|Unit History Project|
Captain Carlos Alvarez de la Mesa Collection
I have spent time this past fall semester working at the New York State Military Museum as an intern. I spent my time there on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays working in the research library with a collection of Civil War era letters. These letters were written by Captain Carlos Alvarez de la Mesa, a Spanish Captain who fought for the Union in the American Civil War. The 200+ letters in the collection, dating from 1861 to 1871, were all addressed to his wife, Frances (Fannie) Taft. All of the letters are written in Spanish. My project was to read these letters and provide an English translation as well as to garner a better understanding of Captain C.A. de la Mesa and the 19th century world in which he lived. To accomplish this goal I set out to work each day with a notebook, a Spanish-English dictionary, and a lot of patience.
My internship proved to be extremely rewarding and I’m very grateful that the stars were able to align so perfectly in my favor so that I may have found such an ideal project to spend my time on. Initially I found working with the letters to be a very frustrating experience. Seeing as I am not an expert on 19th century cursive or 19th century Spanish, I found myself having to piece together a general understanding of Carlos’ use of language. Firstly, I had to come to understand his alphabet. His handwriting is a tightly wound together script written with a light touch and the occasional dramatic flourish. Jim Gandy, the head librarian at the museum, gave me an interesting piece of advice when I first began working there. He told me that, though 19th century script can be difficult to crack initially, once you’ve figured it out it won’t change on you. Handwriting during this time period was very constant, which proved to be true of Carlos. By the third week I could clearly read everything Carlos was writing.
My second issue was deciphering the actual content of his letters. He writes almost exclusively in run on sentences, connecting his thoughts with “and.” This made it difficult to tell when he was continuing a common thought or starting with a new one. Also, as I began to gain a better understanding of Carlos’ handwriting I noticed the many spelling mistakes he would make or abbreviations he would use. For example, a common spelling mistake of his is to use the letter B when he should be using the letter V. This means that he might spell the Spanish word for “let’s go” as “bamos” instead of “vamos.” This mistake is actually very common in the Spanish language because the letters B and V make the same sound. Another spelling mistake of his is that he sometimes would add the letter H to words that actually start with A. For example the Spanish word for “Open” would be spelled as “Habierta” instead of “Abierta.” A more severe mistake was the misuse of the correct conjugation of important verbs. This would cause trouble for me seeing as a wrong conjugation can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For example, he would commonly write “te quiere” at the end of his letters instead of “te quiero.” The simple exchange of an “e” and an “o” in these two phrases drastically changes their meaning. In one he is saying “He loves you” and in the other he is saying “I love you.” Also, Carlos would occasionally abbreviate important connecting words such as “por” or “que” into a simple “p” or “q” followed by a swirl. These abbreviations and misspellings provided a challenge initially but, just like the style of his handwriting, they were constant throughout all of the letters that I read. Once I understood the way Carlos was accustomed to writing, I could understand everything he was saying.
So now we come to the most important question, who was Carlos Alvarez de la Mesa? Born in Spain, presumably Madrid, circa 1828, little information is provided of his life before coming to America. He mentions his family in Spain on several occasions. He left behind a large extended family in Spain including brothers and a sister, his mother, father, and uncles and aunts. Whether or not he came to America to fight the Civil War or he was already in America before he enlisted is unknown. Either way in 1861 Carlos’ entire life changed. He married Fannie in 1861, the day before leaving to join the army. He was mustered into service in 1861 with the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, better known as the Garibaldi Guard.
The Garibaldi Guard was a regiment of Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Frenchmen, Swiss, and Spaniards recruited in New York City to fight for the Union in the Civil War. In his letters he mentions these different groups of peoples on multiple occasions and highlights the difficulties of communicating when so many people, including him, lacked sufficient English language skills. The regiment spent the majority of its time in and around Washington D.C., Virginia, and Pennsylvania, occasionally fighting on the front lines of some of the Civil War’s most brutal and famous battles. Fannie lived in Washington D.C. for the duration of his active duty in the war and because of this would frequently visit him at his encampment with other military wives. In fact, in 1862 Fannie was called upon by the military to inspect a woman suspected of being a spy. To protect this woman’s modesty they called upon another woman, Fannie, to inspect her instead of allowing male soldiers to do so. This woman was found to possess a suspicious letter and not allowed to pass into the north. For her service, Fannie was rewarded by the military with a certificate of gratitude.
With his regiment, Carlos fought in two major battles of the Civil War, the Battle of First Bull Run in 1861 and the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He describes his fear during the Battle of First Bull Run to Fannie. He writes on July 20, 1861 “Yesterday, at 2am, we left the camp to attack the enemy that was waiting for us 2 miles away. I didn’t know what kind of luck I was going to have. I only knew that my battalion was the first to attack. God wanted me to be able to give you another hug so he allowed my regiment to advance unharmed.”1 He does not describe the Battle of Gettysburg in any of his letters because he was severely wounded fighting. When climbing over a fence, he was shot in the foot, fell over, and got trampled by the men that were advancing behind him. He suffered severe stomach lacerations because of this accident and was immediately hospitalized while Fannie rushed to be by his side. His wounds were too severe to allow him to return to active duty and he instead became a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps.
After a few years, Carlos began working at a military hospital in Albany in 1865 while Fannie with their three children lived in Grafton, Massachusetts near Fannie’s family. After years of serving in the VRC, he eventually became sick because of venereal disease that he presumably caught during the war. He died in an insane asylum in Washington D.C. in 1872 from “diseases of the brain.” He is currently interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. beside his son who would later die of blood poisoning while serving as a doctor in the Spanish American War.
Within Carlos’ letters there are several sweeping themes that illuminate a certain aspect of 19th century American culture and what Carlos must have experienced as a Spaniard living in America. The first and, I think, most obvious theme is the idea of what a husband can or cannot tell his wife. The information that we are provided with in Carlos’ letters is naturally censured by the fact that he was writing to his wife. Some of the more gruesome details of war that might highlight exactly what occurred in Civil War encampments are withheld as to not upset his wife. Most of Carlos’ letters follow the same basic pattern. The first paragraph is usually either a response to her latest letter or a complaint as to why he has yet to receive a letter from her. Then the main body of the letter will either be a story about how bad the food is, how he doesn’t have enough blankets, or how he needs a clean pair of pants sent to him. This section tends to include more or less trivial matters. He usually will update his wife on the social politics of the camp talking about how one soldier did this or the Colonel did that. The people that constantly surround him are clearly the highest level of entertainment he has. Also, whenever Fannie tries to ask him about war matters he insists that he does not want to talk about it. Then there is the major question that no matter how many times I read these letters I will not find the answer to: how did Carlos contract venereal disease? Even though he insists he loves his wife in his letters, there is definitely the option that there is something he is not telling her. If he was unfaithful to her, there is no way he would include that in one of his letters. So, inherently there is an element of lying in these letters, even thought he specifically says he does not wish to lie to his wife, one cannot help but wonder. Is it possible for a husband to be constantly honest with his wife?
Though the evidence is there that Carlos was unfaithful to his wife, I want to believe that, either way, Carlos truly loved Fannie. There is no doubt in my mind that he adores her in the best way that a 19th century husband knows how to love his wife. Perhaps it could be argued that infidelity was an accepted part of marriage in the 19th century. Relationships were perceived differently back then and, from a 21st century perspective, it can be difficult to fully understand. Yet, love, in its most general form certainly still existed. The words he uses to describe his feelings portray an emotional love rather than a convenient love. He uses words such as fervently and deliriously in every letter to describe his love for her. For Carlos, a devoted Catholic, marriage is an unbreakable holy bond between two people in love. He frequently signs his letters by saying “Faithfully yours,” which would suggest he would not be unfaithful. As the mother of his children she is his undisputed everything. He incessantly reminds her of this by saying things like “Did you know that I love that you are religious, I love your life, and I love everything you are?”2 I might believe this was just a fabrication of his emotions to simply placate his wife if he didn’t write things like this in every letter. He constantly addresses her affectionately as “vida mia” which literally translates to mean “my life.”
He turns to his love for his wife and children on multiple occasions to get him through the hardships of war. If it weren’t for this love he would feel no reason to continue suffering as he does. He tells her that a husband’s love for his wife is meant to be so strong and that “she is the only reason that he continues in an army in which he is beginning to hate everyone around him.”3 When times get rough, he turns to his memories of his wife and children to soften the blow of daily life during wartime, “If anything has saved me during this battle I believe it is your portrait and that of my daughter which I am constantly kissing.”4 If she does not write him frequently enough he writes her angry letters saying that “I love you more than you love me” and begging for letters because he insists that they are the only moments of happiness he has during the days. At some moments when he writes her he gets overwhelmed with his emotions for her and rants about his feelings saying things such as “I love you Fannie! I love you more every day and every day that passes the more and more I feel it.”5 The love is certainly there, the only problem is how he uses it.
If we assume Carlos to be a model of a typical 19th century husband, we can witness the way in which husbands manipulate their love to patronize their wives. To Carlos, Fannie is akin to a child that occasionally needs to be scolded and told what to do. He occasionally addresses her as “hija mia” which literally translates to mean “my daughter.” Through his logic he believes that because he loves her it is his responsibility to protect and provide for her and her obligation to obey him. In almost every letter, after he showers her with affection, he either criticizes something she has done or tells her something she must do for him. These critiques can be about just about anything from writing him a letter in English, her poor Spanish skills, spending too much money, not handling a social situation well, writing boring letters, or not writing him frequently enough. It is clear that Carlos is not afraid to hurt her feelings and that, on some occasions, it seems like he is actually hoping to hurt her feelings so that she will feel guilty and revise her behavior. On one such occasion, Carlos is upset that Fannie has been asking pestering questions in her most recent letters and that she has not been writing him as frequently as he would like. He attempts to make her feel guilty by saying, “The obligation of a good wife is to live dedicated to her husband, to die for him, and not to consult him about things that can be scientifically proven to disgust him. Don’t send letters or at least don’t write your letters at night because you write poorly at night. And, woman, you write when you can? Where are you that you can never be alone to write me?”6 In this one section he has insinuated that she does not understand the duty of a wife, she doesn’t really love her husband, she has lied to him, and that she is somewhere other than her home where she should be.
To Carlos there is no suitable excuse for Fannie to not write him. He feels very strongly that it is the duty of a good wife to write her husband. Making her feel guilty is his ultimate strategy to accomplish this goal. On multiple occasions he highlights the difficulty of his living situation to make her feel bad for not doing everything she can to make his plight easier. On one such occasion he writes to her, “I heard you were very worn out and pale. This does not seem like a reason not to write your husband who at any moment could fall victim to a bullet. You’d never see me again.”7 Though this statement is true, it is purposefully harsh. Carlos believes that he is the only one in his family that is struggling to accomplish something. He gives Fannie zero credit though, it can be assumed, as a single mother in 19th century America she must have worked very hard to assure her household was run smoothly, even if she did have a nanny to help her. On one occasion when Fannie has told Carlos that she has been feeling sad he does not humor her at all. He has no pity or kind words for his wife. Rather he tells her, “You complain that you’re sad, sad, to which I say if you are with your 3 kids by your side, with your family in front of you, to your right, to your left, and behind you, and with a decent house like you say, with the necessities to live, what do you have to be sad about? The view from my room is the penitentiary and to the left a cemetery full of men I knew.”8 Such a statement is clearly unfair to Fannie. He gives her no space to be sad or to complain about anything. Instead he uses guilt to coax Fannie into doing what he needs.
When he is not insulting her, he is giving her orders. He does not ask her to do something or suggest that she does something for him. He uses the Spanish tense for commands. These commands can be anything from “Send me a fresh pair of pants” to “You will go to Washington and speak to the General.” There is no space for Fannie to refuse when he makes a demand. As the husband, it is his right to demand things from his wife. His commands occasionally go as far as to tell her to wear a specific dress when he sees her. The tone he takes with these commands is absolute, but not necessarily harsh. This is another example of the way in which he patronizes her. It is not that he believes that Fannie is an insolent child but rather that as the man he knows what is best. Also, as the wife, Carlos believes that Fannie has nothing else to do all day than fulfill his wishes. Over and over again he insists that it is the “obligation of a good wife” to do this or that miscellaneous duty. He relies on her for so much and expects that she will always obey him because that is the obligation of a good wife.
His strong belief in the roles of a husband and wife are rooted in his Catholic faith. He doesn’t bring up God all of the time, but when he does it is clear that he spends a lot of time personally reflecting on his faith. With this belief in God comes a fear and acceptance of mortality. When he recognizes the existence of God in his letters, he does so with a usually understated comprehension of God’s ability to so easily remove Carlos from this world, especially in a time of war. Next to his love for Fannie and his children, his belief in God gives him the most comfort. Living in a war encampment or, later on in his life, working at a hospital, Carlos would have been constantly surrounded by death and the suffering of the wounded. Like most soldiers, he is very aware of the fact that one small misstep can result in his own death. In some letters he recognizes that he could easily be dead before Fannie even has a chance to read his words. He is cautious to always acknowledge this possibility, especially when he is actively serving in the military. Occasionally letters are concluded with phrases such as “I love you so much. Only God knows if this will be the final goodbye I send you. I will love you until my final breath.”9 Comments like this one suggest that he has come to terms with his own mortality. A strong belief in God and an afterlife make the prospect of death less frightening to him. Yet, on one occasion, when he reflects more deeply on the possibility of death his only fear is that of being removed from his family, “It is important that you know if I do not return to your side it will only be because I have died. In death I need you to know that my life was worthwhile because I fathered our daughter. If we are separated this will be the one thing that I’d truly miss. For today, and for now, I am particularly worried.”10 This moment is particularly candid for Carlos and it can be assumed he was writing during a particular unstable time of war. One cannot know specifically though because this specific letter lacks a date and a location.
For Carlos, God is in control of Carlos’ life and his ultimate fate. Whatever God wills, happens. He frequently talks about this in his letters as if to give credit where credit is due and perhaps to win God’s favor over by proving that he recognizes that his fate is in God’s hands. He states that “Nothing has happened to me because God has conserved me to take care of you and our beautiful dear daughter.”11 He praises God for His kindness but, at the same time, does not demand anything from Him. Rather, he is accepting of whatever God’s will may be. He only dares hope that God’s will is the same as what he desires. He states that “God is great and I believe he will be kind and allow us to share new hugs and kisses.”12 This statement in particular reflects an understanding that only through God’s will may he be able to see his family again, which is his highest desire. Furthermore, he believes that God’s will is the one true path in life and will lead to the best outcome for everyone. He occasionally proclaims his trust in God’s plan, saying once “However I am confident in the Supreme Being that always is and always will be watching over us.”13 This confidence in God’s decisions gives him a comfort when all else fails.
Even though Carlos has his few comforts that get him through the war, these things cannot fully comfort his pain for his lost homeland. No amount of praying or love from his family can return him to Spain, his beloved birthplace. Though he fights beneath the American flag, he never recognizes himself as an American. Instead, he is a Spaniard in America, married to an American woman, having American children, and fighting an American war. He is not American though everything around him is. Instead, he attempts to make the world he lives in as Spanish as possible. He insists that his children and his wife all speak and practice Spanish when he is away. Yet, the fact that he is in America at all suggests that is not truly that loyal of a Spaniard either. Rather, he is in the process of forming his own identity from the clash of two cultures. In this way he actually represents the modern American. He has embraced his new country because he fights for it, but his culture remains engrained in the ways of Spain. He is neither a typical American nor a typical Spaniard. Instead he has created his own identity.
In Carlos’ letters, it is clear that he occasionally struggles with being a foreigner. One thing that definitely helps him is that his regiment during the war is made up almost entirely of foreigners. The men that he fights with are Germans, Italians, Frenchmen, Hungarians, and Spanish. He states that “Everyone in this group understands my great sadness- Spain.”14 These men can sympathize with his longing for his homeland since they also all are missing a homeland, missing the families they left in Europe, the cultures they will more than likely see again. They all speak their own languages and have their own customs that they are attempting to integrate with the new American culture. When he speaks of fellow soldiers he mentions names that sound Spanish, like Montegrifo, but also mention names that sound German, like Baer, or speaks of a group of men he refers to simply as “the Italians.” This camp represents the newest generation of Americans and a new definition of the American identity, an identity that can not necessarily be defined by a unified country but perhaps instead by a unified cause.
Though during the war he has many men around him that share his struggle, he is still very self-conscious of his English speaking abilities. Though he tries to learn English, he insists it does not come easily to him. Once when he is working at the hospital in Albany he tells Fannie he cannot wait to see her because he insists “I need you to give me English lessons. They are so indispensable to me.”15 He views his inability to speak a perfect English to be one of his biggest flaws. At some moments he expresses hopefulness in his endeavors to learns English. He writes Fannie when he is working in Albany that “If I don’t see you for two or three months, you will be shocked to find that I will be speaking English like an American.”16 At other moments, he is not so confident. He complains to Fannie, “What do you think you will be able to do with your useless husband who can barely speak English?”17 In some way, he feels as if he cannot successfully leave the army because he is not fit to do any other job in the United States since he cannot efficiently communicate with people. Though he is attempting to learn English, he doesn’t like the language very much. He has insisted that his children and wife speak Spanish because he believes it is a superior language. He frequently expresses anger with the English language. When he is working at the hospital in Albany one of the reasons he wants to see Fannie is because he is “tired of only hearing English speaking.”18 He is willing to learn English since it will help his family, but he prefers to stick to his Spanish roots when he can.
When Carlos does talk about Spain, he enjoys mentioning its superiority over America and pointing out the oddness of American customs. He has moments where he speaks disgustedly about American culture. On one occasion he was given a bouquet to thank him for something he had done. He writes to Fannie about it telling her “as you can imagine, I don’t like it that much. This is not Spanish custom. There are plenty of different ways to say thank you without flowers. Finally I have thanked them, to my disgust, but it is the custom of this country.”19 Reluctantly, he has given into American customs, making sure to first point out how ridiculous they are. This is another example of Carlos conforming to America, but longing for Spain.
To Carlos, America is far too expensive. He frequently talks about how everything is cheaper in Spain and of a better quality. He argues that in Spain “with $10,000 in gold, one does not have any need to worry about food or sleep,”20 while in America this amount of money is not sufficient to fund the survival of his family. Fannie tells him that her Father is going to Europe for a trip. Carlos is very excited about this news. Almost every day in June 1865 he asks her if her Father has left yet. He orders her to tell him to buy fabric for Fannie to make a dress with in Europe because it is “much cheaper there than in America.” Carlos is very conscious of his money and it is his main complaint about the United States.
Carlos spends many letters discussing money. As a soldier it is clear that he does not make a lot of money during his active service. Most of the money he does make he sends to his wife. If he doesn’t send Fannie money she pesters him about it, clearly not understanding that money in the army is not easy to come by. Either way, he sends her everything he has, saving a small amount for himself. On one day during his active service he wrote to her, “By Adams Express I sent you today $130. Everything else that I can I’ve saved for myself. This turned out to be only $8 after paying off all of my debts.”21 He has no problem sending Fannie money when he has it because he understands that providing for the family is the man’s obligation. Luckily he is friendly enough with his fellow soldiers that they frequently lend him money when he needs it.
Carlos is very aware of the importance of being “economical,” a word he uses frequently. Many of the arguments he has with Fannie begin with a disagreement over whether or not she has been “economical.” This word to Carlos means being frugal, cautious with money, and saving whatever can be saved. To him by saving money he is preparing for the future and ensuring that his family never has to suffer from a lack of money. He tells her, “Be economical with your spending on the horse. I can hear you now criticizing me, my love. Go ahead. I want you to live as economically as possible, never again in harm’s way.”22 Money is the foundation for their future together and the success of his children. He is willing to risk his comfort for the future of his children. He states that, “We don’t need big things because, of course, we have to look toward the future.”23 When he is away he insists that the only thing he spends his money on is food and tobacco. He doesn’t want or need extravagant things. Carlos believes that the army is not fruitful enough to be his true destiny. On multiple occasions he alludes to leaving the service to pursue a more beneficial route in life. At one point he discusses with Fannie leaving the service and joining her father’s business. He likes the idea of this because it will “give a career to my children.”24 The children are always at the center of his thoughts and his worries.
One of the things that Carlos struggles with the most is the constant distance from his children and his wife. He is attempting to figure out how to be a good husband and father while living hundreds of miles away from his family. It saddens him that he cannot be there at night to say goodnight to his children, to teach them Spanish, or watch them take their first steps. All of these milestones of childhood must be recorded to him in a letter. He misses everything when he is away at war. How can he be an active member of their lives when he is never home? Whenever he does write about his children it is with much fondness. They are his world. He wants to constantly be beside them but, alas, he knows he must support them and to do so he has to stay in the army. He expresses this difficulty when he says, “I want to see you but I remember I have 3 kids who only have support from their father and God.”25 The necessity to be a good father weighs on him heavily. The sad truth of Carlos’ life is that he never would truly be with his children for an extended period of time before his death in 1872. All of his struggles would insure that they would live comfortably, but he is constantly away until his death.
So, what do we learn from a life? If I have learned anything it is that Carlos is just a man. He makes no claims of perfection and accepts that history should forget him. I can’t judge him for anything he has done during his life because he makes mistakes just like everyone else. No matter what century, life is always chaotic and impossible to understand. Struggle though he may, he can’t manage to make everything in his life perfect. During his life he does nothing more extraordinary than any other 19th century man. Instead, he desires to live quietly, surrounded by the simple joys that make up a human life: family and love. Even though he is technically a foreigner, it would be a safe bet to say that there were probably plenty of men just like him. His blood and tears form only a small part of the patchwork of American history. Though he may be an unconventional character, it is his immigrant roots that make him so uniquely American. He has taken up the work that all other American families have inherited: forging an identity and supporting a family. And, although he might have died before witnessing it, the legacy of his children and the existence of these letters attest to his success.
1.De la Mesa, July 20, 1861 Back to text
2. [No date provided] Back to text
3. [No date provided] Back to text
4.September 23, 1862 Back to text
5.September 11, 1864 Back to text
6. March, 28, 1862 Back to text
7. March 6, 1862 Back to text
8. June 14, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00025 Back to text
9.[No date provided] Back to text
10. [No date provided] Back to text
11.February 22, 1861 Back to text
12. September 3, 1862 Back to text
13. September 23, 1862, Serial # 2011.0095.00002 Back to text
14. [No date provided] Back to text
15. June 2, 1861 Back to text
16. June 7, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00019 Back to text
17. June 26, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00029 Back to text
18. June 3, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00015 Back to text
19. [No date provided] Back to text
20. [No date provided] Serial # 2011.0095.00014 Back to text
21. May 2, 1861 Back to text
22. June 28, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00032 Back to text
23. June 3, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00015 Back to text
24. June 28, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00032 Back to text
25. June 13, 1865, Serial # 2011.0095.00024. Back to text
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History