I know my great-great-great-grandfather’s name: David P. Grier. I know his birthday (December 26, 1836), and I know when he got married (September 17, 1863), and to whom. I know my great-great-great-grandmother’s name (Anna McKinney) and her birthday (August 12, 1840), and I have pictures of both of them in round wooden frames. Her hair is up and she looks mildly amused; he looks very serious and wears a superb mustache. I know where they lived (Peoria, then St. Louis) and how many children they had (seven), and I know that their wedding was “the most colorful and romantic wedding of the nineteenth century in Peoria.” I know that she was “tall and regal in appearance” as well as being “kind, unselfish, and noble”; I know that he was “confident, eager, and courageous,” “bold, dashing, and impetuous,” and “more than ordinarily good looking even as men go,” which is rather a charming thing to learn about one’s ancestor.
Here is another thing that I know: they were madly in love, which is quite another thing to learn about one’s great-great-great-grandparents. I know this because David wrote Anna letters about it, and I have read them. (Anna’s letters haven’t survived — she asked him to burn them — but she saved his; and they did get married, raise children, and live together until his death, so I assume the feeling was mutual.) They don’t require much reading between the lines. “[I]f I should wander the United States over I would never forget you nor cease to love you,” he writes. “They might pass me by all the beautiful young Ladies in the universe and they would make no impression on me for my heart is irrecoverably lost and it is yours, for ever.”
He wrote her this the year before they married, from Paducah, Kentucky, where he was stationed as a Union officer in the Civil War. And he wrote things like this repeatedly — from his enlistment in 1861 until the end of the war in 1865, hardly a week went by without him sending her a letter professing his love. They were written in the lengthy downtime of the army, sitting around waiting for orders or for the next engagement, in the aftermath of battle, while on steamers going up or down the Mississippi.
"I would never forget you nor cease to love you."
Anna and David spent most of their engagement, and the first several years of their marriage, apart, with nothing but photographs for company. “I very often take out your Picture and take a good long look,” he writes, “but it is certainly not as pleasant as to see the original.” Their only communication was through letters, and he sent her terrifically long ones, “as tedious and as long as some of the sermons we occasionally hear from some old fogy preacher,” as he puts it. (He repeatedly upbraids her for not writing often enough — “Your Letters are objectionable on account of their brevity and I do certainly think you might write me longer ones” — but I suppose we can forgive him his testiness, as he was at war and, in his defense, wrote her constantly.) And now I have them, a century and a half later, and I am prying into my great-great-great-grandparents’ lives, wondering where to find this kind of love; or rather, this kind of love in letters, this kind of love in words, this kind of expression of love, even in the midst of war.
It was an ugly war, and he enlisted out of duty. By 1862 he was already sick of soldiering, and repeatedly tendered his resignation, only to have it repeatedly rejected. He was convinced that there was no glory in war, and was afraid that he might be killed before he could make it back home to Anna. In early 1862, he was in the battle for Fort Donelson in Tennessee, after which he wrote to her this description:
“I had a firm feeling during most of the engagement that I was not going to be killed, although I saw a great many fall around me never to rise again. After we had won the battle and had driven the enemy from the Hill, then I commenced feeling a little excited and considerable nervous and I must confess a little scared, for I then had time to realize what I had come through and how wonderfully my life had been preserved, where one would suppose it would be impossible for a person to come through unharmed, for the Trees + ground on the side of the Hill up which we advanced were full of balls, and a person could hardly find a place to lay your hand where a ball had not struck.”
He went on to say:
“One thing I do Know, while we were in the hottest of the fight my mind would wander to Peoria and to you, and I Know if it is my fate to be Killed in any of these actions my last thoughts shall be of you, and the last word spoken shall be your name.”
He was 27, two years older than I am now, 150 years ago to the month, dodging bullets in the war for the Union. And here I am, feeling just a tiny bit guilty to be on a computer in my centrally heated house, poking through his letters.
February 20, 1862, letter from Fort Donelson
I’ve been putting the letters online for the past couple months, reading through, scanning them, and transcribing the beautiful, if occasionally opaque, nineteenth-century penmanship. I have friends who never got to meet their own grandparents, and yet I know the personal details of my great-great-great-grandparents’ love lives. It’s a strange, almost out-of-body experience; I can hardly believe that I’m holding the letters in my hands.
I had this idea, before I opened the letters, of my theoretical great-great-great-grandparents as stiff and restrained — my family is largely Scottish, and even more largely Scottish Presbyterian, which lends itself to a particular sort of buttoned-up repression. You can hear that Presbyterianism coming through occasionally in the letters: “if hereafter I ever do anything to cause you unhappiness, I will thank the hand that punishes me for it,” he writes. But he writes also about the “gayest southern Ladies” he had met while traveling: “I do not care a snap for any of them — I just feel that my heart is gone forever from my Keeping and that it is a great waste of time in going around talking and carrying on with them.” The words David uses in his letters aren’t what I expected to read when I first started this project, and they’re not words that I could imagine myself writing down. The language is so open, so vulnerable to injury, and it makes me feel protective: Watch out, I want to tell him, it’s so easy to get yourself hurt.
But sometimes, also, I’m jealous. It makes me much more uncomfortable to even think about writing such things than it apparently made my 19th-century ancestors to actually write them. I can hardly imagine sitting down to write to my boyfriend “my heart is irrecoverably lost and it is yours, for ever” (which is meant rather as a commentary on my own capacity for expression rather than to knock my feelings for my boyfriend. Love you!). Were I somehow, accidentally, to write that line, I’d probably stare at it for a moment, backspace, and re-draft with something much more noncommittal; something much less likely to put my own heart out on the table next to a knife and fork.
You could say that it’s just a matter of norms — emotional openness as something more expected in private letters of the era. But occasionally I wonder if there is something in David and Anna that wasn’t passed down to me, some unactivated gene whose absence explains why I find it hard to write more in birthday cards than “Happy Bday, I love you! XO.” I trust that my family knows how much I love and value them, but the words that would convey it elude me; it takes moments of immensely high stakes for me to be able to admit to a friend how much they mean to me, and even then I feel uncomfortable, as if I have to pull the words out of myself by force. I don’t know about the extent of this illness — is it me alone, struggling with my words in the dark, or is it more societal, generational? By its nature it’s not something easily discussed. I wish I could take David’s own advice, as he wrote it: “You may think I talk foolish in this expressing myself, but indeed I feel it, and I for one do not think it is silly for a person to feel this and to express themselves so.”
I hope he’s right. I hope that, while I’ll never be in the same situation as he was, I’ll someday be able to write to someone I love the sentiment contained in “I think [when we are together] I can enjoy my life as it should be enjoyed, for I shall feel perfectly contented Knowing that I have just the best young Lady in the land.” And the letters stir up in me more than just jealousy: it’s extraordinary to know that your ancestors were deeply in love.
April 21, 1862: “You may think I talk foolish in this expressing myself, but indeed I feel it."
But there's also a peculiar kind of guilt that comes from knowing a strictly ethical approach perhaps wouldn’t allow you to do this thing that you’re going to do anyway. Should I be reading their letters? Should I be sharing them here? They were personal, maybe secret. Maybe David and Anna would be enraged to see me opening their letters, reading them, transcribing them. I wonder if they'd even have a frame of reference for what I'm doing now — putting their words out into the world so you can see them, so we can talk about them.
But then, I think, David never asked Anna to burn his letters, and she never threw them away. Even at the end of her life, she never erased that evidence. Perhaps she hoped that someday, someone would see how much in love they were. So I also think: perhaps this is a testimony. To the expression of love, to devotion, to the possibility of an enduring romance, even in the midst of war.
(The opening paragraph quotations are from The Todds of Virginia , by Ann Todd Rubey, the daughter of David and Anna’s daughter Margret. The remaining quotations are from the David P. Grier letters in the Grier Family Collection, which belongs to the Missouri History Museum. You can read them online at generalgrier.tumblr.com.)
Annalisa Grier's work has appeared online in The Awl and Salon, offline in Confrontation and Cream City Review, and over the airwaves on The Story with Dick Gordon.