davis plan to publish a book of the correspondence, perhaps as early as 2019. Davis is a retired Virginia Tech history professor and former director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies.

Besides giving insight into war-era daily life for whites in Southwest Virginia – a region important to the Confederate war effort but often overlooked for lack of major battles – the Wharton letters give accounts of Emeline and Tim, a black couple enslaved to the family.

The slaves are given no last names in the correspondence, but are described as married. Emeline is Nannie’s personal servant, and Tim went to serve Gen. Wharton on the Confederate lines.

Bell said the couple may have been a gift given to Nannie Wharton by her parents, Dr. John and Elizabeth Radford.

The Radford family, for whom the city is named, owned about 100 slaves, according to Davis. Gabriel Wharton’s family in Culpeper had about 30.

The enslaved couple turns up in many of the Wharton letters, Bell said. Often, the mentions are mundane, with the Whartons passing greetings on behalf of their slaves.

But near the end of the war, more details emerge when Tim disappears from camp. The Whartons suspect he has run to the Union lines to gain his freedom.

“Gen. Wharton is pretty upset because he says he had heard rumors that Tim was planning to leave,” Bell said. “And so, he confronted Tim and said, and I’m paraphrasing: ‘If you want to leave, I want you to tell me that like a man, and I will give you a pass and some money and a horse, and you can go to the Yankee line.’”

Details of such an event are rare.

“We know next to nothing about the feelings of servants who accompanied Confederate soldiers and officers to the army,” Davis wrote in an email. “They had no choice but to go, of course.

“Many confronted the opportunity to run away, and some did, while others had families back at home from whom they did not want to be separated, perhaps forever,” Davis wrote. “Tim's flirtation with running away to the Yankees is therefore an important historical tidbit since it is so well described and documented.”

The letters say that eventually Emeline hears that Tim did not intend to run away, but had gone to a woman’s house and got drunk. He was afraid to come back but wanted to return.

“Gen. Wharton and Nannie decide that Emeline wants him back, so they will just forget all about it, and tell him he can come back. And he does,” Bell said. “I don’t know if he was ever going to run away or not. We don’t have that information. But he comes back, and he and Emeline end up working for the Whartons after the war.”

Freed people working for former masters was “not unusual throughout much of the former Confederacy,” Davis wrote. Emancipation gave black Americans their freedom, “but nothing else – no property, no jobs, no way of supporting themselves.”

Tim and Emeline show up in Wharton documents, even after the war.

In an 1867 diary entry, Gabriel Wharton describes an argument he had with Emeline after which his former slave quits her job.

“Gen. Wharton is writing in his diary: ‘Now I have to get breakfast myself. I can’t take this anymore. After a couple of days, I asked Tim to go ask Emeline if she would come back again,’” according to Bell.

“I love to picture that: That his former slave quit and he recognized that, wait, I need her," Bell said.

After the war, Tim and Emeline’s marriage was legally recognized, and they had at least one child together, according to Davis. "Their tracks disappear about the turn of the century, and we don't know if they have living descendants.”

Contact Tonia Moxley at or 381-1676. Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterToniaM.  


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