After Robert W. Parker joined the Second Virginia Cavalry in 1861, he wrote to his loved ones whenever he could.
Some letters reflected the grueling life of the soldier – complaints about rations and camp routines, requests for clothing, horses and ink. Others captured the uncertainty of life in wartime:
“Dear Beck,” he began in 1863 to his wife, Rebecca. “Though this note may never reach you there is nothing like trying to get one to you [sic] Of course, you have been in great suspense as to my being dead or alive.”
Parker’s letters, dating through almost all of the Civil War, now speak to modern readers from a new home in UNC’s Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library.
The Dooley family of Charlotte, Parker’s descendents, recently donated the 350-item Robert W. Parker Papers to the library. The family also established the Parker-Dooley Fund for Southern History with a gift of $250,000 to the Southern Historical Collection.
“This is the final chapter and a new beginning in the journey of a family treasure that started with my great-grandfather’s first letter,” said David Dooley ’86, executive vice president at Charlotte-based R.T. Dooley Construction Co. Dooley majored in history at Carolina.
The papers complement strong Civil War collections already held by the UNC Library, said Tim West ’72 (MAT, ’76 MSW), manuscripts curator and director of the Southern Historical Collection.
“We have hundreds of collections featuring letters from soldiers,” West said. “However, it’s rare to see a run of correspondence that covers the war in Virginia from the very beginning to the very end.” About 300 of the letters are from Parker to his wife, his parents and other relatives.
West expects the collection to attract researchers interested in military life and in the way the war affected families. “You come to understand that these were real people living day-by-day in extremely trying circumstances,” West said. “You get a sense of what the typical Confederate soldier felt and understood about what was happening.”
The human dimension of the story is heightened, West said, by its end. Although Parker saw relatively little combat over the course of the war, he was killed in 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, the war’s final battle before the surrender of Robert E. Lee. He died just 40 to 50 miles from his home near Bedford, Va., which then was called Liberty.
The saga of the letters did not end with Parker’s death. In recent years, the Dooley family had the letters professionally conserved, transcribed and bound. They also consulted Peter S. Carmichael, a historian at UNC-Greensboro.
Carmichael enlisted one of his students, Catherine Wright, who graduated recently with a master’s degree in history. Over the past year, Wright annotated the transcripts, explaining and identifying places and people mentioned in the letters.
She also wrote analyses of Parker’s views and an introduction, then grouped these elements and the transcripts into a proposed book. Her collection, with the working title Lee’s Last Casualty: The Civil War Letters of Robert W. Parker, is being considered for publication.
The transcripts are especially helpful because many of the originals are hard to read, West said: “They reflect the conditions in which they were written. Some of the papers are poor-quality scraps, with torn sections and worn areas, and with cramped writing that makes use of every available inch.”
When the time came to find a home for their treasured documents, the Dooleys turned to family friend Erskine Bowles ’67, president of the 16-campus UNC System. Bowles connected the Dooleys with the Southern Historical Collection.
West’s plans for the Parker-Dooley Fund honor this UNC connection. A key use of the endowment will be a competitive stipend to support graduate students and young faculty from UNC System institutions other than those in Chapel Hill who wish to conduct research in the Southern Historical Collection. West also will establish a Parker-Dooley Award to recognize excellent writing by Carolina students based on Southern Historical Collection holdings.
“I could not be more excited about the impact the Parker-Dooley Fund can have on the lives of faculty, students and visiting scholars,” David Dooley said. “As my family and I grow our business, we have come to realize the competitive advantage intellectual capital plays in our success. A strong university system plays into our strategy and raises the knowledge tides for all North Carolinians.”
The Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call (919) 962-1345.
The gift counts toward the Carolina First Campaign, the $2 billion fundraising campaign that runs through Dec. 31, 2007.