I was going through a cardboard box the other day. It's one of many on the top shelf of a closet in my home. It holds written notes and letters that date back 40 years. Opening envelopes, visiting places and people, and reading long departed handwriting is more than a comfort. The written word sets a moment in time. I am reminded of who I was when, what I thought was important, who colored my life, and so on.
On February 20 2011, my friend and colleague Stephanie West Allen blogged about the importance of letter writing: Notes and letters - Long may they live!
She followed up that post with another on April 11, 2011, Writing Letters to the Future.
Ours are not frivolous gestures. Or a nod to a quaint notion. I wonder who will recall us, say 150 years from now just as we are able to recall the lives of those who lived life during the Civil War.
Life During Wartime recounts the efforts of
"A team at U.Va.'s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library has been posting on "150 Years Ago Today," an online blog started in 2009 that features transcribed Civil War letters and diaries. Now that the nation is in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, which runs until 2015, there's renewed interest in the bloody conflict. And reading the words of the participants themselves provides a new, more intimate level of understanding.
Accessible from the Special Collections home page and fully searchable by name or date, the blog features correspondence by such Confederate notables as Robert E. Lee and Gen. Elisha F. "Bull" Paxton, who briefly commanded the Stonewall Brigade. But it also includes the words of the everyday people who shouldered muskets on the battlefield, suffered deprivations on the homefront and struggled to grasp the equality promised them in the Declaration of Independence. By posting these primary source documents online, the Special Collections Library is presenting the war's daily triumphs and tragedies to the world.
This enormous project started fairly simply. "Twelve years ago, Mary Roy Edwards volunteered to start transcribing our Civil War letters and diaries," says Ann Southwell (Grad '73), a Special Collections' manuscript cataloger who heads the effort. "After a while we decided we should put them up on a blog. Then we got the idea that we could do the entire war day by day." Edwards, the wife of former U.Va. architecture professor Charles R. Edwards, eventually transliterated more than 3,000 pages from the items at Special Collections. Another volunteer, John P. Mann IV, has been diligently working on letters written by Col. Edward T. Warren of the 10th Virginia Infantry. Southwell herself works on the project every evening after work."
As you are drawn into the entries that recount the lives of those who lived life during wartime, one thing is striking: not much has changed when we go to war. What matters most is still faith, family, friends, and the girls we left behind.
My hope is that as more of us read about the terrors and losses of war, we may shed some of our "rock logic' that makes Us right and Them wrong. Perhaps we can adopt a more fluid frame of mind that allows for more commonality, understanding and grace under fire.
The article reports on the interest generated in other countries:
"Nonetheless, the blog is attracting attention—it's received more than 20,000 hits as of early May. "We're getting a lot of hits from people in Russia, Ukraine and India," says Southwell. "I hope they're not using these letters to learn English!""
I hope we and they are using the letters to learn peace in our time.