Mississippi attorney William Nugent is remembered as a brazen Southern radical thanks to one oft-quoted remark.
“I feel that I would like to shoot a Yankee,” drawled a Southern voice in the opening episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Few viewers, unfortunately, would remember he also admitted this “would not be in harmony with the Spirit of Christianity.” From that moment on, William Nugent, a young Mississippi lawyer, became one of the most quoted examples of the brazen radicals on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1861. The irony is that this wasn’t William Nugent at all. A restrained Methodist who frowned on drinking and dancing, he was an early harbinger of the long struggle that lay ahead. Yes, his oft-quoted August 1861 letter was filled with Southern bravado. But it reflected a momentary high for a generally sober and deeply reflective man who has been largely misunderstood by the general public.
Born in Louisiana in 1832, William Nugent was an attorney practicing law with his wife’s father in Greenville, Miss., when the war began. Abram Smith, Nugent’s father-in-law, was one of the wealthiest planters in Washington County. Nugent had married Eleanor “Nellie” Smith on November 6, 1860, the same day the nation voted in the election that would inspire the exodus of Mississippi and six other Deep South states.
Nellie and her family had just returned from a “Grand Tour” through the Upper South and as far north as Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but within months their ties with Yankees through marriage, education and vacation were shattered. William Nugent said goodbye to his bride and hurried off to his duties as an inspector general, responsible for organizing Mississippi’s defenses. The excerpts published here from Nugent’s wartime letters to his wife give readers a sense of the trajectory of experiences in his three years of fighting, ending in 1864. Note that all emphasis—the italicized portion of the excerpts—is original to Nugent’s letters.
VICKSBURG, April 15, 1861
My dear Wife…The telegraph this evening brings a proclamation of war from the “old rail splitter,” with indications from different parts of the North of a warlike spirit. We are evidently in the midst of stirring times with the prospect of a long & bloody war ahead. The feeling for secession is, I think growing in the border states, and they will soon be with us.
VICKSBURG, July 19, 1861
My dear Wife…From present appearances this war will continue for sometime and every man will have to take up arms in defense of his country. The North seems to be as united as we; and the struggle, unless we defeat the enemy at the Virginia battleground will be almost interminable….It will take two or three decided victories to put us in an attitude to demand recognition abroad, and we need expect no assistance outside ourselves for sometime. The sheet anchor of our hopes can only be the stalwart arms and brave hearts of our soldiers.
WASHINGTON HOTEL, August 19, 1861
My dear Wife…I feel that I would like to shoot a Yankee, and yet I know that this would not be in harmony with the Spirit of Christianity….The North will yet suffer for this fratricidal war she has forced upon us—Her fields will be desolated, her cities laid waste and the treasures of her citizens dissipated in the vain attempt to subjugate a free people.
ON BOARD OHIO BELLE, Tuesday, December 10, 1861
My dearest Wife…The people seem to be lulled into a fancied security about Washington County. Bolivar has responded nobly to the call for negroes and has done more than her share. We are yet holding back from pure unvarnished selfishness and may yet have to rue the day we were so backward in the discharge of our simple duty. My humble conviction is that we have not yet seen the beginning of the end of this war. Years will pass ere the smoking of the ruins will disappear.
By the spring of 1862, Nugent was a junior officer in Company D of the 28th Mississippi Cavalry, the “Washington Cavalry.” While anticipating the birth of their first child, Nugent kept Nellie updated on the Confederate losses at New Madrid and Island No. 10, and his fears that New Orleans would be attacked before long. Nugent made little mention of the Confederate defeat at Shiloh, focusing more on whether or not they could hold Corinth.“‘Hope on, Hope ever’ must be our motto, and diligence our watchword,” he wrote Nellie.
JACKSON, MISS., May 1862
I…confidently expect that the last measure of the Lincoln dynasty,—the abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia—will open the eyes of the Western States to the real nature of the fight & disorganize the army North. Already, I am told, there are symptoms of disaffection existing among them; and if suffered to ferment in the minds of the Western troops for any length of time, they will produce a surrender of the whole army to Genl. Beauregard. The Tennessee River is falling rapidly and the Gunboats and Transports must soon be compelled to land. If this happens, the Federal Army, being without transportation, is bound to fall back; and my opinion is, when commenced it will be a second retreat from Moscow….
Our Regiment has nearly all gone to Vicksburg; four companies remain here waiting for some kind of arms to fight with. We have all been compelled to come down to shotguns, it being impossible to get pistols; and were compelled to go off with guns badly in need of repairs. If I had been let alone we would all have been splendidly rigged. Others thought they knew better and were finally compelled to give in to my arrangement at last. There are a great many wise men in the world, but I have discovered that ordinary men are always called upon when any particular service is needed.
JACKSON, MISS., May 29, 1862
Genl. Beauregard is preparing for an active campaign in the west; Johnston has taken his position for fight in Virginia. Stonewall Jackson is driving the enemy before him into Maryland; and the Yankees are checked at Vicksburg. A check to an invading army is tantamount to defeat….I feel very very hopeful now. The Yankees fondly imagine that we will be whipped as they get control of the Father of Waters. Cotton is what the Lincoln Dynasty wants. The distress & suffering in England and Ireland consequent upon the failure of the cotton supply is opening the eyes of England & France; and unless soon pacified, there will be some demonstration from across the water that will astound us all. The war must be ended soon….
HEADQUARTERS, 28th REGT., MISS. VOLUNTEERS, CAMP VAIDEN, November 24, 1862
My darling wife…I find everything here in abundance, and really think it criminal that the tremendous surplus of corn &c. has not been removed before. The R.Road is carrying it off every day in large quantities, but the Quarter Masters are dillydallying about Sacks.
Nugent remained hopeful throughout 1863. Astonishingly, the defeat at Vicksburg gave him only brief pause. He commented on operations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but late in the year reported, “We can hear nothing from Virginia our communication has been cut off entirely.” His letters indicate a rich, complex sense of Confederate nationalism not simply tied to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. In a rare admission that they could lose the war, he wrote, “We must make our minds to become, like the scattered tribes of Israel, without a national existence but preserving our identity as a people as a whole.”
HEADQUARTERS, 28th REGT., MISS. VOLUNTEERS, NEAR SPRING HILL, TENN., May 2, 1863
My Darling, cherished wife…broken & burnt fences, pillaged houses & untilled fields remind us of the presence of war in our midst; a war so devastating & dreadful. Horror of horrors is not a term expressive enough for war. I have given up all hopes of ever saving anything from the crash that will inevitably follow close upon the heels of the termination of the present contest….The only thing that can at all reconcile me to our war is the fact of its being for our homes & friends, our altars & our liberties.
CAMP NEAR MECHANICSBURG, June 24, 1863
My own darling wife, Again I have been exposed to the missiles of the enemy, and again by the blessing of God, have escaped….When Genl. Johnston will move it is impossible to tell. He is preparing to raise the siege of the Hill City [Vicksburg] as soon as possible and I have every reason to think he will accomplish his purpose…. Genl. Lee is reported to be at or near the Capital of Pennsylvania with 90,000 men. Business is suspended in Philadelphia and the whole state is in an uproar. Genl. Bragg is near Nashville and Rosecrans is retreating; and now if we can only defeat Grant the Yankees will, I hope, let us alone for awhile. At least I earnestly hope so.
MRS. WILSON’S NEAR MECHANICSBURG, June 28, 1863
My darling wife…Old Grant is moving all his heavy baggage across the River preparatory to a fight or a run I scarcely know which. The news now is that Gen. Lee is within ten miles of Harrisburg, the Capital of Pennsylvania, driving everything before him and making every Dutchman, woman & child take the oath of allegiance to the Southern Confederacy. This is done, I suppose, for the purpose of exchanging them for our Southern men who have been forced to take the Lincoln oath, and is a very felicitous idea. Our Virginia Army is now feasting on crackers and cheese, coffee, bacon & everything else that heart could wish. This dash will open old Abe’s eyes. He has left Washington and is removing the public records and archives. He will doubtless leave Washington to its fate and establish the capital at New York or Chicago…. I don’t think Grant will get more than 1/2 of his men back north from around Vicksburg, and what he does take away will be worthless as soldiers. The chills & fevers & mosquitoes will kill them off by the hundreds.
DEER CREEK, July 8, 1863
My darling Nellie…A carrier brings me [news] that Vicksburg has fallen; no particulars given. I am ordered to work my way out by the most practicable route. This sad catastrophe will have the effect to paralyze our army, and if Grant follows up his success vigorously there is no telling what the result will be. One thing is sure the River must be surrendered to the Yankees and our country now belongs to them by right of conquest. I presume you will be safe and secure where you are; and if not inconvenient the safer policy is for as many as possible to keep together. When you can remove with safety to yourself you had all better go to Texas where Brother Perry will give you a home & living is cheap. The war will soon be terminated one way or another this year, and we will either be defeated absolutely or some compromise made that will restore the old Union as it was. In any event, wherever you go, if advised, I shall follow you & your & my fortunes shall be identical. Do not be alarmed; as far as your personal safety is concerned you will be better off now than you were before the fall of V.Burg.
CAMP NEAR BRANDON, MISS., July 28, 1863
My own dear wife…Recently after the fall of V.Burg I entertained the most gloomy forebodings of the future; and indeed the great demoralization produced in our army thereby added to the submissive spirit of the people generally, was enough to make one dispirited. The enemy have, however, ceased pursuing Johnston and have withdrawn their army to the hills of Warren to recruit. This will afford us an opportunity to reorganize and rediscipline our army and to call out our reserve: thus bringing us somewhat upon an equality with General Grant, whom, I hope we may hereafter successfully encounter. If I am not greatly mistaken the possession of the River will prove a conquest barren of results. The west will soon discover that the trade upon which they heretofore throve has been ruined and that there are few or no customers for redundant supplies. The fertile valley of the Mississippi has been desolated and the millions of dollars once realized by Western men thru’ trade along the banks of our mighty River will be entirely lost. Our people have no money and no exchangeable commodity; and must be the recipients along of bounties if they consume Western produce. The consequence of this state of things will, I hope, produce a state of indifference to the further prosecution of the war. We are now driven to fight to the bitter end, if conquest itself be the result….
….From the policy pursued by Genl. Sherman around V.Burg I judge you will not be in any danger at home. They will compel you to [give] him your slaves, perhaps but [you] will compel them to obey & respect you….As long as you are quiet & the country is not invaded by either army you can get along well; and being now within the lines & power of the enemy you will have to be politic.
HEADQUARTERS, 28th REGT., MISS. VOLUNTEERS, NEAR BRANDON, August 7, 1863
My darling Nellie…Since the fall of Vicksburg I have reflected a great deal, and am now satisfied that the calamity will result in ultimate good & force us to the adoption of some more decided plans of action….The science of war is the science of numbers, and…we must rely upon our cavalry to protect our rear & keep down raids. This we can do if we only place active energetic officers in charge of this army….We must awake to the realities that are pressing upon us. The enemy cannot move without railroads & steamboats & we have learned to do so. And our men, too, must learn that battles are won oftener with a solder’s legs than his gun.
CAMP NEAR BRANDON, August 11, 1863
My darling Nellie…It would be advisable for your Mother to follow her negroes if she can reconcile herself to the trip when you are in a condition to travel [Nellie was pregnant with their second child]. If not, when things quiet down along the River she may move to the plantation. There is a probability that the war will not be conducted altogether in a civilized way hereafter. Lincoln demands that we treat the negro soldier upon an equality with our whites & threatens retaliation if we do not. This will bring about some dire results & may provoke the abolitionists to a ferocity unparalleled. I would prefer to see you all removed beyond their reach.
HEADQUARTERS, CAVALRY BRIGADE, TUPELO, MISS., September 7, 1863
War is fast becoming the thing natural, tho’ abhorrent to my feelings. I go at it just as I used to go at lawsuits. Still I am not by any manner of means fond of the profession. The idea of being continually employed in the destruction of human life is revolting in the extreme. Necessity imperious and exacting, forces us along and we hurry through the dreadful task apparently unconscious of its demoralizing influences and disruptive effects both upon the nation & individuals. I wish Uncl. Saml. would recognize his nephew and give us peace. I do not desire a reconstruction & a hollow truce, a servile place in the family of nations and to eat the bread of dependence while I am denied all the privileges of a freeman…. ….I own no slaves and can freely express my notions, without being taxed with any motive of self interest. I know that this country without slave labor would be wholly worthless, a barren waste and desolate plain— We can only live & exist by this species of labor; and hence I am willing to continue the fight to the last.
HEADQUARTERS BRIGADE, VERONA, MISS., December 15, 1863
My darling wife…Both Congresses are now in session and what the result will be none of us can know. From all indications they will use all their exertions to increase their respective armies to the fullest extent, and to prepare for a protracted war. I am satisfied we have nothing to expect from foreign nations. Our peculiar institution places us in antagonism to the educated sentiments of the civilized world and we can expect no favors. If successful at all, it must result from our own persistent efforts with[out] an extraneous aid whatever. This may appear almost a hopeless job, but we can nevertheless accomplish it if we persevere “to the end.” The wide extend of our territory will prevent military occupation by the Yankees.
Nugent’s letters end in January 1865, while he was still hoping for Confederate victory. After surrendering with General Richard Taylor’s army in May 1865, Nugent returned to Greenville to find the town and Oakwood plantation destroyed and both his Nellies working in the fields. By the next year, he had buried his wife and seen her family lands foreclosed on.
Despite the war’s tragic toll, William’s steady optimism carried him through the challenges of Reconstruction. He went on to have a thriving law practice. His daughter, Nellie Nugent Somerville, founded Mississippi’s Women’s Suffrage Association, served as vice-president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association and, in 1923, became the first woman elected to the state legislature. And her daughter, Lucy Somerville Howorth, became a lawyer, judge and state legislator. She served as an advocate for the civil rights of women and minorities in the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations.
Susannah Ural is the Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book, Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It, highlights the experiences of families like the Nugents.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.