Civil War Love Letters

The Missouri History Museum Archives has many collections that provide firsthand accounts of the Civil War. One such collection is the James E. Love Papers. James enlisted with a Union regiment in St. Louis in May 1861. When his regiment left St. Louis in June 1861, James started writing letters home to his fiancée, Eliza Mary “Molly” Wilson. James continued to write these letters throughout his entire Civil War service. We believe this collection is unique because it documents not only one man’s experiences during the war, but also the great love story of James and Molly. Will James survive the war? Will he return to his beloved Molly? Find out as we post each letter 150 years to the day after it was originally written. Check back soon—the story begins on June 16!

Who were James and Molly?

James Edwin Love, the eldest of William James and Esther Steel Love’s four children, was born September 27, 1830, in Bushmills, County Antrim, Ireland. After finishing school in 1843, James was indentured to various tea houses and grocers. In May 1849, James and his brother, Samuel, traveled to America, arriving in New York in July. Several of James’s relatives had already come to America, including his aunts and uncles, James and Mary Jane Adams, and John and Eliza Forsyth, who settled in St. Louis in 1836. Another uncle, Robert A. Love, had settled in Cincinnati in the early 1840s. James and Samuel traveled by boat from New York to Cincinnati, where James lived with his uncle Robert.

In the early 1850s, James worked at this grocery store, which was owned by David Nicholson, on the northeast corner of 4th and Market streets.

In December 1850, James arrived in St. Louis, where he stayed with his aunt Mary Jane, and started to work in a country store at the corner of 20th and Market. After only a few days of work at the store, James was hired by David Nicholson, owner of a wholesale and retail store at 4th and Market. James stayed with Nicholson for more than a year, when he left to work for Frank Lepere at 7th and Franklin. In the early 1850s, James opened his own business on the southeast corner of 14th and Market. When the store burned down in the spring of 1854, James decided to follow the rush to California.

James and Samuel left St. Louis with a party of 30 to travel to New York. In New York, James heard many tales of failure and disease from other men who had traveled to California, so James changed his plans and engaged with a skipper loading a boat of supplies for Australia. The voyage to Australia took 103 days. Upon their arrival in Australia, James and Samuel traveled to Ballarat, where they joined a party of Americans mining near Creswick’s Creek. When that failed, James bought a wagon and some supplies and left Samuel to manage it. James returned to Melbourne, where he got a position as a porter with the importing firm of De Pass Brost Company. He soon became a shipping clerk and outdoor agent for the company.

Eliza Mary "Molly" Wilson, ca. 1864. Molly was the recipient of James Love's letters during the Civil War.

In January 1858, James left Australia after accumulating about $6,000 in gold. Upon his return to St. Louis, James bought property at the corner of 9th and Spring (or St. Louis) Avenue. The property had a two-story house on Spring, three houses and a cellar on 9th, and eventually a store on the corner. James initially had good business, but that changed in early 1861 as people started to leave the city ahead of the Civil War. Many customers left unpaid bills, and James had no tenants for the houses. As the country headed for war, James joined other Union men secretly drilling in the cellars and caves of breweries.

It is not known exactly when or how James Love and Eliza Wilson met, but they had a family connection and lived in the same area of north St. Louis. Eliza was born October 2, 1833, in Isle McGee, Larne, Ireland. Her father was a ship owner and sea captain. In 1849, after the death of her father, Eliza came to America with her mother and her younger sister, Sally. Eliza had family who had already settled in Illinois, Iowa, and St. Louis. Her brothers, William C. and Alexander D. Wilson, were businessmen in St. Louis by the late 1850s. Like James Love, William C. Wilson had worked for Frank Lepere before he opened his own grocery store at 123 Morgan Street. Also, William married James’s cousin, Eliza Ann Adams, the daughter of James and Mary Jane Adams. When James first arrived in St. Louis, he spent a lot of time with his cousin, Eliza Ann—perhaps she was his introduction to Eliza Wilson. At any rate, by 1861, James and Eliza were engaged, although they kept this a secret. At the outbreak of the Civil War, James enlisted with Company D, 5th United States Reserve Corps. Throughout his military service, James sent letters home to Eliza, usually addressing her by her nickname, Molly. These letters document not only James’s Civil War experiences, but also the love story of James and Molly. On June 15, 1861, James left with his regiment and headed to Jefferson City to drive out the governor and the rebels. This is where our story begins.

—Molly Kodner, Associate Archivist