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Micro-Edition | DOI: 10.55520/N6VRSZR6

Paper Bullets: The Civil War Letters of John and Phebe Miller

Edited by Samantha Misa, University of New York at Albany

The American Civil War is a conflict infamous for its fratricidal hostility, mechanized mass death, and complex sociopolitical origins. American historians also regard it as one of the world's first modern wars, citing the conflict's mass death, widespread use of media and technology, enormous industrial output, and national socioeconomic consequences.1 Another modern element of the war was the ability to send and receive letters from the battlefield, resulting in primary source material that sheds light both on the soldiers who fought and the families they left behind. A collection of letters in the archives of the Delaware County Historical Association (DCHA) in rural Delhi, New York, reveals a tempestuous relationship between a husband and wife whose lives become deeply entwined with and ultimately transformed by the war.2

A majority of the letters are between John C. Miller (1817–1900) who was born in Colchester, Delaware County, New York, and his wife, Phoebe. On January 8, 1837, he married Phebe Tiffany (1821–1902) of Hamden, Delaware County. Miller enlisted in the 144th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company B, as a private in 1862 when he was forty-four years old. His muster roll lists him as being six feet one inch tall with gray eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion. Miller worked for most of his life as a farmer. The Millers had a total of twelve known children: Rebecca (1837–1911), Alonzo (1839–1916), Christina (b. 1839), John Jr. (b. 1842), Alfred (b. 1846), Herman (b. 1848), Antoinette (b. 1851), Phebe (b. 1855), Julia (b. 1859), Euphemia (b. 1859), George (b. 1861), and Lois (b. 1863).

The letters exchanged between the Miller family reflect not only the ideas, issues, and events that the writers wished to convey to one another but also the poor grammar and borderline illiteracy of these rural individuals. The letters written by John C. Miller are composed in a variety of hands, making it impossible to discern which missives were penned by Miller and which were simply dictated by him. It is highly possible that Miller was illiterate, and all letters bearing his signature were in fact written for him by friends in camp. Phebe’s letters to John also show a similar lack of education, and her words are a remarkable testimony to the life of a lower-class rural woman.

These letters are a fragmentary yet revealing source that narrates the demise of two marriages in one family during the American Civil War. The Miller Letter Collection is unique in its documentation of the Civil War’s impact on rural Northern women, particularly in providing a written record of women whose spouses have abandoned them after enlisting. John C. Miller joined the 144th New York Volunteer Infantry in 1862. His communications with his wife taper off by 1864, when John is hospitalized in New York City, and reveal that John is carrying on an affair with his maternal cousin, Lucretia “Lucy” Cook. John and Phebe’s son Alonzo, the second oldest of their twelve children, who had also enlisted in the war, figures prominently in several letters. In 1862, letters indicate that Alonzo ceased writing to his wife, Sarah. After several inquiring letters to her father-in-law, Sarah would discover that Alonzo suffered an injury and was recovering in Pennsylvania, where he would ultimately remain after cutting his ties to home and remarrying.

These letters are significant not only for their documentation of marital crises but also for their revelations regarding the epistolary habits of inadequately educated rural individuals reliant on phonetic spelling.f

The tribulations of the Miller women provide profound evidence for concepts expounded by historians such as Martin Evans, who have encouraged scholars of women and gender studies to envision an expanded definition of “battlefield” and “war zone” to encompass the impacts of warfare on traditionally exempt geographies such as the home front.3 Indeed, as historian James Campbell has argued, war is “not an exclusively combatant, and thus not an exclusively masculine, experience.”4 Other scholars of gender have emphasized the overlooked impact of war on women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including historian Susan Gubar’s assertion that all wars are a “blitz on women” due to their propensity for assaults on civilians, sexualized propaganda, and increased economic burdens.5 The emotional and marital issues faced by the Miller family can enhance the study of war and gender, providing evidence of interpersonal struggles as experienced by those on the home front. Moreover, they expand our understanding of the variety of wartime threats to women's lives, over and above material deprivation, invasion, or occupation.

Scholarship on Northern, Civil War–era women typically focuses on middle-class white women who provided aid through sewing, managed households in their husbands’ absences, or traveled south to serve as nurses; this edition seeks to challenge that perspective. In Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, Judith Giesberg lament that little was known about working-class women in the North, and “even less” material and knowledge exist regarding “marginal rural women.”6

Indeed, as much more primary source evidence was generated by literate, educated middle-class Northern women, many historians have focused on this demographic group as subjects for study. Narratives constructed around these sources posit the role of the Civil War in the lives of Northern women as primarily an opportunity to “demonstrate their right to political inclusion by means of economic and personal sacrifices.”7 Other scholars use the political or patriotic actions of middle-class Northern women to suggest that these women were “forebears of the Rosie the Riveters of World War II” who “seized new economic opportunities” in the midst of a national crisis.8 Additionally, study of Northern women primarily through the lens of Union nurses – women who left the North to volunteer in the South – serves to reinforce the idea that “domestic geography” of the Northern private sphere was somehow “safe from … the ravages of war.”9

Recent scholarship on the role of gender in the Civil War includes a focus on the role of masculinity and how its social expectations influenced men’s combat experiences.10 This focus is owing to both the abundance of letters and diaries produced by soldiers and a recognition that the analytical lens of “gender” can be applied to both women and men. Other recent works have demonstrated the importance of including the experiences of enslaved (and later freed) persons in the South and the North.11 Yet the lack of primary source evidence has resulted in little new scholarship on rural Northern women such as Phebe and Sarah Miller, whose lives were impacted in such an intimate way by a war fought in a distant region.

“he Cars so litl about home”: Alonzo and Sarah Miller

The earliest letter in the collection is from Alonzo F. Miller to his family. Alonzo was a private in Company G of the New York 101st Infantry Regiment, having enlisted in 1861. In 1862 Alonzo was training at a camp in Hancock, Delaware County. On February 16, Alonzo wrote:

I resivd your letter This morning morning I was glad To here from you I am well At present and I hope those few Lines will find you the same Gute blessing of helth you must Come down and see me if you can I Would like to hav you and fother Come down and see me tell John [John Miller Jr.] and Alfird and Herman and Antnet [Antoinette] and Pheba [sister Phebe Miller] and Feema [Euphemia] that They must remmber me if I dont Hav a chance to come home before I Leive here I expect to go to Conmt Contucke when we lev here But I dont know when we Will go from this Camp

Alonzo’s unit would eventually be stationed at Fort Liam in Alexandria, Virginia. In an undated letter to his family, Miller wrote that he was working as a cook, and that the job was “hot a nuff to burn a man up. i stand it well.” This would be the last letter sent from Alonzo to the Miller family. Alonzo received an injury in November 1862 and was hospitalized in Pennsylvania. His wife, Sarah E. Miller (b. 1836), who lived at home with Alonzo’s parents, along with their young daughter, Charlotte (b. 1861?), was apparently unaware of Alonzo’s whereabouts during his convalescence. On November 12, 1862, in a joint letter written with her mother-in-law, Sarah wrote to John C. Miller:

i take my pen in hand to rite afew lins to you i haf ben sick but I lof you those fr as well i wod lik to kno what maks youthi Alonzo wil Come homeson i haf not had eny leters from him in six weks but ithink he wil be home son Sharlot [Charlotte] is well She Gros like apiG i must Close by bidinG you God by

According to a letter sent from Sarah to her father-in-law on December 25, 1862, she had heard from Alonzo, and he claimed that he was “in Gersey sity.” The lack of communication between Alonzo, his wife, and the rest of his family was evident in a later letter written by Sarah to John, where she complained that she had

don as you told me to do i rot a Good leter to Alonzo but i Get no ansar from him ... i haf rot 10 letrs to him but Get noansar from him and it maks me [illegible] to thik he Cars so litl about home but i dont forGet him i oftn think of him tho he is fare away

Alonzo never returned for his wife and daughter after his injury in the war. He later turned up in Cape May, New Jersey, as evidenced by census records. Alonzo remarried a woman named Hannah and had at least one child with her, Katie Miller (b. 1884). Alonzo F. Miller died on June 13 1916 and is buried next to his wife, Hannah J. Miller (b. 1844). By 1865, Sarah E. Miller, listed in the census as twenty-nine years old, was living with her daughter, Charlotte, as boarders at the house of David McLauren and family in Hamden, Delaware County. In 1880 Sarah E. Miller was living in Colchester and listed herself as widowed, despite the fact that Alonzo was alive elsewhere.

“I hope I shall recive no more paper bullets from you”: John and Phebe Miller

The earliest letter in the Miller collection between Phebe and John is dated November 18, 1862, when John was stationed in Camp Bliss, Upton’s Hill, Virginia. In this letter—showing remarkable penmanship—John revealed his antipathy toward President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, calling Lincoln “the devil” and wishing for his demise so the war would end. Part of John’s ire over the war stemmed from the fact that his participation in the conflict separated him from his family, and in much of his early correspondence he relates worries about his wife and children’s health. John was particularly concerned about the “putrid sore throat,” referring to the diphtheria plaguing New York at the time.

Many of Phebe’s letters to John shared information about the couple’s young children living at home and John’s farm business. Throughout 1863, several of Phebe’s letters to John make veiled references to her pregnancy. Phebe would give birth to her daughter Lois in late 1863. In referring to the pregnancy, Phebe wrote to John that his “old briche[s]” were enough to make “enny woman get fat and if they don’t bleave it let them try it and if they doant want to get fat they had beter not have the old britches shook over them.”

Frustratingly, the content of several of the letters exchanged between the Millers imply that several documents are missing from the collection, either destroyed or lost prior to accession into the DCHA archives. Reference to tension in the Millers’ marriage begins in Phebe’s January 27, 1863, letter to John, in which she cryptically mentions that in his previous letter John had given “som dry rubs and if I give you a few snubs you musnot lay it to hart.”

In August 1863 John C. Miller was either injured or exacerbated an existing injury, and was ordered to remain at a hospital in New York City for treatment. A large gap exists in the collection, as the next letter sent by John is dated March 11, 1864, and is written from the New York City Nursery and Child’s Hospital, founded in 1854 as a place where wet nurses could leave their children when they went to work. During the war, the hospital served wounded soldiers, and Miller would recover there until June 1864.

John Miller’s March 11, 1864, letter is not addressed to Phebe or to any of their children. It is written to Lucy Cook—a woman who worked for the Millers in Colchester during the war. Lucy Cook shared a surname with John Miller’s mother, making it possible that she was related to him. Yet the content of John and Lucy’s letters reveals that their relationship was hardly platonic.

John wrote to Lucy to tell her that

if you move away from whare you are you must send me a letter so i will no whare you are you must write to me as soon as you git this and let me no how youre helth is you must tel the trouth to i will write to you as soon as i receave a letter from you

Apparently receiving no reply from Lucy, John penned another message to her on April 5, 1864, while still in the hospital. Implying previous sexual contact, John wrote

I Lay Dow in the Bed at night I think about my old friend & awake in the morning I have very hord feelings I tell you & when I wake iff I should turn over Queck I should fly all to Pieses I am so Britel & hard…

I have not seen any wimen here that I care a darn about sleeping with there is some In the room now but they are high ass ducks & Look like hell & destruction & that is obout oll I can say for their good Looks

By April 30, 1864, a letter sent from John to Phebe reveals that his wife was likely aware of his infidelity, and their marriage ended. John returned a ring to Phebe, stating:

Enclosed is a ring, as a slight testimoniol of my regerds for you, look an it as a mimento from me.

I hope I shall recive no more paper bullets from you. if I do, I sholl be forced to retalliate. and I hod rather be excused from that as it inflicts as deep a wunnd in my heart as yours

Unfortunately, neither the ring nor the “paper bullet” letter from Phebe was included in the collection donated to DCHA.

John C. Miller’s final letter in the collection, dated May 13, 1864, was written to Lucy Cook. Its contents reveal that he had written her four letters and had yet to receive a reply. Informing Lucy about the end of his marriage to Phebe, John stated that “I think I have gat the lost letter from home I shall ever get. I got some pretty dry rubs in that letter and I sent some back. I think it is so dry that it will take fire but I dont think it will ever burn me again.”

No further letters exist between the Millers nor between John and Lucy, about whom little else is known. A letter likely written by Lucy Cook to Phebe Miller, dated May 21, 1864, alludes to the fact that Lucy had recently been living in the Miller household, accusing Phebe of breaking into a trunk of Lucy’s belongings. Lucy threatened Phebe that

Every body that will brake opon trunks or Meddle with things that Dont belong to them is No beter than A theaf And everbody says Around here if you have broke in to my things I Can make you A very nse home in the States priesan

Later going on to insult Phebe’s home, Lucy wrote that

theur is four difarnde Pirsans that you be the filtheyest Pirson theay ever see in thair lives they say your house is like A hog Pen with 4 or 5 hogs nests And Every thing is so filthey they would not stay In your pig pen Over night

The final two letters in the collection are addressed to Phebe Miller from Elsy Cook. Elsy Cook (b. 1825) was the sister-in-law of Lucy Cook and the wife of Halsey Cook, a farmer who lived in Colchester before moving to Sullivan County. In the first letter, dated June 24, 1864, Elsy assured Phebe not to worry about any of Lucy’s threats, as she “has not got eny Friends,” and recommended that Phebe “throw her [Lucy’s] trunk and things out doors I would not keep them in my hog pen as she calls it eny longer.”

In her next letter to Phebe Miller, Elsy Cook wrote to inform her that John C. Miller had returned to New York, and he and Lucy Cook were planning to settle in Cherry Valley, in Otsego County, New York. Sensing that there was nothing else to be done in the situation, Elsy wrote to Phebe that she was “verry sorry for you and your family to think that such a good for nothing slut has destroyed the comfort of you all” and that her family “unite in send our best wishes.”

Phebe Miller soon alternated between living with her children and living in boardinghouses where she worked as a servant until her death in 1902. She was buried in Walton, Delaware County. John C. Miller died in 1900 at age eighty-two and was buried in the Eulalia Cemetery in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Lucy Cook’s fate remains unknown.

This messy, fragmented source provides a valuable lens into the lives of common people during the Civil War. Less-educated individuals managed to record and communicate the issues most pressing for them in their daily lives, leaving behind a record as imperfect and valuable as they were.

A Note on the Text

With a few noted exceptions, the letters in this micro-edition are transcribed as faithfully as possible, retaining all errors in spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation. Indeed, the writers’ use of syntax is almost as compelling as the contents of the letters themselves, offering new insights into the education of rural Northern individuals. My goal in structuring this edition with both unedited and regularized versions is to enhance the letters’ readability while preserving the correspondents’ unique voices.

Silent Omissions

Several material features of the letters are not represented in this edition, as its focus is the language, culture, and relationship of these Northern rural family members. Such silent omissions include unclear or illegible canceled and uncanceled false starts and cancellations with no identifiable characteristics. For example, in instances where false starts are unclear or fully blotted out, they are omitted, but if several letters or full words are visible through the cancellation, they are rendered as struck-through. Use of the long “s” are also omitted. Pen tests, flourishes, and unidentified stray marks are not reproduced, with the exception of seemingly deliberate underlining that may place an emphasis on particular words or phrases.

Illegible Words and Phrases

Indecipherable words are marked as [illegible]. In cases where words are partially illegible, square brackets are also placed around the letters that are unclear.

Interlineations

Words or phrases that correspondents interlined above or below the lines of text, or that they added after a cancellation, are represented in superscript or subscript, depending upon their location in the letter.

Chronology

Internal evidence will often suggest a timeline for sequencing undated letters. For example, in one such letter, Alonzo mentions he is staying in a camp in Virginia. His arrival at this location likely occurred after he left training camp in Delaware County (February 1862) but before he was injured and lost contact with his family (November 1862, as mentioned in the November 12, 1862, letter from Sarah to John Miller).

Note on the Regularized Version

Since a faithful transcription of the letters often reads confusingly, I have also produced a “corrected” or regularized version of the documents that allows readers to better understand the material. While the faithful transcriptions are designed to preserve the original voices of the writers, the regularized versions provide the benefit of making the content of the letters as widely accessible as possible, particularly for students, K–12 teachers, and other educators or general readers interested in this topic.

In the regularized section of this edition I replace phonetically spelled words with correct prose, adding additional punctuation, paragraph spaces, and minor grammatical changes to aid readers’ conception of this material. For example, in Letter 2, the writer references “clover in blow,” likely meaning “in bloom,” so the edited version of Letter 2 uses the word “bloom” to aid in comprehension.

Justification for the inclusion of the regularized version of this edition is most clearly found in the original letters themselves, many of which border on incomprehensible, or include baffling turns of phrase. For example, in a letter written by Phebe to John Miller on December 10, 1862, Phebe pens the following sentence:

now i want you send me the s strict a count of your work and whip how much you ast for it and you set your price on ever thing for i think it is curis that you should have ninteen days work crdete to you and not but have ben credet to you 17 dolars when john could git his dolar a day all the time rite heare to home and how mny for skins and how much they fetc price of them and how much you tacxes was tha mister pay saw payed for you and i want am a gin to see about my cow for amonday...

The sentence expresses several concerns – John’s desire to extract a promised payment from his employer, his attempts to sell animal skins, and the possible purchase of a cow – but general readers and students may find syntax exceedingly confusing or opaque.

Another example of such challenging turns of phrase comes from a letter Phebe writes to John on February 16, 1863. In the conclusion of this letter the pregnant Phebe dictates to her daughter-in-law Sarah to update him on her health: “iam not vry well i haf Got the aGr in my pale,” she discloses. Although “aGr” may be difficult to parse, Phebe may refer to common symptoms of her condition, such as a type of discharge or vomit in her bedpan.

Readers can switch between the faithful transcriptions and their regularized, more readable counterparts by clicking the "Show Edited Text" button in the top right corner of the screen.


  1. Scholars trace the origin of this argument to J. F. C. Fuller, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1929), in which Fuller argues that the Civil War was the first “modern war,” and the Great War the second. Other historians that have grappled with this assertion include Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Mark E. Neely, “Was the Civil War a Total War?,” Civil War History 50, no. 4 (2004): 434–58; A.D. Harvey, “Was the American Civil War the First Modern War?,” History 97, no. 2 (326) (2012): 272–80.
  2. There are twenty-seven letters total in this collection, ranging in date from February 16, 1862, through July 7, 1864. Letters are written to or from the following individuals: John Miller, Phebe Miller, Alonzo Miller, Fields Miller, Sarah Miller, Lucy Cook, Alfred Miller, and Elsy Cook. Letters are stored on Vault Shelf 97 at the DCHA archives. This collection contains the full scope of existing letters for the Miller family and were donated to the museum as a unit from a descendent of the Millers.
  3. Martin Evans, “Opening up the Battlefield: War Studies and the Cultural Turn,” Journal of War and Culture Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 49.
  4. James Campbell, “Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism,” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (Winter 1999); 203–15.
  5. Susan Gubar, “This Is My Rifle, This Is My Gun: World War II and the Blitz on Women,” in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, ed. Margaret R. Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).
  6. Judith Giesburg, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  7. Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
  8. Nina Silber, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  9. Giesburg, Army at Home, 10.
  10. For example, see James J. Broomall, “Wartime Masculinities,” in The Cambridge History of the American Civil War, vol. 3: Affairs of the People, ed. Aaron Charles Sheehan-Dean (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).
  11. Jonathan Lande, “Emancipating Masculinity: Black Union Deserters and Their Families in the Civil War South,” Journal of American History 109, no. 3 (December 2022): 548–70.
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ISSN 2167-1257 | DOI 10.55520/6ZH06EW2
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