Civil War Soldier's Letters
Historians use primary sources like soldiers' letters to construct their narratives and make their historical arguments about the Civil War era. In this post, we will share some information and offer some suggestions about available soldier letter collections.
Few primary sources provide better views into the worlds of Civil War soldiers than the letters they wrote in camp, on the march, as prisoners of war, and sometimes, on battlefields. Historian Christopher Hager, author of I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters, estimates that between 1861 and 1865 Union and Confederate soldiers and their families and friends wrote at least half a billion letters to each other.
The Civil War occurred during a time of rising literacy and the emergence of expanded print media. Print technology via steam power dramatically increased the availability of newspapers, magazines, books, and writing materials like stationery and envelopes (covers). Letter writing was the primary form of communicating over distance for everyday Americans in a time long before email, text messages, or even the telephone.
Civil War letters, once largely available only in private collections or archival repositories, are now widely accessible through different avenues, including both print and digital formats. In addition, to help readability and better understand them, many letter collections are transcribed and edited.
In the mid-twentieth century, as public interest increased about the so-called “common people” of the past, so did the availability of their published personal writings. Below are a few suggestions of published collections of soldiers’ letters who served at least part of their time on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
Letters to Amanda: The Civil War Letters of Marion Hill Fitzpatrick, Army of Northern Virginia, edited by Sam Hodges and Jeffrey C. Lowe, Mercer University Press, 2003.
Letters from the Storm: The Intimate Civil War Letters of Lt. J. A. H. Foster, 155 Pennsylvania Volunteers, edited by Linda Foster Arden and Dr. Walter L. Powell, Mechling Bookbindery, 2010.
No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Freeman Biddlecom, 147th Regiment, New York State Volunteer Army, edited by Katherine M. Aldridge, Paramount Market Publishing, 2011.
“Far, Far from Home”: The Civil War Letters of Dick and Tally Simpson, Third South Carolina Volunteers, edited by Guy R. Everson and Edward H. Simpson, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1994.
Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, edited by Jerome M. Loving, Duke University Press, 1975.
The process of digitizing Civil War soldiers’ letters began soon after the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s. Often hosted early on by higher educational institutions, libraries, and archives, now include websites created by individual enthusiasts and collectors to share widely for the greater good. The following are a few suggested digital archives:
“The Valley of the Shadow Project,” an early digitization project hosted by the University of Virginia is still a valuable resource many years after its creation. https://valley.lib.virginia.edu/
“Private Voices: The Corpus of American Civil War Letters,” hosted by the University of Georgia, focuses largely on letters penned by those who had limited educations and or were semi-literate. https://altchive.org/
“Spared and Shared” is a series of websites filled with nineteenth-century letters, the vast majority of which originated from Civil War soldiers. The full “Spared and Shared” catalog covers hundreds of letters. https://sparedshared22.wordpress.com/
Enjoy reading and exploring these resources!
“Our division did not have enough time to correctly deploy before the running rebels hurled themselves at us, but we still held firm as long as we could, and pushed them back hard several times.” Pvt. Adolph Bregler, 27th Pennsylvania, on the fighting at Dowdall’s Tavern, May 2, 1863.