Behind every soldier kneels a woman back at home praying for his safe return and holding down the fort until he gets there. My third-great-grandmother, Gemima Poteet Wadkins, must have prayed alongside her mother as brother after brother as well as her husband, left for the Civil War. Her husband, Private George Wadkins, Co A, 49th NC Regiment, never made it home, dying at the Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862. Researching and writing about his life left me with more questions than answers. I wanted to know that his death was quick and painless, whether his brother John was by his side, and how long his wife Gemima prayed for his safe return after he had already passed away before she learned of his fate that bloody day. I will never know the answers to those questions, but thanks to the thorough research into the Poteet family of Dan W Olds, of Spartanburg, South Carolina, I would like to share a glimpse into the lives and times of Gemima, her family, and the McDowell County area I love, during the 1860s.
Try as I might, Gemima’s story refused to be told in one blog or without the details of other family members. Hers is not the story of one woman but of many women and their men and children too. Their family story is not the story of one family, but the experience of families all over our nation during a time of great crisis, sorrow, and need. One can study the great events of history and memorize dates, places, and facts for tests in school. Having your heart break over letters of a single family, indeed realizing it was your very own family suffering such great loss, and realizing this was the experience of so many, sheds true light on the history of our nation.
Gemima was born to John and Susannah (Brittain) Poteet on 18 December 1828, the seventh of eight children, and the only daughter. I have seen her first name spelled Gemima and Jemima, her maiden name spelled Poteet and Poteat, and her married name spelled Wadkins and Watkins.
By the 1850 census, Gemima is 22 and married to George Wadkins, a miner born in Tennessee. It appears they live near his brother John. George and Gemima already have two children, 2-year-old Elisha and 3-month-old Bulow. Also enumerated in their household are a 20-year-old mulatto John Jackson and 21-year-old black man Levi Howell, both listed as laborers. They are living nearby Jackson and Howell families so John and Levi are most likely working the land while George is mining. This was a gold mining area.
By the 1860 census, George and Gemima have added four more sons to the home. They now have Elisha, 12; Bulow, 10; Ruphus, 7; George, 4; John, 2; and William, 1 month. George is now listed as a laborer, rather than a miner. It is quite possible this is due to Gemima’s father passing away and the need for someone to run the farm. Gemima and George are now living with Gemima’s widowed mother, Susannah, listed as Susan and as head of household in this 1860 census. While this census does not indicate a value for the real estate, the Agriculture Census of 1860 indicates Susana Poteet owned 75 acres of improved and 325 acres of unimproved land. The cash value of the farm was $1000 with $10 worth of farm machinery, 2 horses, 2 milk cows, and 3 other cattle. The value of the livestock was $225. During the year ending 1 June 1860, the farm produced 350 bushels of Indian corn, 10 bushels of Irish potatoes, 15 bushels of sweet potatoes, 50 pounds of butter, and slaughtered $25 worth of animals.
On 20 May 1861 North Carolina was the tenth of eleven states to secede from the Union between December of 1860 and June of 1861. War broke out shortly after. Gemima’s third oldest brother, forty-year-old Peter, quickly enlisted in Co G, 1st NC Infantry on the 25 April 1861, just 13 days after the Battle at Fort Sumter. L. Leon, also of 1st NC Infantry, kept this short journal of daily experiences, Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier.
Peter was slightly wounded 10 June 1861 at Bethel, Virginia. Shortly afterward, Peter addresses a letter from Yorktown, VA to his brother Francis back home. Peter’s letter home:
“July 16, 1861
“My Dear brother I am happy to inform you that I am still spared to the present time to drop you a few more lines to let you know that I am Well and I Do hope that these few lines may Reach you and find you all Injoin good helth for I find that It is one of the greatest Blessings that We Can injoy on this earth I Was happy to receive your kind letter today for it dose me somutch good to here from eny of my People in this troublesum place Whene I study so mutch it appears To me that I Cant stand it some times But yet I do hope & pray that I may live to git home Again But it is doutfel About that I have escaped thousands of balls onst But the next Battle may take thousands of us there is no telling about that We ar expecting A fearful Battle at this place every day and When it dose Come off it Will be one that Will be long remembered By them that escapes But We ar Well prepared for it and at work Every day you said somthing about our battle being at harpers ferry hit was 15 miles below here At aplace cald bethel Church they was meny Balls Went into the meting house our old Colonel Was in all of the mexicin War And he says that he never saw such abattle in his travels
“they ar fiting about here every day or two I got aletter from henry poteet a day or two ago and it was Amity good letter I am glad to here from you all & here that all of you ar praying for me and for all I Want you to give all of the nabors my best love & respects tell my Pore old mother howdy for me And perhaps farewell for this May be the last letter that I ever May have the Chance of riting to eny of you my feelings Was Mortyfide & the tears Brock from My eyes When I Was reding your letter & Come to When it told Me of the death of Mr Suttle for I thought more of him than any Man that I ever saw in all of my travels But if I Can go Just as I think he Went I think that I Would go happy there is a pour of sickness here at this time and agreate many Deaths We haint lost many men out of our Company yet and I hope that We will all live to git home again Rite to me Assone as this Comes to hand And dyrect your letter to the Same place that you did the other so nothing more at present only Remanes your affectent Brother till Death Peter Poteet to F. M. Poteet And family and Mother Brothers & Cister May the Lord bles & save us all is my Prays amen”
The “fearful Battle” Peter wrote of them expecting any day must have been the First Battle of Manasses or the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place 21 July 1861 and which Peter writes home about 7 August 1861. This was the first major land battle of the Civil War. In this letter home to brother Francis, Peter also mentions sister Gemima and her husband George, his wife Mary sending him a box of provisions, and how much he longs to see his mother:
“August the 7, 1861 Yorktown VA.
“Dear Brother I again take the opportunity of Trying to Rite to you to let you know that I Received your kind and loving letter in dew Time and was glad To here from you all and here that you was all well I would have Rote soner But I have bin sick for 3 weekes & was very low When I Received your leter & I am bad of yet But I do hope and pray that I may git well And live to return To my desolate famley onst More there is about half of our Company sick at this time and some of them is Bad of there was One of our Company departed this life last knight And it is to Be hoped that he is gone to rest where there will be no Battles to fight nor no lamenting to git home But where all is Well he was a young Man by the name of harrison avry a son of James avrys And I think he was a good boy & herd some of our men Say this morning that they thought he was prepared To dye as To fiting We hant had nary battle sense the battle at Bethel Church all of our men has Gone down there know But our ridgment gineral Mcgrooder has tuck 10 thousand men down there [Gen. John Bankhead Magruder] And is agoing to attact newport news this is The Morn ing that he was to Make the attact But we hant herd from them to day it will be asevear attact for they ar well fortyfide there I think our men will tak it But they will lose many of ther men
“they left here the other day with John and Brach hmhills Brother he dyde here and they tuck him home I want you to give John hemphill houdy for me tell him that I would be glad To Se him tell old ant Cate hemphill houdy for me I am so weake that I Cant hardley setup to Rite But I will try to give you alittle histry of the battle At Manases Junction on sunday the 20 of July they had apourful Battle there they fit one hole day they only kiled about 5 hundred of our men and wonded about 4 or 5 thousand our men kiled 7 or 8 thousand of the yankes & wonded 15 or 18 thousand of them We whipt them Badley and tuck every thing they had the say when they did Retrete that they run over one another & women & Children and kiled lots of them selves I supose the like never was knowd in the world our men got about 70 peaces of Canon & 20 thousand stand of armes And 500 wagons & teames besides thousands of other things they say what they got from the Enemy was worth one Million & ahalf of dollars If I made no mistake in reding your letter I think that you said that mother said if she had Somebody to Come with her that she would Come To se me I would give this hold world if I Could Just se her Coming But that I never expect to Se tell My Dear old mother houdy for me if I Could se her this morning I dont know what I would give I still try to pray that I may live to git home onst more to se you all But it is doutful about that tell Mr Walker that I send him houdy and my best love & Respects tell him to Remember me in all of his prays give Mrs Satterwhite and famley houdy for me and all inquirn friends tell Gorge & gemima houdy for me tell them that I think they Might Rite to me I would rite to them But I so mutch riting to do for our boys that I hant got the Chance tell mr alen that I hant forgot what I ow him & if I live to git back I will pay him give him my respects Columbus & Joseph Williams is well it mity Bad to be sick here for there Is nothing to eate that asick man Can eat We ar looking for thomas walton & others here today mary Rote to me that she was going to send me abox of Aples & Cucumbers & unions she would send me Somthing that I Could eat But she hant the Money to git it with nor I Cant no money to send To her We hant got no Cent of our wagers yet they Ow us about <????> dollars each know if could some of it we Could by somthing that we Could eat here But it would be hye to pay ther prices Afew lines to Marthy it made proud to think that you put up your potisions in my behalf Marthy I do hope and pray that they wer herd and ansurd in haven I also try to pray for you all as well as I know how there is aheep of wekeedness going on here But thank God I never have have pertuck with none of it nor I never intend to as long as I live let that be long or short I want you to beshure to Rite sone as this Comes to hand If we should live to se that time Role Round We will be disbanded the 13 of november in Raleigh So nothing more at present only Remanes your loving Brother till Death So farwell Peter Poteet to F.M. Poteet And famley Mother and all inquirnes friends”
Since Peter mentions having been sick for three weeks, it appears he missed out on the Battle of Bull Run. His estimates of losses on both sides must have come from comrades who had been there. In reality there were less than 500 on each side killed, and less than 1500 on each side wounded, not that each loss isn’t significant. The descriptions can only help us imagine how devastating the carnage and chaos around the men must have been to estimate such losses.
It is also interesting to note that Peter has “so mutch riting to do for our boys.” Despite the difficulty some might have today deciphering Peter’s letter, we must remember how few children attended school or for how few years due to being needed on the farm. Illiteracy was a given and being able to write as Peter could was a commodity. I find myself glad that he was able to help others send word home to their loved ones as well.
What struck me even more in this letter was Peter’s longing to see his mother. We must remember that Peter was 40 years old. He has only been enlisted two-and-a-half months and only enlisted for six months, yet he has already seen so much death from battle and illness that he only still tries to pray to make it home to see his mother again.
Peter Poteet mustered out of service 13 November 1861 and passed away 7 December 1861. I wish I knew if he made it home to his see his beloved mother. I hope so.
Records indicate that Gemima’s husband George Wadkins was the next to enlist, 1 February 1862, but for lack of weapons, 49th Regiment NC Co A, did not muster until March 1. His brother John enlisted at that time as well. As we already know, George died 17 September 1862 in the Battle of Antietam. The war would drag on for two-and-a-half more years, claiming another Poteet and another Wadkins brother. What was Gemima’s life like? And that of her family and the area they lived? I hope you will join me as I share Gemima’s family’s story, in their own words, in the coming weeks. Join me and get a glimpse of the people of McDowell County, North Carolina, a place dear to my heart, and a better understanding of history through the eyes of those who lived it.