Writers say the best ideas come late at night when they’re trying to go to sleep. That’s true, and mine sometimes come right as I’m trying to wake up. On the edge of sleep one morning, wondering if I should snooze for another ten minutes (always a dangerous thing), a random thought came to mind.
When we research a soldier or a civilian, nearly from scratch, we’re recreating their image. Yeah, they might have a photograph floating around somewhere, but many of the period photographs are left without identities, sold off at flea markets or conventions purely for their aesthetic or historical nature, rather than their subject. But when we dig into the archives with only a name and a regiment, we begin the process of rebuilding their identity, even without a photograph.
When we find where they were born and raised, their childhood home makes a pinpoint on our maps.
Learning the names and origins of their parents gives them ancestry and a past.
Census records build their family. Brothers? Sisters? Did their grandparents live with them? Was he the eldest, responsible for all? Or was he the baby and spoiled as such?
Records of their employment gives them a resume. Blacksmith? Clerk? Baker? Fisherman? Sailor? General laborer?
Sometimes, enlistment records can paint a picture of their features. Blonde or brunette? Blue eyes or brown? Tall or short?
Can we find an account of the day their company left home? Was he sent off with a parade or a quiet goodbye between families?
The muster rolls that record their location throughout the war give them shoes that they’ve walked in and places they’ve seen. We can go there too, and stand where he stood.
When we find a photo of their regiment or company, we can piece together a probable uniform.
Finding a letter they wrote gives them a voice.
We hear their fears, their joys, their triumphs and woes.
We see who he wrote to the most and what love and encouragement he gave to the folks back home who worried for his safety.
It leaps out in their cursive, whether slanted or straight, upon the paper worn by age and abuse.
If they were in a hospital, we hold our breath to see if they made it out okay.
If we see their name on a casualty list, we know where he was hit and how badly he was injured.
If he was captured, we can know the kind of deprivations he suffered in the prison camps.
When he comes home, we rejoice as his family might.
Pension records and census records after the war can tell us how he coped with the horrors of war. Married? Forever single? One child or a dozen? Did he follow in his father’s footsteps or did he forge his own career path?
When his grave marker appears on the screen, we can see how he is now, little more than bones beneath the sod with a few words to commemorate their time on earth.
We went on this journey to bear witness, so that the dash between the two dates can be filled in with something more than what cold marble or dusty parchment could ever tell.
And if, by some odd chance, we find a photo of that soldier. They’re no longer unknown or forgotten. It’s like seeing an old friend for the first time in ages. And though we can’t ask him questions now, we can give answers to those who ask, “Who’s that guy?”
“Oh, him? Let me tell you…”