Civil War Trivia, Portraits of Privates

What Did They Write About? – Civil War Letters

I have always liked a saying that I heard in a documentary once that the life of a pirate consisted of long period of absolute tedium and boredom, punctuated by intense moments of danger and excitement. The same can be said for soldiers of the Civil War (or any war for that matter). What did the soldiers do to fill their downtime when they weren’t drilling, marching, or fighting? Mostly, they wrote letters to home. And those at home wrote letters back to cheer and hearten them to their cause.

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Confiscated letters in New Orleans (Tulane University)

Letters and care packages from home were so essential to the morale of the men in both blue and gray. Many had never spent more than a week or so away from their families before enlisting in the army. Melancholia and nostalgia (what we may think of as depression today) ran rampant through the masses of homesick soldiers. But when the mail finally came, it would be like a field day for the troops. Captain Charles Francis Adams Jr. wrote from Virginia, “letters are more than ever before prized to me, for now they constitute absolutely my only link with the world and my own past, and moreover my only pleasure… You should see the news fly round the camp and the men’s faces light up, and hot duty, discipline, everything, at once gives way to the reading of the letters. It’s like fresh water in an August noon.”

Studying these letters can help shed light on the personalities, opinions, fears, and joys of the common soldier and civilian during the Civil War. While many were written for a certain audience and therefore may be censured in some respects, they are no less valuable as a primary source for historians and students today. Below, I’m going to attempt to give an overview of what the soldiers and civilians exchanged from the battlefront to the home front. While this is just a basic, cursory evaluation of what they wrote about, I believe it sums up the majority of the content found in most Civil War era letters.

What the Soldiers Wrote About

Civil-War-soldliers-writingBattles and War: Many soldiers shared about their experience on the frontline with their families. Of course, much was sanitized or omitted to give a sense of security to their loved ones who feared for their safety. Quite a few letters are candid about the army movements and operations. Sometimes this is to let their families know exactly where the enemy army may or may not be, as well as where to forward the reply letters. For the armies that were fighting extremely close to home, this would help to serve as a warning to evacuate, or as a hint to a future surprise visit (French leave). Many of these types of letters were forwarded to newspapers to print for the public masses so they can stay informed about the battle and condition of the war effort straight from the mouth of the soldiers.

Camp Life: When the troops weren’t in motion, they were in camp. Almost every soldier complained about the constant drilling and sometimes uncomfortable situations they found themselves in while in camp (crowded tents, bad food, boredom, etc.) It’s almost a customary thing for soldiers to gripe about their early experiences in camp and drill and loathe the day they enlisted (though many continued to reenlist after making such statements anyway). Still many wrote back home that they were having a great time. Anecdotal stories abound, where their soldier mentions a humorous incident they witnessed or heard about in camp. Pranks on commanding officers or other privates added comic relief to the lives of these men who risked their safety every day. Games were often played to pass the time and they told their families as much – leaving out the gambling, of course. Men would make lifelong friends out of tentmates and for young boys, their days in camp were formative to their adult lives after they left the army.

Comrades and Commanders: It’s hard to find a letter where fellow soldiers and commanders weren’t mentioned. Someone either was injured, got well, died, saved their life, got leave, or got transferred in just about every letter, especially ones following the battle. For many back home, letters detailing an engagement would hold valuable information for their communities. Little Johnny might be in the hospital and unable to tell his mother what happened, so Billy writes to his wife to pass along the news. Army correspondence regarding casualties were not always accurate or consistent, so having a written notice from someone who was there can bring great closure or relief to families. These were often accompanied by heartfelt condolences and directions for where to find the body of the comrade who was buried after the battle. News about the death of a commander or general, too, can be valuable for communities and future historians who want first-hand accounts of what happened on the battlefield, apart from the official reports given by the officers.

ECWCTOPICSoldiersLettersandDiariesPICHealth: Letters in the Victorian era often had a standard protocol of what you could and could not talk about, but almost all have some mention of one’s health within the first paragraph or so. Soldiers may sugarcoat things and say they are fine or on the mend after a bout of illness, when they’re still stuck in a field hospital. Others may be wondrously frank with their wives and loved ones, saying they were crippled by dysentery. Those who were wounded would want to give some assurance to their families that they were well and recovering or were doing better than the last time they wrote. However, many letters were penned by the nurses and volunteers in the hospitals that looked after the soldiers, while their patients dictated some of the last words they would ever exchange with their loved ones. Soldiers who found themselves in prison camps would reassure their families that they were in good health, even when living in squalor and filth at places like Libby Prison or Andersonville. Giving such white lies was pretty common, all to bolster the morale of the families back home.

Money and Business: I’ve encountered business talk in many letters. Husbands generally ran the homestead and since they went off to war, other male family members would have to look after their affairs while they were gone. More often than not, women would have to step into the role of “head of household” while their men were fighting for their country. Questions and instructions for how to conduct trades and transactions were given to the wives in these letters, as well as asking how a certain transaction went between merchants or neighbors. Stuff like, “Make sure you don’t get less than $20 if you sell that mule” or “Did ‘so-and-so’ make the deposit I asked?”, just as examples. Money was frequently mentioned, as soldiers would send home a portion of their pay to family members. One of the most common problems I read about was the fact that pay was late or that more than a month’s worth of pay was still due to them, but as soon as it was given, they would send it home.

Army Politics: For many soldiers, the army would be their first immersion in “big picture” politics. For most of the soldiers who came from rural or small communities, their primary concern was local government and local elections. They would have been aware of bigger issues, such as presidential elections, but it wasn’t until they joined the army that they began to realize just how deep politics ran with the inner workings of the army. Many generals (George McClellan, I’m looking at you!) were focused on political gain, and the views of the commanding officers shaped the views and political leanings of the subordinate. Some of these topics leak their way into letters home. For more about army politics, I recommend reading “A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac” by Dr. Zachery Fry.

Tent-SceneWeather: If there’s one thing that the soldiers of the Civil War talked about in almost every diary entry and letter, it’s the weather. Along with health, it seems to be part of that letter-writing formula that Victorians stick to. While it seems trivial and meaningless to us over 150 years later, weather was a big deal for the soldier in camp, in battle, and on the march. After all, they slept out in the elements for the better part of those four years at war. Weather and climate made the difference between sleeping comfortably or miserably. Weather played a major role in the general outcome of a battle as much as it did for the morale and strength of an army. The rain and thunderstorms at the battle of Spotsylvania made combat that much more horrifying and difficult. The Mud March of the winter in 1863 went down as one of the biggest debacles in the early campaigns of the war, and all that mud was created by the rain. The heat, likewise, could correlate with an increase in cases of sunstroke or dehydration, which – while not as devastating as dysentery – could reduce the effectiveness of a company or regiment. The cold, likewise, would be a detriment to the armies as frostbite and illness was a real problem – just look at the siege of Knoxville in November of 1863. For more about the weather and environmental discussions in the war, I recommend Dr. Katy Shively’s award winning book “Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia.”

What the Civilians Wrote About

Society, Marriages, Births, and Deaths: When I think of the 19th century woman, young or old, north or south, the image that comes to mind is a circle of women sewing uniforms or darning socks while they talked and gossiped about all manner of “feminine sphere” topics. Who was courting who, who was on their deathbed, who was planning their wedding, who was about to give birth, how mothers were taking care of their children, and all the other little scandals that we’d expect from small town America. Some of these things bled into the letters that civilians sent to the front. Women talked about parties, dinners, who came to have tea with them, who was cheating on who. I found one deliciously scandalous letter in the archives of Tulane University that talked about an affair between their neighbors and how the wife was glad that her husband would never do such a thing to her in return. Births, deaths, marriages, and other local news filled the lines of these pages to keep the soldier informed of all the goings-on at home.

civilwar-11-womandeskCommunity Politics: Just as soldiers wrote about the elections and political opinions within camp, civilians wrote to them about the politics of their community. This exchange was more reserved for men-to-men letters, like a son writing to his father or brother to brother, as women weren’t expected to be as nose-deep in politics as the men were.

Money and Business: Also, just as the men instructed the women on business dealings within the home, women reported the outcome of their efforts to fill in the void left by their men. They might brag that they got a good deal on something, or mention about the high price of goods as the war affected the economy in negative ways. Of course, rarely would those at home give their soldiers the full, candid, unabashed truth of their struggles. Just as the soldiers would soften the danger they faced on the battlefield, the wives and families back home would omit the periods of lack and starvation due to the war effort. This was especially true for the southern states as the blockade made the shipping of goods difficult, if not impossible. The last thing the families wanted was for their men to abandon their post and come home because of their crisis. They would have rather them stay and help to end the war quickly so they could get back to “business as usual.”

letters2Health: As above stated, part of the structure of Victorian letters involved the discussion of health. Women would let their husbands know if one of their children had come down with a cold, or if their parent had suffered a stroke or other ailment. Weight was part of the health discussion, as weight usually equated with general health. Back then – unlike today – being thin or not weighing much at all might indicate sickness or frailty. So, countless women would report that they had lost or gained weight over a period of time. Once more, civilians took the edge off health concerns for the sake of the soldier’s morale, just as they would in return.

Weather: A good bout of rain or a season of drought was as much of a concern for the civilian as it was for the soldier. Those planters and tenant farmers who had enlisted in the army left an investment back home. A good crop could mean the difference between starvation and plenty in the rural household. On a lighter note, weather was still a go-to conversation topic for Victorians of the era, so it wouldn’t be unusual to read one wife telling her husband about how muddy the roads became after a thunderstorm.

 

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Letter by unknown author to Confederate Lt. Hodglins (sp?) (Tulane Archives)

One thing both civilians and soldiers talked about in equal measure was how much they missed one another. As I said before, this separation of families during the Civil War had a profound affect on the society. Touching letters, like the famous Sullivan Balou letter, were written by candlelight or moonlight throughout the war’s four years. Both sides also pleaded to write more frequently, or asked if previous letters had been received or were ignored. Letters, apart from photos, were the only tether soldier and civilian had to one another until furlough, discharge, or surrender.

If you’re interested in reading Civil War letters, many archives and libraries have digitized their collections. Books have also compiled letters from certain families to chronicle their lives through the war. Below are some links and resources, but the wealth of material on Civil War letters are not restricted to these:

https://www.loc.gov (Library of Congress)
https://www.archives.gov (National Archives)
https://altchive.org/ (Private Voices – Letters of the Civil War)
“Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp, & Battlefield” edited by Bob Blaisdell
https://www.facebook.com/Griff.CWLetters/ Spared & Shared Facebook Page (Transcript Letters)

For more about Civil War Letters from soldiers and how our study of these can form the historiography of the war, watch below:
https://www.c-span.org/video/?323655-1/discussion-civil-war-solders-letters

For more about the “Private Voices” digital project, watch below:
https://www.c-span.org/video/?461565-9/civil-war-letters

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