The Hour of Our Nation's Agony: The Civil War Letters of Lt. William Cowper Nelson of Mississippi

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Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2007 - Biography & Autobiography - 336 pages
The Hour of Our Nation's Agony offers a revealing look into the life of a Confederate soldier as he is transformed by the war. Through these literate, perceptive, and illuminating letters, readers can trace Lt. William Cowper Nelson's evolution from an idealistic young soldier to a battle-hardened veteran.

Nelson joined the army at the age of nineteen, leaving behind a close-knit family in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He served for much of the war in the Third Corps of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. By the end of the conflict, Nelson had survived many major battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness, as well as the long siege of Petersburg. In his correspondence, Nelson discusses in detail the soldier's life, religion in the ranks, his love for and heartbreak at being separated from his family, and Southern identity. Readers will find his reflections on slavery, religion, and the Confederacy particularly revealing.

Seeing and participating in the slaughter of other human beings overpowered Nelson's romantic idealism. He had long imagined war as a noble struggle of valor, selflessness, and glory. But the sight of wounded men with "blood streaming from their wounds," dying slow, lonely deaths showed Nelson the true nature of war. Nelson's letters reveal the conflicting emotions that haunted many soldiers. Despite his bitter hatred of the "ruthless invaders of our beloved South," the sight of wounded Union prisoners moved him to compassion. Nelson's ability to write about irreconcilable moments when he felt both kindness and cruelty toward the enemy with introspection, candor, and sensitivity makes The Hour of Our Nation's Agony more than just a collection of missives. Jennifer Ford places Nelson squarely in the middle of the historiographic debate over the degree of disillusionment felt by Civil War soldiers, arguing that Nelson-like many soldiers-was a complex individual who does not fit neatly into one interpretation.

Jennifer W. Ford is head of special collections and associate professor at the J. D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi, where the where the collection containing Lt. Nelson's letters and other family documents is held.

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On page 217 you find the bio of John Mayer. There were two John Mayers from Holly Springs, Mississippi. The one mentioned here did not serve time as a POW in the North. The record card reads "Mayhan," and while that man was a POW, John Mayer was still on record as being with the Army of Tennessee, on detached duty as a supply clerk. The other John Mayer was 15 when he joined the 17th Miss Inf in 1861, but was discharged in June 1861, apparently due to his age. His middle initial was "H" and he was the son of Adrian Mayer and Martha Lumpkin. Little John H. Mayer then apparently joined the 9th Miss the same week he was discharged from the 7th, then was again discharged on July 18, 1861.The supply clerk named John Mayer is most likely buried in Butler Cemetery, Marshall County, Miss., and his grave has an old Confederate veteran headstone.  



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About the author (2007)

Jennifer W. Ford is head of special collections and associate professor at the J. D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi, where the where the collection containing Lt. Nelson s letters and other family documents is held.

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