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"My Darling Leila": A Confederate Civil War Cover from 1863

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

The Confederate States of America (CSA) was formed by seven seceding states on February 8, 1861. Four more states joined the CSA after the Civil War began on April 12, 1861. It wasn't until May 27, 1861, however, that the Federal Post Office Department suspended mail service in the CSA, and the CSA did not issue postage stamps until October 1861. In all, the CSA issued 14 varieties of postage stamps between 1861 and 1865.


The cover shown in Figures 1 and 2 was franked with one of those general issue stamps, specifically CSA Scott #12, a 10-cent stamp depicting Jefferson Davis, president of the CSA. The cover was postmarked in Savannah, Georgia on July 18, 1863, and was dispatched with its enclosed letter (Figures 3 through 6) to Robertville, South Carolina, about 40 miles north of Savannah.


Just two weeks before this letter was sent, the Confederates suffered two major defeats - the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the July 4, 1863, Fall of Vicksburg in Mississippi. Those were turning points in the Civil War. From that point forward, the war was one of attrition for the Confederacy, ending in its defeat at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The contents of the letter are interesting in the light of those defeats.


The letter was written by 22-year-old John Wesley Heidt (Figure 7). Born in Macon, Georgia in 1841, John graduated with a degree in divinity from Emory College in 1858 and took a course in law at the University of Georgia, graduating in 1860. At the outbreak of the Civil War, John enlisted in the Confederate Army and became a member of the Chatham Artillery based in Savannah, Georgia.


The recipient of the letter was Miss Leila Villard. Leila was the nickname of Eliza Agnes Villard, who was born in Robertville in 1844. At the time of this letter, she was John's fiancée or soon-to-be-fiancée.


John asserts to Leila that "Gettysburg was a most signal defeat to the Yankee Army, and the country will soon acknowledge it." Was John's assertion a result of bravado, misinformation, Confederate propaganda, wishful thinking, or a combination of all of the above?


He does betray a bit doubt, at least, when he continues, "No one knows what was the object of the invasion. Gen'l [Robert E.] Lee well knows whether it has been accomplished." He also notes to Leila that he read the latest news confirming "Gen'l Lee's re-crossing the Potomac" and says that caused "general satisfaction & relief" in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. After its defeat at Gettysburg, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River back into Virginia on the night of July 13.


John acknowledges the loss of Port Hudson in Louisiana, although he confidently states, "Our soldiers may be starved into capitulation but never whipped." Indeed, the Confederates stationed at Port Hudson experienced severe hardships and deprivations and did eat mules and rats as subsistence, although the record is unclear that the Confederates ate "the last mule in the garrison before surrendering," as John writes.


The Union Army's siege on Port Hudson started on May 22, 1863, and the Confederates, after learning that Vicksburg had been lost, surrendered Port Hudson on July 9, 1863. That surrender marked the end of the Union's campaign to recapture the Mississippi River. John mentions that 5,000 men surrendered to the Union Army at Port Hudson, which is close to the official tally of 6,340.


John also mentions that he has no news from Charleston, South Carolina, but he hopes "Gen. B has his eyes open. The enemy are at work - busy."


Charleston, which is about 85 miles east of Robertville, and some 107 miles northeast of Savannah, is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired - at Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor to be precise. The city was under blockade and repeatedly attacked by Union forces, but it didn't fall until the final months of the war. Confederate forces in the city in 1863 were under the command of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard - the "Gen. B" John mentions.


John doesn't disclose how he knows the enemy is busy in Charleston, and it seems the height of hubris for a 22-year-old sergeant to be advising a West Point trained general! Was John trying to impress Liela with his military prowess?


Although John was stationed in Savannah, he doesn't say anything to Leila about the military situation there, but based on the opening sentence - "I have passed a most pleasant week" - it doesn't seem like it was too strenuous. It sounds like he had a wonderful time with some friends and otherwise was frustrated with the pace of work displayed by his fellow attorneys.


In the latter part of 1863, John left the Confederate army after he was appointed Solicitor General of the Eastern Circuit in Georgia. His law career was short-lived, however. In 1866, he gave up law and became a Methodist minister. He later served as president of LaGrange Female College in Georgia, president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and president of the board of trustees of Rhinehart Normal School on Waleska, Georgia. He died of a heart attack in 1909 at age 67 and was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.


It's unknown when John and Leila were engaged, but they were married in June 1864. Together they had six children: one daughter and five sons. Four of their five sons served in the US military.


Leila survived John by 20 years, passing away at age 84 in 1929. She too was buried at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.


Other letters between John and Leila exist. The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina holds two letters in its collection, both posted from Leila in Robertville to John in Savannah. One is dated December 16, 1863, and the other is dated January 7, 1864.


The Georgia Historical Society has a larger collection numbering 78 items that includes letters between John and Leila, as well as between other members of the Villard and Heidt families. The Society acquired those letters in 1963.


I purchased this item at a Kelleher Auction held May 16-18, 2023, for $425 plus a 20% buyer's premium. Note that the front and back of the cover have some pencil notations. Those were not original to the letter and were added by a previous collector.


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Transcript of letter:


[Page 1]

 

Savannah July 17th, 1863

 

My Darling Leila,

 

I have passed a most pleasant week. My friend Yarbrough, to whom I have already referenced, and Brother James have been with us during its progress, and quite a time of it have we been spending. The whole family (Mrs. Newbuyer’s) have been in the country for two weeks and the whole house was ours, to talk just as loud as we pleased and laugh too. A good deal of the latter did we do for G. is full of wit and amusing anecdote.

 

[Page 2]

 

I am real sorry that he leaves us tonight, for Jimmie having departed last night, Miller and I will be left quite lonely. The social pleasures that are agreeable to us are always worthy of our seeking. The society of a friend should often be enjoyed, and if the friendship be warm and enduring in our hearts and lives are made happier by the commingling. The feeling however should be carefully guarded and never allowed its exercise except under approved circumstances. Fortunately and [unclear] actually, our natures are apt to be most censorious and we rarely genuinely have those so far beneath us as to be worthy of the attachment. Hence in general, the endearments

 

[Page 3]

 

formed at school in the early unaffected budding of the heart and mind are long lived and ardent. Such should ever be cherished and kept fresh and then the [unclear] delights and joyful associations will never loss their charm.


I have just seen the latest news from which the confirmation of Gen’l Lee’s re-crossing the Potomac appears. General satisfaction & relief were felt at Richmond in consequence. Whatever may be that leader’s plan of campaign now remains to be seen but this fact is well established at Richmond that he inflicted heavier blows upon the enemy in [unclear] upon his own foothold than ever in Virginia and more was accomplished for our cause in the enemy’s country than the defensive in Va [unclear] have accomplished in a much longer time. The battle of Gettysburg was a most signal

 

[Page 4]

 

defeat to the Yankee Army, and the country will soon acknowledge it. No one knows what was the object of the invasion. Gen’l Lee well knows whether it has been accomplished. Let future facts control our judgement.

 

At Port Hudson the poor fellows could hold out no longer. Nearly starved, they actually eat the last mule in the garrison before surrendering. Our soldiers may be starved into capitulation but never whipped. We lost there 5000 troops – 50 pieces of artillery etc.


I was still detained here much longer than expected by careless associate lawyers. They wait on each others and none are ever ready. I hope soon to be able to pay you a visit if only a short one. I am truly anxious to see you my dear Leila. No news from Charleston. I do hope Gen. B has his eyes wide open. The enemy are at work – busy.

God bless you sweet girl. Accept the sincere affection of your John.       

  

[Side note page 2]

 

Does the rain continue up there?

 

[Side note page 3]

 

We have been expecting Annie & Tommie since Wednesday evening last. Not yet come. Hope no one is sick.    


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Figure 1 - Front of cover.

Figure 2 - Back of cover.

Figure 3 - Page 1 of 4 of letter.

Figure 4 - Page 2 of 4 of letter.

Figure 5 - Page 3 of 4 of letter.

Figure 6 - Page 4 of 4 of letter.

Figure 7 - John Wesley Heidt, circa 1885. Source: Find-A-Grave.

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1 Comment


Grace Kerley
Grace Kerley
Jun 06, 2023

Thank you so much for your research, reaching out to me, transcribing the letter and linking to other resources in the Heidt family. -- grace, great great great granddaughter of Eliza and john

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