Item #7507 [Autograph letter by a Confederate officer in Virginia, inveighing against War-time fraud and touching on various other interesting matters.]. Colonel John Warner Lyell.
[Autograph letter by a Confederate officer in Virginia, inveighing against War-time fraud and touching on various other interesting matters.]

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[Autograph letter by a Confederate officer in Virginia, inveighing against War-time fraud and touching on various other interesting matters.]

Camp Clifton, Evansport, Virginia, 10 Jan. 1862. 4to (10” x 7.75”), 8 pp., in ink, on plain white paper. CONDITION: Very good, a few short tears along old folds, no losses to the text.

A substantive letter by a Confederate Colonel from Virginia featuring content on taking Yankee prisoners; a distressing episode of a pregnant woman fleeing a shelled home; and an impassioned and lengthy attack on substitute brokers who profited off the war through fraud and other means.

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, John Warner Lyell (1838–1902) studied at the Virginia Military Institute, graduating in 1859, and worked as a school teacher in Woodville before enlisting in Company D of the 47th Virginia Infantry in 1861. Seeing extensive action, Lyell was wounded five times during the war: twice in the head, at Seven Pines and Frayser’s Farm, and once in the groin at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Returning to the field after hospitalization in Richmond in 1863, he was wounded in the left arm in 1864 at the Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia, which led to his arm being amputated. In 1864 he retired to the Invalid Corps. After the war, Lyell served as a professor of mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute, and later taught at a Kentucky college before returning to VMI in 1872, where he taught until 1890. He died in Washington D.C.

Writing eight months into his service, Lyell reports to his unnamed friend that at present it is “unusually quiet,” but notes that “one would infer from recent orders from Hd. Quarters that our Genl. anticipates an attack very soon.” Lyell discusses various matters, including Evansport, Virginia as a possible destination of Gen. Ambrose Burnsides’ fleet; the capture of five Yankees, including two boys dressed as Zouaves, who are sent to Richmond and are released; Federal steamers shelling a nearby house out of which a pregnant woman runs deshabille and is offered a coat by a soldier who looks the other way; and cases of substitute brokers profiting off soldiers and the war, whom Lyell criticizes at length. In Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, Brian Luskey details the schemes carried out by brokers and substitute brokers during the Civil War:

Brokers smelled profit, positioning themselves as assistants to drafted men looking for substitutes, town and county commissioners tasked with filling local quotas, and ordinary men and their wives who calculated that soldiering, a desperate choice among desperate choices, was a way to earn money. Armed with prices current, access to information along telegraph wires, and money to grease palms, brokers manipulated the movement of men to their benefit. Substitute brokers were excoriated and essential figures because both drafted men and potential substitutes needed information to find each other in an anonymous market for labor. … [Brokers] speculated that they could make hundreds of dollars per soldier. And they did. The fraud in this market resembled the dissembling found in other markets. … The brokers filled blank credit forms with fake names, evoking the bookkeeping and accounting fraud pervasive among commercial clerks. … They adopted the tactics of runnings of counterfeit currency, taking men who had failed medical examinations in one location from town to town until they found surgeons willing to vouch for their health and provost marshalls willing to accept them. … They were brazen thieves. … The substitute market was not a slave trade. It was big business—a wage labor market that created value for the men who managed it beyond the transfer of wages for labor. Americans found substitute brokers reprehensible for the frauds they committed upon the unsuspecting.

Lyell notes being sent into reverie while writing this letter—becoming “quite oblivious of war, with all its concomitant evils.” He imagines being “back in old Rappahannock indulging a free and easy conversation around the hearthstone,” and also harkens back to his time spent teaching school. Indicating his commitment to education, he comments: “Nothing, save the call of Virginia could induce me to resign.”

SOME REPRESENTATIVE PASSAGES

“Rumor designates Evan’s Port as the destination of the [Ambrose] Burnside Fleet and the celebrated Ericsson now nearly completed, which according to contract is to be tested before our strongest batteries at ranges varying from 1000 to 300 yards. For my own part I do not look for an advance on this place before the spring.”

“It is time that the people of the North are clamorous for a forward movement, and in order to stop the cry, [Gen. George] McClellan may be desirous of gaining a victory however meager, in its results, to retire upon, but he has not so far recovered as to be able to resume the saddle. And besides he is too distrustful to make a dash until morally certain from the thorough organization of his army, that, there ‘will be no more retreats, no more defeats.’”

“Sometime last month, we captured five Yankees who were sailing about in the river for amusement. Among the number were two boys, sons of officers in [Daniel] Sickles’ brigade— both very handsome. They were neatly dressed in the Zouave style, and very intelligent for their ages which might be set down at fourteen and fifteen, respectively. The prisoners were sent to Richmond the other day, and I understand that the boys have been released. Four or five federal steamers are always lying just below our batteries in a little bay whence they sally forth from time to time in order to fire at private residences when pickets are posted.”

“This morning, sometime before day these tugs went down to Aquia Creek and kept up an incessant fire on the battery at that place until light, when they withdrew. Sunday before last one came pretty close ashore, and fired about thirty shot[s] at the house of a gentleman by the name of Waller whose wife ran out deshabille, and although enocinte [innocent], and on the eve of her accouchement took refuge in a muddy ditch. A soldier seeing her condition kindly offered her his overcoat as a cover for her person, but modesty compelled him to turn his head in an opposite direction on presenting the coat.”

“duty here is not burdensome, but subjects us to considerable exposure for we are compelled to keep a strong guard on the river every night, in all sorts of weather. We have just completed our winter quarters which consist of rude log huts; but I have just learned this evening from a semi official source that we are to march in a few days to Evans’ Port where there are no quarters, little wood, and mean water.”

“Tho[ma]s. has too much of the martial spirit, and is too eager to enter upon active service to put off enlisting in the army long enough to enable him to go to Lexington. I suppose that he can now drill a company quite accurately. I hope he may succeed in obtaining an agreeable position in the army.”

“There is…another fact revealed in her letter at which I am astonished. She informs me that you have in Rappahannock as elsewhere, a set of men who make a business of speculating on the soldiers. It grieves me to think that, Virginias should be guilty of so heinous an offense. There is a kindred set in Stafford, who, though formerly accounted gentleman, have descended to the low and contemptible traffic of hucksterage, and by taking advantage of necessity, unscrupulously wrest from the poor soldier ‘his scanty and hard earned pay’ whilst toiling and suffering in behalf of his distracted country. Can the vilest and most abandoned Yankee who looks for subsistence in the filthy sewers of New York, rather than earn a living by fraud or industry, compare in degradation and infamy, with the set of extortioners, leeches, Harpies, aye, Vampire Bats that hover over our camps, waiting for some innocent victim, upon whom they are ready to pounce with all the celerity of the greedy cormorant. I was going to say that all such characters should be drafted and put in the van with men who would make them fight—but no, their touch would go loathsome and polluting, and the man who would so far forget the dignity of his nature, ignore a good name, in the acquisition of self, would to escape the service of country, cut of[f] a finger, and thus literally act the base poltroon. The manipulating power of these men is so dextrous, that it is almost impossible for a pocket to escape unpicked: for they have succeeded in adding to the art of stealing, the auxiliary art of juggling. They even rival the great Yankee rogue I heard of, who was so skillful in the use of his fingers as to elicit the remark from one, who had seen his thorough acquaintance with the rule of subtraction, that, should the angel Gabriel descent to earth, in order to proclaim the close of time, the fellow would steal his trump and sell it at an advance of one hundred percent before the angel could give a single blast. But enough of this. Let us leave these fellows to that friend whose jurisdiction extends over such cases.”

A rich letter by a Virginia officer composed early in the war with fascinating content on substitute brokers.

REFERENCES: Luskey, Brian. Men Is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), pp. 1-5; John Warner Lyell at antietam.aotw.org; Col. John Warner Lyell at findagrave.com

Item #7507

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