Document 18: Letter from William Pelham to Marianna Pelham Mott, 11 August 1861, Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
This letter, addressed to Marianna but mailed to her mother Martha Coffin Wright, was written from a Union prison in Santa Fé, where William Pelham had been placed for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Although his earlier contacts with Marianna and Martha had been loving, the onset of war and his personal predicament led to this letter, which he noted “is not couched in language like my former ones.” He now blamed the war on abolitionists, their “principles of reform,” and their “false sympathy for the negro.” The following spring, a Confederate army captured Santa Fé and William was briefly released from prison and appointed Confederate Governor of New Mexico. However, within a few weeks, the Union army had retaken the city, and William was returned to prison. Although William survived the war and lived until 1879 on his ranch in Texas, this letter was his last communication to his abolitionist relatives in the North.
Santa Fé, N. M.
Aug. 11th 1861
My dear niece
It has been long since I have addressed you or you me and this perhaps is the last time. The “irrepressible conflict” is upon us. I see it and feel it. While I write, sentinals with their gay uniforms and bright arms reflect the light of the sun upon me as they pass my cell door. My Father was a prisoner in the war of 1776.[A] My brother (your father) was a prisoner in the war of 1812[B] and I am now a prisoner in the war of 1861. I have not taken up arms against the government neither have I aided or abeted either party in the late irrepressible conflict, yet my house was invaded, my private papers overhawled after I had first been marched off to prison, and I know not what for. It may be for the reason that I am one of those unfortunate individuals, who is a rightfull subject for the application of your principles of reform--a slave holder. I am a Kentuckian as you are aware and was born in sight of a non slave-holding state, while I have lived in this Territory a third longer then I did in the state of Texas, yet I am regarded as a Texan and treated as one in rebellion against the Government. Let it be so: it is one of the results of the teachings of your doctrines. Oh! the blood which has and will be spilt in consequence of the false sympathy for the negro and the Indian. I think it is a great misfortune to mankind that there is a large party, who prize the negro blood more highly than that of their own intelligent country men. Had it not been for that accursed negro question peace and prosperity would now reign, where blood flows in torrents and lives are taken by thousands. But such are the results of false and fanatical teachings. You are too tender hearted to see a deer killed for the necessities of man, which was intended by God for his use, but you can see hundreds of thousands of men go into a sister state and slay thousands of your countrymen and believe they are doing God’s service because they happen to be the owners of property in slaves which you for the sake of lucre sold them. You may think you can conquor the people and keep states in the union which you desired should leave it, only a few months since, but you cannot accomplish your purpose, there are too many Bull Runs to pass on the way.[C] We cannot expect to win all of the battles, but I think we will win a majority of them even if you come forth with a million of men. We can raise that number ourselves all of whom will be at home when they go forth to fight. I see the watch word and banners proclaimed it to be the liberating army. Can you think that men raised to view the spilling of blood as nothing and a high appreciation of Individual rights will permit themselves to be robed of their property while they can resist! If you do you mistake their character. They will nearly all die first. We love the Constitution as it was, and only asked that it might be executed but we have long since lost all hope of seeing that done and have adop[t]ed the only alternative left to us in my belief, and that is seperation, and we desire it in peace. The irrepressible conflict party have determined to force us to live with it, in the Union and take just what that party will give us, it matters not what the justice of our claims may be. We can get no appropriations unless a foe is pleased to award it to us. The Custom house in N. Orleans has been in the progress of being built for the last 18 years and it is not half finished yet, while large appropriations could be had for the opening of any little creek in the North. We are not allowed to have any of the Territories, a property mainly ceeded by the state of Va. and should be open to all American Citizens but such is not the case, even the citizens of Va. themselves, the donor, are prohibited from a participation in the settlement of them. The case is so bad we cannot live in unity any longer and must seperate. Now I ask you if you intend to kill us all off, because you will not allow us to have equality in the union with you. I was only settling up my business preparatory to departing for Texas, but I was arrested and now it is impossible to say if I will ever be liberated. Before this may reach you my destiny will have been decided and I either acquitted or be hanged. I am in the hands of my enemies, who thirst for my blood. If this letter is not couched in language like my former ones, it is because I am in prison (as I believe) unjustly, and feel oppressed.
Give my love to Thomas[D], Mr. & Mrs. Wright[E], your daughters and all of your friends.
Your affectionate Uncle
A. In the Revolutionary War, William’s father Charles Pelham became a prisoner of the British after the fall of Charleston.
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B. Peter Pelham, first husband of Martha Wright and Marianna’s father, was wounded and captured by the British in November 1813 at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
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C. Here William was prophetic. The first Battle of Bull Run had been a Confederate victory, and in the following year, the second would also be a victory for the South.
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D. Marianna’s husband Thomas Mott.
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E. Marianna’s parents Martha and David Wright.
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