RICHMOND, Va. – A diary with a lifesaving bullet hole from the Gettysburg battlefield. An intricate valentine crafted by a Southern soldier for the wife he would never see again. A slave’s desperate escape to freedom.
Across the United States, 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, Virginia. 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 (16-meter) 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 without being solicited.
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 cartes de visite, 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 by 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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