Amid a national calamity, tragedy strikes

Trevelian StationAs the US continues to recognize the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States it’s increasingly apparent that a significant number of Americans see the bloody four-year conflict as little more than a few key events: Fort Sumter, First Manassas, Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination.

While we sometimes recognize the terrible toll the war took in terms of lives lost, that figure has become an abstraction. With current figures of dead from the 1861-65 conflict now estimated to top more than 700,000, many today can’t or won’t attempt to comprehend the war’s impact on American society a century and a half ago.

Many History Channel historians tend to think only of the victories and of the final success of the Union army; or, in the South, of the valiant, if doomed, tenacity of the Confederacy.

But the war was, if nothing else, millions upon millions of tragedies bundled up into the form of a tremendous calamity.

For every man in uniform who was killed in action or died of disease, dozens, scores or even hundreds of others were touched, some at the front, others at home.

And the tragedies weren’t always the result of the death of men in uniform, either.

On this date, 150 years ago today, an officer in a South Carolina cavalry regiment got perhaps the worst news of his life.

Allen Edens, second lieutenant with Company E of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment, learned while stationed at Pocotaligo, SC, that his wife, Martha Jane, 35, had died the night before.

She left him with eight children, including an infant and two other very young children.

Edens, 37, was granted a 10-day furlough and was able to reach his home in today’s Marlboro County, SC, in time for his wife’s burial.

Shortly after the funeral Edens wrote Confederate officials seeking an extension of his leave, in order to make necessary arrangements for the security and comfort of his children.

Letter by Second Lieutenant Allen Edens requesting time off after learning of the death of his wife, leaving him with eight children. Source: National Archives.

Letter by Second Lieutenant Allen Edens requesting time off after learning of the death of his wife, leaving him with eight children. Source: National Archives.

“I am left with eight children, the oldest one being about fifteen years of age,” he wrote on Nov. 10, 1863. “I have among the eight an infant, and two other little ones that need almost as constant care as infants. My servants are all young and inexperienced, not one of them capable of taking charge of a family.”

It appears from correspondence sent on behalf of Edens to General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was then commanding the South Carolina region, that Edens had 10 slaves. However, the oldest was only 20 and only four were “old enough to be of service.”

The missive to Beauregard stated that Edens was concerned that if he “should he be required now to remain in camp his only course will be to break up and scatter his children and negroes wherever he can get shelter for them.”

According to Edens’ service records, his leave was extended into late January.

It’s not entirely clear what arrangements Edens was able to make for his children and slaves, but it appears that he remarried in mid-February 1864, to one Christian Chisolm, according to evidence found on Ancestry.com.

One can’t help but wonder if the marriage was one of convenience, rather than love, although it did last nearly 30 years.

According to Edens’ service records he was back with his company by the end of February 1864.

Edens traveled north with the rest of the 4th South Carolina in the spring of 1864 to Virginia as the regiment fought as part of General Matthew C. Butler’s Brigade, under General Wade Hampton and the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps.

The unit would return home in early 1865, attempt to stop Sherman’s army moving through the Carolinas and eventually be surrendered in late April.

Edens would be promoted to first lieutenant and, unlike many members of his regiment, survive the war.

He would live until 1892, when he died at age 66. His second spouse would outlive him by more than five years.

Allen Edens and both of his wives are buried in the same cemetery in Clio, SC.

(Top: Hampton’s Cavalry Corps, which included the 4th South Carolina, at the Battle of Trevilian Station, Va., June 11, 1864.)

Martha Jane Edens gravestone, McLucas Cemetery, Clio, SC.

Martha Jane Edens gravestone, McLucas Cemetery, Clio, SC.

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9 thoughts on “Amid a national calamity, tragedy strikes

  1. Wow. Imagine being in charge of 18 people under 20 even now when dads are expected to be as competent a parent as the mother.
    In those days few dads would have had the parenting skills necessary to keep a small family sorted, let alone as many as this!

    What did Martha Jane die of? Overwork!?

    I wonder why he had so many young slaves without any older people?

    I’m full of admiration for Miss Chisholm to take on such a large brood, hopefully she was a good mother to the children and slaves, I expect Edens wouldn’t have been to choosy when it came to finding a willing mate though.

    • It’s a remarkable story, isn’t it? I am always staggered by how much different, and more difficult, things were even 100 years ago. In this case, Allen Edens had slaves, but it was apparent that many weren’t old enough to be of service. And, yes, I don’t imagine he was in any position to be choosy about a wife. Not many women are willing to take on eight children, including three very young ones, while your husband goes back to fight in the army. I suppose the fact they remained married for nearly 30 years indicates the match was at least somewhat compatible.

  2. I think during the years of the Civil War, many couples found themselves linked by convenience, especially in the South. Women lost husbands, sons, and homes, too, so it’s possible that Christian wasn’t able to be any choosier than Allen. I think many times the deciding factor was compatibility, and perhaps each even looked for someone temperate and not passionate. That period of time required people to take death in stride and get on with their lives for the benefit of others or of themselves. Much as we do the Greatest Generation, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for surviving a horrible time and allowing us to build on what they left for us.

    Thank you for sharing this story, Cotton. I am not exactly a “buff” but am extremely fond of Civil War history. I love Foote and the Shaaras equally and so enjoy touring the battlefields and museums dedicated to that time.

    • Thank you for your comment, Onoir. I just finished The Killer Angels and have always been a fan of Foote’s work. There’s something about writers that bring long-ago events to life that I find very compelling.

      Your comparison with the World War II generation is an interesting one. To have lived through not only the Great Depression but the bloodiest war in human history had to have been a scarring experience. We do indeed owe a debt to those who survived and overcame.

  3. I don’t know. I really think the CHILDREN were getting the worst news of THEIR lives. And, most likely, the slave children–fearing for what might happen to them.

    • Yes, safe to say a tragedy for all involved. I hadn’t thought about the slaves. There was almost certainly some very real fear whenever something dramatic like this occurred. Unlike children and a new spouse arrived on the scene, While a parent my take the side of their child should their be conflict with the new spouse, slaves were almost certainly going to be sold down the river if there were problems.

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