Eliza O. Perkins Burke's letters and papers document the life of a military officer's wife before and during the Civil War, and her friendships with fellow military wives.
Most of these letters are addressed to Eliza Perkins Burke, excepting a handful written to Mary, an invitation to Capt. Perkins to play billiards, and a certificate of merit presented to Edward while he was at St. Louis University. This is a scattered, spotty correspondence, but there are a couple cohering elements. Many of the women writing to Eliza were also married to military men. They had become friends on Sullivan's Island, while their husbands, many of whom were in the 3rd Artillery, were stationed at Fort Moultrie in the 1830s and early 1840s. The Civil War is another theme around which several of these letters cluster, although only one letter is from an actual soldier. The other coherent grouping is a series of six letters from Rosalie Smith, who was trying to obtain a divorce and chafing under the necessity of depending on her sister's husband for financial support.
The letters from fellow military wives show how close the women had become while together on the island, and there is a sense, especially during and after the Civil War, that these friendships were doubly valuable because they reminded the women of better times. Many of the wives did not see each other again after leaving Fort Moultrie, or only enjoyed infrequent visits. Although they only wrote to each other occasionally, they expressed great nostalgia for the time shared on Sullivan's Island. Often a milestone -- birth, death, or wedding -- prompted the letter, and the author often described her children's progress.
Judith Chiffelle, who had probably been on Sullivan's Island with her brother Thomas, was an anomaly. While the rest of the women were married to military men, Judith was single. She taught school in Baltimore and was raising her dead sister's children while their father ran his business in St. Louis. She wrote, "this I know will astonish you. I like to be an independent old maid, I will never marry. I have taken an oath to live single for my dear childrens' sake" (1854 December 17). Two years later her tone is less triumphant: "what a change a few years make in our life -- I struggling along trying to make a living hard work & keeping school " (1857 February 2). She admits that she would "long ago have laid down this weary head" had it not been for the children.
The Civil War era letters include one from Caroline Carson, a southern woman who suffered multiple hardships. Her husband died, "the plantation was sold according to his directions," and then her father's house, where she had stored her possessions, was burned: "Everything I had in the world was burnt up -- Books and pictures, china, glass linen all my little effects which I valued, and hoped someday to get around me again" (1862 February 4). "I hope in this horrid war no thing of the kind will happen to you," she continued. Another letter, from a northern lady, shows the less direct effect the war had on women who were not in the midst of the fighting. Rather than wondering where to live, Annie Eustace pondered what to wear: "in this time of our country's great troubles, we should think of something else, beside dress and party giving . . . I spend very little time and thought about fine dress, and making a show; I have lost all taste for such things (1862 May 6). There is also one letter from Eliza's soldiering nephew David P. Hancock while he was at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, recovering from a wound and anxious to get back to the field (1862 May 12).
The other clutch of letters is certainly the most intriguing one. Rosalie Smith was living, along with her mother, at her sister Ann Eustace's house in Dixon, Illinois. Rosalie bridled at having to depend on Judge Eustace, whose wealth had been severely reduced by the depression of 1857, but she saw no alternative until her brother Joe returned from Mexico with funds. In response to Eliza's suggestion that she get married, Rosalie wrote, rather obliquely, "this would be a long story and probably uninteresting on paper, but should I ever see you, I will give you some of my reasons for remaining in 'meditation free'" (1859 November 30). By the next year, Rosalie's reasons for resisting her reliance on her brother-in-law had increased: "Judge Eustace's relatives have always annoyed me by reports of our entire dependence on him, making things at times, very disagreeable to all" (1860 October 27). This letter also alludes to a Mr. Sheridan, who was apparently Rosalie's husband, whom she now wished to divorce. She was worried that he would "use every effort to annoy, and keep me bound; money only, will be the great lever by which it can be accomplished." She moved to Chicago with her sister's family, and she happily discovered that "a residence of two years, will grant me a divorce, provided Sheridan does not make application to live with or support me; so on this account too, I am anxious to keep quiet, that he may not know where I am, to molest me" (1860 December 3).