An English teacher by profession, Dr. Mary Wayne Watson has collected troves of historical documents out of curiosity and a passion for familial ties.
The Knightdale resident has discovered Civil War trends in original, unpublished letters collected from correspondence between her relatives and another local family, the Phillips family of Carthage, which revealed the mentality of some families before and during the war.
One of Watson’s lectures discusses her revelations about women’s attitudes about the South’s secession. She presented excerpts from around 20 of the letters during a presentation to the Wendell Historical Society on Nov. 20.
“Until I read these letters…I didn’t know these women were opposed to secession,” she said. She said that although she knew the war was “far from glorious,” she was stunned by the extent of the suffering the families faced.
The majority of the letters came from Kate Livingston Johnson, Watson’s great-great-aunt.
“She’s very thoughtful and introspective, very much torn about whether or not the South should be in the Civil War,” Watson said. “She came out on the side that they shouldn’t. Her husband was just ruined by being overrun by Gen. Sherman.”
Other letters she collected came from her great-grandmother, Euphemia McNeill, as well as publishings from John Charles McNeill – her great-uncle and North Carolina’s first unofficial poet-laureate – and Watson’s grandmother, Ella McNeill Watson.
Early on in the letters, the women discuss whether or not they believed the South should secede. As the war continued, the women discussed how their husbands were affected, chronicling key events during a time when many women’s thoughts weren’t preserved, Watson pointed out.
“It was a struggle just to survive,” Watson said.
Some letters told the tales of a mother who took her own life after losing sons in the war, or of a well-known school that had closed as a consequence of a teacher leaving to fight.
One letter, dated two years after the close of the war on Sept. 5,1867, was particularly revealing about the pain of the war. Kate Johnson writes, “We used to say hard times, my dear friend, did we not, when we knew not the meaning of the word – at least not the sad meaning it has now.”
Watson started digging for historical treasures when a former neighbor asked for help in searching for John Charles McNeill’s works in the late ’90s. Soon, she began receiving original documents from family and friends.
She discovered a number of her relatives’ letters transcribed by Mackie Pascal Phillips, whose family had corresponded with the McNeills. The original letters are kept at the Moore County Library in Carthage.
Watson says that these documents help bring history alive.
“They show the pain associated with war as experienced by people we know,” she said. “When people hear this, no matter what politics they hold, they are moved by the eloquent writing and by hearing about this pain and suffering that hits people on so many levels.”
Watson’s next scheduled presentation of this lecture on “Women’s Attitudes Toward Secession and the Civil War” will occur during a Civil War roundtable on Sept. 24, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. at Gardner’s Barbeque Restaurant in Rocky Mount.