Item Description: Letter, 5 October 1863, from Benjamin Lewis Blackford to his mother Mary, discussing his transfer from Virginia to Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, his opinions of North Carolina and its citizens, his living conditions in Wilmington, a young girl he had befriended, and his visit onboard the C.S.S. Advance. Benjamin Lewis Blackford was born 5 August 1835, and as a child, was called “Benny.” At some point, he began to be called Lewis. Lewis attended school at Mount Airy and at the University of Virginia. Before entering the Civil War as a private in Samuel Garland’s regiment, Eleventh Virginia Infantry, he had worked as a civil engineer. Later he was a lieutenant of engineers, stationed in Wilmington, N.C. After the war, Lewis went into the insurance business in Washington, D.C., and in 1869, married Nannie Steenberger (d. 1883). They had four daughters: Elizabeth Padelford “Lily”; Mary Berkeley “Daisy”; Alice Beirne; and Lucy Landon Carter. Lewis died in 1908.
[Item transcription available below images]
Camp at Wrightsville – 9 miles East Wilmington
Oct 5 1863
My dearest Mother,
This is the third time I have commenced a letter to you. Twice I came to N. Carolina, but each time I have been interrupted. Until the last two or three days (in which I have been sick) I have had no moment to spare; I have been worried and miserable ever since I came into this wretched State. But I will commence at the beginning, and give you a history. You recalled that I had received orders to begin the surveys of the South Side of James R. commencing with Powhatan and Cumberland counties, and my Corps had already started, with a pleasant prospect for the winter, when telegraphic orders required me to “proceed with all hands to Wilmington.” There was no use grumbling, so we started in 12 hours after the receipt of the orders, and after a doleful journey on troop trains and 24 hours detention in Weldon, we reached Wilmington safely. Wilmington is a town about the size of Lynchburg, surrounded by low pine & cypress swamps, but still a pretty place, and showing very many handsome public & private buildings.
At Wilmington I received orders to prepare a careful map of the peninsula known as Confederate Point between Cape Fear Rivera and the ocean. We steamed down the river to Fort Fisher, and were landed with our luggage on as desolate a sand bank as was ever seen. The only redeeming point in the first two weeks operations in N.C. was that the officials both in Wilmington & at Fort Fisher, were as thoughtful as possible, and did with the greatest Energy and promptness Every thing, I asked of them. I was furnished with guards, horses and boats, and had it not been for musquitoes and starvation would have gotten on well enough. We were camped in a swamp 6 miles above Fort Fisher, and I believe the king of the mosquitoes had selected the same locality for his dinner court. I never had the faintest idea of the meaning of the word before. To sleep with door or window open (I was camped in a small house) was impossible.
Awhile before dark we had to make a fire in the middle of the floor of rotten wood and old rags; after an hours dense fumigation we closed all the doors and windows, and as far as it was possible, in the fierce heat and suffocating atmosphere, we slept. Those mosquitoes could sting through a double blanket without the least trouble. The great ocean which stretched on before us, and the magnificent surf bathing were the only bright spots in the Camp. The “Point” was not over 4 miles broad, entirely destitute of cultivated land, and inhabited exclusively by amphibious pilots; ignorant, stupid, and disloyal. They had always earned an easy living by pilotage, and they are rebels against any Govt which interferes with it. I never had any idea till I came to Wilmington of the number of steamers engaged in the blockade trade. Fifteen fine steamers came safely into the river, and two or three were run aground during the two weeks I was camped near Fort Fisher. Everything in Wilmington shows the effect of this. Confederate money is of less value there than in Richmond by 25 per cent. $12 to 14 a day is the fare at mean hotels. There are such numbers of Englishmen, officers, and crew of the blockade running ships who fling their gold around everwhere, that our currency stands less chance than anywhere else in the confederacy. The blockade runners try of course to make friends of the officers about Wilmington, and are sure to keep them well supplied with brandy segars and oranges. I dined one Sunday on board the Advance, a splendid steamer owned by the State of N.C. and commanded by Capt. Crossan of the Navy an old friend of mine; she was lying off Fort Fisher some 25 miles from town, and was all ready to go out that night. There were about 15 passengers on board, one or two foreign officers returning home, one or two government agents, and 3 or 4 gaudy Israelites, with substitutes in the army, and the gain of much villiany in their pockets; there was also an artist, an author, and a bearer of dispatches. It was like coming into a different world to slip from that desolate swamp, into the splendid cabin, and see once more a good dinner, well served, and you may depend I enjoyed it. Every day while I was camped down on the point we had some little excitement. The Yankee fleet lay in full sight, and their unsuccessful efforts to prevent the ingress and egress of the long fast white steamers was amusing and gratifying. Sometimes they would treat us to a few shells, and we made quite a collection of the huge unexploded 200 lb monsters. They succeeded in running ashore a pretty little fast steamer right opposite our camp and then they gathered round, like big boys stoning a frog, and fired at least a thousand shots through the poor little thing; I assure you there was not a peace on her hull as large as my hat without a shot hole. After finishing my work on the point I came to Wilmington where I spent two or three days pleasantly enough awaiting Gen. Whitings orders. And they being received I came down here. In Wilmington I met some old friends who were very polite to me Willy Scott of Fredericksburg, Archer, John Payne, Little &c but the town was insufferably dull and I as glad to get away. Now for Wrightsville Wrightsville is situated 9 miles East of Wilmington on Masonboro Sound, and is the summer resort of the nabobs of Wilmington. It consists of about 20 old fashioned roomy sea-side cottages occupying about a mile of the beach, and buried in splendid groves of Cypress, pines & live oaks; Our own quarters here have fallen in pleasant places; Gen Whiting was camped with his whole staff down here till about 3 weeks ago, and he kindly permitted me to have his spacious floored tents, dining room, kitchen, stables &c. My camp is in a beautiful grove on an almost grassy lawn, and right between the two pleasantest houses here. Indeed my office is in Mr. Kidder’s yard and not 6 paces from the house. Now Mr. Kidder is the wealthiest citizen of W. and his daughter the prettiest girl & the sweetest I have seen out of Virginia. I wonder if she knew I was writing about her, for, lo, the door opened then and there entered the heaviest of silver waiters and the whitest of napkins, port wine of ancient date, and hot pound cake, fresh from the young lady’s fair hands, for I have been an invalid for a day or two.
I think I have the luck of falling in with pretty girls and only wonder I did not meet some at Fort Fisher. The more I see of N.C. & the N.Cians the less I see to admire, save indeed the young lady mentioned above, and her parents are full blooded Yankees. The people are unsound. They are contemptible, they howl, and whine and cry for peace on any terms & reconstruction not as a matter of original principle for they they were perfect fire … at one time, but because they they are afraid, and are willing to acknowledge themselves whipped, and are anxious to make terms for themselves to save their property and their worthless necks. If a stranger who knew nothing about the merits of our Cause were to come to the Confederacy, he would soon decide who were in the right, for without an exception the weak-kneed, and whiners and grumblers as well as the openly treasonable are among the low and base & mean. I am outdone with these people, the soldiers are spiritless & cowed, ready to revolt at hardships which our troops laugh at, and looking forward to the time when they can be taken prisoners. The Citizens attempt to hide their disaffection by bullying about the injustice done their State, and sigh after the flesh pots of the Yankees. This is a pleasant camp of mine, and fish and crabs and oysters come to the very doors, and the great Sea lashes his crested waves, and peeps over the banks into the quiet Sound right before me, but, I would give all I have to be back in Virginia (even in the wilderness round Chancellorsville), where hearts are true, and blood is pure, and men, women & children are resolved to be free or to die.
Charles & Lancelot were both in Wilmington but I got there five minutes too late to see them. Have you heard from them? What of Eugene? What of William? I was very much obliged to Pa for his letter; it came when I was camped in the mosquito wilderness, and was especially welcome for I was miserable enough. Tell Mary Isabella with my love, not to make herself uneasy on the subject of shoes & gloves any more. I have received enough from England to last you and her for the rest of this war if it should last 20 years. The boxes are safe in Richmond, but I don’t exactly yet what they contain. I will receive the invoice to-morrow. The things are of the very best make and quality. I will try and come to Virginia for a day or two at the end of the month. I had to leave my beautiful horse in Richmond, and I want to bring her here. I had to pay $120 for a pair of common gray pantaloons nearly a month’s pay. There seems to be Every indication of an attack here soon. There are 20 ships off the bar now, instead of 6 the usual number, and I am afraid the steamers inside at this time (about a dozen) wont get out so easily. I cant form any accurate idea how long I may be detained here, but I do hope and trust to be through by Christmas at all events
Among the things I sent for from Europe was a splendid field officer’s sword for Eugene; I don’t know certainly if it came, but presume it did. Dont say anything to him about it till I find out certainly. I made $500 the other day by a small speculation, which came in very well.
Please write when you feel well enough and make Mary write; I am, I know, shamefully negligent in letter writting, but I believe Mary is worse. Tell her that I’ll give her an elegant pair of English boots for every 8 page letter she writes me. Tell Pa not to trouble himself any more about the [Plane?] table, when I come home, which I hope to do at Xmas we can have some talk about it.
My love to Peggy
B Lewis Blackford