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Southy L. Savage Letter - Introduction and Index

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Introduction to the Southy L. Savage Letter

By George Rugg

Southy (or Southey) Littleton Savage (1831-1915) was born in New Kent County, Virginia, the son of Nathaniel L. (1806-1853) and Elizabeth Parkinson Savage (1808-1854). Nathaniel Savage was a planter; the 1850 U. S. Census values his real estate at $9500, and indicates that he held 24 slaves. Six children were living in the household in 1850; eighteen-year-old Southy, the oldest, is identified as a deputy sheriff. Savage married in 1853, and a son, Nathaniel, was born in 1854. By 1860 his wife had died, and he and his son were living at the New Kent home of a brother-in-law, Dr. Leonard C. Crump, the husband of Savage's sister Emily.

Savage was mustered in to Company F, 3rd Virginia Cavalry on 28 June 1861, as 1st sergeant. He was promoted 2nd lieutenant on 15 February 1862, but resigned his commission several months later, on 25 April. At some subsequent point he was detailed to the Confederate Signal Corps, established on 19 April 1862 and attached to the Adjutant and Inspector-General's Department of the CS Army. The most familiar duty of Signal Corps personnel was to facilitate communication between commanders in the field, mainly by the use of signal flags (or "wig-wag"). But the Corps also had an intelligence function, including the maintenance of the so-called "Secret Line," an established route for the passing of information and personnel through enemy lines, between Richmond and Washington. The most hazardous part of this route was the crossing of the Potomac River, heavily patrolled by the Federals. The usual point of crossing was between the farms of two collaborators, Thomas A. Jones (on the Maryland side of the river, in Charles County) and Benjamin Grimes (on the Virginia side, in King George County). Though little is known of Savage's career in the Signal Corps, the content of his letter—written on 3 May 1864 to a sister in Richmond—is suggestive.

After a few pleasantries Savage gives an account of his activities over the previous months, when the Army of Northern Virginia was in its winter entrenchments, south of the Rappahannock:

I have been Stationed in King George Co. every since the Middle of January last. I had a delightful time I formd a great many acquaintances & they were all very kind to me, made me a great many presents such as socks, &c, they were constantly sending me something good to eat, which I stood in need of at times, for it was so very inconvenient for me to get my rations. I was a regular church attendant, I was stationed not far from St; Paul's Church where there was preaching every Sabbath. I was very sorry when I had to leave, I received orders a few days ago to report here . . . .

The church which Savage so faithfully attended can only be St. Paul's Parish Church (Episcopal), located in King George County within a few miles of the Potomac and the Virginia terminus of the Secret Line. It is difficult to imagine why a Signal Corps operative would be stationed to this area, far from the army, if not for covert work—to assist with river crossings, perhaps, or to keep an eye on Federal traffic along the Potomac (there was in fact a signal camp in a swamp behind Benjamin Grimes's house). Savage apparently spent over three months along the Potomac, until being recalled just days before the writing of the letter, possibly in anticipation of a Federal offensive. (As it happens, the letter was written on the very eve of the greatest offensive of the war, Grant's Overland Campaign, which makes Savage's statement that "I have no war news to write you" seem somewhat ironic). Just where Savage was recalled to—where the letter was written from—is not entirely clear. The best guess is Port Royal, directly south of King George County on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock: the back of the letter's envelope bears the notation "Port Royal Va / May 4th").

The letter is accompanied by a clipped forwarding address, in Savage's hand, directing mail to Hamilton's Crossing in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, care of Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. The relationship of this address to the letter is not clear. It does suggest, however, that at some point Savage was attached to Stuart's staff; he had, after all, served in the cavalry before being detailed to the Signal Corps. And Stuart is mentioned in the body of the letter, as having issued an order that Corps personnel be sent to his command at Orange Court House. Stuart died on 12 May 1864 from wounds suffered the day before, at Yellow Tavern. On 15 May 1864, Savage was captured (or arrested) at King George Court House in King George County, and sent to the Federal prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. He was transferred to the military prison in Elmira, New York on 15 July 1864, and was finally exchanged on 10 March 1865.

Savage's letter is addressed to his older sister Emily Savage Crump (b. c1828), whose family had relocated to Richmond during the war. Two additional sisters mentioned in the letter, Mary E. Savage (b. 1843) and Maria Parker ("Parkie") Savage (b. 1846), were at various times employed as clerks in the Confederate Treasury Department. Because it was felt that the hand signing of Treasury notes helped prevent counterfeiting, and because the amount of currency being printed was excessive, clerks were hired to sign their names to newly issued bills, in place of the Department's Register and the Treasurer. Mary and Parkie Savage were two of the 200-odd people hired over the course of the war to perform this task, people whose names may today be found on pieces of Confederate currency.

Savage seems not to have prospered after the war. In the 1880 Federal census for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, he is enumerated in the household of George Sadler, a Berryhill Township farmer by whom he was employed as a servant. He died in 1915.

Provenance Note: The Southy Savage letter was purchased via ebay in 2005 from Thomas M. Nilges of Lakewood, Ohio. Acquisition funded by Robert and Beverly O'Grady.

Bibliographic note: For the history of the Confederate Signal Corps, and details of the operations on the Potomac, see Edmund H. Cummins, "The Signal Corps in the Confederate States Army," Southern Historical Society Papers 16 (1888): 93-107; and Charles E. Taylor, The Signal and Secret Service of the Confederate States, Hamlet NC, 1903. An overview of the entire Confederate intelligence apparatus may be found in William A. Tidwell, April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, Kent OH, 1995. For a regimental history of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry see Thomas P. Nanzig, 3rd Virginia Cavalry, Lynchburg VA, 1989. See also Janet B. Hewitt, ed., Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II, Vol. 69, Wilmington NC, 1996, pp. 700-27. For a list of the individuals authorized to sign Treasury notes, see Raphael P. Thian, Register of the Confederate Debt, Lincoln MA, 1972. Thanks to David Boone for providing several pieces of information on the Savage family, including their wartime work for the Confederate Treasury.

Index of Letters

MSN/CW 5039-01LetterMay 3, 1864Port Royal, VirginiaSouthy L. Savage
MSN/CW 5039-02Manuscript[1864?][Southy L. Savage]

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