February 16, 2021
Whole Number 71
TRAGIC LETTER WRITTEN BY ROBERT SPARKS (ca. 1824-1864)
THREE DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH
For a number of years we have had on file in the Association a copy of a Sparks letter which has great historical interest, but which we have hesitated to publish thinking that some of our members might consider it too personal and too tragic to include in the Quarterly. The letter was written by Robert Sparks of Wilkes County, North Carolina, on April 25, 1864, three days before he was shot for having deserted the Confederate Army. A copy was furnished us by Mrs. Annie Sparks Wilson of Traphill, North Carolina, in 1951. We understand that this letter was published many years ago in a North Carolina newspaper. We do not know who owns the original letter, but we believe that we have a true copy.
Your editor has decided to publish this letter in the belief that our readers will recognize its historical value. He believes also that they will understand the desperate circumstances which led to Robert Sparks's decision to desert the Amy in order to provide for his suffering family back home.
188.8.131.52.2.4.5 Robert Sparks was born in 1824 or 1825 in Wilkes County, North Carolina, the son of 184.108.40.206.2.4 Joel and Nancy (Blackburn) Sparks and a grandson of the Revolutionary War soldier, 220.127.116.11.2 John Sparks (1753-1840), a record of whose life and descendants appeared in the Quarterly for December 1955, Whole No. 12, pp. 94-104. Joel and Nancy (Blackburn) Sparks were married in Wilkes County in 1814 and had the following children:
18.104.22.168.2.4.1 Richmond Sparks, born ca. 1815;
22.214.171.124.2.4.2 Daughter Sparks, name not known, born ca. 1816;
126.96.36.199.2.4.3 Belinda Sparks, born ca. 1818;
188.8.131.52.2.4.4 Nancy Sparks, born ca. 1820;
184.108.40.206.2.4.5 Robert Sparks, born in 1824 or 1825;
220.127.116.11.2.4.6 Joel Sparks, Jr., born ca. 1826;
18.104.22.168.2.4.7 Mittie Sparks, born ca. 1828; and
22.214.171.124.2.4.8 Hugh Sparks, born ca. 1833.
Robert Sparks married Susannah A. Durham [Note: Last Name available in Whole No. 200] in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1845. Unfortunately, the writing on the marriage bond is impossible to read today and neither Susannah's maiden name nor the month and day of the marriage can be determined. It will be noted that the letter informing her of Robert's death was addressed to Susan A. Sparks. Her name on the 1860 census also appeared as Susan, but the 1870 census gives it as Susannah. She was born ca. 1830.
Robert Sparks lived in Trap Hill Township, Wilkes County, North Carolina. When the 1860 census was taken he was listed as a farmer. His land was valued at $300 and his personal property was valued at $150. Like nearly all of his fellow farmers in Wilkes County, he owned no slaves.
From census records, it appears that Robert and Susannah A. Sparks were the parents of the following children:
126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52 Martha Sparks, born ca. 1848.
184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11 Sarah Sparks, born ca. 1851.
18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124 Huldah Sparks, born ca. 1854.
126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52 bynum Sparks, born ca. 1856.
184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11 Thomas Sparks, born ca. 1861.
In his letter, it will be noted, Robert Sparks referred to "my little babies" who had died.
According to the Confederate service record for Robert Sparks filed in the National Archives, he was enlisted as a private at Camp Holmes on April 26, 1863, by Col. Mallett. He was listed as a conscript, not a volunteer. His age was given as 38. He was assigned to Company H, 4th North Carolina Infantry.
It is not possible, of course, over a century after the event, to guess the full story behind Robert Sparks's tragedy. We know that he was a plain farmer whose worldly possessions were few. He had five small children when he was drafted at an age which, in most wars, would have excused him from military service. We also know that the desertion rate was high in both the Confederate and the Union Army in 1864. Note that his letter mentions living on half-rations. Furthermore, these desertions were often not thought of as serious crimes, for more often than not the soldier merely wished to return to his family for a few weeks to look after the crops and care for his children, with the full expectation of returning to his regiment after these tasks had been accomplished. Note that in his letter, Robert Sparks stated that he had been sentenced to death not because of the crime, but as an example to frighten other soldiers from running away.
Robert Sparks left his regiment on March 18, 1864, near Fredericksburg. As a farmer, he knew that if his crops were not planted that spring, his wife and children would suffer great hardship. A week later, however, he was captured and returned to his unit and placed in the Divisional Guard House to await sentence. He was executed, apparently along with another soldier, on April 28, 1864.
Susannah, or Susan, Sparks, widow of Robert, was still living when the 1870 census of Wilkes County was taken. Her age was given as 40 and living with her were her two sons, bynum Sparks aged 12, and Thomas Sparks, aged 9. This is our last record of any member of this family.
Following is Robert Sparks's letter:
"Near Orange, Va. April 25, 1864.
"Dear and beloved wife:
"This will inform you that I am well as to health, though I am in great distress of mind. Ever praying that Gods blessings will be with you as long as you live, I will relate to you my tale of woe.
"I left my Redgiment on the 18th of March and started home and traveled nearly a week, and was taken up, brought back, court martialed, and sentenced to be shot to death with musketry. The sentence is to be executed on the 28th day of this month between the hours of 12 and 2 oclock.
"Without some reprieve, and I don't have much hope of that, for they have just now set in shooting men for running away, so I havent much hope, but, my dear wife, I dont want you to grieve for me, for I hope I shall be better off if they do shoot me, for my life is but little satisfaction to me anyhow, and I hope that I shall go up yonder where there is no more parting nor shooting men, where I shall praise my God for redemption for ever and ever.
"Oh my dear darling, the last letter that come to the Redgiment, I did not get, the officers said that they burnt it, and I have not wrote to you since I was taken up, I thought I would wait untill I heard my sentence, and an awful sentence it is too. I am to be shot for an example to scare others and not for crime.
"Thanks to God that I have not done a crime worthy of death, my dear, dont grieve for me, for they can only kill the body, that is all they can do, and I shall die quick and easy and not be punished to death as many hundred that are shot on the battlefield. So my dear dont grieve for me, for sometimes I think it will be only a blessing to me to take me out of this troublesome world, But Oh my dear, the ties of mutual are so binding that it makes my heart almost sink within me to think that I shall have to die and never see you anymore, but when I think how good God is, and how happy I hope to be and what a troublesome world that I am going to leave, I do not dread it as much as you might think.
"Oh my dear, I am here in prison among strangers, and no one to tell my troubles to, and none to help me here in this lonesome valley and shadow of death, but Jesus is my firend. He can comfort me, and I hope He will go with me through the lonesome valley of death, and take me home to live with him forever, and my dear, I hope God will bless you and my poor orphan children.
"May He give you grace to live for Him, who died for sinners, that you all may meet me up yonder where my little babies is gone to praise God for redemption for ever and ever, where there will be no more shooting of men for example, nor where we will have to live on half rations.
"Oh my dear, how sweet Heaven will be to me if I can only get there, after suffering so much here, but one moment in Heaven will make up for all, so I dont want you to grieve about me, but pray for yourself and little children that we may all meet in Heaven at last.
"But, Oh, my heart, my heart, it almost sinks within me, to think of leaving you all to the mercies of this merciless world. But God is able to bless you. He is able to provide for you, and to keep you from all harm. So I will leave you in Gods care. May he bless you and keep you as long as you live. I want you to send and get my body. I want it put at the corner of the sweet potato patch, about where the stable stood. Tell brother Richmond to come and get if if he pleases. Tell him that I want him to attend to you and settle my accounts for you. I would write him but havent the chance. My dear wife, this is the last letter I expect to write to you. Farewell, my dear, farwell. My little children, farewell, my aged mother, farewell. Neighbors and friends, farewell, to this world and all its pleasures. Tell my aged mother that I have not forgotten her, and that I hope to meet her in Heaven.
"If you come after my body, come to Gen Rhodes Provost Guard, They willshow you where it is. So my darling, may God bless you, may He give you strength to bear up under your trials. May He keep you from all harm,
"April 28th 1864
"A few lines to Susan A. Sparks
"I can inform you that I witnesseth the death of your dear husband this day, and I never hated anything so bad as I did that, though it was nothing to me. I will inform you that he told me this morning to write to you. I went in at breakfast, and he requested I shave them, and help them put on their clothes. I asked them if they thought they had made their peace with God, and he said he Thought he has. He said he felt better satisfied than he had since he was in the dungeon. He said he would not mind dying if he could see his poor wife and sweet little children one more time. He told me to write to you and for you to stay on the place that you live on as long as you can, and to do the best you can, and prepare to meet him in Heaven, for he thought that this day his soul would be in Paradise, and requested Richmond to come take his body home,
"This from Gideon Spicer To Susan Sparks."