Lake Norman & Mooresville

Letters offer ground-level view of Civil War

I want to tell you about a man I never met.

His name was Irby Goodwin Scott, and he died nearly 90 years ago.

He was a veteran of the Civil War, and his letters are the focus of a book by Johnnie Pearson called "Lee and Jackson's Bloody Twelfth."

Pearson compiled 58 letters that Scott wrote home over the course of his service in the 12th Georgia Infantry between 1861 and 1865.

The 12th Georgia spent its first winter in the mountains of Virginia, where Scott formed strong bonds with his fellow soldiers. Still, Scott's devotion to his family was stronger.

"If I should be spared," he wrote to his parents in November 1861, "I shall try to repay you in part, for I could never repay you in full."

He urged them not to let his younger brother join the army.

"Tell Bud I think he had better remain at home," he said. To Bud, he insisted, "You are entirely too young. Your constitution may be injured."

Scott did not realize how prophetic his words were. As part of the 12th company, Scott was part of the bloodiest fighting of the war: the Peninsula campaign, the second battle of Manassas, Gettysburg. In June 1862, he wrote, "I have become so hardened as to stand anything."

In August, he was wounded at Manassas.

Scott continued to write, reporting mundane details of the crops, camp life, the condition of the other Putnam County men. He sent money home and asked for continued correspondence.

"A letter from home from those we love buoys up and stirs our sleeping patriotism," he said.

In 1863, his brother joined the Confederate army. Irby Scott was made junior second lieutenant in September, continuing to save most of his $5 to $10 monthly pay. His letters mention nothing of his promotion.

In 1864, Bud was mortally wounded in the battle of Spotsylvania. By then, the Confederate army's morale was low, and Irby Scott himself was disillusioned with the conduct of his fellow officers and with the battlefield conditions, Pearson wrote.

Scott describes "constant, desperate fighting" until the surrender at Appomattox. Scott most likely walked home to Putnam County. He remained active in local politics and veterans' affairs until his death in 1925.

Researching Scott's life and letters took Johnnie Pearson more than a decade to complete. Pearson said he felt as though Scott had become like a brother to him.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War this year has sparked renewed interest in the research and preservation of artifacts from the period. While the letters of Irby Goodwin Scott offer a limited perspective of the war, they are far more powerful than a history textbook.

The correspondence of the Civil War, as exemplified by Scott's letters, suggest why it remains so prominent in our national, and especially our Southern, identity.

He was an educated man, and he felt an obligation to sacrifice his own life, if necessary, for his country.

His words are eloquent, timeless, but also a lifeline: between battle and home front, between past and present, between written history and the real people who were there.