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Volume 31, No. 4 – April 2018


President’s Message:

If you were not present at the March meeting, you miss a phenomenal presentation by historian and author, Jack Davis.  Not only did we learn about how the 524 letters written by General Wharton and the love of his life were found, but we were also privy to their contents.  In addition, there was surprising information about the War and the history of Virginia.  Thank to Bob Franke for asking Jack Davis to speak and hosting him during his visit.

Our condolences to the family of Alan Konzelman who passed away on February 18th.   Alan was a long standing member and very generous to the Round Table.  He graciously donated our current coffeemaker.

Gerridine LaRovere


April 11, 2018 Program:

This month there will be a two part program. Janell Bloodworth speak about The Strange Life of Abraham Lincoln’s Sister-in-Law, Emilie Todd Helm.  The second part will be given by Gerridine LaRovere and she will talk about The Peculiar Life of Mary Lee, Robert E. Lee’s Eldest Daughter.  Both of these women had very interesting lives.


March 14, 2018 Program:

Jack DavisOur March speaker was Jack Davis.  Mr. Davis was a professor of history at Virginia Tech and director of programs for Civil War Studies.  He has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for “Breckenridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol” and “Battle at Bull Run.”  As an expert on Confederate and Southern History, he consults for numerous television productions and the History Channel.  His presentation was titled: The General in Love, The story of General Gabriel C. Wharton's CSA courtship and marriage.

Mr. Davis began his presentation with the discovery of 15 boxes and 2 trunks in the late 1980s.  Inside of this trove was 524 letters between Gabriel Wharton and his wife Anne "Nannie" Radford.  It was a remarkable find for a number of reasons.  First, that this collection survived from the mid-19th century until the late 20th.  Second, that they further survived for 20 additional years in a hot Florida garage.  And finally, there were letters from her to him.  This is most unusual as the things that soldiers carried were usually lost under the stress of combat.

Wharton was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, in the summer of 1824.  APGabriel Wharton Hill was a school yard friend.  He entered Virginia Military Institute in Lexington on September 1, 1845. Wharton graduated on July 5, 1847, finishing 2nd out of 12 cadets as a "distinguished graduate."  After leaving VMI he then became a civil engineer. Later Wharton moved to the Arizona Territory and took up work as a mining engineer.

At the start of the war in 1861, Wharton chose to follow his home state of Virginia and the Confederate cause, and entered the Confederate Army.  He was appointed a major in the 45th Virginia Infantry on July 1th, and soon afterward was given command of the 51st Virginia Infantry on July 17, with the rank of colonel.  The 51st Virginia was part of Maj. Gen. John B. Floyd's operations in western Virginia, and escaped with Floyd on February 14, 1862, during the Battle of Fort Donelson.  Wharton was then sent to the Western Theater, and commanded several brigades in various Confederate departments from February to September 1864. 

In March 1863 39-year-old Gabriel Wharton, CSA, became engaged to 19-year-old "Nannie,"  daughter of Dr. John Blair Radford, founder of Radford, Virginia.  From the time of their engagement until the end of the war they wrote to each other almost every day, and sometimes twice a day in the early months.  They wrote about everything—ambition for promotion, opinions of generals and political leaders, observations on campaigns and battles, the war in Southwest Virginia where she lived, his observations on service under R. E. Lee in northern New MarketVirginia, under James Longstreet in East Tennessee, and especially the war in the Shenandoah Valley in 1863-64, where he commanded a brigade in the famed Battle of New Market and later in battle at Winchester, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek.  Floyd promoted Wharton to brigadier general, effective July 8, 1863.

One of the most remarkable features of the letters is the high degree of education of both parties.  Their letters are peppered with references and quotations to current and past literature, and both stayed as well informed as the Confederate press allowed.  It is interesting to note the almost "modern" nature of the writers.  Gabriel was very much in touch with his "feelings," and did not hesitate to write about them to his wife, and at length.  Nannie was bold, opinionated, up-to-date on public affairs, and very much a 21st century woman.  Mr. Davis pointed out the way in which the reader can watch the growing intimacy between them as they essentially got to know each other via their letters during the months the war kept them apart.  Indeed, their romance was more important to them than the war, and they often spoke of leaving the country if it got too much in the way.  The letters represent a wonderful window on the war in Southwest Virginia that their letters open.  We know of no other source that provides as much illumination on that vital, yet much overlooked, territory that was the sole link between the eastern and western Confederacy.  The important family and friendship connections of both gave them ears on significant issues and operations.  Nannie's letters especially illuminate the Confederate home and community life of a well-to-do young woman in a more rural community than most of the Confederate matrons' diaries and memoirs.

To illustrate these points Mr. Davis mentioned the details of their honeymoon hotel and points about obscure poets.  The couple were slave holders and had no issues with that concept, but were often at odds with the Confederate States of America.  Both seemed to hate Jefferson Davis.  On other leaders there was a difference of opinion.  For example Nannie disliked James Longstreet while Gab respected him.  The same was their opinion of Robert E. Lee.  It was pointed out that Gabriel was ever the optimist.  He was sad after Gettysburg, but still had high hopes for the cause right up till 1865.

They concluded that slavery was dead as the war was approaching its end.  Their personal plan was to escape to Europe, but this was not carried out.  While 10,000 confederates left the country, the Wharton family stayed on.  Nannie was terrified of childbirth even after the successful delivery of their son.  Gab asked for parole and was granted same.  He went on to executive work on railroads and mines.  She ran a hotel, was an editor, and real estate developer.  She died in 1890 and he in 1906.

LettersThe story of the letters themselves is remarkable.  Their survival is almost miraculous.  Before his death General Wharton placed on top of the boxes of letters instructions that they should be burned at his death.  Thankfully no one paid attention.   Indeed, no one even knew they existed.  In 1973, when the Wharton’s grandson was contacted to ask if any of the general's papers survived, he responded that there were none.  Two floors above him in the attic of the general's house "Glencoe," where he lived, sat 15 boxes and two trunks of the Wharton papers.  They were only discovered in 1988 when the house was sold and become a museum in the city of Radford, and the attic was cleaned out.  For the next 20+ years the letters sat in a garage in Florida until the Wharton’s great-great-granddaughter Sue Heth Bell, of Wellesley, MA, took them to her home for safekeeping. 

Sue Heth Bell and William C. Davis are co-editors on the project.  She hasWharton display prepared the transcriptions of all of the letters, and he has annotated them all, providing introductions for chapters, etc., and will write an introductory essay bringing them up to the war, and a concluding essay dealing with their remarkable post-war lives as rebuilders of their region's economy.  The letters have all gone through a final edit, and at the moment are full transcripts.  We hope that they can be published in their entirety, though at 395,000 words (including annotations) before introduction and conclusion, it will make a very large book to be sure, probably on the order of 800+ book pages.   

The Wharton home "Glencoe" is very interested in this project and has already hosted a couple of events where the co-editors have spoken.  They have also done an exhibit featuring the letters, and established a board solely charged with promoting the story of the correspondence in tandem with the museum.  The city of Radford, and the president of Radford University are also much interested and have hosted, or will host, events telling the Wharton story.  The Roanoke Times on October 7, 2017 ran a three-page feature leading the front page of its Sunday main section, which provides more detail and color.

Last changed: 03/29/18

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