“The Confederate Officer and ‘That Mormon Girl’: A Nineteenth-Century Romance,” Ensign, Apr. 1982, 52
Pretty twenty-seven-year-old Nancy Higginbotham Peery lay dying, a newborn son nearby. And knowing she was dying, she prayed. Not just for the tiny infant, who also was dying, but for her tall, intelligent husband, a Confederate Army officer who until then had resisted her efforts to bring him into her Mormon faith. Somewhere, sometime in the eternities, she wondered, would she ever rejoin this good man whom she loved so deeply?
She and David H. Peery had enjoyed ten years together as man and wife, having met and married when she was seventeen. Their courtship in 1852 had set folks in Tazewell County, Virginia, clucking. A number of mothers had schemed how to marry their daughters to David, one of the county’s most eligible bachelors. But the twenty-eight-year-old storekeeper, owner of the county’s most prosperous merchandise store, had ignored their efforts. Instead, to their irritation, he let Miss Nancy Higginbotham, “that little Mormon girl,” shoplift his heart.
David’s roots pressed deeply into Virginia soil, where he was born (6 May 1824) and raised. As a boy he often helped farm his father’s lands, working alongside his family’s black slaves. Winters he attended school, even some college. By the time he reached adulthood he hired others to farm his own lands so that he could open up a store. Blessed with excellent business skills, he turned the store into a very profitable venture. And the store is where he met Miss Nancy.
She too began life in Tazewell County, on 19 May 1835. While she was still a child, Elder Jedediah Grant’s powerful preaching converted many county residents, including her parents, William and Louise Higginbotham. Conversion triggered a desire to move to Nauvoo to be near the Prophet Joseph Smith, so the Higginbothams bid goodbye to Virginia. When the Saints had to flee Nauvoo in 1846, the Higginbothams became refugees with them in the west, but not before Mrs. Higginbotham had given birth to Nancy’s sister, Elizabeth Letitia. Two years later, while camped at Council Bluffs, the family received important news from Virginia. A family death resulted in a sizeable inheritance for them, if they could return to Tazewell County and make proper arrangements.
Unfortunately, by the time they reached Virginia, someone already had spent their share of the estate. Disappointed and penniless, the Higginbothams settled down again in Tazewell County to earn a living and save money for the 2,000-mile trip to Utah. They shopped at David’s store, and that is how David noticed the pretty teenager.
Family tradition says it was love at first sight. They courted, and that December David and Nancy married. They moved into David’s comfortable home at Burke’s Garden, Virginia.
David continued to prosper, and the couple experienced a good marriage. Except for one thing. David disliked Nancy’s religion. He himself attended no church and professed no religion. Using his money and influence, he sent for a prominent preacher from Richmond to come and reconvert his wife to Protestantism. However, Nancy possessed intelligence as well as beauty. She had carefully studied the scriptures and LDS doctrinal books by Orson and Parley Pratt and was able to defend herself well against the minister’s arguments. “Nancy could wind him up so tight he couldn’t think of a word to say,” said Nancy’s sister. David angrily dismissed the preacher: “You say you are a graduate of a school of ministry, and yet you don’t know a thing about religion. The idea of your letting my young wife out-argue you!” A second minister, imported from Washington, D.C., fared no better.
One April day in 1861, David Peery’s store buzzed with rumors and excited talk. News from Richmond said Virginia, the mother-state of patriots like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, who created the federal union, now had seceded from that union. Like other slaveholding states, Virginia voted to join the new nation, the Confederate States of America. Richmond became the Confederacy’s capitol.
For David, the outbreak of war seemed to trigger a series of personal tragedies. While Virginia rallied her sons to the Confederate flag, David and Nancy’s own son, two-year-old David, died 1 May 1861. Then, seeing his duty, David enlisted in 1862. He crossed into Kentucky to be assistant commissary for General Humphrey Marshall’s troops.
Being absent from Nancy and their nine-month-old daughter was hard, but the war itself proved to be the worst hardship, particularly the disease-ridden army camps. That June, like so many soldiers, David caught typhoid fever. An ambulance carriage carried him, deathly ill, back to his parents’ home.
But the terrible fever also struck his family. David’s mother died on May 17, Nancy’s father on July 3, and David’s father on July 8. And if that were not sorrow enough for the Confederate officer, Nancy died nine days after giving birth to a son, William, on September 21. On October 12 the new baby died too.
David’s heart broke. Suddenly his once close-knit family was no more. Only his two-year-old daughter, Lettie, survived. David asked his newly widowed mother-in-law, Louisa Higginbotham, and Nancy’s sixteen-year-old sister, Letitia, to care for his daughter.
Humbled, confused, lonely, he recalled the times Nancy talked to him about Mormonism, including eternal marriage. He located and read some of her LDS books, including Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning and Orson Pratt’s discussions of eternal family relationships. He recalled:
“Being much distressed in mind, I became greatly interested in the Gospel, reading the Bible and the writings of Parley and Orson Pratt, and became convinced of the truth of the Latter-day work. One of the doctrines that particularly impressed me was marriage for eternity.”
Surrendering to the restored gospel, the Confederate officer asked Nancy’s mother where he could find a Mormon elder. She told him that the missionaries left Virginia when war broke out, but that a local elder lived twenty-five miles away.
David immediately mounted his horse. Through cold and snow that November 1863 day he rode directly to the home of Elder Absalom Young. Then the two men walked through foot-deep snow, cut through six inches of ice, and the Confederate officer was baptized.
David returned to war duty the next month. While serving as commissary for General William’s army in Kentucky, David once again caught typhoid fever. For nearly a month that spring he teetered at death’s door but finally regained strength enough to return to Tazewell County. There he discovered yet another tragedy. Union soldiers, on a raid, had completely burned to the ground his home, store, and six adjacent buildings filled with goods—$50,000 loss, all uninsured!
By early 1864 the war had turned against the Confederacy. Mrs. Higginbotham, concerned for her family’s safety, asked David to help her move to Utah. She and her children were David’s only family now, and his own daughter Lettie was part of their family. He did not want the family to separate.
Realizing that Joseph Smith’s 1831 prophecy about civil war in America had come true, and that the prophecy also warned of future warfare, (see D&C 87), David decided perhaps the best place to be was in the Rocky Mountains among the Saints. He not only agreed to assist Mrs. Higginbotham but promised to join her little company in Kentucky after his release from the army.
Mrs. Higginbotham arranged for a friend in the Confederate army, Colonel Swan, to escort her and her children, Simon (25), Letitia (18), Frank (16), and David’s daughter, Lettie (4), to the mountainous Virginia-Kentucky border. There the group traveled on their own until David, his army release in hand, joined them for the rest of the long, hard journey.
By wagon and riverboat the group reached Omaha. They camped a few days at Florence, then purchased three wagons with two yoke of oxen for each, then started west along the Mormon Trail.
Once in Utah and among the Saints, David started life over again. That first fall and winter he farmed and taught school. Then he decided to remarry, and once again he chose a Higginbotham girl—Nancy’s sister Letitia, the one who had mothered his and Nancy’s daughter for the past three years. While at the Endowment House for their own marriage, they also performed another ordinance long on David’s mind: with Letitia as proxy for Nancy, David and Nancy at last were sealed as man and wife for eternity.
David and Letitia made Ogden, Utah, their permanent home. In time they parented ten children. David once again put his exceptional business abilities to work. But at least three times fires destroyed his uninsured businesses. After each setback he started over, and in a short time he prospered through merchandising, milling, publishing, and banking ventures.
His leadership talents earned him both church and civic prominence. In 1877 President Brigham Young called him to be president of the Weber Stake, just two years after he had completed a short-term mission in the Southern States. In 1883 and 1885 voters elected him mayor of Ogden, and for years he served as a delegate in the territorial legislature. Drawing on his influential contacts in Utah and in the Eastern States, he lobbied vigorously for Utah’s statehood.
After retirement he built a large, comfortable home in Ogden, which he appropriately named “The Virginia.” Always the “southern gentleman,” David became well known among Utahns for his gracious manners, chivalrous conduct, and generous hospitality.
Also proverbial was his strong stand on honesty. People respected him for financial fairness. “He seemed to understand the people’s financial condition better than they did themselves,” said his wife Letitia, “and was never hard on them and would give them plenty of time to pay.” Often he loaned local farmers money without taking mortgages from them as security and helped them become self-reliant.
But he expected borrowers to keep their word. Rather than sue anyone who failed to repay him, he called them in for a “chat.” “People dreaded D. H. Peery’s talk on honesty more than a law suit,” said one son. Among the sayings about honesty he often repeated are: “Be careful in making promises, but do as you promise.”
“You may put it over a man once in business, but not twice. If you put it over him you will hurt yourself a hundred times more than you hurt him.”
“It is not so important to me that someone else cheats me, but it is very important to me that I do not cheat nor deceive someone else.”
This wise and reasonable Virginian, widely respected for his strong religious beliefs, sound judgment, business skills, and stern sense of honesty, died in Ogden 17 September 1901.*
* “Life History of Elizabeth Letitia Higginbotham Peery,” “David H. Peery on Honesty and Thrift,” “Life Story of David Harold Peery,” all in the life sketches files, Church Historical Department Archives; Andrew Jenson, Biographical Encyclopedia, I:756–758; Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, IV: 270–272.