“I don’t know what will become of me”: The James D. Williams Letters

An Unexpected Gift

On Christmas Day, I received an unexpected and most welcome message from James Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence, a descendant of Private James Daniel Williams of Company I, has several letters written by his ancestor. He graciously sent scans of the letters to me.

Notes on Transcription

Transcribing the Williams letters took some effort. Old letters always present a challenge due to the writer’s penmanship and the condition of the letters (faded, stained, etc.). James Williams’ unique spelling added an additional challenge. He tended to spell phonetically. Perhaps he was taught to “sound out the words” (as I was 100 years later) as a method of spelling.

While transcribing the letters, I made multiple corrections to spelling and punctuation, and minor adjustments to format. A question mark in brackets [?] indicates an illegible word. A question mark in parentheses at the end of a word – word(?) – indicates my best guess as to what word the writer was using.

James Daniel Williams

James Daniel Williams was born in Sampson County, North Carolina on June 17, 1823. He married Molcy (or “Molsey”) Butler in 1848. By 1860, the couple had seven children. The family lived on a farm in Sampson County valued at $2,500. The Williams added an eighth child in 1863. [Info from familysearch.org]

James Williams enlisted as a private in Company I, 51st Regiment North Carolina State Troops on March 25, 1864, at age 40. His service record indicates that he enlisted in Cumberland County, but his letter of the same date states Captain Sloan, commanding Company I, signed him up in Petersburg.

Private Williams was with his company when it made its glorious charge on May 16, 1864, during the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. He was wounded during the battle, a flesh wound in the left leg. However, the wound must have been more serious than initially reported. Williams did not return to duty until shortly before September 5th.

On September 30, 1864, the 51st North Carolina participated in the disastrous assault on Fort Harrison. James Williams was one of the many casualties the regiment suffered that day. He was wounded and left on the field to be captured by the Yankees at the end of the day. He died of his wounds that night (probably at Fort Monroe) and hastily buried. On July 3, 1867, his remains were reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. [Find-A-Grave memorial]

The Letters

Camp 51 Regt Near Petersburg, Va March The 25th 64

Dear wife, I seat myself to drop you a few lines to let you know that I have reach the company this morn and I am well as common, hoping these few lines will reach you and children, all well and neighbors well. I want you to write to me and tell me what you and children is doing and how your health.

I had a cold time but Mr. Sloan[1] has give me ration and taken my name but I don’t know whether I will stay with the regiment. You write to me as soon as you can. We have marching orders, we will come to North Carolina about Weldon. You direct your letters to Petersburg to the 51 Regiment in care of Captain Sloan.

I have nothing to write, only bad chance but as good as I [?] to find. Tell all my people that I can’t write much yet. I have taken a [?] of cold. My beloved wife, I want you to do the best you can. You must excuse my short letter. Nothing more only that I remain your beloving husband until death, Molcy Marian Williams.[2] Write to me if you have hear from [?].   J. D. Williams

Ivor Station Virginia April the 22 Day 1864

Dear Companion, seat myself to drop you few lines to let you know where I am and what I doing. I am well at present, only a bad cold. Hoping this may reach you and children all well and doing well. I want you to write to me every fortnight with fail and let me know what you are doing and how you and children is and tell Nancy Elizabeth[3] howdy for me and all the rest of the children howdy for me. I have no news only we have been on a very hard march. We have been in a few miles of Suffolk and has come back to Ivor Station. I don’t know where we will go next.

I want you to Thomas Williams[4] in I receive his letter and I was glad to hear from him and tell him my business is just as I left it. I want you to do the best you can and I do so to get about half enough to eat. Tell all my friends howdy for me and tell Thomas and I received your letter by O. Jackson and was glad to hear from you and family and hear that you and family was well. I can’t write to all the friends. My chance is bad so I must come to a close by saying to you take care of yourself and children. Nothing more only I remain your beloved husband until death.  James D. Williams

Front Lines Near Petersburg Va Sept 2nd 1864

NOTE: This letter was penned by someone other than James Williams. The writing does not match the other letters in this collection. The signature appears the same. Williams had just returned from a long stay in the hospital and likely asked a comrade for pen and paper and help with writing the letter.

Dear Wife,

I seat my self this evening to write you a few lines to let you know I got to the company safe and am well as usual. There is nothing new or strange at present. There is plenty of Yankees in our front. I have learned since I came here that my knapsack and all my things is lost. When you write to me, direct your letters to Petersburg, Va in care of Capt Sloan. There is nothing more that I know of to say at present, only write when convenient. I remain your affectionate husband, J D Williams

To Molsey M. Williams

In Trenchments near Petersburg September the 5 Day 1864

Dear wife, I seat myself to write to you to let you know I am as well as common and hoping these few lines may reach you and family well and enjoying the good blessing of God. I have no good news but a plenty bad. I never saw the like of shelling [?] [?] last night til 2 clock before Day then still today [?] times today.

I want you to not be gloomy(?) too much about me for I don’t know what will become of me. I will do the best I can. I want you to take care of yourself and children best you can. I want you to have me a pair of glove(?) and pair of socks(?) as soon as you can and send them to me by Amos Guy[5]. He is coming home on a furlough not already(?) gone(?).

You needn’t send me any clothes for lieutenant(?)[6] says I shall draw when I need them. My knapsack and all my clothes is gone and my haversack(?) is gone too. Yankees got both(?) and all of captain’s(?)[7] thing too.

I want you to write to me and tell me how you and children health is got. Tell the children howdy for me howdy. Dear(?) wife I want you to tell all howdy for me. I have nothing more [?] to say only we get beef every other day and crackers(?) and flour bread. We get a plenty, too, all mighty hot in the trench from [?] soon as they come to hand. Please excuse my short note. I remain your belove husband until death. So farewell my Dear til I see you again.

James D Williams to

Molcy M Williams

51st Regiment Clingman’s Brig. In ca. of Capt. Sloan, Company I, James D. Williams [date and place unknown]

To Molcy M. Williams

Tell William R. Williams[8] to grow fast and come and take my place and let me come home and stay. I druther stay at home with one meal a day than stay here with all I get. Good boy  W R W[9]

& Send me how Sarah and Mary[10] is come on for God’s sake. I fary well.


Duplin County N C, May 30th 1864

NOTE: I don’t know what to make of this letter. I was unable to locate the surname “Snibbs” in any Duplin County census records.

Mr. J. D. Williams,

Perhaps this unfamiliar chirography will startle you, but I hope the surprise occasioned by it will not leave any but pleasant traces on your memory.

I guess you are aware that presumption is the ruling trait of character now existing among young ladies of the present day. Seeing this is “Leap” Year, I have with no hesitancy on my part addressed to you this short note in order that I may thereby spin out the thread of acquaintance.

Although I have never had the pleasure of seeing you, yet I have heard so much about you that I begin to feel almost like I am already acquainted with you. I have heard that you were so handsome, moral & intelligent that of course raised my curiosity to write to you and find out something more of your interesting phenomena.

You know a correspondence is a good mirror – and let me ask of you “Kind Sir” after the perusal of this uninteresting epistle of arguable worth, your feelings. I would be pleased to hear from you as early as possible. If you deem it inexpedient, please commit it to the flames.

I hope you will not think me so bold in this introducing myself to a perfect stranger. You know this is the year allotted for the young ladies, and why not allow them the privilege of selecting their own correspondents.

Very respectfully,

Pattie S.

P. S. Address Pattie Snibbs(?), Magnolia, N. C.

[1] Captain George Sloan, commanding Company I, 51st North Carolina.

[2] Molcy (also Molsey) Butler, b. 9 Feb. 1829, m. 17 Feb. 1848 [familysearch.org].

[3] James Williams’ oldest daughter, Nancy Elizabeth, b. 1850.

[4] Thomas F. Williams, James Williams’ older brother.

[5] Private Amos Guy, musician in Company I. No record of him going on furlough in late-1864.

[6] Second Lieutenant Charles Guy commanded Company I from June 1864 to the end of the war.

[7] Captain Sloan was captured at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864.

[8] James D. Williams’ oldest son (b. 1849).

[9] William R. Williams.

[10] Sarah (b. 1863) and Mary (b. 1858) Williams, two of James’ daughters.

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