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Richard Realf Letters and Poems

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Realf

Scope and Content of the Collection

Twenty-two letters from Richard Realf to Laura B. Merritt and her sister Marian Merritt Cramer of Chicago, written while in active service in the Civil War as a soldier in the Illinois Eighty-eighth Volunteer Infantry, organized at Chicago in 1862. Some letters contain vivid, often poetical descriptions of Realf’s experiences as a soldier in the midst of several skirmishes as his regiment moves south. The Illinois 88th was stationed in several locations around Atlanta, becoming involved in Sherman’s advance on Atlanta in 1864. The content of other letters is solely about his fluctuating moods, his health, his uncertain future, and various philosophical and sentimental topics. Also, two poems of Realf’s and a poem written by Marian M. Cramer.


  • Creation: 1864-1865



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Richard Realf Letters and Poems are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; five folders at a time (Priority II).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Richard Realf Letters and Poems are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections.

Biography of Richard Realf

Abolitionist and poet.

Richard Realf, the son of a rural policeman, was born in England in 1834. Because of his precociousness and apparent personal attractiveness and charm, as an adolescent Realf managed to secure an education under the patronage of a woman of refinement. By the age of fifteen he had begun writing poetry, a literary activity which he continued all his life, eventually achieving a measure of popularity and acclaim. In 1853 Realf chose to learn estate management but because of scandal involving a daughter of his employer, he suddenly emigrated to the United States.

Once in New York City Realf, an idealistic and emotional young man, threw himself into missionary work in the slums before declaring himself a “radical abolitionist,” willing to do whatever he could to aid in freeing slaves. In 1858 he met John Brown and for a while was active in Brown’s cause. However, he changed his mind about revolutionary tactics, and by 1859 he was determined to become first a Jesuit priest and then a member of a utopian Shaker community. Neither of these endeavors lasted very long, but were typical of Realf’s somewhat unstable personality and his life-long struggle to try to reconcile his physical passions with his spiritual feelings and ideals.

In 1862, again fired by his abolitionist fervor, Richard Realf joined the Union army. In Chicago he enlisted in the 88th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and was promoted to First Lieutenant and Adjutant in November of 1863. Realf served throughout the Civil War, seeing service in 1864 as part of Sherman’s advance to Atlanta, and it was during this period he wrote some of his best poetry. After his discharge in 1865, and after two disastrous marriages, Realf was commissioned in a black regiment of freedmen and following this he taught at a freedmen’s school in South Carolina for a while. After a few other temporary situations, in 1870 he settled down as an editor and writer for a Pittsburgh newspaper where he stayed until 1876, lecturing and continuing to publish his poems.

The last two years of Richard Realf’s life were particularly unhappy ones. Constantly hounded by one of his wives and pressured for alimony he could not pay, he returned to New York to subsist on what income he could make from the lecture circuit and his poetry. Finally, ill and in despair, he borrowed money for a move to San Francisco, where in October of 1878 he committed suicide by an overdose of morphine.

Developing unfortunate and/or unsuccessful relationships with women was an unhappy component of Realf’s character. Realf had married and then soon abandoned his first wife, Sophia Emery Graves. Soon after this, he entered a bigamous marriage with a prostitute named Catherine Cassidy, who was to follow and persecute him until his death. Apparently there was a third, unidentified woman who bore him a son and triplet daughters. However, as delineated by his friend and literary executor, Richard J. Hinton, Richard Realf was a man with a brilliant but unstable mind, prey to an overwrought imagination and a melancholic temperament. Whether or not his poetry remains popular, his involvement in the abolitionist movement remains of interest.


0.4 Linear Feet (25 items in 1 box)


Twenty-two letters of Richard Realf to Laura B. Merritt and her sister Marian Merritt Cramer of Chicago, written while in active service in the Illinois Eighty-eighth Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, 1864-1865. Also, two poems of Realf’s and a poem written by Marian Cramer.


Organized by type of material, with correspondence in chronological order followed by the three poems.

Collection Stack Location

1 28 7


Separated from the Mitchell Dawson Papers, a gift in 1988.

Processed by

Virginia Hay Smith.

Inventory of the Richard Realf Letters and Poems, 1864-1865
Virginia Hay Smith
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States