About ten miles southeast of the Widow Tapp Field sits another home that would come under the shadow of war. Katherine Couse, a 28 year-old New Jersey native, was a Union sympathizer like the rest of her family. Her parents, William and Elizabeth owned close to 1,400 acres of farmland in an area known as Laurel Hill around Spotsylvania Courthouse. By May of 1864, only three of the Couse sisters were at home, Katherine included.
In a remarkable letter addressed to a “Mr. & Mrs. H”, Katherine documents her experience with the two armies during the first few weeks of the Overland Campaign. The letter, now in the possession of the University of Virginia, records what it would have been like for a civilian as the war swept through their front yard.
Content description from the archives: “This twelve-page letter was written in diary form by Katherine Couse to unidentified friends, May 4-22, 1864. She was a Union sympathizer from New Jersey who had moved with her family to “Laurel Hill,” Spotsylvania Co., Virginia, before the Civil War. Her letter describes her life during the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania which were fought near her home. She writes regarding her family’s day-to-day existence, mentioning tea with doctors, staff officers, and Edwin Forbes, Frank Leslie’s war correspondent, looting of their home by soldiers in both armies, caring for local refugees, the Federal hospitals on their property and the desolation of the countryside after the armies left. Couse briefly mentions Confederate generals Richard Ewell, James A. Longstreet, Thomas L. Rosser, and Union generals Ambrose Burnside, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Meade, among others.”
The first section goes into vivid detail of how their farm was ravaged by the armies prior to May 4th.
“Dilapidation and decay mark the course of every thing at old Laurel Hill, both people and place are gradually falling into ruins. Of all that once were here three persons only remain. An air of suffocating loneliness reigns, as the shades of evening come on—the wind has a peculiar howling sound, as if ghosts and witches were around mourning over the sad remains. Do not think me superstitious. Troubles seem to be attracted to this spot. Here we have suffered so much anguish of mind I now feel that ‘the last link is broken’ that binds me to the home of my childhood… Last spring & summer nearly all our fowls were stolen at different times. Meat very scarce and high, we had to buy them at an extravagant prices [sic]. We raised sweetpotatoes and watermelons—but enjoyed none of the benefits. they disappeared soon as fit for use. this winter some hungry rogues—stole part of our small supply of meat out of the cellar, w[h]ich we were at much trouble and expense to get in the fall. Not long since our last horse was stolen from us—it is too bad—horses like everything else in Dix are so scarce and high we do not think of trying to get another.”
As the armies moved into position, Katherine recalls the noises and sounds of the coming campaign, “horses, clanking of sabres and rattling of spurs—and a report of fire arms is all we hear, soldiers riding in every direction… it is soul sickening to listen to the continual crack of small arms, then the loud resounding cannon, shell whizzing balls whistlin, soldiers yelling and hollowing as the[y] rush on. Oh! God human beings killing each other, this wicked war, will it never come to an end… the whole air reverberat[e]s and trembles with the sound.”
Sprinkled through her account, however, the reader may get a sense of the Couse family struggling for an image of normalcy. Throughout the battle at the Wilderness and Spotslyvania, the Couses continued to entertain guests and host refugees. Like many letters, she talks about visits from neighbors and who dined with them for supper on particular evenings. Even mundane community news makes its way into her letter, talking about the weather and making remarks on which visitors were “handsome” or “charming”.
Then, the battle erupted on May 5th.
Thursday 5th… Pickets here musketry and see clouds of smoke going up from the artil[l]ery. there is skirmishing going on this afternoon; now about 1 o,clock Later betw[e]en 3. and 4 oclock sharp skirmishing on the Court House road, we heard the yells—and the pop and crack of musketry made me feel faint, it continued some time Confed soldiers around this [word missing] three Fed soldiers came galloping up, we went out to see them, shook hands with the officer told him we were glad to see them, smiled, and said he was glad they had some friends her.
Friday, May 6th 1864. heard the cannon the first thing they jar the house continually lovely morning. the whole outdoors alive with voices of soldiers, hear waggons [sic] and cannon moving, rumbling, Oh! so anxious. A rough Federal scouting party came up and acted very badly this morning. They took nearly all our little cows, and a good many fowls, all remonstrace was vain. the crack of musketry is terriffic [sic] pop pop pop. the cannon shake the very foundation of the house, two southern soldiers just now came[–]first one side then the other. here we hear the shells whistling at at [sic: a] terriffic [sic] rate Oh, it makes me so weak so generally wretched, heard the Southern bugles, we are surrounded—yankees one one [sic] side So[u]thern soldiers on the other pickets and vidett[e]s on all sides Confeds are coming up all the time, very warm, they tell us they had taken 3 thousand Yankee prisoners. the Court House road is alive with yelling soldiers hear skirmishing at intervals all day up there. charging sabres this eve late yelling no firing.
Sat 7th calmer this morning, we are choked with smoke—from camp fires—and woods fire. Confed scouts and soldier[s] riding through thick going down in the direction of Pin[e]y Branch towards the Yanks. Oscar started home this morn hear occasional cannon and guns crack away awhile then stop the soldiers told me Gen Longstreet was wounded slightly in the top shoulder yesterday and that they drove the yankees all day. they also say Gens. Wright and Battle were killed yesterday. the place alive with waggons [sic] moving the field in front of the house is full of waggons [sic] moving to and fro.
Unfortunately for Katherine and the others of Laurel Hill, the worst of the campaign was yet to come and the most intense days of the Spotsylvania battle would take place no more than two miles from her home. Their property would be trampled and trespassed upon by both armies. Her home, like many others in the vicinity of the battle, would become a hospital and place for soldiers to take a rest or forage during their downtime. Katherine’s letter is rife with the emotional tension and frustration for a civilian during the Civil War and this will not be the last time she is referenced in this blog.
Katherine Couse Civil War Letter, Accession #10441 , Special Collections Dept., University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.