William was driving a herd of cattle from his farm in Stickleyville, located in Lee County, Virginia, to Bristol to be shipped by rail to potential buyers. It was getting late in the evening as he came through the community of Arcadia in Sullivan County, Tennessee. The Newland family, who owned a large farm nearby, offered to put the cattle up for the night and invited him into their home.
Mr. and Mrs. Newland had five daughters, three of whom were of marriageable age — Eliza, Margaret and Martha, with Eliza being the youngest. Apparently, Eliza caught the eye of William that very night. This chance meeting occurred about 1860.
When the War Between the States broke out shortly thereafter, William felt obligated to serve. He reported to Abingdon and enlisted in the CSA (Confederate States of America).
The Duff Mansion House in Lee County, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior, has acquired letters written by William during the Civil War to his Tennessee sweetheart, affectionately known as “Lide.” On Valentine’s Day weekend, the owners of the site shared excerpts from the letters for Sunday Stories — and posted the full letters online for the community to view on the Duff Mansion House page on Facebook.
The first two letters were written toward the end of winter camp while William was stationed near Orange Courthouse, Virginia, along the Rapidan River. The third letter was written during the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864, which was fought in central Virginia. Spelling, punctuation and word placement in the letters have been preserved as originally written.
Camp of 50th Va. Regt.
April the 8th, 1864
I know you will be surprised to receive a letter from me, although it is contrary to rules of politeness I hope you will not be offended, and excuse a few lines of friendship only.
To-day is a day set apart for fasting and prayer by the Rulers of the Confederacy, every thing is quiet in camp, no drills, inspection nor any work to be done that can be avoided or postponed until another day. The morning very pleasant, the Day exceedingly fine, and the first that has appeard to me like Sunday for some time, of week days we have drill and of Sundays Inspection unless it is bad weather, so we generally have something to do, but nothing at all today, not even breakfast to cook.
Thought I would amuse myself by writing a letter or two but when I took up my Pen and Paper, bethought myself that a letter would not go to my home by mail, Thought I would write to some of my friends and upon a moments reflection determined to address a few lines to your worship. Our acquaintance is slight but hope we may be better acquainted some day, I beg that you bear with my intrusion this time for it is a great pleasure for me to write to my Friends and greater to receive long answers.
… (The letter goes on to talk about his thoughts about the Sabbath, winter quarters, the summer campaign, word of an exchange of prisoners, and hopes of soldiers returning home to their families and friends).
For fear of over taxing your good patience I will close with the hope of hearing from you soon.
This leaves all well
Allow me to subscribe myself
Truly your Friend
William P. Duff
A second letter followed later that month.
Camp of 50th Va. Regt
April 30th, 1864
I take pleasure in acknowledging the receipt of your kind and much appreciated letter which I fortunately received yesterday, it brought some good news, some bad and also assured me that I occupied a small place in that large circle honored by your Kind friendship. I was truly glad to hear that but few yankees were in East Tenn, and I do hope the remaining few will be driven away ere long, I am sorry to hear of the death of Sam'l Jessee, Accidents will happen and death make its appearance in every imaginary form.
Spring has made its appearance. Its sunny smiles driving the snow and ice from the mountain tops, its warm showers causing the Buds and fragrant Flowers to burst forth in all their usual beauty,
You well remember only a few years ago when this delightful season lightened all our hearts, Was a luscious fountain of joy for the young and the Gay, a time of care and anxiety with the more advanced in years, The Farmer redoubling his energies set himself about his pleasant task to prepare for the use of his household the necessaries of life, The Merchant behind his counter with his crowded shelves quietly awaiting the arrival of a customer, The Old with a pleasing and watchful eye gazed upon the gay and crowded band as it passed before them, But Alas! come to the present how changed, The young instead of hastening with a quick step to the school room repairs with a slow step to replace their Fathers and Brothers in the cornfield, The Gay find no pleasure in store for them, The stronger sex now engaged in the field of strife, The weaker finding themselves alone. I imagine sometimes sit and meditate upon the pleasures enjoyed in time past and sometimes try to ware away the dull moments by busying themselves about the household affairs, The Farmer no longer guides his plough but has left it to rust in the furrow, The Merchant long since laid aside his ledger now covered with dust gathered from an uninhabited room. All left their homes to fight the Battles of our Confederacy and drive the vandals from our land. The mother with a heavy heart toils all day long to procure the many necessaries for the subsistence of their little family and when her daily labor is completed offers up her fervent prayer to God for the protection of her husband or son and their safe and speedy return to her embrace before closing her eyes for Sleep. As the autumn foretells the approach of winter, which is to consume what the summer yields so this Spring foretells the approach of a summers campaign which I fear will consume the lives of many of the good and brave sons of the sunny South who have grown up in the last 40 years and also destroy the happiness and future hope of many careworn Mothers, true and anxious lovers
… (He continues with details about what he is seeing and his hopes of victory in Virginia and beyond).
“Raise the curtain and glance at the many pleasures in store for all who survive this war. Imagine that we are a free and Independent people enjoying the liberty for which so many offer their lives a sacrifice to obtain, Peace and quietude prevailing throughout this Confederacy again. The army disbanded and all returned to their beloved home and friends. Who is it who would not be proud to say he was a soldier of the Confederate army, or where is the Lady who would not be proud to say or feel herself honored to know she had a brother or Lover who had wield his sword in defence of his beloved country.
… (He explains everything is quiet on the Rapidan, but says they are prepping for active service. He says rumor says the Yanks are reinforcing heavily and intend to advance upon Richmond immediately, but he does not anticipate a move soon).
I will close for this time, may have something that will interest you next time. Give my kindest regards to Miss Ella, tell her I fulfilled my promise relative to that letter. This leaves all well will expect to hear from you again. You asked for my address. My military address is Capt. Company “G” 50th Va. Regt. 2nd Brigade, Johnson Division, Ewels Corps Army Northern Va.
Allow me to subscribe myself
Your True Friend
Wm P. Duff
The final of the three letters, written in haste on May 6, 1864, describes battles raging around him.
Wilderness, Orange Co., Va.
May the 6th 1864
Miss Lide Newland
Sullivan Co., Tn.
As I have a few leasure moments I will drop you a few hasty lines to give you the news. We are engagued in the great anticipated Battle, we are now behind our fortifycations awaiting the Enemy to advance the skirmishers are firing in our front heavy firing on our right and left, our Brigade was engagued yesterday, I am sorry to tell you that my friend Aaron Doley was killed in the early part of the fight, our Bridadier General Jones was killed, Gen Stafford who commanded the 4th Brig'e in our Division was wounded and died last night, my Brother Emmit was wounded severly in the face, I think not serious. Thomas J. Duff (a cosin) was killed yesterday a great many others killed and wounded in the 48 & 50th about thirty killed dead in the 48th do not know how many wounded 10 or 15 killed in the 50th and about 60 wounded. All is going well so far as I know, the enemy charged our lines at different places several times was repulsed every time with heavy loss. While I write 3 O'clock P.M., heavy firing on the right, an official dispatch has just been received stating that Gen Longstreet has whipped the Enemy badly taken a great many Prisoners thirty pieces of artillery every thing bids fair for success but I believe the Battle is hardly begin yet, do not know what may be done in the next few days
I must close for the men are going out for Rations the only chance to send this excuse brefity
Wm. P. Duff
On May 12, 1864, eight days after writing this last letter, his whole division was captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse during a heavy fog early that morning. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW (Prisoner of War). He, along with other officers known as The Immortal 600, was intentionally starved and used as a human shield during battle. When the war ended, Captain Duff took the oath of allegiance to the United States of America on June 17, 1865. He arrived home in Lee County on July 1.
Captain Duff spent some time recuperating from the ravages of war. After restoring his health and getting his affairs back in order, he married Eliza on Feb. 26, 1867, two years after his return. They reared their family of six boys and one girl and were happily married until his death in 1907. Their love was the kind that lasted a lifetime…
The Duff Mansion House will be open for visitors on select weekends from April through October (weather permitting). A schedule will be posted on the DMH Facebook page. In the meantime, owners of the site are working on a cookbook designed to offer deeper insight into the family’s contribution to our country. To submit recipes, pictures (JPEG please) or stories for the cookbook, email them to Mary Ruth Laster at [email protected] The deadline is April 15.