“I Was Not Born to Be Shot”: David P. Grier’s Civil War Letters

12, March 2012
Portraits of David P. Grier and Anna McKinneyPortraits of David P. Grier and his fiancee, Anna McKinney. A colonel in the 77th Illinois Volunteer Regiment during the Civil War, Grier wrote many letters to Anna, from his enlistment in 1861 through the end of the war in 1865.

In May 1862, a 28-year-old colonel in the 77th Illinois Volunteer Regiment sent a letter to his fiancée. The regiment’s camp outside Monterey, Mississippi, David P. Grier wrote, was located “on the same ground on which stood a Rebel Camp a few days ago and which I set fire to with my own hands. The coincidence would be very striking indeed if these same Rebels should happen to get back here and burn my Tent and baggage. I should not relish this much,” he went on, “but it might be the fortune of war and I suppose would have to be born with for the sake of country.”

D. P. Grier had set fire to other things in the preceding days, among them the letters he had received from his fiancée, Anna McKinney. “I burn all your Letters according to promise,” he told her in January of that year, “although it is very hard for me to do it, as I should like to keep them and look over them when I am taken with the Blues.” He never made the same request of her. He wrote regularly, from the very beginning of the Civil War and his enlistment in June 1861 through the war’s end in 1865. At least every few weeks, but usually more often, a letter would arrive for Anna at her parents’ home in Peoria, Illinois; and after reading it and relaying its news to her family, Anna would keep it.

She kept many (perhaps all) of the letters he wrote her: letters about the war, about army life, about the cities the regiment passed through, letters that relayed gossip about the troops and asked for gossip from home, letters that repeated—over and over—David’s love for her and his intense wish to spend the rest of his life with her: “my heart is irrecoverably lost and it is yours, for ever,” he wrote. He thought about Anna, if his letters are to be believed, most waking moments, particularly in the run-up to battle, when he would go about his responsibilities in camp with resignation but no enjoyment.

A man with a great sense of duty—he had attempted to enlist at once upon the breaking out of war, but, turned down by an already-full Illinois quota, drew up a group of fellow Peorians and crossed the river into Missouri to enlist—he did not relish war. “Do you Know,” he wrote in May 1862, “my patriotism has very nearly disappeared and I begin to think that this dieing for ones country is all humbug and I should prefer seeing some one else do that part of it.” He continued, “if the people in this country are fools enough to raise another war … after we get through this one[,] some one else may do the fighting and have all the glory they can find in it, for I must say I have not yet found the glory, and am perfectly convinced that there is none in war.”

close-up of Grier's letter to AnnaThis close-up of David's letter to Anna shows his feelings about war. He did not relish fighting the war and felt it had no glory. 

In fact, he repeatedly attempted to resign his commission and return to Peoria, but his commanders would not accept his resignation. He would remain in the army until (finally achieving a long-awaited promotion to brigadier general) he mustered out upon the end of the war in summer 1865. And in the downtime before and after every battle or campaign—he fought at Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Mobile Bay, and many of the other engagements of the western theater of war—he wrote to Anna.

His letters survived. David and Anna married in 1863 in Peoria, after which he went back to active service; after the Confederate surrender he came home and they settled down, raising seven children and moving to St. Louis. He died in 1891, although Anna outlived him, dying in 1918. Their daughter Margret inherited her property, including the Civil War letters and other artifacts, like David’s postwar Grand Army of the Republic uniform and two Civil War flags. Margret’s daughter Ann received the material in the mid-20th century and put it away for safekeeping in a massive wooden steamer trunk. And then the collection was forgotten about—always kept but never opened, investigated, or read—until 2012. Then, a century and a half after the first letters were written, the collection was donated to the Missouri History Museum and I volunteered to process them.

I volunteered for very personal reasons: David and Anna are my great-great-great-grandparents, and it is my immense (and nosy) good luck to be able to read their correspondence, even though none was ever intended to be public. This is the letters’ greatest advantage—they are personable, intimate, honest—and their greatest drawback. Making them public is to violate David and Anna’s privacy. But I wonder if they would have minded terribly much. After all, the letters contain much to admire: a portrait of an enduring love affair, a personal record of a war, and a testimony to people who tried to live as honorably as they could.

It’s very strange to be reading these letters, knowing David and Anna’s fate before they know it themselves. It’s even stranger to realize that without these letters—without their lengthy engagement, without their professions of love, without their eventual marriage and children—I wouldn’t be here. I find myself nervous every time David goes into battle, but then, I know he comes out all right in the end, because I’m sitting here, great-great-granddaughter of one of his own children.

In early 1862, when his regiment was in Kentucky, David wrote to Anna a letter in which he told her that they were anticipating a fight for a nearby city. “[W]e will have a hard fight, for the pla[c]e is very strongly fortified and garrisoned by a large number of Troops,” he wrote; “but I believe I am ready to risk myself in the encounter, for I feel that I was not born to be shot, but believe there is a few days in rese[r]ve for me to live a happy life in your company.”

Indeed, David lived for nearly 30 years after the war, spending them all with Anna. Reading the letters is to follow both of them as they live out out their lives—they don’t know where they’re headed, but I do. It’s an unusual privilege to know about one’s family so far back: how one’s ancestors met, how they courted, how they married, how they lived, what kind of people they were. And it’s extraordinary for me, also, to realize that they were deeply in love. It’s the kind of story I would have written for my ancestors, if I could have imagined it—but it’s real.

—Annalisa Bolin, Museum Volunteer and Blogger

To learn more about General David Grier, and to read his letters, visit Annalisa's blog.