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Reconstruction Valentine

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
In modern chick-flick speak, Ansel "Hance" McKinney must have had a "fear of commitment."

Before marching off to fight for the South at the beginning of the Civil War, the 23-year-old Goliad County cattleman gave a ring to his younger sweetheart, 15-year-old Martha Campbell. The pretty teenager took the jewelry and certain endearing remarks on his part to mean that Hance intended her to be his bride if he survived the fighting.

But when McKinney finally made it home in the late spring of 1865, their relationship continued with no talk of a wedding date. Having gone through the entire war with no advances of the matrimonial front, Martha's patience had worn thinner than the paper of the love letters they had exchanged while McKinney soldiered for the Confederacy.

In the fall of 1866, when an in-person visit with McKinney did not lend itself to a private discussion of the state of their supposed future union, Martha decided to take definitive action. Either they would get married or she would secede from McKinney's casual courtship.

So, on Nov. 4, 1866, Martha put pen to paper and wrote him a no-nonsense early Valentine, a 19th century letter that will doubtless ring true with many a 21st century woman. Arguably the most important missive she ever wrote, it survived into modern times among other more prosaic family papers. One hundred twenty years after Martha put her sentiments down along with her dainty foot, Ida Campbell published the letter in a family history book, "Oh, Strange New World."

"Dear Sir," Martha began formally, "It is with a feeling of great delicacy that I commence this letter; never the less I feel it is my duty." ["You go, girl," Oprah would say.]

She had been patient, she wrote, "thinking perhaps something would transpire that would put my mind more at ease concerning my future happiness; but not one spark of hope has illumined my pathway, and I cannot be kept in suspense any longer."

Alas, "not one word has escaped your lips to let me know that I am not forgotten," she continued. Worse, she went on, "I am led to believe from your conduct toward me that I am."

Clearly, Martha did not relish the notion of giving up on McKinney, though the overall tone of her letter is one of steely resolve.

"Did I not give you my promise to be yours?" she reminded her reluctant beau. "And had you no other reason for soliciting than merely to triumph over the weakness of a woman whose greatest fault was that she loved you [?] I say loved, for it was in consequence of that passion that I consented to be yours."

If any of their war time correspondence survived, it is not included in the 1986 family history. But the book does contain a bit of verse, said to have been written in a delicate hand, which surely came from her.

Addressed "Mr. Ansel McKinney" and dated April 1, 1865, it read:
When thou art near
The sweetest joys still sweeter seem
The brightest hopes more bright appear
And life is all one happy dream
When thou art near
Now that he was back in Goliad County, if he no longer carried a torch for her, she entreated, she deserved to know that she had been "lavishing my affections upon one who spurns it with disdain."

And then, speaking for women of all ages, she pulled the bowstring back and let fly with The Ultimatum:

"If you love another, tell me, and I shall be content…how often you have trifled with my affections but I cannot bear it any longer for my affections are too sacred to be trifled with." In other words, time to fish or cut bait.

Martha concluded: "Will you please answer this immediately verbally or written just as you choose. I will wait patiently for your answer…."

Ida Campbell's family history book includes no further correspondence or any inkling whether other letters passed between the two.

But as recorded in their old family Bible, Martha got her answer from Hance McKinney. On Sept. 4, 1867, at Goliad, they became man and wife.

And judging by the birthdates recorded in that same Bible, as listed in Campbell's book, Martha proved quite capable at lavishing her affections. They lost one baby, but 10 children grew to adulthood.

McKinney died at 56 in 1887, either of a ruptured gall bladder or appendix. Martha never remarried. She wore the ring McKinney gave her until its thin band wore through and then had it converted into a stick pin. She lived until 1918.

Fortunately, for their descendants and lovers of all time, Martha's 1866 letter - written proof that a person must not be afraid to ask for what they want in life - survived.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
February 16, 2007 column

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