1862: John Belfield Featherston to Thomas Bell

This deeply affecting letter was written by 51 year-old John “Belfield” Featherston (1811-1881) of Jamestown, Clinton county, Illinois. He wrote the letter in answer to one received from his nephew, Lt. Thomas Bell of the 30th Tennessee (Confederate) Infantry, who was languishing as a prisoner at Johnson’s Island—the prison in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. the prison was opened in April 1862 expressly for the confinement of Confederate officers. Bell was 2nd Lieutenant (made 1st Lieut. Sept. 29, 1862) of Co. H, 30th Tennessee Regiment, and had been taken a prisoner with the surrender of Fort Donelson in mid-February 1862. He was initially held at Camp Chase until Johnson’s Island opened. He was freed as part of a prisoner exchange in Sept. 1862 whereupon he returned to his regiment. He was wounded at Atlanta, Ga., on July 22, 1864 and died less than a month later at La Grange (Ga.) Hospital, 15 August 1864, with pneumonia listed as the cause. 

Belfield Featherston grew up in Amelia county, Virginia—one of at least ten children born to Burwell Featheron, Jr. (1784-1875) and Rebecca Adams (1788-1852). Belfield and his siblings—like so many American families—migrated West with the growth of the Nation, some into Illinois, and some remaining in the mid or deep South. These families were destined to experience the anguish of divided loyalties forced upon them by the American Civil War. In this exchange between an Uncle and his Nephew, each side condemns the other; one for turning his back on his relations, the other for turning his back on his country.

This letter was sold as part of a larger collection of letters, many of them written by Thomas Bell to his brother, Cornelius Bell (1832-1890) of Springfield, Robertson county, Tennessee (as per envelopes displayed on the internet). This Cornelius Bell was the son of Walter Bell (1802-1878) and Elizabeth Culbertson (1802-1877) of Robertson county, Tennessee. Belfield Featherston was married to Nancy Ann Culbertson (1812-1861), Lt. Thomas Bell’s aunt.

It should be noted that the family name was sometimes spelled “Featherstun.” The following obituary notice appeared in a Warren county, Mississippi newspaper: “Died in Clinton County, Illinois, on the 3rd day of February 1861.  Mrs. Ann Featherstun, wife of Belfield Featherstun.  She was born in Robertson County, Tennessee, January 54th, 1812, was married and moved to Warren County, Mississippi in 1836, and joined the Methodist Church at Mont Albon in 1839.  A few years ago, the family moved back to the State of Illinois.” Belfield Featherston died in 1881 in Paris, Lamar County, Texas.

[Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Richard Weiner for sharing another incredible piece of history from his private collection.]


Jamestown, Illinois
August 3, 1862

Lieutenant Thomas Bell
Dear Nephew,

After a few days I attempt to answer your extraordinary letter. Whether I will be able or not, I cannot say. You appear to deal entirely in abruption & surmises. You appear to write as one of the sages of the olden times [as if] you supposed me to be a beardless boy of eighteen—ignorant—have been twice to mill & once to meeting—not remembering that I was born & raised with all of the southern prejudices that any man could inherit with all the birth and sympathies yet retaining. Yet you would write me that I would have the South wiped out. What vicious appetite have I to gratify, sir? Have I no kindred ties to solicit my sympathy?

[I] suppose you [think] that I am destitute of faculty and thought. Abandon your conclusion and ask the God of Heaven to cool your heated brain [and] return your reason that you may again calmly reflect what pertains to your everlasting happiness. I feel today as did our Savior when he wept over Jerusalem. Oh Southerners—Southerners—how freely would I gather thee together. But you will not [listen]. Your houses will be left desolate. Your beloved country will be ruined forever.

A few words of admonition & I am done. Read your Bible for in these you have eternal life. But these are they that testify of me, says the Bible. If you never have prayed, pray now, and thank God that you are a prisoner rather than be butchered & slain. Do you ever think of your dear old Mother? What do you suppose that she thinks today—children all gone—husband gone—[and] for what? To gratify that unnatural appetite of fallen men. Oh! delusion! delusion! when will I ever be severed from these bonds?

Receive these few kind lines in the spirit of forbearance from one that wishes you all the happiness that God has deigned for all of mankind. We are all well [and] hoping that these few lines may find you enjoying the same blessings. Answer this as soon as you get it. Though we differ in opinion, I am gratified to hear from you.

A few interrogatories I would drop. Please answer. Can your heated brain suppose the subjugation of the government? and if you did, the benefits striving [deriving?] from it? Do you not see that the government is calling into existence hundreds of thousands more of troops? When was that time when this government caused [failed?] to protect you? Haven’t your Father & Grandfathers grown rich under it? How did your hand tremble when you swore allegiance to the enemy? Have you forgotten the bitter sobs & tears that the old [folks] shed on your departure to the field of blood & butchery & now continue [to] weep & mourn those that are lost? Or has thine heart grown hard & thine brain heated so as thou hast become as Nero of old? that none of these things moves thee?

Oh God! save such an one. Answer this & oblige yours. Write me in your next whether there was any of the Featherstuns in the army besides George. Have you heard anything from your old Mother? No more at present but remain as ever yours.

— Belfield Featherstun



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