Apr 13, 2023 - Sale 2633

Sale 2633 - Lot 55

Price Realized: $ 8,750
?Final Price Realized includes Buyer’s Premium added to Hammer Price
Estimate: $ 5,000 - $ 7,500
(CIVIL WAR--ILLINOIS.) Letters and diaries of W.H. Dorris, an opinionated Democratic private in the 83rd Illinois. 101 items (0.4 linear feet) in one box: 3 diaries with a total of 293 manuscript diary pages plus memoranda, 97 letters, and one notebook; moderate to heavy wear, some numbered or underlined by a later family member in ballpoint pen. Various places, 1858-1898, bulk 1863-1865

Additional Details

William Henderson Dorris (1828-1892) was born in Tennessee, and came to Illinois with his parents in his youth. He served in the 3rd Illinois Volunteers in the Mexican War. In his late thirties, as a resident of rural Swan Creek, Warren County, IL, he served 3 years as a private in Company K of the 83rd Illinois Infantry. The most famous member of Company K was Virgil Earp, who went on to fame at the OK Corral, although we have not spotted any references to him in these papers.

Dorris spent almost the entirety of the war in Tennessee, either at Fort Donelson or in nearby Clarksville. His three diaries extend from February 1864 through December 1865. His regiment did not see much combat, but was constantly on the hunt for roving bands of guerrillas. Union soldiers were constantly being shot or captured if they strayed too far from the lines. On 21 August 1864 he wrote: "Capt. Turnbull and twelve men were ataked near the Tenn. River and by Pine Bluff. After a short resistance the rebels under Bates and Philips suckceded in killing 8 including the Capt. and Corporal Thomason. Two made their escape and arrived in camps. There were also two more that were either captured or got on a gun boat. . . . If they are prisners we have but little to hope for, as it is very likely they will kill them to conceal there horable atrosity. Capt. Turnbul was shot twice and his head split open with a sword and brused about the head. Corporal Thomason was brused about the face and his skull but through in several places. . . . My eyes have never beheld any more of an outrage upon modern civil war than this."

The collection includes 97 letters, each numbered in later ink in upper corner. Approximately 54 of them (all numbered between #9 to #82) are wardate letters from Private Dorris to his wife Tabitha and occasionally to their children, September 1862 to April 1865, sleeved in 2 looseleaf notebooks. Several have punch holes grazing the letter margins; a handful have punch holes through the letters affecting content; a few have ballpoint ink underlining to key passages. One haunting passage:

"I was out on picket the other night and that day went out some two hundred yard from my post. In going along, I saw the cloths of a decayed man and some bones laying near me, and so I thought I would examine them a little. When I was through I come to the conclusion that these bones was amputated and halled out of the old fort. Some of them was the arm, legs, and feet that had been shot off and cut off after having nearly been torn off by balls &c. . . . Others were sawed off nice" (20 February 1863, Fort Donelson).

Dorris had nuanced views on politics and race. He was adamantly pro-Union, but was ambivalent about Lincoln and scornful of abolitionists, who he felt were as bad as the Rebels. His 18 September 1864 diary entry describes a visit to the Tennessee State House, where he saw future president Andrew Johnson: "Saw Governor Johnson. He has the appearance of a gentleman and statesman and doutless decision of character against the wrong and oppress, is a tower against cessesion." His diary entries from late October through Election Day 1864 display a conviction that his abolitionist commanding officers were actively suppressing the Democratic vote: "Qite a number of McLellan men is on the fence, would not vote at all. As many as ten in each co. . .. for fear of displeasing there officers. . . . 26 votes poled here yesterday for Lincoln. No McLellan ticket alowed" (26 October, 8 November 1864).

In a letter, Dorris wrote "I am oppose to Lincoln's administration and would have shape things different from what they are, but he is at the head of goverment, and has seen cause to isue his emancipation edict for the freedom of the Negroes. This I was oppose to, but rather than for rebeldom to brake down the federal goverment and take rule of all the states, and for northern men to submit to rich aristocrats of the south, I should rather chews the least of the two evils and that is the cause of freedom" (14 August 1863). In another he noted: "I was offerd a commission over Negroes soldiers but I could not stomock it. My concence would hardley alow me to lead Negroes against white men. It is dishonorble to me" (5 April 1863).

On the other hand, he did seem sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved, and of the impoverished freedmen. In his diary, he described attending a Black church service: "Went to the Presbyterian church at 7 o'clock, collard congregation. Heard Mr. Griffin, a collard corporal. Has quite an exciting shouting meeting. Undoubtedly God was with these poor downtrodden sons and daughters of humanity. There shakles are broken and they are free" (19 February 1865). He was appalled by the massacre of Black Union soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow: "Qite a large force is after Forest. The old fellow will have to move south now or fight, for Uncle Samuel's boys are after him. He had better look out, for they will be apt to repay him for the murderous cowardly affair at Fort Pillow" (12 May 1864 letter).

Dorris had a lucrative side-hustle to supplement his private's wages. He made silver rings for both his fellow soldiers and for local civilians, as discussed frequently in his diaries and tracked in running accounts at the rear of the diaries. His customers would apparently bring him silver spoons, and he would melt them down and pour them into molds.

The collection also includes interesting material from before the Civil War. A worn and disbound account book includes a 7-page manuscript narrative written by Dorris shortly after the end of the Mexican War, describing his experiences there. An August 1858 letter from a friend named D. Forbes recounts an epic voyage in search of a new home: "I have returned from Kansas about 5 weeks ago. . . . You could get a farm cheap there. By the time you could get it fenced it would be a good sum of money, for the timber is scase. . . . There is just as little chance for a poor man in Kansas as ther is in Illinois. . . . They are all poor people that goes there, and they have no money to make improvements. . . . I engaged to go to New Mexico and went the length of Fort Scott with them and left them. I did not think could stand to sleep on the green grass for 3 month. It was so wet all the time. And after that I came to Missouri. I stoped there some 2 weeks, there was not much chance, and left."

This collection offers much to chew on regarding anti-Lincoln politics and guerrilla warfare. More detailed extracts for the diaries and letters are available upon request.