February 15, 2021

Pages 5745-5753
Whole Number 200


by Russell E. Bidlack

In the Quarterly of September 1970, Whole No.71, we published the text of a letter written by a Confederate soldier to his wife on April 25, 1864. The soldier was Robert Sparks, born ca. 1824 in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

He had been married there in 1845 to Susannah A. Durham, whose nickname was Susan. Although the original bond for their marriage has been so damaged that Susannah's name, as well as its exact date, are illegible, the will of her father, John Durham, probated in 1863 in Wilkes County, identifies her as his daughter: "Susan wife of Robert Sparks."

Robert Sparks' letter is the most tragic document this editor has yet found among Sparks family papers that he has researched--Robert's message to his wife was that he had been court-martialed for attempting to "come home, " and that he would be shot for desertion three days later, on April 28, 1864. We have not been able to locate the original of Robert's letter, but we published in 1970 a copy that had been made by a family member many years earlier. Recently, another copy of this same letter has come to our attention through a descendent of Robert and Susan Sparks, and we have also obtained a copy of a letter that Robert had written to his brother the day prior to his execution, dated April 27, 1864.

Here we present the second copy (with slight variations from the copy we published in 1970) of Robert's letter to his wife, along with the newly discovered letter that he wrote to his brother. Both were copied by Laura F. (Wheeler) Smith on March 17, 1947, Mrs. Smith being a great-granddaughter of Robert and Susan Sparks. Mrs. Smith is no longer living; her daughter, Edna Hartong, has reproduced her mother's copies for us. Mrs. Smith had written the following introductory note: "These letters were published in the Tazewell [Virginia] Republican dated November 7, 1893. The incident of horrows [ sic] of our late Civil War. Robert Sparks [was] an uncle of Hugh Sparks of Baptist Valley, a cousin of T. J. Sparks of Cedar Bluff. " It appears that Mrs. Smith copied these letters from the weekly newspaper that she cited. Richmond Sparks, brother of Robert, had moved from Wilkes County, North Carolina, to Tazewell County, Virginia, after the Civil War ended, which probably accounts for their publication in the Tazewell Republican. Not included in Mrs. Smith's copy was the postscript that fellow-soldier, Gideon Spicer, added to Robert's letter to his wife that was part of the version of the letter we published in 1970. We have added it here.

Since we published Robert Sparks's letter to his wife in the Quarterly of September 1970, we have learned considerably more about his family and his military experience. This information begins on page 5754. We have made no corrections in spelling in the transcription of the following letters, but we have added a few marks of punctuation for clarity.

Letter of Robert Sparks Written on April 25, 1864.

Dear and beloved wife, this will inform you that I am well of health though I am in great distress of mind ever praying that God's blessing may be with you as long as you live. I will relate to you the tale of my woe.

I left my regiment on the 18th of March and started home and traveled nearly a week and was taken up and court martialed and brought back and sentenced to be shot to death with musketry. The sentence will be executed on Thursday the 28th of this month between the hours of 12 and 2 oclock. With out some reprive 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 don't want you to grive about me for I hope I shall be better off if they do shoot me for my life is but little satisfaction to me any how and I hope I shall go up younder where there is no more parting or shooting men, where I shall praise my God for redemption for ever and ever.

Oh my dear darling, the last letter that came to my regiment I did not get. The officers said they burnt it, and have not wrote you since I was taken up. I thought I would wait until I heard my sentince, and an awfel sentince 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 any crime worthy of death.

My dear, don't grieve for me for that is all they can do, and I shall die quick and easy and not be punished to death as many solders that are shot on the battlefield. So my dear, don't grieve for me for sometimes I think it will only be a blessing to me to take me out of this troublesome world, but oh dear the ties of nature are so binding that it makes my heart all most 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 troublsome world I am going to leave, I do not dread it as much as you might think.

Oh my dear, I am here in prison amoung strangers and no one to tell my troubles to and none to help me in the lonsome valley of the shadow of death. When Jesus is my friends he can help me and I hope he will be with me through the lonesome valley of death and take me home to live with him for ever. And my dear, I do hope that God will bless you and my poor little 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 no more shooting men for examples, not where we will not have to live on half rations.

Oh my dear how sweet will Heaven 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 don't want you to grieve about me, but pray for your self and little children that we all may meet in Heaven at last. But Oh my dearest my heart, it allmost sinks within me to think of leaving you all to the mercies of a merciless world, but God is able to bless you, he is able to provide for you and keep you from all harm.

So I will leave you in God's care, may he bless 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 old stable stood. Tell brother Richmond to come and get it if he please. Tell him that I want him to attend to my accounts for you. I would write to him but havent the chance. My dear wife, this is the last letter I expect to ever write to you, so farewell. My little children, farewell. My aged mother farewell, neighbors and friends farewell. To this world and all its pleasures, Tell my aged mother I have not forgot her and that I hope to meet her in Heaven. If you come after my body come to General Rhodes Provost Guard, they will show you where it is.

Oh my darling, may God bless you, may he give you strength to bear up under your trials, may he keep you from all harm. Farewell, Farewell.


April 28th 1864

Robert Sparks

A few lines to Susan A. Sparks [from Gideon Spicer]

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 children one more time. He told me to write to you and for you to stay on the place and that you live on [it] as long as you can, and to do the best you can, and prepare to meet him in Heaven, for he thought this day he would would be in Paradise, and requested Richmond to come take his body home.

This from Gideon Spicer to Susan Sparks.

Letter of Robert Sparks to His Brother Richmond Sparks

To Mr. Richmond Sparks, April 27, 1864 Dear Brother

This note will inform you that I am well in health though I am in great distress of mind, for I was persuaded to leave [the] regiment and come home. I traveled about two weeks and [was] sent back and court martialed and sentenced to be shot, the sentence is to be executed tomorrow between the hours of 12 and 2 oclock. Oh my dear brother, ties of nature is binding when I think of the golden hours we have spent togather. The many pleasures in this life is over, but I hope to meet you up yonder where parting is no more, where our pleasures will last for ever and ever.

J. F. Owens, Rev. John Owens' son, and Wm. W. Wyatt is to be executed with me. Dear brother, I want you to attend to my things and wind up all my accounts. I want Susan to stay where she is as long as she can keep the children toghather. Tell the children I said for them to mind there mother. I want you to come after my body if you please. I want you to put it at the corner of my sweet pototo patch about where the stable stood. There is some money coming to me at my regiment. I want you to see to it and get it to Susan. I have sold some of my things and got 15 dollars that I will send to her in this letter. I will leave some little things in the hands of Gideon Spicer, he says he will try to sell them for me and send her the money. When they come after the bodies of the other to men, you can come togather. Come to General Rhodes Provost Guard. I started a letter to Susan yesturday. So my dear, Farewell. I hope we meet again.

[ signed ]

Robert Sparks

Robert's letter to his wife first came to the attention of the late Paul E. Sparks in 1951. (Paul was one of the founders of our Association and served as its president until his death in 1999.) Earlier in his research on his own Sparks line, Paul had corresponded with a distant cousin, Annie Sparks Wilson of Traphill, Wilkes County, North Carolina. On November 17, 1951, Mrs. Wilson sent Paul a typewritten copy of Robert Sparks' letter to his wife, Susan, with the following note to Paul from Mrs. Wilson: "Another headache for you and I. I found this copy of letter in Father's belongings today--the saddest letter I ever read, and I do not know anything of the parties. II Actually, Mrs. Wilson was a first cousin, once removed, of Robert Sparks. We can imagine that Robert's relatives did not talk about his desertion and execution to younger family members.

As we noted on page 4757, the existence of a second copy of Robert's letter came to the attention of this writer in 1998, when an Association member sent us a clipping from a weekly column by Sam Venable appearing in the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Through Mr. Venable, we were able to identify Laura Smith who had copied not only Robert Sparks's letter to Susan, but, also, his letter to his brother, Richmond Sparks, from the November 7,1893, issue of the Tazewell [Virginia] Republican. A comparison of the copy of Robert's letter to his wife that we published in the Quarterly, September, 1970, Whole No. 71 with that of Mrs. Smith reveals a few minor differences in spelling.

The fact that Robert Sparks's letters were published in the Tazewell Republican in 1893 can probably be explained by the fact that Richmond Sparks had moved from Wilkes County, North Carolina, to Tazewell County, Virginia, shortly after the Civil War ended. In fact, both letters may have been written on the same sheet of paper. Gideon Spicer's postscript on Robert's letter to Susan means that it was not mailed until after Robert's death. In transcribing these letters here, we have retained the spelling, but added punctuation for clarity.

Our discovery of Robert Sparks's letter to his brother, Richmond Sparks, has helped to clarify some of Robert's statements to Susan. There he had made no mention of any other men having accompanied him when he had "left" the regiment on the 18th of March. He also told her that he was now, on April 25th, "in prison amoung [ sic] strangers. " Gideon Spicer, however, in his addendum to the letter to Susan after the execution, referred to his having shaved "them" that morning and had helped "them put on their clothes. "

In Robert's letter to his brother, written on April 27, 1864, he stated that he had been "persuaded to leave the regiment and come home, " and he also named two comrades who were to be "executed with me." They were J. F. Owens and Wm. W. Wyatt. Whether Owens and Wyatt had been captured at the same time as Robert, we cannot be sure; they may have traveled separately, although they were all from Wilkes County, North Carolina.

Robert Sparks had been conscripted into the Confederate Army and had been enrolled on April 28, 1863, in Company E of the Fourth North Carolina Infantry. More correctly known as Fourth Regiment, State Troops, North Carolina Infantry, it was one of ten regiments that had been authorized by the North Carolina Legislature at the end of April 1861.

In an article entitled "Wilkes County and the American Civil War, " by local historian Chris J. Hartley in Vol. II of the Heritage ~ Wilkes County, it is noted that Governor Zebulon Baird Vance made a speech in the village of Wilkesboro, in February 1864, urging citizens to continue to support the Confederate cause. Hartley added that Wilkes County was known for its Unionist sentiment. "The people of Wilkes were bitterly divided; brothers, families, and neighbors were pitted against one another. "

A reason that Wilkes County was so divided in the Civil War was that very few of the families there owned slaves. According to the 1860 census of the county, there were 23 Sparks households with a total of 138 individuals (men, women, and children named Sparks, along with six others living in other households).

All of the adult males were farmers living on small farms, few of which produced money-making crops, and there was little manufacturing in all of Wilkes County.

In April 1862, the Confederate government had passed its Conscription Act, constituting the first draft in American military history. Nine men named Sparks in Wilkes County are known to have served in the Confederate Army, according to Appendix F of Judge Hayes's Land of Wilkes taken from Moore's Roster of Confederate Troops in the War Between the States. Of these nine, five served in Company E of the Fourth Infantry, all having been enrolled in 1863: Abner Paschal in February; J. F. Owens on April 26; and J. H. Owens, Robert Sparks, and William W. Wyatt on April 28th.

[The preceding is printed as written. The information may be incomplete. ]

The Fourth Regiment was part of Stephen Ramseur's Brigade in D. H. Hill's Division, Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, at the time of Robert Sparks's enrollment. The Chancellorsville Campaign was then in progress. Robert probably participated in the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville on May 4, 1863, and in its defeat at Gettysburg two months later.

The two other men from Wilkes County executed with Robert Sparks on April 28, 1864, J. F. Owens, whose full name was Jesse Franklin Owens, and W. W. Wyatt whose first name was William, were both privates in Company E of the Fourth Regiment, as was Robert Sparks. As identified by Robert in his letter to his brother, Owens was a son of the Rev. John Owens, a sketch of whose life appeared in Vol. II of ~ Heritage ~ Wilkes County, North Carolina (pp. 383-84) published in 1990. The Rev. John Owens (1794-1859) was a Baptist Minister in the Roaring River Association in Wilkes County. He had been married in Wilkes County to Mary Vannoy in 1815. She was a daughter of Andrew and Susannah Shephard Vannoy. Their household was enumerated on the 1850 census of Wilkes County, where their son Jesse was shown as 15 years old. Jesse was married ca. 1857 to Elizabeth Long.

The Rev. John Owens died in 1859. On the 1860 census, Mary Owens, age 64, widow of John, was shown as living with her sons: James, 20, and Daniel, 18. Jesse Franklin Owens, called by his middle name on this census, was living very near his mother. Both he and his wife were 25 years of age; they had a son named James, age 2, and a daughter, Martha, age 7 months. All were living in Reddies River Township.

Also living in Reddies River Township in 1860, within a short distance of the Owens family, was W. W. Wyatt, age 33, with wife Lucinda, age 37. Their five children in 1860 were: Mary Ann, 13; Finley, 10; Nancy, 7; John 4; and Susan, 2. There can be little doubt that he was the William W. Wyatt who had been enrolled in Company E of the Fourth Regiment on April 28, 1863, on the same day as was Robert Sparks.

It was in Robert's letter to his brother, written on the day before his execution, that we learn of Gideon Spicer having promised to try to sell some of his "little things" and send the money to Susan Sparks. It was also Gideon Spicer who penned a paragraph to Robert's letter to Susan informing her that her husband's execution had taken place.

Gideon Spicer was identified in Moore's Roster of Confederate Troops in the War Between the States as being from Wilkes County; he had enlisted there on October 1, 1862: at the age of 26, placing his birth in ca. 1836. When the 1850 census of Wilkes County had been taken, Gideon was enumerated in the household of his parents, William and Jane Spicer; his age was 18. From census records, it appears that Gideon married Mary byrd, daughter of Braxton and Jane byrd, prior to the taking of the 1860 census. There he was shown with his wife living in the household of Mary's parents.

Gideon Spicer was obviously stationed near Robert Sparks and his two comrades in the days leading up to their execution. When he had been enrolled in the Confederate Army in October 1862, however, it had been as a private in Company I of the Thirty-second North Carolina Regiment. Whether Gideon was later transferred to the Fourth Regiment, or the two units had happened to be stationed near each other in April 1864, is not known to this writer, but Gideon was with Stephen Ramseur's Brigade in the Spotsylvania Campaign of May 1864, during which he was taken prisoner at Spotsylvania Court House by the Army of the Potomac under the command of General Grant. We have not discovered the nature of Gideon's ultimate fate.

When the 1860 census was taken in the United States, no county in any state was found to contain more Sparks households than did Wilkes County in North Carolina, there being twenty-three, with six single Sparkses enumerated in other families. In all, there was a total of 138 men, women, and children named Sparks living in Wilkes County on the eve of the Civil War. All were descendants of the six Sparks brothers and cousins who had migrated from Frederick County, Maryland, to the Forks of the Yadkin, then Rowan County, North Carolina, in 1754 and 1764. Every adult male named Sparks in Wilkes County in 1860 was a farmer, although 59-year-old Colby Sparks was also a Baptist preacher. None of them was a slave owner.

Included among the Sparks heads of families enumerated in Wilkes County on the 1860 census was Robert Sparks, age 34. His wife, Susan, was 33; their four living children were then: Martha, 12; Sarah, 9; Huldah, 6; and byrum, 4.

Record of the Sale of the Land of Robert Sparks
by His Widow, Susan Sparks, April 2, 1867.

Although Robert Sparks, in his letter to his wife written before his death, urged her to remain living with their children on their farm, she appears not to have done so. Although the above document is all that remains in the Wilkes County Court records pertaining to Robert's estate, it is apparent from this that Susan Sparks had been appointed administrator, and that on April 2, 1867, she had sold (at least her widow's share) of the farm to Jacob S. Lyon for $90.00. Jacob S. Lyon was the husband of Robert Sparks's sister, Malinda (or Belinda) Sparks, who had been married in June 1846 (marriage bond dated June 6, 1846, with James Durham as Jacob's bondsman).

When the 1860 census was taken, Jacob S. Lyon, age 47, and Malinda, age 36, were shown as living in Traphill Township of Wilkes County. Their household appeared immediately before that of Nancy Sparks, Robert's 70-year-old mother, who was living with her youngest son, Hugh Sparks.

Ten years later, when the 1870 census of Wilkes County was taken, Susan Sparks (called here by her full name, "Susannah") was still living in Traphill Township, "keeping house," without either real or personal property. Her age was given as 40, and living with her in 1870 were her son byrum (spelled "bynum"), age 12, and her youngest son, Thomas Sparks, age 9. Thomas had been born, apparently, in 1861.

From census records noted above, it appears that Robert and Susannah (Durham) Sparks were the parents of five children: Martha Sparks, born ca.1848; Sarah Sparks, born ca.1851; Huldah Sparks, born ca.1854; byrum Sparks, born ca.1856; and Thomas Sparks, born ca.1861.