The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Bringing Willa Home: A Child Displaced by Civil War

I’ve written a few times here at the Beehive about manuscripts from the Fay-Mixter family papers, and I’d like to dive into that collection again this week. I was intrigued by four letters from December 1861, so I dug a little deeper and uncovered the story of a family separated by war and a Southern child taken in by Northern friends.

The four letters were written by Edwin Parsons to Joseph Story Fay. Fay, originally from Cambridge, Mass., moved to Savannah, Ga. in 1838 and became a prosperous cotton merchant. He was a slave-owner, but opposed secession, and before the Civil War broke out he returned to his home state of Massachusetts. When these letters were written he lived in Boston with his wife, their three children, and a child unrelated to them, the young daughter of a Mr. Sims.


This passage in Parsons’ first letter to Fay, dated 10 December 1861, was the first thing that caught my eye: “I will advise you in time so that you can send Mr Sims little daughter on.” Parsons continued:

It seems to me however to be a heartless piece of business on Sims part to send for her in such times. With her mother dead & father in Fort Pulaski where he may soon reap the folly of his disloyalty, it will be a sad day for the little girl to exchange the kind care of Mrs Fay, for such a home as awaits her in Georgia.

Fort Pulaski was the vital clue. Among the soldiers stationed at this Savannah garrison in December 1861 was one Capt. (later Col.) Frederick William Sims of the 1st Georgia Infantry. Other details of his biography lined up: his wife Catherine (Sullivan) Sims had died in 1858, followed by one of their two children in 1859, leaving Sims and his nine-year-old daughter Willa. Willa must have been taken in by the Fays in Boston while her father fought for the Confederacy—the disloyalty Parsons alluded to.

Sims wanted his daughter brought back to the South, presumably to live with extended family while he finished out his military service. But Parsons, who apparently acted as a kind of agent for Sims, thought it was a terrible idea. Savannah was like a ghost town after the Battle of Port Royal, and many felt the war would continue for some time. And the possibility of “some hard fighting” in Kentucky after its admission to the Confederacy would make travel difficult, if not impossible. However, on 26 December 1861, when Parsons wrote his fourth and last letter on the subject, the matter was still unresolved.

The last piece of the puzzle was a letter I’d originally passed over, not recognizing the signature. On 14 November 1861, Frederick W. Sims scrawled this short note to Joseph Story Fay on fragile onion-skin paper:


The bearer of this note Mr Briggs will bring Willa home with him. Will you add one more to the many favors already vouchsafed me by fitting her out for the journey. Mr B. has funds[?] to bring her out.

As this may be the last communication which will pass for some time between us I beg you to accept my heartfelt thanks for the Kindness of yourself and Mrs Fay and believe me when I wish you a long life and prosperity.

Fort Pulaski was captured by Union forces in April 1862, and Sims became a POW, later paroled. After the war, he worked as a merchant and insurance executive in Savannah and served as one of the city’s alderman from 1867-1869. He had at least six more children with his second wife, Sarah (Munroe) Sims, but most of them died young. According to newspapers, in 1875, suffering under severe financial difficulties, Sims committed suicide with a morphine overdose. The coroner’s report lists the belongings he left behind: $20.90 in coin, a gold watch and chain, clothing, and a revolver.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out what happened to Willa after 1861. No other papers in the Fay-Mixter collection refer to her. The obituary of Sarah (Munroe) Sims, who died in 1904, identifies only two surviving children, Emily and Elizabeth.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 2 November, 2016, 12:00 AM


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