I first heard of William Cowan McClellan while listening as a young boy to the stories my grandmother Carter told while on the front porch of her home in Pulaski, Tennessee. Nancy White Carter was not above stretching the truth a little bit about her favorite ancestor who was a veteran of Robert E. Lee’s army. According to her, William was seven feet tall and was captured on the Round Tops at Gettysburg, where he was putting his size to use as a signalman. She also mentioned that he had been sent to prison and had written letters home to his family. As William had no further history presented in his behalf, I always assumed that he had died in prison. Over the years I had remembered bits and pieces of the story that would come back to mind whenever someone brought up the subject of the family in the Civil War, but I never took the time to look into it further.
Some years later, having developed an interest in the history of the early Virginia frontier and its explorers of the seventeenth century, I had attempted to figure out the exact routes that many of these explorers had taken in crossing through the Virginia Colony. After running out of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century sources, I turned to letters and journals of Civil War soldiers who served in the area hoping they might shed some light on the problem. While the effort was not productive, it did revive my interest in the Civil War, and from a new perspective of the soldier and not the battlefield. I remembered my grandmother’s stories, and I wondered if the family still had the letters. About the same time, a visit to Gettysburg sent me scrambling to discover the regiment in which my ancestor had served.
A few years later at a Carter family reunion my aunt Polly Harwell Carter handed me a large shoe box tied up with a piece of string. She thought I might be interested in the contents of the box. Inside were photocopies of the Civil War letters of my great-great-grandfather