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2012 Faculty & Staff News

Longwood history professor co-edits book of Union cavalryman’s letters

September 7, 2012

Dr. David Coles
Dr. David Coles

But for the formal elegance of the prose, it could have been a note written home by a soldier in Afghanistan.

"What Glorious news that will be...And then the soldiers [will] be permitted to return to their beloved homes. Me to my Dear Wife never more to leave her while life remains. I wish that day were here and I know you do too. We will have to wait."

This note, however, was written in October 1864 by Lt. John H. Black as he waited expectantly for the end to the fighting in the Civil War. Black kept up a regular correspondence with his wife, Jennie, at home in Pennsylvania throughout his service in the Union cavalry. He would have to endure another six months, during which time he was shot and paralyzed, before the war ended and he could see her again.

Black's letters are the basis of a new book co-edited by Dr. David Coles, professor of history, A Yankee Horseman in the Shenandoah Valley: The Civil War Letters of John H. Black, Twelfth Pennsylvania Cavalry. Coles compiled and edited the book with a fellow Florida State University graduate, Dr. Stephen Engle, a professor at Florida Atlantic University.

The book chronicles Black's letters, as a Union infantryman, then commissioned to a cavalry officer. Coles said it is rare to have such a cache of letters from a Union cavalryman because there were not many Union cavalry units.

"It provides perspective on the relationship between the home front and the battle front," Coles said. "It's interesting to see Lt. Black weigh the decision to re-enlist after he was eligible for discharge."

Black wrote to his fiancée in January 1864, reaffirming his promise to leave the Army once his service was up.

"I am at all times ready & willing to do my duty as a soldier," he writes. "... It is for your sake alone that I will forsake a soldier's life at the expiration of my three years. ... So rest easy, if others do reenlist, you can safely say that there is one in the Army that loves you so dearly that for your sake he will not reenlist."

Black did re-enlist as a commissioned officer in February 1864, breaking his promise. On furlough that April, however, he married Jennie and returned to war later that month. Duty to country took precedence, but didn't stop Black from wishing he were home.

"Jennie, I have parted with you six times all together, but the last time was the hardest to bear. I thought it could hardly be that I was to leave you after being married, but you know duty called me away, and it had to be done," he wrote on May 6, 1864.

Black served in the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry until March 1865, when he was shot in the back during an ambush by Confederate John Mosby's command.

Coles, a Civil War historian, can be heard on a weekly Civil War podcast broadcast on WMLU. The book, published by the University of Tennessee Press, is available at the Longwood University Bookstore and also at major online bookstores.

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