In the spring of 1861, young men march off to war from a hundred cities and towns between the mountains and the sea. Their greatest fear is that the war will be over before they can win their share of glory.
They parade off to mustering camps outside Raleigh and Wilmington like knights en route to a tournament, set on winning the hearts of their beloveds through daring feats on a field of honor.
They are ignorant of death and maiming. They haven’t felt the hollow weakness of hunger. They haven’t suffered the leveling epidemics of measles, typhus, and malaria.
In camp, they enjoy the novelty of living in tents and roughhousing with comrades. After a long day of drill, at night by candelight, they write romantic letters home to their wives and sweethearts, their affection sharpened by separation. Their women reply with flowery assurances of undying love, admonitions to be brave but to be safe — as if the two could ever coexist on a battlefield.
They are all playing at the melodrama of grief, thrilled by the frightful prospect of violence and sudden death.
The thrill is titillating, because they do not yet believe in death.
But their romantic idyll doesn’t survive the summer of 1861. When the armies collide in the bloody melee at Manassas, a rail junction in Virginia, with terrible carnage, it turns out that there is no honor in cannon fire, and no glory on the surgeon’s sawhorse table.
Soon the letters take on a different cast. The men are no longer volunteers but conscripts.
One of them is Francis Marion Poteet, a farmer, miller, and carpenter from Dysartsville in McDowell County. Francis Poteet knows about death: among his other trades, he is a coffin maker.
He is named for the fabled Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” who bedeviled Lord Cornwallis’s redcoats in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But unlike his namesake, Francis is no firebrand. When war darkens the country, he is a settled family man, happily married to the love of his life, Martha Hendley Poteet.
Pain of separation
In the fall of 1863, when he is conscripted into Company A, 49th Regiment of North Carolina Troops, he has been a husband for 16 years and a father for almost as long, with a houseful of children.
There is nothing remarkable about him. He is tall and broad, with a plain country face, kind eyes, and a chin beard. He looks like what he is: a steady man of limited schooling who works with his hands.
Martha is pretty enough, but no beauty. She is slight of build, a practical woman used to the hard daily work of caring for husband and children, household and farm. When her husband marches off to join the war, she is newly pregnant with their 10th child.
Francis and Martha are fiercely attached to one another. She does not cheer her husband off to war. She accepts the inevitable, that by law her husband’s body is now the property of the Confederate States of America to dispose of as it pleases.
Francis is 36 years old, long past the age when living in tents and marching on dusty roads could ever seem a lark. Scarcely a month after being conscripted, on November 3, 1863, Francis writes Martha from Kinston, “Sumtimes I think that I Will Runaway … Tha is Eight or ten will Come With me any time that I will.”
He goes on, “you Rote that if I could be at home to go with you to the shucking that you would be very glad. If I could I would give Ever thing that I am worth to be with you …”
Before another week passes, he writes again: “it seems to me that my heart will Breake when I think of you and the little Children.”
After more than two years of war, rations are thin and hardship is routine, and hunger sharpens his longing for home. He writes on November 15, “I want you to send me sum tobacco … and send me sum unions sum pork if you had it and Bake Me sum cakes, you now what to send as well as I can tell, you don’t know how bad that I want to see you and My little babes.”
He sends Martha a ring that he made, for she has been constantly on his mind since he left home. He confesses, “I have shed many ateare sence that time.”
Near the end of the month, like so many in his company, he has fallen ill. He writes, “I have got A very Bad Cold and A very Bad Cough. My Dear Wife I cant tell how much I would give to be at home this morning to go With you to Preachin and stay with you as long as I live.”
As hard as the separation is for a man who yearns for nothing more than ordinary life with his family, other troubles intrude as well. Those who owe him money for services rendered have not paid, and Martha sorely needs the cash for food. He complains that he ate only corn bread for breakfast and that crackers now cost a dollar a dozen. “I want you to tell Joseph Landis to pay you for them coffins,” he exhorts her. The very paper on which he writes his letter cost him 30 cents, and his army pay never arrives.
And there’s worse. Without an income, Martha has been threatened with eviction, her family’s place to be given to a paying renter. In barely concealed anger, Francis writes, “if I had of bin at home when Bill Rented you out of house and home I think that I would of heart him and I Dont now but what I will yet.”
Again, he rankles at the law that keeps him in the army fighting for a cause that is not his own, wishing with all his heart to be back with Martha. “I dont now what to doo if I was to come home and then tha catch me. then I would have to go back but I think that I will try it sumtime.”
Unlike so many women left behind, Martha does not use her letters to boost her husband’s fighting spirit. To the contrary, her letters throb with heartache and the fear of not being able to provide for their children. Between the lines, she all but begs Francis to desert the army and rejoin his family, who is in dire need of him.
When he learns that his 13-year-old son Alvis is deathly ill, he does just that. At Weldon, he slips away, travels west across the Piedmont, beyond Morganton, to Martha. He arrives at the bedside of his dying boy and remains at home for just eight days — long enough to bury him. If leaving his family the first time was hard, now it will prove excruciating.
But he does what he thinks is right: in January, he returns to his unit.
When Francis reports for duty on January 12th, he is arrested and confined to the guardhouse to await court-martial. In the dark days since Gettysburg, Confederate troops have been deserting the Confederate ranks by the thousands. To restore discipline, the generals have begun executing deserters who are caught, even those who are “captured” returning to their units.
Francis Marion Poteet now faces execution for the crime of leaving his company to visit his dying child.
Martha is puzzled and angry that her husband has been arrested. “I thought wen a man went back with in themselves they did not put them in the gard house but George Taylor told he tuck you up and is to get thirty Dollars of your wages and I suspect that is the reason of you being punished. It is just one month today sins our little son died. And I don’t think they ought to blame you for coming home to see him Die …”
For reasons that go unrecorded, Francis’ life is spared. He is sentenced to serve four months hard confinement at Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond — a converted tobacco warehouse notorious for the sadistic brutality of the guards, crowded living conditions, and rampant disease.
It is the low point of their married lives.
While Francis struggles to stay alive in prison, Martha faces enemies of her own back in McDowell County, where she is nursing a sick baby whom she does not expect to live long. Worst of all, the community is no longer safe from looters. Martha writes, “I went to the Cross roads last Saturday and got two dollars worth of salt and Sunday Night somebody stole about half of it and about a half bushel of beans and they hav taken a heap of my corn.”
And Martha is fighting eviction by her landlord Bill Cowan, who warns her that even if she will not leave, he will not allow her to work the fields or plant so much as a kitchen garden.
Martha is a strong woman, but now she comes close to breaking. “I told you when you left I was left to the Mercy of the people there is about as much mercy shown me as a dog would show apeace of meat but I hope it wont always be so.”
Safe and blessed, at last
In May 1864, Francis is released from Castle Thunder in time to rejoin his regiment in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia. Martha writes him to let him know their four-week-old baby daughter, whom he has never laid eyes on, is now doing better — what would he like to name her?
More pressing is the condition of the farm she has sown with wheat, thanks to the kindness of a neighbor. She implores Francis, “I would like for you to show this to your Capt and tell him if he pleases to let you come home a few days the first of July to take Care of it for me. I have about 8 bushels sowed and no person to cut a straw of it.”
In the trenches of Petersburg, Francis endures constant bombardment and skirmishing. He reports that he is nearly broken from the trials of battle, imprisonment, illness, and constant hunger. Fifty thousand comrades in the trenches and surrounding garrisons share the same plight.
By August he is in a hospital, fighting off camp measles and swollen legs, hoping to get a furlough home. The furlough is denied. By October, he is subsisting on a quarter pound of meat per day, along with a handful of flour. Soon even that will stop. He has received no pay since January. The rumor is that General Lee can’t hold Petersburg and they will soon evacuate the city. Francis’ morale, already low, sinks to dark resignation.
He does not expect to survive the war.
On October 6, 1864, Martha writes a desperate, rambling letter: “My grief and troubles is Moor than I can bear. if you dont get to come I dont know what will become of Me and the children … My heart is so full I cant think of what I ought to. oh God have Mercy on My husband and children and my self. Spar our lives to meet in this world once moor the 12th day of this Month is a year that we hav bin parted and it seems all most a life time. do the best you can keep out of them fights as much as you can … I would tell you Moor than I can write some times.”
In another undated, distracted letter penned on both sides of a sheet of foolscap, she breaks the awful news that their baby has died. She never mentions the baby’s name.
By Christmas 1864, Francis is subsisting on five hard-tack crackers a day — no meat. His shoes are falling apart. His hips and knees ache from the cold and damp. In a recurring dream, Martha visits him and offers comfort. Often in the dream, he is badly wounded in the hips.
The rumors prove true: Lee can’t hold Petersburg. After 10 months of trench warfare and a horrific slaughter, the city surrenders on April 3rd, and Richmond follows. A few weeks later, at long last, Francis Marion Poteet returns to his wife, Martha.
In the years to come, she bears him two more daughters. He opens a gristmill and once again takes up carpentry. They live quiet, happy lives.
On the evening of April 2, 1902, at their home in Mooresboro, while working in the yard, Martha collapses with a fatal stroke. Eight hours later, Francis Marion Poteet dies in his sleep. The doctor pronounces it a heart attack, but his family calls it simply a broken heart.
Their love affair of 54 years ends peacefully at home, together.