By James Cullum
Aug. 24, 1848: “Dear Miss Liza, I hope you will not consider it too great a liberty, my writing you a little Note – as it is only to bid you good bye. I shall leave town in about an hour for Maryland to spend a few days and as you might think I had taken my departure for parts unknown, I thought I would just apprise you of my whereabouts. Take care of yourself whilst I am gone, and I pray & beseech you, suspend any action, in a certain matter, that may or might, in the course of human events, take place, until my return. My salutations to romantic Miss Mary – and best wishes for your health and happiness – I remain very truly Sincerely yr friend and Very humble Gent Townshend D. Fendall.”
This letter, from “Towny” Fendall to his love Eliza Eaches, is just one many letters, which are featured in Barb Winters’ new book “Letters to Virginia: Correspondence from three generations of Alexandrians before, during and after the Civil War.” The letters are from 15 members of the Eaches, Fendall and Tackett families, written between 1817 and 1940. “They tell of war and deadly disease, fleeting fame and fortunes, deep devotion and cruel deception – the same things we experience today,” according to the book jacket.
Winters worked as a library assistant in the local history section of the Catherine Waller Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library from 2000 to 2009. “There were over 800 letters and I had to read every one. It was the only way we determined which we were going to keep in the collection,” she said. “I’m hoping this book will inspire people to write letters, even if they just do emails. That’s OK. That’s still a letter, even though you can’t analyze the handwriting.”
Among the letter writers in Winters’ book are “two artists, two Confederate soldiers, a mayor of Alexandria, a governor of Maryland, a banker and a dry goods merchant, Quakers and Episcopalians. We also learn of the life and times, religion, politics and philosophy, love and abiding relationships and got to look into the private thoughts of three families who survived the worst of times but rarely knew the best.
“There were wills, including those listing slaves as property; locks of hair and Confederate Bonds; a land lease, expenditures (business and personal) and tax receipts (pamphlets collected from Alexandria to Europe; an inventory of estates and a division of assets; a thank-you letter from Robert E. Lee for blankets and an Oath of Allegiance from a Confederate soldier in 1865; postcards, photographs and World War II documents; wedding presents and a marriage book and most telling of all, inter-family squabbles over money and inheritance,” according to the book’s prologue.
Before working at the library, Winters wrote articles for the Chicago Bulls and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. “I learned grammar from my grandmother, Mabelle Carbough,” Winters said. “I never planned to write a book. I never had anything to write about except articles, but I got a nose for news and I smelled it.”
The letters made the writers real people to Winters. “I feel I could talk with all of them, except for Will Fendall who was a son-of-a-gun,” she said.
The book can be purchased at the Alexandria Library, Borders and Barnes & Noble.