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Perry, Harriet Eliza Person

Angela Boswell General Entry

Harriet Eliza Person Perry, a member of the Texas planter class whose correspondence with her husband, an officer in the Confederate States Army, chronicled the effects of the American Civil War on the Texas home front, was born to Thomas A. Person and Abiah Whitehead (Culpepper) Person in North Carolina in 1836. Perry grew up with ten siblings on her family’s prosperous plantation. She was educated at home during childhood, and then attended the Raleigh Female Classical Institute in 1853. On February 9, 1860, she married Theophilus Perry, a member of another elite North Carolina family who had relocated to Harrison County, Texas in 1848 or 1849. An 1854 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Theophilus was an attorney, slave owner, and landowner by 1856. She and Theophilus settled on a lot in Marshall, Texas, not far from his parents and siblings, who lived on the Spring Hill plantation not far from town.

Not long after the couple's arrival in Texas (see ANTEBELLUM TEXAS), the secession crisis gripped the South. In February 1861 Texas voted to secede from the United States and subsequently join the Confederate States of America in a war that profoundly affected soldiers and civilians. Perry’s husband did not support secession, nor did he rush to join the Confederate Army in the early months of the war perhaps because Perry gave birth in the summer of 1861 to their first child, Martha, who was referred to as “Sugar Lumpy” in their correspondence. In the spring of 1862, however, Theophilus Perry volunteered for military service. He served as first lieutenant, then later as captain, in the Twenty-eighth Texas Cavalry regiment (Dismounted), Horace Randal’s brigade, Walker’s Texas Division, and took along Norfleet, an enslaved man owned by his father.

Like many other white women during the Civil War, Perry was left at home to manage the family’s finances and household. For her, this included overseeing eight enslaved people, who labored in the Perry’s home and garden, looked after livestock, and helped care for the Perry’s often ill infant daughter. Perry did this while pregnant with her second child, Theophilus Jr., who was born on December 24, 1862. The voluminous correspondence between Perry and her husband detailed the kinds of difficulties many families faced on the home front. At the beginning of their separation, her husband sent her management advice and suggested that she rely upon his father for help, but she communicated her satisfaction of her management of the household throughout most of 1862. Privileged by wealth and nearness of her husband’s family, she had plenty of food during the war while many others faced severe food shortages, although she rarely found shoe leather, coffee, or sugar to purchase. When she could find coffee, she often sent it to her husband, along with other foodstuffs and clothes that she made for him. In addition, she and her step-mother-in-law had enslaved women spin cloth “day and night” which the Perry family used to pay their debts (see SLAVERY).

By early 1863 Perry’s correspondence showed her increased concerned about changing conditions of the war, particularly the closeness of Union troops in Louisiana and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, which enflamed white fears that it would possibly weaken social control over slave populations throughout East Texas. According to Perry’s letters, she felt unable to direct slave labor without threat of punishment, and as the only adult white person in the household, she said she feared for herself and her children’s safety. At the urging of her husband, she rented out her home in Marshall, rented out many of her enslaved laborers, and moved in with her in-laws in February 1863. A shortage of men at home led many white women to make this same type of decision. While at her in-laws’ plantation, she remained an important economic contributor to the household and continued to direct her remaining enslaved women in assisting with the production of cloth, a lucrative endeavor during the war.

Above all else Harriet Perry’s life and letters reflected the human suffering and sadness caused by the war. The distress of being separated and a constant fear for the life of her officer husband permeated the correspondence. During the war, like many others, she endured her share of heartbreak. In 1863 two of Theophilus’s half-sisters died of illness and two of Harriet’s brothers died in the war. Then, with her husband briefly at home on furlough, the Perry’s daughter, Mattie, died on August 12, 1863. Nine months later Theophilus was wounded in battle at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, on April 9, 1864, and died on April 17. Her father-in-law, who had served as an advisor in her husband’s absence, died in January 1865. It is also likely that Theophilus, Jr., died prior to 1870. Harriet Perry did not mention him in her diary in 1869 or 1870, and his name was not listed with hers in the 1870 United States census.

Before November 1865 Perry had moved back to North Carolina to be with her family. In the 1870 census she lived with her mother and siblings in Louisburg, North Carolina. She remarried on January 18, 1872, to Jordan F. Jones, a gristmill operator, in Louisburg. She died there on December 15, 1885, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Louisburg, Franklin County, North Carolina. The level of detail and variation of wartime and home front topics discussed in the correspondence between Harriet and Theophilus Perry has led numerous historians to rely on these sources.

Angela Boswell, “Harriet Perry: A Woman’s Life in Civil War Texas,” in Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015). Randolph B. Campbell, A Southern Community in Crisis: Harrison County, Texas, 1850–1880 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1983). M. Jane Johansson, ed., Widows by the Thousand: The Civil War Letters of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862–1864 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000).

Categories:

  • Agriculture
  • Plantation Owners
  • Women
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel
  • Ranching and Cowboys

Time Periods:

  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Angela Boswell, “Perry, Harriet Eliza Person,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 04, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/perry-harriet-eliza-person.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects:

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