Letters from the Civil War
I promised a mystery story for the next Ancestry giveaway post, and I’ll make good on that before the month is through, but something huge has happened since I last wrote about researching our family tree, and I think it warrants a special edition.
A few Saturdays ago, I dropped in on the Arkansas History Commission, to kill some time between dropping off and picking up one of the kids from a school event nearby. I had been meaning to look up the Civil War widow’s pension application of Patrick’s great-grandmother, which was filed with the State of Arkansas in 1901. There was a summary of it on Ancestry, stating the date of the application and which unit her husband fought with, but I thought it would be interesting to see the original document. I’ve been having trouble tracing her background, and I hoped there might be a morsel of information in the file that hadn’t carried over to the digital record–a next-of-kin, a maiden name, some clue about who she was before she married the man whose namesake I married.
I sat down at the microfilm reader, and started scrolling until I found her name. There was the application, filled out in bold, inky cursive. I pressed the forward button. There was the auditor’s stamp and the authorization for a $50 pension. That should have been it, but I pressed the button again, just in case. The screen was filled with faint, spidery script. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, or if it was even part of the same file. I pressed the forward button again, and again, and again. Two words kept catching my frantic eyes:
Breath held, I scanned for a signature line. At the bottom of every few pages I found my husband’s name.
The staff must have thought I was deranged as I leaped up from the microfilm reader, and leaned over the help desk.
“Originals. Have. To. See. Now? YES?”
I was politely asked for my phone and purse, shown into a glass walled room, and seated at a desk, where I waited for the archivist to come back with either a security guard or the pension file. Maybe they see people’s heads exploding all the time, because she returned with the latter. A folder was placed in front of me. Inside, sandwiched between layers of clear plastic film, were a half dozen letters from the Civil War, written between 1861 and 1864, fragile as pressed flowers.
“Dear Wife, it is with pleasure I seat Myself to drop you a few lines…”
I must have made quite the spectacle in my glass aquarium for the next hour, as I smiled and frowned and puzzled and wondered and wept over those letters. The first is dated ten days after leaving home to go to war, the last is dated June 18, 1864. They begin in a spirit of confidence and adventure, and end in resignation to defeat, and the glad anticipation of coming home. In between are all the reassurances, remonstrances, tedium, and tenderness of marriage, so ordinary and familiar as to render that great and terrible war mere backdrop to the story of daily life. As all history ever is.
Patrick the fourth, reading aloud the letters of Patrick the first.
I had copies of all the letters made, and have carefully transcribed them. Look for excerpts to come soon.