About the Oliver Caswell King and Katherine Rutledge King Papers Collection

Katherine Rebecca Rutledge King (1843-1925).
Photo Courtesy of the Inman Family/Knoxville News Sentinel.

The Oliver Caswell King and Katherine Rebecca Rutledge King Papers, 1856-1893, provide broad social, political, and domestic context for historians researching Civil War era courtship practices, college experiences, military camp life, and home front activities. They document the friendship, romance, and marriage of a young East Tennessee couple during a critical time in American history. Oliver King (1841-1893) was a man in love, and he expressed his feelings passionately in his letters to Kate Rutledge (1843-1925). He opened most of them with "Dear Toad," Kate's family nickname. She affectionately greeted him as Oll. The majority of their private correspondence was written between 1861 and 1863, the stress of war never far away.

Biography and Background

Oliver Caswell King (1841-1893).
Photo Courtesy of the Inman Family/Knoxville News Sentinel.

Katherine Rebecca Rutledge was born March 6, 1843, in Sullivan County, Tennessee, where her parents Sarah "Sally" Caswell Cobb and John Crockett Rutledge made their home. At first Sally lived in the country while John stayed variously with an innkeeper and the jailor in Blountville, where John worked as county court clerk. In 1863 the Rutledges bought a house in town. Heeding her father's advice to get an education, Kate was schooled at the Masonic Female Institute in Blountville. Her coursework included botany, literature, philosophy, arithmetic, and religion; but Latin was her favorite subject. It was at school that she began returning a flirtation with her cousin, Oliver Caswell King.

Oliver Caswell King was born August 4, 1841, in Washington County, Virginia, in a house said to straddle the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Oliver was the first child of Penelope Louise Massengill and Leander Montgomery King. The family soon moved to Sullivan County, Tennessee, where L. M. King was a prosperous farmer. He sent his only son first to Emory and Henry College in Virginia, then to Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. Oliver excelled academically at Tusculum and had a robust social life. Oll's school essays (circa 1859-1861) were eloquent, thoughtful, and well-argued. Themes ranged from the influence of Greek and Roman civilizations to Italian unification, freedom of expression, and the harmful effects of procrastination ("the thief of time"). They showcase his engagement with the political currents of the day, and his eventual transition from anti-Lincoln to pro-Union to Confederate sympathizer. King's letters to the Greeneville Democrat newspaper written during the secession debate addressed the "political darkness" of the day.

Oll's letters to Kate were unreserved. His first known love letter was to "My Cousin Toad" and was written in May 1858. He hoped that someday she would reciprocate his feelings, and told her that it was she who inspired him to greatness. Writing from Emory and Henry early in 1859, he admitted that he was "desperately lonesome" and owned up to leading the life of a "solitary misanthrope." Two months later Oll wrote to Kate from his parents' home in Poor Hill that he had left college, never to return. "I could not see my rights, my liberties, my conscience trampled on by a despotic faculty."

By early 1860, Oliver King was back at school courting Toad from Tusculum. On February 4, he warned her that he would soon be attending a ceremony and that she should "look out, I'm going to have such a speech that I can't fail to catch a sweetheart." Following that attempt to elicit a little jealousy he tried flattering her "noble character." Kate was unconcerned about other women. In September [1861] she reminded Oll of his teasing comment that he might give her "the dodge" and warned him that he knew what would happen if he did!

The lovers were uninhibited about mentioning their spats. Oll once reproached Kate for committing a "piece of coquettish frivolity" by getting mad. In another letter he acknowledged receiving the "spicy little note" that "excited as much fear and amazement in my mind as you designed it to do."

Oliver's Confederate military service can be reconstructed by using personal letters, government records, and Kate's 1915 Confederate widow's pension application. These resources

reveal his enlistment as a private in Capt. A. L. Gammon's Company, 19th Tennessee Infantry, on June 6, 1861 two days before Tennessee voted to secede. He went on to serve in McClellan's 5th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion; Co. K, 61st Tennessee Mounted Infantry (Pitts' Regiment); and Col. James E. Carter's 1st Tennessee Cavalry as an independent scout.While serving with Carter, Oll was severely wounded and taken prisoner during the Confederate drubbing at the Battle of Piedmont (Va.) in June 1864. His father traveled there in July, and warned the family to expect the worst. Oll recovered, but it was mid-1865 before he could leave his bed. The letters taper off after his health improved. Oliver's dispatches from the field and from furlough and convalescences at home provide a valuable source not only for military history, but for the medical history of the Civil War in the South.

Kate King's 1915 Civil War Widows' Pension application.

Oll never fully recovered from the wound he suffered at Piedmont and walked with crutches or a cane the rest of his days. He never took the Oath of Allegiance. After the war, he taught school and read law. He was admitted to the bar in 1867. The following year he and Kate moved to Mossy Creek, Jefferson County, where they lived until 1876. They removed to Morristown where he practiced law, owned six farms, speculated in real estate, and took stock in railroads and mining. King invested in regional mineral resources, and at one time he was believed to own more iron ore than anyone in Upper East Tennessee. He became president of the Confederate Veteran Association of Upper East Tennessee. Oliver Caswell King was only 51 years old at the time he died in 1893.

Kate outlived Oliver by thirty-two years. The Kings had four children: Michael Caswell, Penelope Cobb, John Rutledge, and Leander Montgomery.

Social History

The correspondence also sheds a rare and vivid light into the social lives and customs of young East Tennesseans during the Civil War. Reports of fairs, picnics, sacramental (religious) meetings, concerts, parties, balls and the dramas of young courtship including frequent spats between them also dot Oliver and Catherine's letters. Alongside more pointed political observations, the couple's sense of humor also flavors the correspondence. Of interest to folklorists and social and cultural historians, the collection also documents a number of period idiomatic expressions. The couple also charts their religious and spiritual journeys in the course of the correspondence.

The King Collection is also rich with gastronomical pleasures. Toad's letters faithfully record agricultural and horticultural projects, harvests, and summer berry-picking excursions from her family's home near Blountville. Oll's Civil War-era notes record his experiences with strong drink and laudanum; and Toad's enraged response to Oliver's self-medication is a useful window onto sobriety views of the time. Oliver's wartime letters detail food conditions in camp -- wormy flour and all! After Oll was wounded at Piedmont, a local family took him in and nursed him until he was well enough to travel home. In a letter to Toad during his convalescence in Virginia, he includes voluminous praise of her homemade pickles.

Both Oliver and Katherine's dispatches from school, and records of their reading engagements, plans of study, and reactions to popular pedagogy and religion at the time will prove a valuable resource to historians of education in the Upper South in this era. The correspondence is especially striking in its rich description of extracurricular student life, from the womens' plays and concerts at Toad's Masonic Female Institute to Oliver's descriptions of elocution contests, raucous outings at the wartime muster at Tusculum. The correspondence includes a rich collection of Oliver's Tusculum College compositions on a variety of political, social and geographical themes, many of which he sent to Toad by mail. Moreover, the letters, poems and short compositions that dot the correspondence - more often in Oll's letters than Toad's -- are a useful indication of the circulations of popular poems, songs and cultural themes at the time.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

The King Collection is also notable in that many letters remain with the envelopes in which they were found. Outstanding examples include a handsome Tusculum College cover and a patriotic Confederate cover. Many of the envelopes bear United States or Confederate States postage stamps.

The King Collection offers a window into the "lost art" of letter writing, and sheds light on the day-to-day realities of young lovers carrying on a correspondence by mail. While Oliver's letters are often long, effusive and full of poetry, he often reprimands Toad for writing short or unaffectionate notes. Toad, for her part, assures Oliver that it would be as difficult for her to write a longer letter as to write a more loving one. These ongoing debates on writing style, length, and emotional tenor provide important insights into the functions of letter-writing as a communication technology for East Tennesseeans before, during, and after the Civil War.

The material culture of correspondence in the King Collection also highlights common letter-writing practices of the day. Everything from the amount of folds in a letter to the choice of paper to interactions between letters and other enclosures document a vital part of the social life of rural Americans in the mid-19th century. Letters -- especially those written during the war -- also make reference to disruptions in mail routes, and the great lengths to which everyday Americans had to go (often by foot) to ensure the delivery or receipt of a letter.

The Civil War Through Teenaged Eyes

Oliver and Katherine were not exceptional in being young people who came of age as the nation fractured under Civil War. Their correspondence, however, offers a valuable window into the way that political and social history and national and local action combined in everyday life. The letters of "Toad" and "Oll" are full of both commentary on politicians, news of battles, and updates from boys home on furlough; but they also document the everyday pains, pleasures and dramas of daily life -- from plans for visits with family to romantic longings to victories in public speaking and throwing great parties. Far from a textbook rendering of the history of the Civil War in the Upper South, the King Collection portrays the complicated totality of human life during a seminal time in national history.Oliver's and Katherine's letters are full of pep, fire, hope, confusion and human vibrancy, even over 150 years after many were originally written.

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