New library collection highlights courtship during war
October 11, 2017
The special collections department of the University Libraries at Virginia Tech has added the James Heizer Collection to its already strong holdings in the American Civil War.
The collection of 146 letters between Confederate soldier James Heizer and his on-again, off-again fiancee, Phoebe, provides a personal view of courtship during wartime. This historic addition was purchased from an auction house with proceeds from an endowment established
by the George R. Wallace Foundation.
Heizer, who was raised near Staunton, Virginia, served in the 14th Virginia Cavalry from April 1861 through General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865. His letters document camp life and several battles, including a skirmish near White Post, Virginia, where part of a shell struck his hip.
The greatest value in this collection is Heizer’s correspondence with Phoebe. Heizer’s brother introduced the couple, and they began a lengthy correspondence. In April 1864, Heizer proposed. Within a week, Phoebe accepted the offer, but the two agreed to keep the
engagement a secret until the war was over.
When Heizer returned home in 1865, their love became public. The next year, however, they broke off the engagement when Heizer enrolled in college. After dropping out of college, he briefly worked as a traveling photographer but pined for Phoebe. The two reunited, married in
February 1867, and later had nine children.
Kenna Crane, who recently earned her master’s degree in the material culture & public humanities program at Virginia Tech, spent the past year processing the Heizer Collection from start to finish. While processing the collection, which included organizing, scanning, and
transcribing the letters, Crane said she grew to know and admire the people behind the conversations.
“It reads like a soap opera,” said Crane, who now works at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. “You get a good sense of who these people were.”
Scholars and students in various academic programs will find great research value in the Heizer Collection, said Aaron Purcell, director of special collections for the University Libraries.
“The personal details of courtship during such a tumultuous period of history is uncommon,” Purcell said. “The collection provides significant insights into individual lives and relationships.”