Letter 2: April 22, 18651

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The courtship letters of Mary E. Burton (1836-1924) and her husband, General Giles Waldo Shurtleff (1831-1904) were written mainly during the Civil War. While the General was away commanding a regiment of Ohio African American troops, these letters strengthened the couple's ties of affection.2 When he was granted a twenty-day medical leave, Mary Burton and Giles Shurtleff were married on November 23, 1864.3 This particular letter, written after their marriage, shows Mary Burton Shurleff's struggle to balance her professional teaching position with her new role as a wife and future mother. She looks forward to Giles Shurtleff's return as the war draws to a close, yet regrets that she may have to give up her teaching position and independence if she is to be a respectable wife.

In contrast to Mary Shurtleff's imaginings of her new domestic life sitting by a cozy fireside, she shares her misgivings about her mother's second marriage to Mr. Bissel. She hopes that her mother will refuse Mr. Bissel's offer, as she believes her mother will be unhappy with him. Additionally, Mary Shurtleff also discusses her late father's will, noting that she cannot own her father's estate because the Ohio state laws prohibited married women from owning property. In this letter, Mary Burton Shurtleff's musings highlight experiences of women during the Civil War, as well as traditions of nineteenth-century marriage.

Letter Text:

Jefferson4, Apr. 22nd 1865

My darling Giles,

Your dear letter of the 5th, forwarded from Painesville5, reached me at Austinburg6 evening before last. It found me in some need of the comfort and consolation which its words of sympathy and tenderness brought. Sometime, perhaps I can tell you what a series of mortifications and trials I have been called to meet since I came home this last vacation. The strong family pride which is so natural to me, must now be crushed. I think my poor, poor mother knows not how she tortures me! How I have longed for your presence, and your good, wholesome advice! I have about made up my mind that mother's marriage is an inevitable will.7 If she could only be happy about it, I should rejoice, but as it is, I would rather follower her to the grave. She says, herself, that death would be a welcome issue of her troubles. She seems to take such insanely gloomy views of life.

According to father's will, she cannot, after marriage, retain the management of the estate. It was her wish to give it to me, but on consulting the probate judge, we find that I am disqualified for such a trust, by my being a married lady. Probably measures will be taken to settle it up immediately -

I have been trying to persuade myself that, perhaps, after all, mother might not be unhappy with Mr. Bissel. It does seem as if she was too good a woman to spend the evening of life in such darkness and despair. Will but the Lord visit her, causing the light to break in upon her, and his peace to abide with her! The tears flow afresh every time I think of her life of self denial, her willing sacrifice for the good of others - placing self last always - and it seems as if I could not endure to have her make a final sacrifice of her very self.

You will think I feel this, too much. I confess that my filial affection has been roused to its utmost tenderness. How much we are capable of suffering, as well as enjoying through our sensibilities! Still my dear, do not think of me as being altogether cast down, and despairing. I feel more and more, every day, that you are all the world to me. The hope of a future home with you, reconciles me to my present unsettled condition. There is a vivid picture of that dear home in mind's eye upon which my imagination delights to linger, re-touching and adding to it. The fire always burns brightly on our hearth - everything is cheery and cosey and quiet and contentment abide there. I never knew until within a year, how strongly it was my nature to love the place I call my home - the dear old fireside.

"Where sisters dwell, and brothers meet." 8 It was never my disposition to seek my happiness outside of the family circle. I believe I shall be a devoted housekeeper, as well as a loving wife. Don't you hope to try me before very long?

You ask me what I propose to do after the close of the next term. I have not any place - have rather depended upon you for that. The great successes in our army, this spring, have given me great hope of your speedy return to civil and domestic life. If you were expecting to return soon, after next anniversary, I might spend the time visiting an uncle in Canton9 and other friends. I cannot feel now, that I could go to Mr. Bissel's, if mother should marry him, though perhaps it might be cruel to her, to refuse to do so. If you thought you could not return for a long time, it would be best for me to continue teaching would it not? It costs me a good deal to live, and I do not like to become dependent upon you, while I am doing nothing for you, besides I love teaching for its own sake. Let me have your advice, my dear. I am quite willing to be guided by your wishes if you have any.

I cannot see why you were without news from me for so long a time, though perhaps the letter I expected so soon to write, was the one sent by Gen. Casement10 which I take it, you have not received.

I have a pair of slippers made for you now, if you would like to have them forwarded, and will tell me how.

We got news from sister Lavinia11 of her safe arrival in Chicago, and pleasant journey there. She found Mr. Jones12 waiting for her.

I shall probably return to the Sem. on Monday and will write as soon as I can after that.

Your ever devoted,

[1] Document transcribed by Louise Edwards

[2] John Mercer, "Giles Waldo Shurtleff: Leadership in the Cause of Freedom," accessed 16 March 2013, http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/ShurtleffBio-Mercer.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Burton family had close ties to Jefferson, Ohio. While it is not clear why Mary Shurtleff was in Jefferson at the time, it is likely she was visiting family. ("Jones Family," accessed March 19, 2013, http://www.oberlin.edu/archive/holdings/finding/RG30/SG107/biography.html.)

[5] Mary E. Burton graduated from Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio, in 1860. After graduation she taught at the Seminary, starting in 1862 and continuing throughout the Civil War. (Mercer, "Giles Waldo Shurtleff.")

[6] Mary E. Burton was born in Austinburg, Ohio, on December 23, 1836. On November 23, 1864, Mary E. Burton married Giles Waldo Shurtleff in Austinburg. ("News Letter," 20 April 1925, Student File (Shurtleff, Mrs. Mary E. Burton), Box 941, Alumni & Development Records, O.C.A.)

[7] Mary Burton's parents were Elizabeth Grant Burton (1813-1885) and Reverend William Burton (1789-1858). After Reverend Burton died in 1858, Elizabeth Grant Burton remarried Mr. Bissel, as referred to in this letter. ("Jones Family.")

[8] The first line of the poem, "Love Between Brothers and Sisters" written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). It is the seventeenth poem of Watt's collection "Divine Songs: Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children," first published in 1715. ("Divine songs: attempted in easy language for the use of children. By I. Watts, D.D.," last modified July 27, 2006, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pagevieweridx?cc=ecco;c=ecco;idno=004819385.0001.000;node=004819385.0001.000%3A5.16;seq=34;page=root;view=text.)

[9] Mary Burton Shurtleff had several relatives that lived in Canton, Ohio, including her uncle Mr. Grant, who was married to Susan Jenkins Boyd Grant. It appears that Mr. Grant was a banker, as his wife notes in a letter she wrote that Mr. Grant's "duties at the bank were light." (Susan Jenkins Boyd Grant to Caroline Burr Grant, 25 November 1866, Box 3, Folder 16, American Antiquarian Society.)

[10] John S. Casement was born in 1829 in Geneva, New York. As a young man he worked on building Ohio railroads. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Casement was appointed a major in the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In 1863 he moved up the ranks to become a colonel, and by the end of the war, he was appointed a brigadier general. He fought in many of the same battles as General Giles Shurtleff, including the Battle of Kressler's Cross Lanes in Virginia and various skirmishes in North Carolina. After the war, General Casement returned to his home in Painesville, Ohio. ("John Casement (1865-1869)," accessed 19 March 2013, http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/leonard/id/10473/rec/12.)

[11] Reverend William Burton, Mary Shurtleff's father, had another daughter from a previous marriage. This daughter, Lavinia Burton Howard, was Mary Burton Shurtleff's half sister. Lavinia Burton Howard married Publius Jones and had eight children. ("Jones Family.")

[12] Presumably Lavinia Burton Howard's husband, Publius Jones. ("Jones Family.")