Item description: Letter, dated 17 December 1863, from Benjamin Lewis Blackford to his mother, Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford. The letter is written from his camp on Topsail Sound, and it is he expresses his disgust with Wilmington residents, who have been demoralized by blockade running. He also describes the Kidder family in Wilmington, his difficulties “as a Virginian” acclimating to Wilmington social life and customs, and the peanut plantation where he is camped.
[transcription available below images]
Camp on Topsail Island, Dec 17. 1863
My dearest Mother,
Just as I had made most rigorous resolutions not to be so miserably defective as a correspondent in future, I find myself letting many days slip by without answering most kind charming letters from you Pa & Mary & Eugene. I suppose it must be Nature or Destiny, and there is no use struggling with fiction, or may be (which I don’t think) it is only laziness, it is certainly not indifference. I have never in my life been so thoroughly homesick as I am now. I don’t know whether it is because I am very far away, and the people are very unlike my own people, or whether it is the influence of the season, when ones heart naturally yearns toward its strongest ties, of whether it is a simply temporary weariness of the world and of my ceaseless [?] of duty, but so it is. I am as homesick as any school girl, which I suppose is not consistent with my venerable age and appearance. I have been a good deal in Wilmington lately and have become thoroughly disgusted with the place and most of the people, always excepting the resident Virginians, and my kind friends the Kidders. They (the W. people not the Ks) are the most curious people I have saw. In the first place they are eminently unsound on Politics, whining grumblers, who believe we must fall, and wish to receive absolution from Father Abraham! While they may save their purses and their precious necks. The blockage running has demoralized them, they are lost to every consideration of patriot-ism, of honor, and now of honesty – with them it is one break-neck race to accumulate money in foreign lands, so that they may be ready to run when the time comes. They regard Con-federate money with undisguised contempt, and only use it to buy cotton. In a purely social point of view they are always as bad: Three fourths of the society of W. are Yankees, one half of the remainder are Jews, and the remaining and only respectable eighth are genuine N.C. families. In such a society, you may well imagine that a Virginia gentleman find little congenial; with them he has no common stand-point; as a Virginian, he naturally likes to discuss pedigrees and trace out relationships. Wilmington society has no pedigree and you can only learn that its Father chawed, whittled, and kept a store or peddled notions way up to Massachusetts (they are not even rid of their wretched provincialisms.) As a Virginian, he naturally asks everybody to come and spend a week at his quarters, and to make his house their home when they go to Virginia, & as a Virginian he naturally thinks that being a stranger, and accredited as an officer and a gentleman doors would fly open to welcome him, whereas he finds to his [cost?] that the only doors that fly open (with a charming exceptions to be hereafter stated) are the dingy portals of a miraculously dirty hotel where a couple of scoundrels take in strangers for the trifling consideration of $25.00 per day. As a Virginian he is sure to be proud, and very apt to be poor, he thinks a good deal of himself and a good deal of his State, he admires he President and hates the Yankees, all of which peculiarities are distasteful to to the good people of Wilmington. It would be in the highest degree ungrateful in me not to except from all the above charges at least one family to whom I alluded above, though the head of it is both a Yankee and a blockade-runner. I mean the Kidders. Mr. K. came from New England 30 or 40 years ago, unlike most other Northern immigrants, he belonged to a rich and distinguished family in his own country he is very shrewd well educated & hospitable, an extensive merchant and ship owner in old times, and a daring and successful blockade runner in these, he loses a steamer worth a million dollars with as much equanimity as I would a pocket handkercheif; he is a good & liberal citizen, and though hot free from unhallowed hankerings after the old flag, he has made up his mind to the new order of things and believes in fighting it out to the very last. His sons were receiving their education at Northern Universities when the war broke out, and are there still. Mrs. K. is a most excellent old lady a notable housekeeper, and a perfect angel of Mercy to all sick soldiers and homeless strangers – Miss Kidder, last but not least, is a pearl of great price; she is 20 years old, unusually handsome and distinguished in her appearance; graceful, gay, brilliant & dignified, and possessed of a certain elevated tone and earnest-ness of character which challenges your respect as much as her beauty and grace do your admiration. I dare say you are smiling, but I am not the least bit in love with her, and don’t intend to be, but she is all that I have described, and so you would say yourself if you could know her. She admires Virginia and Virginians, is as staunch a rebel as Mary Isabella, and is as modest and refined as if she sprang from the bluest blood in the Old Dominion. I class her next to Miss Jenny Pegram among my friends. The whole family have been as kind to me as possible, and urge me to consider their house my home when ever I come to Wilmington. I wish you would send Mrs. K & Miss Sue some special message, for their kindness to me is certainly boundless, & moreover I have talked to them a great deal about you. I pray send a kind message or write a note. I am camped now on a great pea-nut plantation some 13 miles from W and right on the sea-side. The owner Mr. Nixon, who lives in the interior, kindly lent me his house & some furniture so that I am delightfully situated, and the country is altogether different from the swampy wilderness nearer town. You would be amazed to learn the enormous profits accruing from this plantation. This year he had 300 acres planted in peas, the yield was about 18000 bushels: He has on the plantation all the machinery for expressing the oil, worked altogether by this own negroes; the 18000 bushels of peas will yield between15000 & 16000 gallons of oil which he has already sold beforehand at $30.00 a gallon. Last year, what with his own crop, and his purchases of peas in the neighborhood, he sold 1/2 million dollars worth of oil, and a wonderful oil it is, and admirable lubrication & camp oil, and very fair for table and cooking purposes. Hundred of hogs are fattened from the gleanings of the fields & the “cake” & vines furnish forage for any number of horses and cattle. As I said before I am pleasantly situated; my room is snug and com-fortable and commands a splendid view of the Sound and Sea. The negroes and detailed men are in tents on the lawn and my horses comfortably stabled. My table would satisfy an epicure; Pure coffee, fresh butter, wild ducks & curlew, ham, sweet potatoes, rice & eggs & oysters make up our daily bill of fare. I am in perfect health, weigh 160 pounds, and get up at day-break every morning; I can tie my mustache in a bow-knot under my chin and am very handsome generally (see enclosed carte-de-visite). Under the head of “personal” I ought to tell you that I have won golden opinions from the authorities down here. Gen Whiting wrote an immense letter to the Bureau about me, the only unpleasant part of it being that he said that my services were indispensable to him and that he urged that I might be ordered to report to him permanently. I don’t know what will be done, and am almost indifferent. I am getting tired of wandering about in camp, and am not altogether satisfied with the Cheif of my Dept. If I am ordered to W. I shall mess with Willy Scott, if we can find rooms; but houses command the most enormous price you ever heard of. Half of an ordinary dwelling house rented day before yesterday for $6000 per annum. Scott is one of the finest fellows you ever saw, a more gentlemanly, generous, good little man I never met, and there is something absolutely touching in his devotion to Miss Kidder, I never saw anything to compare to it. She has discarded him, and says she will never marry him, but she likes and admires him, and is so evidently moved by the intensity and unselfishness of his devotion to her that I should not be much surprised if she changed her mind one of these days. Scott is a connection and friend of our fair Miss Gwaltney, and admires her exceedingly. I am sorry enough that I have not been able to send you and Mary the shoes and gloves, but, as I wrote Mary Minor, I have never yet laid eyes on the things, and think it very doubtful whether I ever will; in the mean time I am reduced to the greatest straits and can’t appear like a gentleman – if it was not for Scott I do not know what I should do. Tell Pa I am glad he sold the lithograph stones, though he did not make a very good bargain; as I offered and urged him to take some time ago $a/5.00 a piece for them. Ask him to give Mary Beth $10.00 as a Christmas gift from me and the rest to Peggy (I believe there was $18 left after paying Seabury). I was much pleased to get Mary’s letter, and I believe it was that that made me so homesick. I especially regret missing the two Marys as she calls them, and hope I may have a chance to visit Miss G. one day yet. I got Eugene’s letter too and will answer soon. Tell Pa that I sent his letter to Uncle Jem without trouble, and can send any & as many as you wish. I have written to Uncle Jim the name of a friend in Nassau under cover to whom he can send letters to any of us. Tell Mary that I went to see John Payne & his wife as soon as they came, and had a long talk about home and home-folks. They are very comfortably settled as boarders at Mr. Repiton’s.
I saw Mr. Tom Ball of Columbia the other day, who pressed me to come and see him, and spoke very affectionately of you. Please let me know where Lanty is and what is his address. I have felt uneasy about him for some time. If I am ordered to report to Gen. W. for permanent duty, the first thing I will do will be to get a long leave. Did I tell you that I have succeeded in getting my horses safely down here? Don’t forget to write the note to Mrs. K. Please give mt very best love and affectionate Christmas salutations to each and every member of the family, and to the stranger that is within the gate, & especially to Sister Sue. Believe me, dear Mother, you devoted son,
B. Lewis Blackford