Interesting thoughts about Civil War manuscript collections

To my readers, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long and not posting anything for almost a year. I have not left blogging and am not done with this site, but life’s been quite busy with teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, so my free writing time has been limited. That said, I want to thank you all for sticking it out with this site and hope you will come back, as I hope to get back into it a bit more in the near future. I am always willing to consider new topics to write about, so let me know.

That said, I want to tip my hat to Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory for sharing this interesting article from the Gettysburg Compiler via Facebook. Written by Kevin Lavery, an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, while part of their Civil War Institute, this article on manuscripts and the right to be forgotten from history really made me think.

As someone who has worked in a special collections department for over two years now, I deal with manuscripts of all types on a regular basis, including diaries and letters. These sources, as Mr. Lavery points out, are quite important to researchers, but the ethical dilemma he raises does hold some weight. Some of what he raises about historians’ responsibilities in dealing with unpublished sources is important, as we are dealing with another human being’s private conversation and while that individual may be dead, the intimacy of the words on the page do not lessen because of death. This means that such words must be treated with respect.

Does this mean that we should not use them to understand the past? Certainly not, but it does mean that we must strive to avoid what is termed presentism, or applying the standards of our time to those of the past. My mentor from my undergraduate days always used the example of one of your descendants picks up a letter you wrote describing eating a juicy steak and recoils in horror. Though a little tongue in cheek, his point was that we do not want to be judged based upon the standards and values of a time we are not familiar with, so we should not judge those who came before us by our standards because their time held different values than ours in some cases.

As I read such sources, I always try to see what such writings tell me about the past, but I am uncomfortable with the pseudo-psychological role that some scholars take when evaluating sources, as we can never fully understand what another human being felt during a given event, especially when recalling it in a later writing. One of the best examples would be the field of military history. In writing about warfare, a scholar, who happens to be a combat veteran may understand, to an extent, the gripping accounts of battle written by a soldier long ago, as they share the same broad experience of being in combat. Yet, the differences would be in the nature of that combat, the personality of the soldier involved that wrote the letter, diary, or memoir, as well as the societal norms of that period. Sherman’s generalization that “war is hell” is as accurate today as 150 years ago, but the nature of war has changed in many ways since then.

In the end, it seems that Mr. Lavery’s analysis would argue that we should let the authors of Civil War manuscripts speak for themselves and perhaps respect their privacy a bit by not delving into nuances regarding such writings. These men, and women, were writing to loved ones about an important event that was shaping their very lives, no more, no less. For them, it was a matter of staying in touch with home during a time when mail was slow and death could be quick. When faced with one’s mortality, even as a younger person, and with the technological limitations placed on your ability to communicate over great distances, the very soul of a man may be poured out on a piece of paper, in an effort to not leave something unsaid to those back home.

I welcome your thoughts on this interesting subject.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

If you are in the vicinity of Yale University, consider checking this exhibit out. I do want to warn that some of these images are quite graphic and show the horrors of war. To view the online images, click here.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies:  Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

January 16th-April 1st, 2013

Tours open to all on Wed. Jan. 23rd, 4 p.m., and Friday Jan. 25th at noon!

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War raged throughout the United States, creating thousands of casualties.  On view now, the Medical Historical Library explores Civil War medicine through the haunting photographs of wounded soldiers.  Curated by Heidi Knoblauch, a doctoral student in Yale’s Section of the History of Medicine, and Melissa Grafe, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, selections from a set of 93 photographic portraits from Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C. are on display in the Rotunda of the Medical Library.  These images, some quite graphic, depict soldiers recovering from a variety of wounds, including gunshot wounds.  The soldiers’ case histories and stories, analyzed by Heidi Knoblauch, are part of a larger examination of medical photography and Civil War memory as America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the war.  In the foyer of Sterling Hall, the exhibit expands to include a larger discussion of Civil War medicine and surgery, including hospitals and nurses, using images and materials from the Medical Historical Library.  An online version of the Harewood Hospital photographs is available in the Digital Library of the Medical Historical Library.

This exhibit is on display at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, 333 Cedar Street. For more information, contact Melissa Grafe, Ph.D, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, at melissa.grafe@yale.edu.

Civil War Events Feature Minstrel Song Revival – ABC News

Civil War Events Feature Minstrel Song Revival – ABC News.

Pretty interesting article on a revival of Civil War era music via reenacting. I had the opportunity to listen to the 97th Regimental String Band while at Pipestone, MN a few weeks ago and they were a great group.

While I understand some of the discomfort over some of the lyrics used in the songs, we must remember that society was different 150 years ago and did not subscribe to the same values and attitudes that we might. Such events must be understood in their proper historical context and they can serve a purpose for reflecting upon the past to hopefully open a civil and honest debate about the issues of slavery and race in America’s past.

Kansas event to honor black Civil War soldiers – KansasCity.com

Kudos to Civil Warriors for this article on commemorating African American Civil War soldiers.

3-day Kansas event to honor black Civil War soldiers – KansasCity.com.

New online resource for Civil War primary sources

Hats off to my colleague Stuart Lawrence for sending me information about this source. I posted about the site SoldierStudies.org three years ago, which provides transcriptions of letters written by the men who fought the war. Now, Alexander Street Press has put together an online database of memoirs, diaries, and letters from Civil War soldiers and others. It looks pretty interesting, but the one drawback is that a 30-day trial is available, but then a subscription is required, which limits its availability. The scope of the collection, as described on the website, is as follows:

Perhaps the most exciting descriptions of events during the Civil War are to be found in first person accounts. Detailed firsthand descriptions of historical characters and events, glimpses of daily life in the army, anecdotes about key events and personages, and accounts of sufferings at home written for private consumption, provide an immediacy and a richness that are unmatched in public sources.

The Civil War was responsible for an unprecedented displacement of Americans, and this in turn resulted in an unprecedented number of letters. This also was the last time a major war was fought without significant censorship.

The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries knits together more than 1,000 sources of diaries, letters, and memoirs to provide fast access to thousands of views on almost every aspect of the war, including what was happening at home. The writings of politicians, generals, slaves, landowners, farmers, seaman, wives, and even spies are included. The letters and diaries are by the famous and the unknown, giving not only both the Northern and Southern perspectives, but those of foreign observers also. The materials originate from all regions of the country and are from people who played a variety of roles.

Using a thesaurus of Civil War terms we’ve built specifically for the task, researchers can quickly find references to individuals, battles, theaters of war, and activities. A chronology of key events allows the user to see multiple perspectives surrounding a particular event. This level of indexing is unprecedented. Questions such as “Give me all accounts of letters written about hospital conditions by Union soldiers in the Western Theater” can be answered in seconds.

The collection includes approximately 100,000 pages of published memoirs, letters and diaries from individuals plus 4,000 pages of previously unpublished materials. Drawn from more than 1,000 sources, the collection provides in-depth coverage of all aspects of the war. More than 1,000 biographies will enhance the use of the database.

The collection includes one of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Civil War letters and diaries yet published. It lists over 1,000 published and unpublished items from a variety of sources, including online resources and microform. Subscribers to the collection are encouraged to participate in the maintenance of this bibliography by calling our attention to omissions, suggesting additions, and notifying us of newly discovered materials.

I will check this source out more in the coming days, but wanted to put it out there for readers to consider. On a side note, we are closing in on 100,000 hits and I would really like to do that today, so help me out and thanks for your support.

Update on Civil War soldiers webcast

As posted last week, I participated in a webcast on Civil War soldiers, sponsored by the American Military University. Well, the program is now available to listen online, and you can also access the materials relating to the webcast.

Click here to access the webcast.

It is done, well almost

Exciting news for myself. My thesis is finished, at least for the most part. I received preliminary approval on Thursday, which means that no significant changes will be required by my committee on the draft. I only have a couple of steps left to complete my MA. I defend the thesis on Friday, July 11 at 11:00 AM (I will let you know how that goes on Friday). I also need to make any last-minute changes to the draft before submitting the draft to the Graduate School for a format check. Sometime early next week, I will submit a final copy to the graduate school for approval by the dean and if all goes well, I graduate on August 1.

Needless to say, I am quite happy that I am finished with this project. Illinois camps of instruction have been a passion of mine for four years. I began the research into Camp Carrollton, near my hometown of Jerseyville, Illinois. That camp was used by the Sixty-first Illinois Infantry from late-September 1861 to the end of February 1862. The camp was located on the Greene County Fair Grounds, which was similar to almost all other camps in the state. Eventually, the research became my senior paper as an undergraduate. Since then, I have presented a paper on Camp Carrollton twice at history conferences, as well as a paper dealing with the overall topic at the Northern Great Plains History Conference.

My thesis focuses on the transition from civilian to soldier, which the camps facilitated. The transformation took on three forms: physical, mental, and social. The physical transition encompassed the entrance into camp and the world of the soldier, with events like the medical examination, receipt of the uniform, and the beginning of drill. The mental transition focused on increased emotional expression in the soldiers’ writings as well as the learning of increased self-discipline. Finally, the social transition, which I found to be a more significant part of the transition, dealt with the soldier learning to become part of the unit. Soldiers engaged in many social activities in camp that brought them together as comrades. In addition, the soldiers ventured into the neighboring communities for attending church, dining out in local restaurants, and touring the sites. These activities, as well as the men leaving their camp, served to distinguish the soldier from the rest of society as a distinct social group.

Overall, the story of camps has been largely ignored by scholars. Most works I have encountered by historians that deal with soldiers focus on soldiers once they were in the field. I concluded that most scholars focus not on a civilian to soldier transition, but a soldier to veteran transition. Studying camps is important because to fully understand soldiers we need to know their story before they face their first battle.

In conclusion, I am quite relieved to have my thesis mostly done. I am a bit nervous about my defense, but am confident that all will work out. I plan to start my doctoral work in the fall and am currently not sure what I will write my dissertation on, but am looking forward to the challenge. As for whether I will have my thesis published in some form as a journal article, I will let you know when that comes about.