1863: Susan Arabella (Kennerly) Johnson to Aunt

How Belle might have looked

How Belle might have looked

This letter was written by 27 year-old Susan Arabella (“Belle”) (Kennerly) Johnson (1836-1910), the daughter of Rev. Samuel Lockhart Kennerly (1794-1869) and Lucy Anderson Fretwell (1808-1852).

Belle was the third wife of Rev. Blassingame Harvey Johnson (1811-1872). His first wife was Mariah Eveline Cousins (1823-1846). His second wife was Mary Virginia Winfield (1830-1854). He married Belle in December 1861. During the Civil War, Belle and the children lived part of the time on her father’s farm near Waynesboro, Virginia. Belle raised at least three of her husband’s children by former marriages as well as three of her own, the oldest Lucy (“Lula”) being born in October 1862.

As a Methodist minister for various circuits in eastern Virginia, Johnson preformed many marriage ceremonies, funerals, baptisms, and attended the Virginia Conference of Methodist Ministers. Much of his time was spent traveling to different congregations and dining with parishioners. Often ailing, Johnson sometimes took opium “to check the disordered state of his bowels.” Johnson’s family and friends also frequently fell ill — especially with virulent bouts of typhoid. An ardent Confederate, Johnson took particular interest in the movement of “Yankee” forces while traveling his circuit. [See B. H. Johnson Journal, 1863-1864, Ms2008-093- Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.]

Belle speaks of her two brothers in the Confederate service. These were John Thomas Kennerly (1837-1882) and James William (“Willie”) Kennerly (1843-18xx) who served in Company E, 1st Virginia Cavalry. We learn from this letter that the two brothers were among the 400 troopers who rode with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee on a raid near Hartwood Church in Stafford County, 9 miles northwest of Fredericksburg. The raid occurred on 25 February 1863 and resulted in the capture of 150 troopers of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry commanded by William W. Averell. Hooker was furious and threatened to relieve Stoneman of his command if he did not stop Confederate raids of this type. [Source: Wikipedia, Battle of Kelly’s Ford]

We also learn from the letter that Belle’s father, Rev. Samuel Kennerly sent at least two of his slaves to labor in constructing earthen defenses around the capitol city of Richmond.


Spring Valley
March 9th 1863

My very dear Aunt,

I suppose you received a letter from me soon after you wrote last, as I wrote you a short time before its reception. If that letter reached you, you know why I did not write more promptly, and I hope you felt inclined to excuse me. Your last I should have answered sooner had I not waited till the time of my return to E. Va. could be ascertained, which depended upon Mr. J[ohnson]’s. purchase of a farm in Hanover [County] which was adjacent to his circuit. Had he bought, we wished to go to it the first of April, but he wrote me a few days ago that he could not get possession of the place till January and declined buying it. So we will board again, though I suppose I will remain here till the first or middle of May — at any rate till the roads become dry and the weather pleasant.

Mr. J[ohnson] left last Tuesday after spending a week with me. He will be up again in two weeks. He and Pa agree in thinking there were stronger indications of peace now than at any time since the war commenced. They think the dissatisfaction that has been so plainly expressed will result in good to us. A great many soldiers have been staying within the bounds of Mr. J[ohnson]’s circuit and have completed gleaned it of nearly everything an army could consume. Not enough was left for the use of the citizens.

My brothers are both at Culpepper Court House. John writes that his health is better than he could have expected it to have been in camp. Willie has recovered from the hurt of which I believe I wrote you. He and John volunteered to go with Gen. F. H. [Fitzhugh] Lee (about two weeks ago) on a scout near Fredericksburg. The party being made up of volunteers from different companies, they were told they might hold as private property what they captured from the Yankees. Willie got a fine young horse, with bridle and saddle, as well as a pair of pistols. He seemed well pleased with the result of the trip, for besides the booty they captured about a hundred and fifty prisoners. When Willie wrote, John had gone with the prisoners to Richmond. There he expected to have seen one of the men Pa sent to work on the fortifications who was sick in the hospital but he died before John got there. He was about twenty-three or four and a very valuable man. The other that Pa sent returned a few days ago, not having been seriously sick during his absence. A number have died who went from this county, and we are all hoping necessity will not again call them out.

How did cousin Thomas Green succeed with his substitute? I shall be sorry to hear that he himself has re-entered the service. With his liability to those bad sore throats, I think it would be hazardous for him to return to camp. I was glad to learn that Willie was so much better than when I left Patrick. Does cousin Joe keep bachelor hall? I was sorry you did not write the “nonsense” that he sent in the form of a message. I expect it was some of his mischief, and I think I should have enjoyed it. Please don’t refuse next time.

Has brother Bailey favored you with a call since conference? Ask cousin Joe if he finds he improves on acquaintance. Does Fannie like him any better than she used to?

I was somewhat surprised that Mr. Hairston ¹ had sold his pretty home, but I suppose it is better for his children, and then cousin Eliza’s presence would make any home pleasant. Are they living in Henry now? I believe if it were not for the loss [my sister] Fannie sustained in the death of poor Will, ² Pa would offer his farm for sale and relieve himself of a great deal of care he now has while the boys are gone and he has no one to assist him. If Pa should sell, I would be glad for Mr. Hairston to buy it, if you do not think it too far for them to move. I should be sorry to see strangers in possession of a home that has been so long held by the family.

I expect Uncle and cousin Joe Kennerly remember cousin Harriet George. ³ She was a daughter of Uncle Reuben Kennerly’s and has been for many years a widow. She died almost suddenly last summer leaving two sons. The eldest has been in California for three years and of course has not been heard from since the war commenced. Horace (the younger) has been here for the last two weeks. He is deeply grieved. Says he feels as though he had no earthly tie. I have known him intimately from childhood and have seldom seen so dutiful and affectionate a son. He has been for several years his mother’s chief support, and he provided for her a comfortable home and always engaged in business where he could spend his evenings in her room; was with her so much that it makes his loss seem the heavier.

Pa’s health is very good though he suffered a good deal with his arm which is stiff in the shoulder joint. I think I told you he got it hurt while out hunting one night last fall. We are all well except colds. My little Lula has a right bad cold but grows very fast. She is a quiet, good little thing that we all think is pretty. I wish you could see her.

How is cousin Jennie now? Ask her if I may hope ever to get the letter that she owes me. How are cousin Martha and Mr. Zenhueyen and their little folks? How glad I would be to see them all. I suppose cousin Lu’s little boys are growing and making her very happy.

My love to cousin Sarah and all the others. I do hope she will be able to raise her little babe. Has cousin Peter gotten well? Remember me to him and Sallie. In short, my heart is full of love for you all. Give a portion to Mary Fisher and keep a great deal for yourself in which the family join me.

Write soon if you please. — Bella

¹ Robert Henry Hairston (1824-1903) was the son of Gen. George Stovall Hairston (1784-1863) and Louisa Handyman (1787-1847). He married Elizabeth Dudley Saunders (1823-Bef1900). They resided in Henry County, Virginia (Ridgeway P.O. address).

² Belle’s younger sister, Frances (“Fannie”) Kennerly (1841-1925) was married to William Crawford Berry (1835-1862) in August 1859. William was a member of Co. E, 1st Virginia Cavalry and was killed at Catlett’s Station, Virginia during the J.E.B. Stuart’s raid on Pope’s headquarters and the Union supply depot there. 

³ Harriet S. Kennerly (1808-1862) was married to Henry Gaines George (1805-18xx) in June 1834 in Augusta County, Virginia. Harriet was the daughter of Reuben Kennerly (1740-1824) and Tabitha Wayt of Augusta County, Virginia. Henry was the son of Abner and Elizabeth (Thornhill) George of Fauquier County, Virginia.

About Griff

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries. View all posts by Griff

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