The letters between Madison Bowler and his wife Lizzie reflect the strains imposed by the war on thousands of families.
In the spring of 1864, as Northerners and Southerners braced themselves for the opening of the conflict’s third year, Lizzie Bowler confided to her husband the loneliness that had plagued her since he had joined the Union Army in 1861 had become too much to bear. Madison Bowler had just left after a six-week furlough, and their brief time together had only made the burden of war harder for her. “Oh! You cannot tell how lonely I have been since you left,” Lizzie wrote from Nininger, Minn., on April 21, 1864. “I wish that I could blot this week out of any remembrance, for it has been a sad, lonely one indeed.” Six days later, likely before he received Lizzie’s letter, Madison unconsciously echoed her feelings while traveling on the steamer Davenport. Noticing children aboard, he wrote: “There are several babies which continue to remind me of the little one at home….I would walk five miles lame as I am, just for the privilege of holding her in my arms for one hour….” Madison and Lizzie’s sentiments echo those of countless other war-weary couples who struggled throughout the war to balance duty to family with duty to nation. A native of Lee, Maine, James Madison Bowler had migrated westward in the 1850s, eventually settling in St. Anthony, Minn., and being hired as a schoolteacher in nearby Nininger. Among his students was 20-year-old Elizabeth Caleff, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, whom he would marry in November 1862. In April 1861, he joined the local St. Anthony Zouaves, which later became part of the 1st Minnesota Infantry. That fall, he transferred to the 3rd Minnesota and was promoted to corporal in December. From the outset, Lizzie was never enthusiastic about Madison’s service. He begged her to understand his decision to volunteer, and by winter she had accepted it, if only to ease his conscience.
St. ANTHONY, MINN., APRIL 27, 1861
…Though I promised you that I should try to keep from doing anything to make you feel bad, yet I have volunteered my services to my country as a private in the ranks of the Min. Volunteer Militia. So many of my friends are going and the cause is so just, that I cannot resist going with them and for the cause….In my company are four or five lawyers, as many doctors, several school teachers, a goodly number of merchants, and one editor…besides four printers and other respectable persons ad infinitum. Lizzie, I shall not affect to believe that you do not feel bad to have me go away, for I know you do. I feel bad myself. But somebody must go; and who can go better than young men like myself, without business and with family to demand my attention. The heart which prompted the words, “Go, if you think it your duty,” has increased claims to my confidence and my love. I have thought of those words a thousand times since you spoke them.
Yours ever, Madison
NININGER, MINN., NOVEMBER 2, 1861
Dearest loved one
…You ask to be forgiven if you have ever done anything unkind. There is nothing to forgive. You have always been to me all and more then I expected, you have shown acts of kindness both to me and others that you shall be remembered for as long as earth gives me a home. I hope that some day I shall be able to return them by kind word and loving acts. When you go down river, I want, if it is not too much trouble, you to keep a journal so that when you come back if you ever should, while trotting your grandchildren on your knee, you can look over the time when you were a soldier. I don’t want you to have the blues any more. If you do what you think is your duty both to God and man, you can do no more….
Yours ever Lizzie
Come down if you can any way…
NININGER, MARCH 16, 1862
My Dear Madison
…For the last half hour I have been sitting by the window looking out upon one of the most beautiful evenings that ever cast its shadows o’er Minn. fair plains. My thoughts have been wondering back to the days that have long since sank into the vast, ages of eternity that have gone, gone never to return. It casts a feeling of joy and sorrow over me when I think over the few last years of my life. As far as my intercourse with you has been it has been mingled with unspeakable joy and sorrow. It was joy to know there was one who I could trust and confide in, one whom I knew would not betray that is as far as any knowledge goes, and I believe even will he find sorrow to know that that one for whom I have found so great an attachment should be placed as it were in the very face of death….
Our folks are all well accepting [sister] Kate….Her health has been very poor all winter.
Lizzie S. Caleff
MURFREESBORO, TENN., APRIL 28, 1862
…Yesterday afternoon several slaveowners visited our camp in search of “contrabands” but [we] had to turn them away empty handed although we had as many as fifteen or twenty with us. Several joined us yesterday from near Nashville….This morning as we passed along I noticed a woman standing in the door with two bright looking children by her side and a little one in her arms. I thought she looked very sad, and watched her, when pretty soon she began to cry. Others noticed it and asked the cause of her trouble. She replied with sobs and tears stifled as well as she could, that her husband was pressed in the southern army and she feared that he was killed at the battle of Pittsburg [Shiloh]. Poor woman!
Most of the inhabitants—who, by the way, appear to be mostly female, the males having joined the army—view us in dogged silence as we pass them, the younger ones occasionally hurrahing for the southern confederacy and looking daggers at us. Since leaving Nashville we have seen but one avowed Union family. The old man stood by the roadside swinging his hat and speaking words of encouragement, while his noble looking wife waved a white handkerchief, the little children, full of animation, hurrahing for the Union, and one little girl stood by with an apron full of bouquets throwing them beneath our feet. We pass rebel taunts without notice, but Union demonstrations bring out loud cheers as we passed that one little, devoted, Union family….
Yours as ever, Madison
Madison and the 3rd Minnesota experienced their first major battle when Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked them at Murfreesboro, Tenn., on July 13, 1862. Forrest captured the 3rd and most of the Union garrison. Colonel Henry C. Lester’s decision to surrender the regiment disgusted Madison.
BENTON BARRACKS, ST. LOUIS, MO., JULY 31, 1862
My Dear Lizzie:
…I enlisted last fall through patriotic motives, with very little regard to my personal conveniences or to position, and because I considered it my duty and privilege to do something for my country at an hour when my humble services were of some avail….Our regt. won a reputation of which I felt proud. I longed for the time to come when we should have the opportunity of trying our mettle on the field of battle, not that I felt particularly brave, but because that was what we enlisted for—to fight. That time came. We met the enemy and put him to fight in every encounter, when all at once our glorious [advance] was turned into a shameful surrender by the unaccountable conduct of our officers. “Thereby hangs a tale,” a fearful development is yet to be made, but I will not make it; I will only tell you. I[t] is contained in one word—whiskey! I cannot now tell you all, but when I see you again you shall know all. There were many little incidents in the week that we were first conquerors then captives, then paroled pilgrims from rebeldom to the land of our friends again.
It was our first battle, and all was new to me—the shouts of charging squadrons, the sublime tumult of a foe in confusion, plunging horses, falling with dead and living riders and all trying to escape from the jaws of death hurled from our Minnie rifles, the terrific roar of artillery and volleys of infantry firing, and the horrifying sight of the mangled, ghastly dead and dying….
At one time I stopped during our skirmish in front of the regt to look at a dead man. He was a large, good looking man—an orderly Sergt—lying on his back, a pool of blood which had issued from the fearful looking wound through his head from ear to ear, showed that the work had been done….Pretty soon one of our men came up and pulled a package of letters from his pocket, one of which he gave to me. It was from his wife, F.E. Preston, and dated “Social Circle, Ga.” She has sent him some pies, cakes, and peas, and is going to do everything for him. She does not want him to get his miniature taken until she sees him again. Poor woman! She will never see him again on this earth. I could not help thinking how badly she would feel when she recd. the sad news.
The 3rd was exchanged and found itself back in Minnesota to quell a Dakota Indian uprising. By late November, Madison, though often just miles from Nininger, had not visited Lizzie. She threatened that if he didn’t come home soon, she would never see him again. “I want to see you so badly I hardly know how to wait any longer,” she wrote on October 31, adding three days later, “I am going to wait two weeks longer with patience for you to come home. If you don’t come in that time I will give up all hopes of ever seeing you again.” Madison acquiesced, secured a six-week furlough, and married Lizzie.
Madison rushed back to war immediately following their wedding, leaving a pregnant Lizzie behind. When their daughter Victoria was born, Madison hoped that they would visit him in camp, but Lizzie explained that travel with an infant was impossible. Lizzie’s nerves were raw. Her sister, Kate, had died of tuberculosis. The baby was colicky, and running the family farm alone was demanding. By the spring of 1864, Lizzie’s war-weariness reached a climax, and petty bickering infused the Bowlers’ letters.
NININGER, JUNE 2, 1864
Ever dear Husband
You still speak as though you wished me [to] come to Little Rock…but under the present [cir]cumstances I do not [think] it best. Some times I [feel] that if I had wings I could fly to where you are f[or] five minutes in your society. Now is the time we are ever to enjoy life, that we should be enjoying it, that we should be w[here] we could share each others joys & sorrows [but] how little satisfaction to be thus separated.
from your ever loving wife, Lizzie
LITTLE ROCK, ARK., JUNE 3, 1864
My Dear Lizzie:
I judge from the tenor of your letter, that you will not come to Little Rock. I have a nice place engaged for our board….But I shall not look for your coming any more—though you promised that you would come when I sent for you. I should not complain, however; and I do not wish you to do an act against your own judgment and inclinations, just for my sake. I could not think of having you come here unless it should perfectly accord with your own wish and will. But Lizzie, you must pardon me for my petulance….
Ever your loving, Madison
LITTLE ROCK, JUNE 15, 1864
…I presume the baby is much less trouble to you now that she is weaned and sits alone. I hardly see how you concluded to wean her, unless it was because I ceased to request it, and appeared wholly indifferent about it. I hope that you will not take to nursing her again, thinking that there must be danger in it on account of the approval of one so inexperienced as myself.
ROSE HILL, MINN., JULY 3, 1864
My ever dear husband,
I think when you wrote you felt rather sarcastic….I think you had better try & find some of those southern girls that wouldn’t be so willful.
Ever yours, Lizzie
Madison was busy recruiting 113th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and Lizzie feared—having read of Confederate massacres of white officers in black regiments—that this only added to Madison’s dangers.
LITTLE ROCK, JULY 10, 1864
My Dear Lizzie:
…You ask “how I live and how I get along with my darkies”….I get along well with them. We have drills and dress parade every day. They take hold of music readily, and we already have a good martial band….Recruiting now is very slow. But little can be done until the army moves again, which may not be until about the 1st of Sept. We hope, however, to fill up four companies soon, as we lack but few men, which will entitle us to have a Lieut. Col. mustered.
Ever your Madison
NININGER, SEPTEMBER 2, 1864
My Ever dear Madison
…My prayer to God is that you will never be permitted to lead that Regt of negrows into battle, for I feel well assured what your fate will be if you should. I have always said that I would never try to hinder you from doing what you think is your duty, but…I want you to really think the matter over whether it is your duty to spend all the best of your life away from those who love you best and sighs for your presence ever[y] moment of her life time or to come home & get a good little house & live happy as we should while others who have had the comforts of home take their turn in the battle field….
Believe me, ever your loving wife Lizzie
LITTLE ROCK, ARK., SEPTEMBER 16, 1864
My Dear Lizzie:
…You seem to be wholly absorbed in the one idea of getting me out of the army and getting me home. While I feel grateful for your affectionate interest in my welfare, I must at the same time, chide you a little for your lack of confidence in the ultimate triumph of our cause….I do not claim to be very patriotic—in fact I think I have done less than I might and out to have done—but when I come to weigh the matter with a view of leaving the army, I find it out of the question for me to do so. I did not enlist for fun or profit, and I do not stay now through any such motives. I want to see this rebellion put down; and I firmly believe that it will be; if not for ten years, it will in the end. I think, however, that the end is much nearer than we anticipate. Lizzie, do not permit yourself to make expressions or entertain thoughts in these trying times, which you will have occasion to regret hereafter. Do, for my sake, distinguish yourself from the douting and the weak-kneed….
NININGER, SEPTEMBER 28, 1864
My dear Madison
…Madison, why do you talk to me so about my patriotism? I do not want to be any more patriotic then I now am. I have been willing to make almost any sacrifice to have the north gain her part in this awful contest. Fore three years you know I have waited patiently, have always tryed to look on the bright side. But “patience will cease to be a virtue” some times & how can one help it?…You cannot expect me to love this country as you do, nor feel willing to sacrifice that that I would not be willing to sacrifice for my own country. Could I vote I would be just as anxious to vote for Lincoln as you are….
from your loving wife Lizzie
LITTLE ROCK, OCTOBER 26, 1864
My Patriotic Wife:
Yours of Oct. 8th I received to-day. You sign yourself as my “unpatriotic wife.” I object to that in toto. I never intended to intimate that you were unpatriotic—I never thought so, even. A heart so true as yours, could not possibly hold sentiments other than patriotic. I only wished you to be less doubting, more encouraged in regard to our cause. In the army, courage, confidence, and hope prevail; while at the north are found many grumblers and traitors; also many who are easily discouraged and who permit themselves to make discouraging expressions…I thought by the tone of one of your letters that you felt discouraged. I want you to be full of hope and confidence as long as we have a cause to fight for….
Ever your Madison
NININGER, MAY 14, 1865
…Oh! how glad I am that the war is so near ended. Hope it will not be long till we will see all the soldiers in their old homes again….
[Written across the last page: “Papa, I want you to come home just as soon as the war is ended. Victoria.”]
But by June 1865, Madison had still not returned home, and Lizzie worried he might remain in the Army for good. Madison wrote often, promising to come home but explaining he could not return until he was mustered out. In the end, Lizzie and Victoria joined Madison, who served as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau through early 1866, when they all finally returned to Minnesota. n
The complete story of Lizzie and Madison Bowler is told by Andrea R. Foroughi in Go If You Think It Your Duty: A Minnesota Couple’s Civil War Letters (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008).
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, tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of families like the Bowlers.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.