Today’s post comes from Dorothy Dougherty, Programs Director at the National Archives at New York City.
“Dear Mother,” starts the letter from Harriet B. Denby, to her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Denby of Augusta, Georgia. This beautiful handwritten four-page letter reminds us about compassion, gratitude, and the enduring lessons mothers teach us about love.
From Harriet’s letter, we learn she had been married for only four months to George Denby before his passing, and she is writing to inform her mother-in-law of her son’s final days.
“As I am by the affectionate regard, with which I think a loving Wife ever feels for the Mother of her Husband, and which I hope We may ever cherish towards each other, for the sake of him who Was so dear to both, your loving and beloved son George.”
Harriet married George on April 14, 1864, after a two-and-a-half-year courtship. During that time, George had a recurring fever but recovered enough for Harriet to consider marriage. Unfortunately, a few months into the marriage, George again fell sick, an illness believed to be an “Organic disease of the kidneys, for which they say there is no cure.”
Since Harriet lived in Georgia and her mother-in-law lived in Maryland, neither had met, and the letter recounts how well George was cared for in the end.
“He had every attention that love, and friendship could bestow. The best of Doctors. Untiring nurses and numerous friends, who were ever anxious to be doing something for him. He lacked nothing that could possibly add to his comfort. My mother and myself were constant watchers at his bedside night and day,”
During his last days, George shared sentiments about his mother and family,
“He often and always spoke of them in the most endearing terms, anxiously desiring to see them once more before he died.”
and regarding his mother,
“that he loved you to the last, died ‘happy and would meet you in heaven.’”
Harriet also shares how own feelings for George,
“Of his many excellent qualities as a son, a husband, a brother or a friend, it is unnecessary that I should say more than this, he was all that the most exacting could desire. It may be truly said of him
‘None knew him but to love
None named him but to praise’”
And Harriet’s thoughts on his death,
the “early departure and seemingly to us untimely end of my beloved husband was a stunning blow to the hearts that loved him—I know it is not for us to say it was untimely, for God knew what was best, but it was almost impossible to feel otherwise, he was so young, so full of hope and bright anticipations for the future, circumstanced as we were it was hard to bring ourselves to believe, so great a disappointment was in store for us: that his joyous and happy life was so soon to end.”
The letter ends with the comment:
“Hoping it may reach you safely and I may be favored with an early answer I remain,
Your Affectionate daughter,
Harriet B. Denby”
with directions for the letter to be delivered:
“Direct your letter to Mrs. Geor. B. Denby, enclosed is another, Envelope directed to Mrs. E. W. Doughty, Augusta, Georgia, enclosed, in still another envelope directed to Mr. David. A Crowell, Hackettstown, New Jersey. With a note requesting him to forward, It to Mrs. Doughty.”
The fact that this letter is in the National Archives at New York City, means it never got to its destination. The letter is part of a collection of papers intercepted from the (Annie) Wren in 1865. The ship Wren, a blockade runner, was intercepted by the United States Navy during the Civil War. As a “prize” ship, the contents of the ship became part of the United States v. Annie Wren case.
While many items on the captured vessels were sold at auction, we have several case files containing papers of the confiscated vessel, including many personal papers. These consequently became part of the records of the National Archives. Reading over this letter today, we can see it as an important message that time passes, and sometimes we do not always get to deliver a message of thanks and love. Sadly, this letter of comfort and expression of gratitude never made it to Elizabeth Denby, but it will now live forever in the holdings of the National Archives.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and mothers-in-law!