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Introduction to the Isaac Ira White Letter
By George Rugg
Isaac Ira White (22 January 1841-6 May 1864) was born in Frederick County, Virginia, the third and youngest child of Isaac White and Mary Larrick White. The White family farm was located near Mountain Falls; the 1860 census values the real estate at $735.00, and identifies the younger Isaac as a resident (a "farm hand"). White enlisted in the Confederate army on 8 August 1862, in Company C, 24th Virginia Partisan Cavalry Battalion. By April 1864 he was serving as 1st corporal in Capt. Aldolphus M. Pierce's Company H, 11th Virginia Cavalry. The 11th was a new regiment formed by the consolidation of elements of the 17th and 24th Cavalry Battalions and the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.
From 31 March to 20 April 1864, the 11th Virginia was encamped in Falling Springs Church, south of Lexington in Rockbridge County, Virginia, at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley. During the winter/spring of 1863-64 the Army of Northern Virginia suffered worse than usual food shortages, and the artillery and cavalry corps were separated from the infantry encamped around Orange, Virginia because of the scarcity of forage there for the horses. White's letter, composed on 9 April 1864 and addressed to his sister Ursula (b. c1840), describes the comings and goings of several fellow soldiers while the regiment was in camp. Though he does speak of the difficulty of procuring "victuals," he represents his stationing in the Shenandoah Valley, renowned for its natural splendor, as a welcome reprieve and opportunity for sightseeing. In a Romantic idiom common among the better educated soldiers on both sides of the conflict, he writes of his plans "to behold the wonderful works of nature in Bridge building," i.e., to visit the local geological formation for which Rockbridge County is named.
The letter's central anecdote describes the arrival in camp of Pvt. James W. S. Himmelwright, a Company H veteran. Himmelwright is now presenting himself as a substitute for William H. Richard, a conscript from Mountain Falls, Frederick County. In keeping with long-standing European and American military traditions, the 1862 Confederate conscription acts permitted conscripts to hire substitutes to serve in their places. Abuses and fraud in the system were rampant, and the indignation of volunteers and those unable to afford substitutes naturally followed. In response to increasing public resentment, Congress abolished substitution in December 1863, rendering "principals," or conscripted men who had hired substitutes, liable to military service. According to White, Himmelwright will soon be leaving for home because Pierce has refused to keep him. This is understandable given the recent repeal of the substitution provision. But it is also true that volunteers typically regarded both conscripts and substitutes as unreliable and prone to desertion. Even before substitution was outlawed and in the midst of enlistment shortfalls, contemptuous officers sometimes refused to admit substitutes into their units. There is nothing to suggest that Himmelwright's service continued past the date of White's letter. However, surviving records indicate that Richard did eventually join the regiment; he was paroled in Winchester, Virginia on 28 April 1865.
The 11th Virginia Cavalry, assigned in 1864 to Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser's "Laurel Brigade," took part in most of the Army of Northern Virginia's major engagements beginning in the spring of 1863. But the regiment suffered its heaviest losses of the war during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Corporal White was among the casualties, killed at the Wilderness on 6 May 1864.
Bibliographic Note: The standard work on the Confederate substitution policy is Albert Burton Moore, Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy, New York, 1924; reprint Columbia SC, 1997. See also Armistead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865, Charlottesville VA, 2005. General Orders No. 3 of the Adjutant & Inspector General's Office (9 January 1864) stipulates that "no person liable to military service shall hereafter be permitted or allowed to furnish a substitute . . . nor shall any substitute be received, enlisted or enrolled in the military service of the Confederate States" (Official Records, Series IV, Vol. 3, p. 11). The text of the 1864 Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals opinion upholding Congress's abolition of substitution is available online at docsouth.unc.edu/imls/opinion/opinion.html. For the history of the 11th, see Richard L. Armstrong, 11th Virginia Cavalry, Lynchburg VA, 1989, and William N. McDonald, A History of the Laurel Brigade, ed. Bushrod C. Washington, Baltimore, 1907; reprint, Baltimore, 2002. McDonald served as an ordnance officer on General Rosser's staff. For the movements of the regiment and of Company H, see Janet B. Hewitt, ed., Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Part II, Vol. 70, Wilmington NC, 1996, pp. 3-16.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5031-01||Letter||April 9, 1864||Rockbridge County, Virginia||Isaac I. White|