Practical Strangers
The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln

Edited by Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder

An atypical wartime courtship, conducted entirely through letters


“Blunt and yearning, shrewd and funny by turns, Elodie and Nathaniel’s letters also carry the emotional energy of wartime. Desperate to connect—Elodie because her family was shattering, Nathaniel because he might die—the two were driven to inhabit their words and not to hide behind them. In these letters, two people flirt, fight, make up, and fumble toward each other, always trying to guess what the other is thinking, and what the other needs.”
—from the Introduction

"Practical Strangers is a remarkable compilation of letters from 1861 and 1862 that present a nearly complete record of Elodie Todd—the sister-in-law of Abraham Lincoln—and Nathaniel Dawson's courtship via mail, as well as of their commitment to the confederacy during the Civil War. . . . This volume is edited to focus on the courtship, with the entire correspondence available online. What do the rest of the letters reveal of the couple? Wanting to know more is a testament to the power of these documents—Dawson and Todd's burgeoning romance ignites curiosity."
—Meredith Grahl Counts, ForeWord Reviews

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These letters chronicle the wartime courtship of a Confederate soldier and the woman he loved—a sister-in-law of Abraham Lincoln. It is a relative rarity for the correspondence of both writers in Civil War letter collections to survive, as they have here. Rarer still is how frequently and faithfully the two wrote, given how little they truly knew each other at the start of their exchange. As a romantic pair, Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd had no earlier history; they had barely met when separated by the war. Letters were their sole lifeline to each other and their sole means of sharing their hopes and fears for a relationship (and a Confederacy) they had rashly embraced in the heady, early days of secession.

The letters date from April 1861, when Nathaniel left for war as a captain in the Fourth Alabama Infantry, through April 1862, when the couple married. During their courtship through correspondence, Nathaniel narrowly escaped death in battle, faced suspicions of cowardice, and eventually grew war weary. Elodie had two brothers die while in Confederate service and felt the full emotional weight of belonging to the war’s most famous divided family. Her sister Mary not only sided with the Union (as did five other Todd siblings) but was also married to its commander in chief.

Here is an engrossing story of the Civil War, of Abraham Lincoln’s shattered family, of two people falling in love, of soldiers and brothers dying nobly on the wrong side of history. The full Dawson–Todd correspondence comprises more than three hundred letters. It has been edited for this volume to focus tightly on their courtship. The complete, annotated text of all of the letters, with additional supporting material, will be made available online.

New Perspectives on the Civil War Era

Page count: 338 pp.
4 b&w photos, 2 maps
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Stephen Berry is the Amanda and Greg Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at the University of Georgia. He is the author or editor of several books, including Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Georgia).

Angela Esco Elder is the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research interests focus on the antebellum and Civil War era, with an emphasis on gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the American South.

Follow Nathaniel Dawson on Twitter.

Follow Elodie Todd on Twitter.

Follow their correspondence on UGA Press's blog.