In 1863, Union soldier Stephen Metcalf posted a newspaper solicitation for correspondence with a Northern woman, and Carrie White, a supporter of the Union forces, was one of several who responded. All but a few letters in this collection are correspondence between the two that started with this advertisement and ended with their marriage in 1868. The letters span the first five years of the couple's relationship, offering detailed and intimate insight into courtship and other social practices of the Civil War period.
Approximately one third of the letters in this collection were written during the war, and much of the early correspondence centers around the battle and politics. The correspondence is almost entirely complete, with some of White's early letters missing. The bulk of the letters that discuss White's involvement with the aid society are between the beginning of the correspondence and May 25, 1865. As the war ends, topics begin to include Metcalf''s career, courtship and marriage.
The collection begins with a letter from "Eugene" thanking Carrie for her kind response to his advertisement. The letter includes a clipping of his newspaper solicitation. This first letter is almost a grand song of praise to the female sex, and her support of the Union cause: "I have scarcely withdrawn from the blood-stained battlefield when woman has made her appearance and by word, book and deed produced the balm of healing and consolation into every wound."
Metcalf directed most of their conversations, and he centered on two themes: first the war, and second, any social topic that was a little bit controversial. For example, in a letter dated 1863 November 1, Metcalf stated:
The day has come when it is no longer considered a disgrace for woman to appear in the capacity of teacher, lecturer, authoress, or physician. Slowly, yet surely, is the "better half" of the human race rising to the heights destined by the Creator. I believe that when our school houses, seminaries, colleges and Universities shall have become wholly or in part under the influence of female influences there will be greater intellectual advancement and a sounder code of morals inculcated, than characterizes our Educational institutions at the present time.
Metcalf asked for White's attitudes about topics such as co-education. Unfortunately, as is the case for much of the first year of their correspondence, we do not have her reply. One can gain some insight into the kinds of things that White was aware of by reading what Metcalf asked and told her.
Letters from both White and Metcalf during the war provide information about several military actions and the political state of the Nation. On November 1, 1863, Metcalf wrote to White that his company had joined the Pioneer Brigade and built two bridges across the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. One and a half years later, on April 12, 1865, Metcalf celebrated the capture of Richmond: "Yesterday the forces at this post celebrated the capture of Lee and his army by firing a salute of two hundred guns. With the Capital in our possession, the greatest general and best disciplined army of the enemy our prisoners, the conflict cannot continue much longer."
In a letter dated March 10, 1865, White reflected on the war, the condition of Union soldiers, and the future of the nation. She was mortified by the behavior of Andrew Johnson: "What a disgrace to the Nation. The vice-president being in a state of intoxication at the time of the inauguration, what will other nations think? What would become of us, if 'Uncle Abe' should chance to be taken from us?"
Within a year and a half of the first letters, Metcalf and White were very much friends, and their letters take on a comfortable, frank, and familiar tone. White's side of the correspondence is well represented from this point on. Ongoing conversations touched on topics as difficult as Lincoln's assassination and as banal as clothing. As their friendship grew and the war came to an end, topics got more personal, and the two began to tease one another and share their emotional experiences. For example, Metcalf revealed over the course of several letters that he had been fond of a young lady in his home town. While he was away fighting for the Union, she married a "Copperhead." White, also over the course of several letters, delicately consoled him, assuring him that the young lady was not deserving of his affection.
There are signs that by 1865, they each had significant influence over the other. White had particular influence over what Metcalf would do after the war. He discussed some of the career tracks that he could take, including medicine, teaching, or moving west and farming, and seemed to be fishing for White's opinion. In her response, White suggested that she was not fond of the teaching idea. Metcalf immediately qualified his remark, noting that education would only be something he would consider as a temporary form of employment.
White and Metcalf had corresponded for two years before they met in person. After meeting in Jersey in November of 1865, the courtship truly started to evolve and the reader gains an insight into the powerful yet precarious position that women could hold in this kind of interaction. White, for example, is the first to write after the two meet, and she worried that such an "aggressive" move might be too forward. Stephen teased her a bit, but was not put off by her boldness.
As the courtship developed, the two discussed social connections with the opposite sex. Both Metcalf and White deployed jealousy as a mild form of manipulation. On January 14, 1866, Metcalf wrote, "There are eight young ladies in attendance, and I must say that some of them are handsome, at least in a moderate acceptation of that word. But you know that teachers are supposed to occupy a neutral position of all questions relating to the good or bad looks of their female pupils."
In April of 1866 the two met again, and Metcalf declared his love to her. By July of 1866 he proposed marriage and she accepted, all by mail. After the two became engaged, White expressed several concerns about their marriage, often through indirect means. For example, she sent Metcalf a long poem entitled "A Woman's Question," by an unknown author. The first stanza reads:
Before I trust my fate to thee,
Or place my hand in thine;
Before I let thy future give
Color and form to mine,
Before I peril all for thee;
Question thy soul to-night for me.
The remainder of the poem lists the many concerns of a bride-to-be. White seemed to fear that there was a hidden nature within Metcalf that would be revealed after marriage, or that she would somehow fall short of his expectations.
Both parties expressed some concern that the fact that their friendship started as a correspondence based on a newspaper advertisement might violate a sense of propriety. White encountered such concerns among her friends in Jersey. One of her friends, not knowing about Metcalf, told White that this kind of letter writing was very low class. In a letter dated 1864 October 17, Metcalf responded to a question that White has posed about this concern: How would he feel if his sister were to correspond with a soldier? Metcalf admitted that he would not look upon such a situation favorably. On May 1, 1866, just after Metcalf had been presented to White's friends in Jersey, her aunt advised her on sharing publicly the origin of the friendship: "I don't want you to tell a story, neither do I want you to tell the truth..." Although White and Metcalf seemed to regret the way the relationship began, they also recognized that it was the only way the friendship could have started.