Although the bulk of the correspondence is for the Civil War period, there are several letters concerning antebellum North Carolina. An 1819 letter from Raleigh comments on the legality of court proceedings initiated in behalf of a Negro slave and advises as to the most prudent means of handling the case. Letters from Edward Stanly comment on business and banking, and include a personal attack on Kenneth Rayner (1855). Also of interest is the letter of an unidentified correspondent, who elaborates on the advantages of settling in Chicago and the bright prospects for residents of the Northwest in the years to come. He urges Sparrow to abandon North Carolina and seek a new life in or near Chicago (1856).
The Civil War correspondence relates the activities of Thomas Sparrow and his Washington Grays from their formation as a volunteer company in April of 1861, until their parole from a Union prison in February, 1862. Scattered letters for 1864 and 1865 give insight into the activities of Sparrow during the closing phase of the war. Topics of interest in this correspondence include plans of the Military Working Society (also Military Serving Society) formed by the ladies of Washington, N.C., to furnish clothes for the troops (April and May, 1861); plans of the governor for gathering forces and equipping them (April and May, 1861); plans for occupation of Beacon Island near Ocracoke Inlet (May, 1861); and the actual occupation of and military activities carried on at Fort Washington, Fort Ocracoke, and Fort Hatteras.
David M. Carter writes (June, 1861), commenting on Union strategy in Virginia and complaining of the greed and corruption in North Carolina government. Included in this attack are derogatory references to Governor Ellis and Adjutant General Hoke.
Correspondence during the summer of 1861 is concerned primarily with the operation of the military installations at Ocracoke Inlet and the efforts by various regimental officers of the N.C. State Troops to persuade the Washington Grays to enlist in the N.C.S.T. and proceed to Virginia where the war was actually being fought. The unit finally became a part of the 2nd Regt. N.C.S.T. in August, 1861; and they were awaiting orders for transfer to Virginia when Union forces captured the Ocracoke forts and Sparrow and his men were among those taken prisoner. Correspondence from September, 1861, through February, 1862, concerns their imprisonment at Castle William on Governor's Island, N.Y., and later at Fort Warren, Massachusetts. Practically all of these letters are from friends and sympathizers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Maryland who offer their services in procuring clothes, food, tobacco, books, and other necessities for the prisoners. Many letters give detailed accounts of types and quantities of goods sent to Sparrow and his men and what remuneration, if any, was required in return. This correspondence gives insight into treatment of Confederate prisoners at Castle William and Fort Warren; provisions by the state of North Carolina for making funds available for use of prisoners; and attitudes of some residents of the North, many of whom had relatives in the South.
Prisoners from the Ocracoke battle were exchanged between November of 1861, and February of 1862, and this procedure is reflected in the correspondence of that period. The trip from Fort Warren to Fort Monroe, Virginia, is described in some detail (December 22); and efforts by a Pennsylvania family to exchange Captain Sparrow for their son, who was a prisoner in Richmond, is of interest (January 1862), as is their gift to Sparrow of traveling money and their invitation for him to visit them on his trip south.
There is little correspondence after Captain Sparrow's return to North Carolina in February of 1862. The letters that do exist are primarily from Sparrow to his wife, who is still living in Union-held Washington. They reflect his concern for their children who are in school at Tarboro, and his opposition to sending them through enemy lines to Washington. Other letters recount Confederate success in the west, the bleak future for Beaufort County residents who have assisted Union forces in North Carolina, and Sparrow's own activities in Wilmington as Judge Advocate of the General Courts Martial (July, 1862). Also of interest are letters complaining of lack of war news in Nova Scotia, explaining regulations for officers' rations, and giving provisions for schedules of passes for private citizens to pass through the lines. A final letter is an undated non-military note from the poetess Mary Bayard Clark, telling of her friendship with Sparrow and including an original poem, "Oremus."
A diary (1861-1862) concerns Sparrow's imprisonment at Fort Warren. Orders and deliveries of knives, toothbrushes, slippers, and shoes are noted as is a charity gift (November 1861) of eight pairs of shoes for Baltimore prisoners. Washing lists are included. Entrees for January and February 1862 describe smallpox among the prisoners and deaths in the hospital, the departure of prisoners for the South, a proposal from James Markal of Philadelphia offering to have Sparrow exchanged for his son, news that all the prisoners were being sent home, preparations to leave, and the trip from Boston to Norfolk. News of the capture of men and gunboats at Roanoke Island and the burning of Elizabeth City, N.C., (February 11, 1862) are mentioned.
The military papers in the collection consist of Special Orders and Orders of the Day issued at Ocracoke; a report by Sparrow telling of his part in the defense of Fort Hatteras; lists of men who had been captured and others who had been absent at the time of capture; accounts of goods purchased while in prison; published proceedings of the N.C. State Convention (February 1862) regarding pay for Hatteras prisoners; and various miscellaneous passes and certificates.
An 1839 issue of the newspaper
The Spy (New Bern, N.C.) contains a humorous article concerning the Old Bachelors' Club and responses to previous articles. Other articles, essays, sketches, and speeches were written during 1840 and 1841; and some of them apparently were published in magazine form. Subjects included are New York City from the harbor at night, camp meetings, U.S. "national character," and the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
Miscellaneous material includes a pledge for a gift of clothes for a minister (1829) and newspaper clippings concerning the Washington Grays, the capture of the Hatteras forts, the political activities of Thomas Sparrow, part of a history of Little Cow Neck, Queens County, N.Y., and an article about Maryland's loyalty to the Union during the Civil War. Also included is a Civil War reminiscence of Elizabeth Sparrow McCord about her family travels from Beaufort County to Pitt County. A description of the house and grounds of Greenwreath (in Pitt County) where the family stayed is given as are feeding of slaves, evaporating ocean water to get salt, sweet potato coffee, and the lack of money. Yankee raids are mentioned as is Sparrow's trip down the Tar River in a canoe to avoid surrender.
Genealogical materials on the Sparrow family are also included.