Civil War's 150th Stirs a Trove of Memories

By: Steve Szkotak, Associated Press
By: Steve Szkotak, Associated Press

Richmond, VA (AP) - A diary with a lifesaving bullet hole from Gettysburg. An intricate valentine crafted by a Confederate soldier for the wife he would never see again. A slave's desperate escape to freedom.

From New England to the South, state archivists are using the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to collect a trove of wartime letters, diaries, documents and mementoes that have gathered dust in attics and basements.

This still-unfolding call will help states expand existing collections on the Civil War and provide new insights into an era that violently wrenched a nation apart, leaving 600,000 dead. Much of the Civil War has been told primarily through the eyes of battlefield and political leaders.

These documents are adding a new narrative to the Civil War's story, offering insights into the home front and of soldiers, their spouses and African-Americans, often in their own words.

Historians, who will have access to the centralized digital collections, are excited by the prospect of what the states are finding and will ultimately share.

"I think now we're broadening the story to include everybody - not just a soldier, not a general or a president - just somebody who found themselves swept up in the biggest drama in American life," says University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, a Civil War expert. "That's what's so cool."

In Virginia, archivists have borrowed from the popular PBS series "Antiques Roadshow," traveling weekends throughout the state and asking residents to share family collections, which are scanned and added to the already vast collection at the Library of Virginia.

Started in September 2010, the Civil War 150 Legacy Project has collected 25,000 images.

Virginians have been generous, knowing they can share their long-held mementos without surrendering them, said Laura Drake Davis and Renee Savits, the Library of Virginia archivists who have divided the state for their on-the-road collection campaign.

"They think someone can learn from them rather than just sitting in their cupboards," Savits said of the family possessions. "And they're proud to share their family's experience."

Patricia Bangs heeded the call when a friend told her about the project. She had inherited 400 letters passed down through the years between Cecil A. Burleigh to his wife, Caroline, in Mount Carmel, Conn.

"I felt this would be useful to researchers, a treasure to somebody," said Bangs, who works for the library system in Fairfax, Va. In one letter, she said, Cecil writes of Union troops traveling from Connecticut to Washington, crowds cheering them along the way.

The letters, like many collected by archivists, are difficult to read. Many are spelled phonetically, and the penmanship can be hard to decipher. Typically, they tell of the story of the home front and its daily deprivations.

Researchers in Tennessee, a battleground state in the war, teamed up with Virginia archivists earlier this year in the border town of Bristol. Both states have seen their share of bullets, swords and other military hardware.

"We have grandmothers dragging in swords and muskets," said Chuck Sherrill, Tennessee state librarian and archivist.

Documents are fished from attics, pressed between the pages of family bibles and stored in trunks.

Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and many other states have similar programs, or at least are trying to gather materials for use by scholars and regular folks.

Pennsylvania has been especially ambitious in adding new layers to the state's deep links to the Civil War, including a traveling exhibit called the "PA Civil War Road Show." The 53-foot-long museum on wheels also invites visitors to share their ancestors' stories and artifacts in a recording booth. The remembrances will be uploaded on the website PACivilWar150.com.

One visitor brought in a bugle that an ancestor was blowing when he was fatally shot at the Battle of Gettysburg.

"He wouldn't let anyone touch it," said John Seitter, project manager of the Pennsylvania Civil War project. "It shows you how deeply these artifacts connect people with the Civil War. There's some serious memorialization going on here."

The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University is also amid a survey of all the public archives in the state to produce a searchable database.

The ambitious project aims to shed light on small, underfunded public historical societies where records are often "hidden from historians and scholars" and not used, Matt Isham of the "The People's Contest: A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project" wrote in an email.

Some people are even donating items unsolicited.

In Maine, for instance, some residents have submitted letters from ancestors who served in the war, but the sesquicentennial also saw an unusual submission from James R. Hosmer.

Hosmer's mother, Mary Ruth Hosmer, died in 2005. He was going through her possessions in Kittery, Maine, when he made a discovery: dozens of carte de viste, small photographs carried by some Union troops, an early version of dog tags. They were stored in a suitcase in an attic.

"The state archives was quite thrilled with it," Hosmer said.

The Virginia archivists said they were especially pleased by a submission from the family of an escaped slave who wrote of his love for a woman named Julia at the same time he fled his master for an outpost on the Chesapeake Bay, where Union ships were known to pick up men seeking their freedom. David Harris found his freedom in 1861, serving as a cook for Union troops.

"I love to read the sweet letters that come from you, dear love," David Harris wrote to Julia. "I cannot eat for thought of you."

A valentine made of pink paper and shaped into a heart using an intricate basket weave was addressed to Confederate soldier Robert H. King to his wife Louiza. He was killed in 1862.

As for the diary tucked in a soldier's breast pocket that shielded him from death at Gettysburg, "He kept using the diary," Savits said. "He just wrote around it."


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  • by Mark Location: Tallahassee on Dec 26, 2011 at 08:55 PM
    As a Civil War reenactor, I am so pleased to hear that so many people are sharing their family heirlooms of the period. This will undoubtedly deepen the public's knowledge and understanding of this momentous time in our nation's history. Hopefully people will now realize that it wasn't just about slavery or state's rights or unfair tariffs but that every person involved in the conflict had their reason for taking an active part and that is what we must remember. It's not about the politics, it's about those men who fought. It is they who we must honor regardless of their motivation. I am proud that my ancestors took part and fought for what they believed in.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Dec 27, 2011 at 10:19 AM in reply to Mark
      Slavery was only a small(secondary) part of the war, of course it all depends on your perspective, and from many blacks perspective, it helps their cause to keep saying it was all about slavery. In reality they have no idea, and they don't care.
      • reply
        by Mark on Dec 27, 2011 at 12:23 PM in reply to
        agreed.Slavery was only one small cause. As for perspective, I guess it all depends on whether or not your ancestors were the ones being held as slaves or not. In history, as in life, perspective is everything(as opposed to our elected officials who think perception is everything!)As a long time student of history and a living historian I have had to learn to look at things outside of my frame of reference. As for those who use the Civil War as an excuse to get a hand out or something for nothing, these are the same small minded people who have learned to work our current system to their advantage. All we can do is try to educate them and give them the motivation to make something more of their lives than just being a parasite.
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