Monday, July 25, 2011

Beyond Words: Handwriting Analysis of Civil War Letter

Civil War history became personal for me when I found war-era letters from Southern ancestors handed down in my family. Eager to know more, and possibly under the influence of one too many television crime shows, I decided to analyze the handwriting in the letters.  I've recently been blogging about David Lindsay Welborn,whom the Confederacy assigned in 1864 to an ironclad gunboat protecting Richmond, so I tackled his letters first. 

Portion of a letter home from my Civil War
ancestor David L. Welborn. A family
member later punched the holes to store
the 1864 letter in a notebook. For the
entire letter, go to LETTERS page.
Although I'm a rank amateur graphologist, I tried my hand at one of David's letters to his father, Joseph Welborn, of Randolph County, North Carolina. I consulted a handwriting analysis book* that’s been on my library shelf for years, and discovered a rudimentary personality profile that mere words on paper could never reveal. 

But first, I assembled known facts about my farmboy ancestor.  I knew from reading the unsuccessful petition to the local conscription board that David had filed in July 1864, that he had blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, is 5 ft. (illegible) inches, was born in Randolph, is a farmer and was raised up to the business. The petition also told me that David, at age 20, had joined the 63rd Regiment of the North Carolina Militia. David wrote at least two letters to his father soon after he was assigned to the CSS Fredericksburg patrolling the James River just south of the Confederate capital.   

David opened his brief letter, written in a schoolboy's hand on paper apparently torn from a small notebook, with this salutation: “This is from your son D.L. Welborn.” The greeting struck me as peculiar.  Surely Joseph recalled he had a child with the initials “D.L.,” but by October 1864, Joseph had three sons fighting in the war. (A fourth son, Lyndon, died in battle in November 1863.) And David, whose mother died when he was barely four years old, probably felt lost among widow Joseph’s brood of ten children. Hence, David's reminder to open his letter.

Back page of a second
letter from David Welborn
of the N.C. Militia, 63rd
Regiment, to his father
So much for the facts; time to consult the handwriting analysis book. I concluded that David, young and free of accumulated emotional baggage, was:

- Emotionally even-keeled and not depressed, not yet anyway. David’s writing follows the lines of the paper. A moody person’s words would undulate up and down, regardless of the lines.
- Extroverted and needing to be in the middle of things. David centered his large script on the paper, indicating his social outgoingness.  As for his need to be at the center of the action, this plea had already made that point:  Pleas right as soon as you get this    tell me all the news that is going on.
- Open-minded, as illustrated by the open spaces between words, and up front with his feelings, shown by the script's slant toward the right.  Of course, I had picked up on these traits somewhat when I read: I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins     night and day
- Adventurous (writing doesn’t hug the left margin), but unorganized (haphazard grouping of words), and uncertain about the future (writing doesn’t hug the right margins), but duh!
- Unreliable, as evidenced by the uneven pressure David exerted on letters and his uneven spacing between words; and, 
- Honest, with nothing to hide (no crossed out letters or “cover strokes” over letters). 

The nearly 150-year-old letter David penned aboard the Fredericksburg tells more about him than what he wrote. By studying how he wrote his letters, I learned something of who he was. And, though I never met David, because I could read beyond the words in his letters, I liked him.

I plan to scrutinize the other Civil War letters handed down in my family for clues to my ancestors' personalities.  If you are lucky enough to have old family letters or documents in your possession, why don’t you get your hands on a handwriting analysis guide, do some sleuthing, and open a personal window to America's past.     

As Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography.”
* The guide I consulted was “Handwriting Analysis: Putting It To Work for You,” by graphologist Andrea McNichol with Jeffrey A. Nelson. Contemporary Books, Inc., 1991. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Unmarked Watery Grave Hints At Precious Truth

If Mr. Krick hadn’t informed me, “The remains of the James River Squadron, including the CSS Fredericksburg, are not marked in any way,” my half-mile trek up the riverbank might have proved disappointing, but he had added, "Their location is indeed visible from the observation platform at Fort Drewry, on Drewry’s Bluff.”

View from top of Drewry's Bluff.
The corpse of David Welborn's
ironclad likely is buried in the
pictured section of the James River.
A cacophony of birds, insects and traffic on nearby Interstate 95 rang in my ears as I peered ninety feet down from Drewry’s Bluff, where the James River veers sharply east after flowing ten miles south from Richmond, the old Confederate capital.  Following instructions from Robert E.L. Krick, historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park, I peered a hundred yards downstream toward the opposite shore. 

Despite all the bad information I’d uncovered about the ironclad gunboat that my Confederate ancestor, David Lindsay Welborn, was assigned to only months before the Civil War’s end, there it was, the unmarked watery grave of the CSS Fredericksburg, at least according to Mr. Krick.

Not long before the Frederickburg's demise, David wrote to his father, Joseph Welborn of Randolph County, North Carolina, of his new position in the Confederate navy. (See July 6 blog in ARCHIVES.)

Richmond, Va   Oct 30 1864
Dear Father

            I will try to right you a few lines to let you know where I am      eight miles below Richmond on the Fredricksburg Stemer      That is an iron clad gun boat     We  have six long guns on this boat

           I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins night and day and am not well but I am told that cannons are moving hear every day    

          I would give the world to be home but can’t be thair    I thought that I would work in the navy yarde but they put me on the boat. . . and my. . . the lice

Historic photo of Confederate
battery at Fort Drewry atop
Drewry's Bluff along James River.
I get planty to eate sutch as it is       they have cald me on deck now so no more

From you son D.L. Welborn

This nearly 150-year-old, handwritten letter, which came to me in handed-down family papers, provided a compass toward precious truth.  In my research of the Civil War for my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I’ve found “truth” varies according to source. Some reports declare the scattered remains of the CSS Fredericksburg, which the Confederates blew up (along with the CSS Virginia) during the frantic evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, have not been located.

The battery at Drewry's Bluff today.
For more, go to PHOTOSl page.
Other reports claim the gunboat's wreckage was raised decades ago. Even the exact date of its scuttling varies.  (Some reports say the remains of the CSS Virginia, also assigned to patrol the James River in defense of Richmond, lie near the wreckage of the Fredericksburg.)

One lesson I’ve absorbed during my decades of exploring and research for my history/travel books is that a never-ending war rages among scholars, educators and historians about nearly every detail of American history.  Two things I’ve concluded: 1) You’ve got to believe the best sources, or cobble together facts from reliable sources to get at precious truth; and, 2) No one alive today lived during the Civil War. So, we’re all looking at historic accounts that might not be reliable in the first place, or we're imbuing reliable accounts with personal spin. There’s a lot of room for prejudice, misinterpretation and error.

As far as facts about the CSS Fredericksburg, I’m sticking with Mr. Krick, who further said, “I believe that the wreck, if it is there, is protected from the periodic channel dredging by being so close to the shore.” 

This is the kind of history I appreciate, the “to-the-best-of-my-hard-earned-knowledge” type of statement, one that claims no hold on elusive truth.  But the difficulties of tracking history didn't dilute the excitement I felt standing atop Drewry’s Bluff one summer day, amid what’s left of the Confederacy’s Fort Darling.  I had found another palpable link to my past. 

COMING SOON:  More on David and his trials aboard the gunboat. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I Visit Richmond To Learn About David And The Gunboat

To learn about David Lindsay Welborn, my ancestor whom the Confederacy drafted in the summer of 1864, I visited Richmond, Virginia. David, at age twenty, ended up on an ironclad gunship, the CSS Fredericksburg, a tough, junior addition to the James River Squadron.  The fleet patrolled the river that flowed partially around the Confederate capital, a mere one hundred seven miles from Washington.

"The Rebel Iron-Clad Fleet...In
The James River, 1865." Line engraving
from Harper's Weekly; CSS Fredericksburg
at right. Photo, U.S. Naval Historical Center.
Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond made the 1,000 pounds of iron plating for the Fredericksburg, which was assembled in the local navy yard and launched in June 1864. I wanted to visit Tredegar, and I also wanted to locate the spot in the James River where the shattered Fredericksburg today lies buried beneath six to fifteen feet of mud. The gunship’s own crew blew her up on April 3, 1865, during the evacuation of Richmond, to ensure Union troops didn’t seize or pillage her.

But first, let me tell you what I’ve learned about David while researching my book-in-progress, Dear Father, I Am Sorry To Tell You.

Model of the CSS Fredericksburg
at visitor center of Richmond Battlefield
National Park located in the former
Tredegar Iron Works along the James River.
In February 1864, the Confederacy, now desperate and worn down, adopted a third conscription law, expanding the draft age limits to include males from seventeen to fifty. The draft ensnared David, ninth child of Joseph Welborn’s ten children.  He enlisted as a private in 63rd North Carolina Militia, B Company, of Randolph County.

The family, reeling from the recent death of David’s older brother, Lyndon, as he defended Richmond, struggled to save the family farm. Grief and hardship forced them to wage their own battle to keep David out of the draft and on the farm. Two years earlier, David and his widowed father, a prominent Randolph County farmer, had paid a substitute to serve in the army in David's stead if he were called to serve.  The Confederacy had adopted a second draft law expanding the draft eligibility, a development noted by David's older brother, Lyndon, of the First North Carolina Troops, in a letter home in 1862. 
Petersburg, Va
May AD 31st 62

Dear Sister

. . . ask David what age that man was that he hired to take his place in the war
if he was between 18-35 he (David) will have to go yet in his place if called on but I hope he was not subject to that. . .

So write Soon to your effectionate Brother

My research into the Civil War and
my Confederate ancestors now takes me
from Warrenton, N.C., to Richmond.
By the summer of 1864, the Confederacy had cracked down on the practice of buying draft substitutes. David and Joseph regrouped. David petitioned The Confederate States of America Bureau of Conscription, 7th North Carolina Congressional District, which included Randolph County, for release from the draft.

April 11, 1864

State of North Carolina
To his Excellency, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States:

David L. Welbourn, of Randolph County, by petition, respectfully showeth unto your Excellency, that he is a private of Bedlick Co. Capt: Chilcutt, 63 Reg. N.C. Militia, has blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, is 5 ft. (illegible) inches, was born in Randolph, is a farmer and was raised up to the business; that his father is 73 years old and infirm and cannot labor; that his father owns 346 acres of land and has the use of 104 acres during his life on Muddy Bank which are productive lands; that his father has two daughters and a small child, and a son aged 16 years, who has lost the use of his right arm which is stiff and with which he cannot labor at all; that he also has an old negro, aged 90 years, who is intirely helples; that the only person upon whom they are dependant is your petitioner; that it is said the aged father owns no other slaves and as consequence of his scarcity of laborers cannot employ any one to work his farm if your petitioner is carried off into its service. . .

I found a handwritten copy of David’s petition to Confederate President Jefferson Davis among family papers.  The justice of the peace who penned the three-page document probably pressed a ruler or some straight object onto the pale blue paper to produce row upon row of smudged inked words. 

James Deitz, the court officer who wielded the pen, apparently was a member of Randolph County’s draft board. Whether the reasons stated in the petition to the board were true (yes, with the Confederacy drafting all able men, laborers were scarce,  and the 90-year-old slave — probably Harry — wasn’t much help); partly true (yes, sixteen-year-old son Robert might have been able to work, stiff arm or not); or embellished to present a more compelling case, I can only guess. David's petition made a compelling case.   

     . . . that in consequence of the helplessness of said family your petitioner hired a substitute and placed him in his service and has been since engaged in working for the said family; that he has wheat sowed and has compacts to raise as much oats and corn as the land can cultivate; that he raises hay and he has a fine prospect for a large quantity of pork if he can be left at home to raise corn. . .

 Then David and Joseph made an offer they hoped the Confederacy couldn’t refuse.

. . . with which to fatten it that he will bind himself to furnish the government with 500 lbs  pork at such price as the Confederate appraisers shall fix; that he will employ his skill, means and labor diligently and exclusively in the production of grains, hay, fodder and pork and other produce, the surplus of which he is willing to sell to the government and the families of soldiers at such prices as the aforesaid officers shall fix; that if he is not left upon the said farms to raise grains and take care of the said helpless and crippled and infirm family that they will come to absolute want and suffering; that he had a brother who went into the service at the very commencement of the war and died lately in the service, was killed in an engagement with the enemy; that your petitioner is 20 years old and is a true and loyal citizen:  For these reasons and on the grounds of public necessity, equity and justice, your petitioner most respectfully prays your Excellency to exccept or detail the said David L. Welborn, your petitioner, to remain on the said farm and take care of and support the said dependent family and for such others and further  relief as to your Excellency shall seem meet and as in duty bound your petitioner will ever pray.   
April, 1864    James Dietz J.P.

                                                                                                D.L. Welborn (signature)

State of North Carolina,
Randolph County
Personally appeard before the subscriber an acting Justice of the Peace in and for said county, J. W. Steed, Allen Lamb, David Coltrane and B.F. Hoover, four respectable  citizens of said county who being duly sworn, depose and say that they are well acquainted with the aforesaid David L. Welborn; that the facts set out in his petition are true and correct.
Sworn and subscribed
Before me this 11th day April, 1864
J. H. Horvat   J.P.

David fought the draft in an above-board manner, although hundreds draft-dodgers and deserters from the Randolph County area, a hotbed of pro-Union violence, chose to hide in the hills and wait out the war. David, however, ended up serving a lost cause — as did three of his brothers — in conditions worse than a fugitive life in the hills.  Many considered assignment to a gunship patrolling the James River among the Confederacy's harshest. 

SOURCES: Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; National Underwater and Marine Agency, The Encyclopedia Virginia

Coming Soon: “they put me on the boat…and my….the lice…”