Death of Confederate General Paul Semmes, 1863

On July 10, 1863, Confederate General Paul J. Semmes died from wounds he received at the Battle of Gettysburg eight days earlier. A set of materials in the Gilder Lehrman Collection paint a vivid image of a soldier and his family facing death.

On June 1, 1863, when Emily Semmes wrote her husband to update him on news of thier children and enclosing flowers like the ones she had carried in her bridal bouquet. Paul received the letter ten days in Culpepper City, Virginia and was particularly touched by the flowers. Two years of service far from home took its toll on the Georgian who wrote "When I read it, I wept like a child!  I have read it several times since, & each time wept!  When thinking over it, I cannot restrain my tears!" For eleven pages, Paul discusses the war, contemplated his mortality, how his family will survive without him and even wonders if he should renew his life insurance.

On July 9th, Paul wrote two letter to his wife informing her that he had been wounded at Gettyburg in the Wheatfield on July 2.

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Paul died the next day.  The Gilder Lehrman Collection contain

Nurse GLC07225

Nephew GLC02411

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Full transcript of Paul J. Semmes letter to Emily Semmes, June 11, 1863.

Your affectionate letter of the 1 inst. came to hand last night.  When I read it, I wept like a child!  I have read it several times since, & each time wept!  When thinking over it, I cannot restrain my tears!  It does me good to retire alone in my Tent, unobserved, & Commune with my Dear Loved ones who are so far away.  On such occasions, tears invariably Come to my relief! The sweet flours & your Remarks accompanying them, touched me deeply & recalled by–gone days – days lost in the past more than 20 years – not lost indeed; for they are recalled now most vividly & touchingly – I never in all my life recd. a letter that more gratified [struck: or] or that so deeply touched my sensibilities! May God spare us yet a long time to each other & restore us in due time to each others embraces – & restore our worldly fortunes & smooth the path of our declining years – fit us for Heaven & receive us in Glory!!  The Christians hope inspires me in Battle with invincible Courage.  Religion, in our Holy Cause, imparts a [2] Calm Courage & heroism that nothing else can.  Oh! Day by day, I thank a good God more & more for turning me from sin & setting my face Heavenward!  I shudder when I come to reflect what a great & depraved sinner I have been.  And although I am still a very great sinner & far, far away from God, yet the Change wrought on me is almost miraculous!  Every day seems to strengthen my determination to Love God! Nothing could induce me to give up the little Religion I feel that I have – But, Knowing the frailty & depravity of human nature, I pray Continually to be kept from temptation & sin – Without Gods help, we would all be undone – I do not rely on myself – on my will, or determination but upon Gods strong right arm to sustain & uphold me – I do not feel that my end is very immediate – still, before the [memories since] or indeed, one hour shall have past, I might be numbered with the dead – Oh! That I may be numbered with those who die in the Lord – Although, as I remarked, death does not seem immediate, yet I fell [sic] that it Cannot be long postponed – I do honestly trust & pray to be Carried safely through this wicked war & restored to my Dear family & to be permitted to spend many years in peace & quiet [3] with them.  The [trials] of war are such [inserted: however] that [it is] liable to be cut off at any moment.  In going into battle, I commit myself to God – Oh!  How kind & merciful he has been to me thus far – & had all my energies toward the accomplishment of the defeat & overthrow of the enemy, & have always felt inspired with a feeling that would cause me to surmount all difficulties possible to human nature – I feel that though I have thus far escaped, the next Battle field may be the last to me – the last of me; & you may well imagine what reflections I have, under such circumstances, with reference to you Dearest Wife & the Dear family!  I say you may well imagine – I should say it is difficult to fully appreciate the feeling of solicitude for you all which such occasions always awaken!  If I should be cut off, you all would be left in a most deplorable situation.  Out of the property we have left, a comfortable fortune might be worked in peaceful times in a few years; but in its present shape & during the Continuance of the War, it is absolutely almost nothing, & you would find it so – Our lands, though they may become ultimately valuable, would not sustain you for a day – by supplying your daily wants – Taxation must necessarily be so heavy on all descriptions of property, that you perhaps, could not possibly find the means of even [4] paying those [inserted: taxes].  The few negroes we have would almost be entirely absorbed by outstanding liabilities.  Our plantation, quite valuable, during the Continuance of the War, will remain entirely valueless to us – The enemy Can damage that farther, to the extent of at least $5000 or more, by the destruction of the Gin, Mill, Engine, Fencing, Buildings, &c &c.  Indeed, with the remaining stock, they could damage us, additionally, 6000 or $7,000!  At the Conclusion of the War, I will have no means of starting a plantation – mules being worth $500 each & every thing in proportion, in our Currency.  If my life be spared, we will have to return & live humbly & economically – If not spared, Oh!  My Lord!  What will become of my Dear, very Dear Family?  This thought almost maddens me.  It is not transient – but day by day – almost hour by hour, it is uppermost in my mind!  Until we were overtaken by adversity, I never knew how well & how much I loved my Dear Family!  A Good God will help us if we put our trust in him & repent ourselves – [inserted in the left hand margin: This thought gives me Courage.  Your resignation to our adversity has rendered you doubly dear to me – God is my witness that I love you tenderly!!] [5] 5  I have for almost two years, prayed God that, if I am taken from ere long, I may die on this Battle Field gloriously Contending for the rights your beloved Country with honor to myself & Dear Family & Relatives!  No death, in a worldly point of view, would be more acceptable or more glorious!  But whether I die in the Battle Field or not – no matter when I may die – I pray to die in the arms of Jesus!

The beautiful verses you sent me reflect my own sentiments.  They are touchingly beautiful – I return them to you to keep with the injunction of the Husband who wrote them to the one he loved so well.  I repeat, they Reflect my feelings & sentiments – & I trust you will treasure them.

I do not see how it would be possible for me to go to you if you are sick – Personal Considerations, now that we are in active Campaign, do not weigh a feather – Furloughs & Leaves are denied to persons, whose Father, or Mother, Brother, Sister, Wife, or Child, his [sic] on deaths bed & necessarily too, for there is not one man to be spared from this army.  The enemy Confronts us with three (3) times our force, & we are [hath] to Come in Conflict any day – Indeed, a Battle I feel satisfied, will not be long postponed unless Hooker & his Army run away, for I doubt not we are going to advance  This is the general impression although Gen Lee keeps his own [6] Councils.  I trust you will all keep well – You have all been much blessed with health – & I humbly trust you will Continue in the enjoyment of such an inestimable blessing. 

I dislike very much to give up my Life Insurance – It is for your benefit – not mine – The premium, as I remarked in a former letter, is over $360 for a year – nearly $370 – Had we better not try & pay the $370 & save it in something else?  Do write soon – The present Policy expires in July – the latter part; so if you are diligent in replying, there will be ample time to hear from you, & then for me to write to Columbus & have the Policy renewed.  If I should be Cut off in the next 12 months after July, the payment of this $370 would secure to you $5.000 My life is so very uncertain, that I feel that I ought not to give up this Policy, especially in Case of my death, & you would be left without ready means for your daily wants.  I feel satisfied that we had better pay the $370 & save in some other way.  What say you?  If brought to deaths door with time to reflect, I would reproach myself for having failed to renew this Policy & making this provision for you.  Do write soon about this matter. 

I do seriously hope you will recover your health entirely. I was sorry to hear that you were somewhat complaining. I trust it is only temporary.  [7] For the last few years, you have enjoyed much better health than you did for a good many years. 

I am delighted to hear such a good report of the Dear little [Buds].  I trust they will Continue to improve – Do kiss them for Father & tell them Father thinks of them every night & morning – & through the day – & always pray God to make them good Boys, & keep them from Sin.  Do say to the Dear Girls from me, to treat thou humble people with due respect & courtesy – It is wrong to do otherwise. 

I was glad to hear that James Alexandria had got to Opelika – His family will be another addition to your little Circle – I am will [sic] satisfied that you do not spend a cent that you Can avoid – I never speak to you of extravigance or want of economy with a view of [hoardg].  You exercise more economy than you do – That is not possible in our situation – Indeed, now, we do live & are compelled to, far from our station in society, but them, the accursed – Yankee vandals have brought us to – They alone are to blame – we must accept our toil with a good grace & do the [best] we Can – I know that you always exercise the most Commendable economy in all things – Allow me to suggest to you, not to neglect your Faith, nor allow the Girls to neglect theirs – The Boys’, too, should be examined & attended to – The preservation of the Faith, especially in a female, is of the [8] greatest importance.  A due regard to economy & to health would be consulted by strict attention to the both – If closely watched & attended to, they may be preserved for a long time.  Do keep this matter in mind – I was glad to hear that you had laid in your [main] supplies to last until nearly Christmas – & that your garden was doing so well – The drought in some parts of the South had been so severe that I feared your garden would prove a failure – & [strikeout] I am delighted to hear otherwise.  The article in the Sun which you say you Cut, in Cutting out the poetry, was read by me some days ago.  It was either in a Copy of the sun you sent me, or in a Copy sent [struck: us] [inserted: Capt Ellis] from the Sun office.  I ordered the Service Weekly Enquirer of Richmond to be sent to you some days ago – You will no doubt have recd. a Copy or Copies of it before this reaches you.  I wrote you to this effect before I left Fredericksburg – I feel that neither I nor my Brigade will ever receive half the credit to which [inserted: I &] they are entitled for our services in this war, but a consciousness of duty well performed, still urges me forward without abatement of energy or will – I feel & believe that [McLaws] [9] has attempted to poison Lee & Longstreet towards me – I cannot [divest] myself of this feeling – But not withstanding all this, I will persist in a diligent & prompt discharge of my duty & do the best I can for our glorious Cause & the [glory] of our afflicted Land & people – People, I say – not speculators & extortionists, but the honest good people left at home & the thousands an thousands of good [polite able] women there & for ourselves [inserted: (the soldiers)] & our posterity – The insidious operation of McLaws will certainly postpone if it do not entirely prevent my promotion.  It has already postponed it – I apprehend it will entirely prevent it – for now, promotions are made upon the recommendation of Superior officers & these are like other men, with like [paliatities] [sic] & prejudices, & work to carry their own feelings in it, as much so as politicians ever did.  Notwithstanding all this, as long as I remain in the Army, I will press forward to the proper discharge of duty – This opposition may drive me out of the army, by promoting over my head my juniors, &c.  but I trust not – McLaws pretends to think well of me speaks well of me to those of my Brigade & others around him, but I do most positively believe that he has endeavered to prejudice Lee & Longstreet against me, in connection with my leave of absence last summer & this past winter – His oposition is insidious – not open – You would never dream that there were any other than the most Cordial relations between us if you were to see [10] us together.  His oposition is hidden – deep – insidious – & therefore the more to be feared – If he were an [open] enemy, he could not do me as much harm – Whether he does injustice or not, [struck: or whether] if the true history of my Brigade ever be written, it will occupy a bright page [struck: as] [inserted: in] history – The deeds of my Brigade have not been surpassed in the war – they entitle it to historic fame & renown – & History will be false, if its deeds do not occupy some of its brightest pages – Indeed, we have been so [strikeout] modest in heralding our deeds that we thus far are likely to be positively ignored by history – Pollard wrote the 1st year of the War – & the name of myself or Brigade even did not get into it – That history is emphatically not true, else, we would occupy an enviable position in it – His 2d year of the war will soon be out & it is doubtful if we get in that – !  This all Comes from the fact that we have no one whose business it has been to familiarize [our] public with the acts of the Brigade & the official reports of superiors may have partaken of their supposed prejudices – or more properly, their dislikes – or their purpose to be revenged for frequent wrongs.  Be this as it may, I hope in the end, the truth will prevail.  Thus far, I am not afraid for the whole truth to be told – The whole truth if told, would redound to our lasting Credit – I am happy to state that there has been a great Change in my manner towards officers & men – It has been much [11] softened, & whilst all are held to a rigid performance of duty, there is much less hardship manifested on my part – Officers who have joined my Brigade with the last two Regiments incorporated in it (50 & 51) tell me that they came to me with dread of my severity.  They find me exacting in all matters of duty, but eminently just & otherwise liberal.  It affords me a great gratification to say that I have the unbounded Confidence of the officers & men; & this results from the manner in which I have always [struck: lead] [inserted: led] them in Battle, from nothing else.  I have nine Regts – Since I have [struck: lead] led them in Battle & restored their morale, express great confidence & admiration – So, with the old Regts – To illustrate my idea: Maj Davis told me that my Brigade had an unbounded confidence in me as Jacksons men had in him that had I won this Confidence [struck: from] [struck: by] the manner in which I had led them in Battle – This is very gratifying & I hope to Continue to justify such a good opinion to the end – By Gods help, I will continue to do all in my power to perpetuate it.

Abner & Thomas Cleveland are both well – Thomas Cleveland has been afforded the Chaplaincy of the so Ga by Col (John) [Wines] – & has applied for a furlough to go home to procure license to preach [&c] –  which I hope he will get – He is an excellent, good young man – I sincerely believe he is a pious, God fearing man – What a Consolation it would [12] be to his Dear Mother if she were living – The seeds of piety sown by her on the young man when in Child hood, have sprung up [inserted: &] are destined to bear good fruit – Abner is well – He makes an excellent ordnance officer – very altruistic indeed, & very steady – He might & probably would be [unsteady] if not with me & while he could get liquor he is & has all along been very steady – [strikeout] [inserted: With] my staff & the [employees] in the various departments & the Guard & [Lawsters] – making in all more than [illegible] – an oath is never heard – This can scarcely be said of any [inserted: other] 100 [illegible] in the Army – I never hear an oath here! – Nothing at any time occurs here to offend the sensibilities of a woman ever – Although there are persons here who do swear, yet not an oath is uttered in my hearing, ever, around my Camp – And there has been a vast improvement in this respect in the entire Brigade – & I believe in the Army – There is evidently more religious feeling in the army than at any previous time – [We] are more anxious to listen to God’s [inserted in the left hand margin: ministry than ever before since the Commencement of the War.] 

[inserted in the left hand margin of page nine: After sending much love to all, I will Close my letter by a quotation from your Dear [letter].  It is this:]

[inserted in the left hand margin of page ten: "I will enclose you some flowers such as I wore in my bridal hat."  My Dearest Wife, you cannot imagine the deep feeling this remark]

[inserted in the left and right hand margin of page eleven: reconceived – It awakened recollections & caused me to weep like a little child! These words [illegible] the little flowers you sent, they will be treasured as long as I can keep them in my little Testament – Yr affectionate PJS –](GLC00101)

 

The Gilder Lehrman Collection contains over twenty thousand documents relating to the American Civil War. More than half of these are letters between soldiers and their families.  

Over the course of 150 years, many of the letters from Paul Semmes to his family became seperated.  The Gilder Lehrman Collection has acquired these items featured here over the course of a decade.

 

 

Born June 4, 1815, Paul Semmes was a banker, businessman and plantation owner prior to the Civil War.