When war broke out in 1861, Christian and Elise Dubach Isely, soon to be married, found themselves in the midst of the conflict. Having witnessed the atrocities of Bleeding Kansas firsthand and fearful of what would come from this war, Christian enlisted with the 2nd Kansas Cavalry to fight alongside Union forces. During the next three years, the couple would write hundreds of letters to each other, as well as to friends and family members. Their writings survive today, providing a unique look at the Civil War—one of both military and civilian perspectives—in a passionate exchange between husband and wife in which the war, faith and family are discussed openly and frankly.
Through the use of the Isely’s letters, diaries and Elise’s autobiography Sunbonnet Days (written many years later in 1935) as well as secondary histories, Ken Spurgeon offers up the perspectives of a family caught in the midst of painful conflict. Primary accounts of the events from 1861 to 1864 are much less common, making A Kansas Soldier at War: The Civil War Letters of Christian & Elise Dubach Isely an even more compelling story.
We begin our look at Spurgeon’s new book with the marriage of Christian and Elise, which took place in St. Joseph, Missouri (May 31, 1861):
A close family friend, Reverend John G. Fackler, conducted the ceremony. Elise wore a wool and silk dress with black and wine-colored checks, trimmed with a lace collar. The skirt was worn over hoops. Elise’s bonnet was of white leghorn. “It had a bow at the crown, flowers on either side, and wide plaid ribbons which were tied in a bow under her chin.” Christian wrote a letter on their wedding day, recording “[h]ow sweet every word sounded that was spoken by our worthy Pastor. This was because we tried to live humbly before God, and no guilty conscience reproved us.” The letter also expressed how much Elise meant to him. “Her love has at all times been a firm and perpetual devotion.” Christian concluded with a prayer that with God’s help, he felt strong enough to discharge his duties as a faithful husband. Elise “lacked three weeks of being nineteen, and my husband had just celebrated his thirty-third birthday. Our wedding was set for Friday, because the bridegroom wished to prove to his mother that Friday was as good a day as any on which to begin a new venture.
However, the Civil War was triggered with an attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina just six weeks prior to Christian and Elise’s marriage ceremony. And its effect would soon be felt in St. Joseph…
Maybe all of the violence along the border had lulled some people into believing that the war could not affect them any deeper. Unfortunately, they were wrong. The nation and Missouri were split in two, and Christian and Elise Isely found themselves caught in the middle of the approaching storm. […] Once the war erupted, Missourians were divided. Both sides alleged that they were more numerous. A nineteenth-century Missouri historian calculated that “[a]lthough the Breckenridge, or Southern rights men, were in a minority in the State even when compared with the supporters of Douglas, in the legislature they outnumbered either of the other parties.”
Due to the union of both the Democratic factions, a proslavery candidate was elected as speaker of the legislature. The end result was that Missourians were arguing in their backyards and within the legislature about whether they should secede. In a short time, both a pro-Union and a pro-Confederate government existed. Nonetheless, Missouri never officially seceded from the Union. Christian, due to a variety of reasons, hesitated to enlist initially, but he and Elise did have strong views. “My husband and I were both against slavery,” she wrote, “although public opinion in St. Joseph was largely favorable to the institution.” Only about one man in ten owned slaves in Missouri, so this approval or sentiment in favor of slavery puzzled Elise. “In St. Joseph there were only two slaves for each nine white people. But the slave owners were the men of wealth. They dominated the press, the pulpit, and other fountains of public opinion.” It was a topic that Christian, too, wrote about often in his letters and diaries. Elise summarized their feelings by stating that “[n]ot only did I regard slavery as harmful to the free working man, but I had been taught that slavery was a sin. This view was strengthened by some of my close-up contacts with the system.”
Christian decided to join the fight in the summer of 1861. Read on to learn why Christian decided to “To Fight for a Just Cause”…