Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Shot in the Heart


Once, I read a Civil War letter written by a man in love. This is the tale that goes with it.


Charles Wilkins was born on July 7, 1835, in the town of Henniker, New Hampshire. On June 1, 1861, shortly after the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in Company B, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry. On July 21, during the Battle of Bull Run, he received a severe gunshot wound through the shoulder. He spent the remainder of the year recovering from his injury and mustered out of his regiment on February 20, 1862, accepting a commission in another unit.

Wilkins became a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Regular Infantry, which was then stationed in Missouri. By January 1863, his regiment had been moved to Corinth, Mississippi, in preparation for joining Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Army of the Tennessee for the Vicksburg Campaign.

I’d imagine that Lieutenant Wilkins had many things on his mind that January, but nothing vexed him quite so much as his thoughts about a woman. He addressed his letters to: “Dearest Friend Sarah.” (Sadly, I cannot tell you anything about her, as I have no clue to her identity.) Apparently, he agonized over Sarah and wanted to marry her, but he did not know if she felt the same way. After due deliberation, Wilkins decided it was time to go for it. He executed the timelessly awkward male ritual of putting himself out there:

In my last letter I promised to tell you the subject of my thoughts while writing. I hardly dare tell you and I am also at a loss how to commence. The subject of my thoughts was yourself. Dear Sarah, I love you. Do you? Can you love me in return?

In a world without texts, or cell phones, or skype, Wilkins faced a grand challenge indeed. He had to woo a woman at long distance but without the help of verbal communication. His medium was the written word. Let’s see how he made his case:

I know not how to express my feelings in suitable language. May I hope that the day is not far distant when I shall call you my own. I know that in my present position I am exposed to many dangers and that perhaps I ought not to have asked this question at present. But you know not how much I should feel to know that you loved me. I should feel that I then had something to live and fight for through life. I am now twenty seven years old—and it seems almost as if I had loved without an object, but have tried to do my duty. If I have failed think it is through no fault of mine.

According to the above, the war’s danger compelled him to break his silence and ask a question that he felt he “ought not to have asked.” Finally, he concluded with a rather obvious line: “Hoping soon to get a favorable answer.” I chuckle at that whenever I read it.

All right, you’re all wondering: did Wilkins get a “favorable answer” from Sarah, the object of his affection? Near as I can tell, he did not. As of February 2, 1863, when Wilkins wrote Sarah again, she had not replied. He generously assumed that she had not seen his letter, but knowing what I know about the efficiency of the nineteenth-century postal service (and the fact that the letter existed—I even held it), I’ll bet she received his letter and refused to reply to it. Why she chose not to reply is anyone’s guess.

If the absence of Sarah’s love injured Wilkins’s heart, the pain did not last long. In June, a Confederate sharpshooter picked him off during the Siege of Vicksburg. A Union hospital ship transferred him to St. Louis where he died on June 20, 1863. He was twenty-seven-years-old. He had the honor of being the first person buried in the New Henniker Cemetery on Old Concord Road. (As a side note, Wilkins’s older brother, George—who was a lieutenant in the 16th New Hampshire—died of disease two months later and was buried in the same cemetery. It was a sad season for his parents, to be sure.)

I don’t have much more on this story. I have no idea of the identity of “Dearest Friend Sarah.” I have no image of Lieutenant Wilkins. Although I know where Wilkins’s grave is located, I have no image of it.


I know one thing: Wilkins was shot in the heart.


Sad Romance.
 

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