Donald C. Maness and H. Jason Combs’s edited volume, Do They Miss Me at Home, is an absolutely fascinating collection of 108 letters, written mostly from William McKnight to his wife, Samaria, between 1862 and 1864 when he was with the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. From the larger perspective of the Civil War drama, McKnight’s life story may be most interesting because John Hunt Morgan and his raiders stayed at his home in Meigs County during their famous ride across Indiana and Ohio in July 1863; and then in June of 1864 McKnight was killed in battle as Ohio’s Seventh Volunteer Cavalry chased Morgan and his men from Cynthiana, Kentucky. But the valuable contribution of this book is the raw and unfiltered glimpse it provides into the emotional life of an ordinary soldier as he silently communicates through letters with his wife.
The authors organize the letters into five chapters that correspond to McKnight’s sojourn from military camps in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where he spent most of the 22 months of the 3-year term he signed up for in September 1862. Maness and Combs note in their introduction that the Union army handled a remarkable 135,000 letters daily, clear evidence of how important written correspondence was to soldiers and their families. (1) The introduction provides a useful overview of the McKnight family, the Ohio Seventh Volunteer Cavalry, and the role of Ohio in the Civil War. Reproductions of letters and photographs, five appendices, and three maps round out the book. Exhaustive footnotes make sense of problems with dating and geography and provide insight into topics such as diet and battle histories. The bibliography is not exemplary. The index is thorough.
William McKnight did not fit the profile of the typical Civil War soldier: single, between the ages of 18 and 24, and native born. He was married, the father of six children, 29 years old, and born in Canada in 1832 to parents who had immigrated from Scotland to New Brunswick just two years before. In 1836 his parents moved with their five children to Meigs County in southeastern Ohio. There they had six more children that they raised in Pomeroy and Langsville, small towns near the Ohio River. William became a blacksmith and, at age 25, married Samaria Braley, whose family had moved to the area from Maine in 1816. By the time McKnight joined the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in September, 1862, he and Samaria had four children. Twins girls were born in the summer of 1863.
McKnight volunteered for service out of duty to country. He did not mention the issue of slavery and only used the term Negro on two occasions. (217, fn11) In the first year of correspondence Samaria’s voice is heard only as William responds, for example when he defended his decision to volunteer “against your wil.” (55) McKnight answered her: “I hope you might be Proud of me to know that I had honor and spunk enough to go defend our countryies rights.” (56)
But he was conflicted by the emotional trauma his decision brought Samaria and the children: “Oh how bad it makes me fell to think of them sweet little children of mine crying for papa and especially that dear little one… crying for me…. It is for them that I feel the most hurt for no one but God knows who wil take Care of them if their Pa falls a victim to this rebelian….” (56) Samaria’s letters often brought William to tears.(56, 58)
McKnight’s age, business skills, and literacy made him a natural officer. Appointed as a first sergeant of Company K in September 1862, he was promoted to second lieutenant in April of 1864. Killed in action two months later, he was never commissioned at this rank. He complained to his wife that promised promotions and pay raises did not come through. In December 1863 he wrote: “May [My] just Dues from the Government set to the present amounts to over $600.00 dollars & I need it & cant get a cent.” (149) In his second to last letter to Samaria, on June 3, 1864, he wrote that “it is now eleven months past since I recd any pay….” (185)
To support himself and his family McKnight traded horses, sold other goods, and borrowed. (154) He also hounded Samaria to collect fees owed from his blacksmith business. (129) Samaria collected some of the old bills, much to William’s satisfaction, but she also relied on her own and William’s families. William often suggested chores for family members and neighbors, including cutting firewood and planting corn.
McKnight comes across as needy and demanding, keeping score on his own and Samaria’s letters: “There was a mail come through for the Regmt. All the Boys got letters but me. I don’t see why that I am slited. I write every chance I get.” (135) “I have long anxiously awaited a letter from you but in vain….” (137) “I have not herd from you for a month or more & the only by Bro Johns letter…. Please write to me at least once a week & I wil write as often as I can if it is evry other day.” (157)
A major theme is news from Meigs County via old newspapers, letters, and gossip from men who have travelled home for a week or two. William asked Samaria to date her letters because they did not always arrive sequentially due to problems with transportation and the Seventh’s movements.(128) William also has news for Samaria about what has happened to men from his area, whether it is desertion or injury or death or encounters with the Confederates. (72)
William wants the correspondence to be conversational. In February 1863 he began a letter: “Oh Samaria. Samaria. Do you hear me if you do I want you to listen to me a little while….”(52) A year later he wrote: “I recd a letter from sister Mary last night. She informs me that you have red 6 letters from me lately which I am glad to hear & anxiously look for a letter from you. Then I may have something to found a letter upon.” (158) On several occasions William also asked for “likenesses” or “photographs” of his family. (3, 152) Samaria wrote to him: “Thoes Potograps cant be beat….I have one of them whare we can se it all the time….” (183)
Some of the gossip from home underscored how serving in a company of men from one’s own county limited privacy. In December of 1862, Samaria apparently wrote to William about local gossip that he had been with other women. William wrote back: “I think the folks at home must have very little to do and you dear Wife inflicted a severe wound in my Heart when you intimated that I had been unfaithful to you God bless.”(31) In the spring of 1863 McKnight wrote to Samaria that he had heard folks at home were gossiping again and tried to defend himself: “I never did run after Bad Women but even if I did there is no reason for any such report to get afloat about me.” (88) Over the next few weeks he signed off penitently: “Your absent and almost Broken Hearted William” (89) and “your unworthy Husband” (90). When Samaria did not write to him, he became nearly desperate: “Oh how I study over it think of evry thing but cant imagine why am so neglected. I know I deserve nothing better but stil I did not expect to be entirely neglected by every one…. It is a bad state of things when a soldier has to defend his caracter at home and his life abroad one at a time is enough.” (91-92)
Samaria forgave him. At least McKnight went home for two short furloughs in the summers of 1863 and 1864. And in the two letters in the collection from Samaria to William, written in the last month of his life, she wrote: “I have but one falt to find with your letters love and that is they ant long enough or you don’t write half as mutch as I like to hear.” (177) “Oh let me hear from you often. If you dont get a letter for every one you write so be a good man and I will do the best I can until then.” (184)
Samaria McKnight raised their six children by herself and never re-married. When she died, in 1905, her son asked the U.S. Pensions Agent in Columbus to direct the last two months of William McKnight’s pension to the daughter who had stayed at home to take care of Samaria. (193)
Collections of letters are not easy fare for undergraduates or even more mature readers. But Do They Miss Me at Home is in many ways more compelling than fiction or a carefully wrought historical monograph. There is William McKnight, by himself, writing to his beloved Samaria, about the most difficult situations of his life, hoping that he will be lucky enough to once again join her and the children back in Ohio.
Andrew J. Carlson