Letters Home

civil-war-letter I can trace my own interest in the Civil War (1861-1865) to a story on the maternal side of my mother’s family, who were from the border state of Missouri. The tale centers on a great-great-grand uncle who first saw the woman he would eventually marry on a train platform while rolling through the South during the Civil War. It was her red hair that caught his eye, and when the train stopped, he is said to have promised her, “I’ll be back for you when this war is over.” And indeed he did come back, and they married.

I’ve worked on a number of Lerner and TFCB imprint titles about the Civil War over the years (see reading list below), and it’s always the letters home that capture my imagination and that bring the war to me in the most vivid detail. The Internet is filled with primary-source resources to find, see, and read these letters. Below are links to two letters, decidedly different in tone, but equally evocative.

A July 1861 letter (on the PBS website related to Ken Burns’s Civil War series) from Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah Hart Shumway expresses a mix of political philosophy with eloquent language about the nature of the “deathlessness” of love.

A June 1861 letter (from the Virginia Military Institute archives; photo from VMI online archives above) from Confederate soldier John H. Ervine to his wife, Ellen, details life in the cavalry, troop movements, food and sleeping conditions, the kindness of civilians, and news to pass along to family members, including that he wants his father to send material for a new pair of pants as his own are wearing out.

Civil War Reading List

image Gourley, Catherine. The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison, TFCB, 2010. Through extensive primary-source research, writer Catherine Gourley is able to share an account of life at Andersonville (Georgia), a Civil War POW camp. She follows real-life individuals at the camp, including the Northern prisoners and their Southern captors, and pieces together the life and death stories of Andersonville. She discusses other POW camps as well, and in describing the postwar trial of the Andersonville commander, Captain Henry Wirz, Gourley grapples with the ethical and moral complexities of war.

clip_image001Arnold, James R. The Civil War (Chronicle of America’s Wars series) TFCB, 2004. This is a single title suitable for proficient middle-grade readers and high-school students. It gives an overview of the battlefield and the home front, complete with maps, primary-source imagery and quotes, and extensive back matter.

3197Arnold, James R., and Roberta Wiener. The Civil War series, Lerner, 2002. This six-volume series is aimed at middle-grade readers. It offers an in-depth look at the lead-up to the war, the war years on the battlefield as well as on the home front, and a rich variety of primary-source imagery and quoted material. This is one of my favorite Civil War projects, as it was my first encounter with military historian Jim Arnold and his wife, Roberta Wiener, who have been studying and writing about the Civil War for many years. Their expertise and passion about the topic fueled my imagination and taught me an enormous amount about this war.

clip_image003Damon, Duane. Growing Up in the Civil War (Our America series) Lerner, 2003. This is a wonderful resource for middle-grade readers who are interested in learning about what it was like to be a young person during the Civil War.

clip_image004Greene, Meg. Into the Land of Freedom: African Americans in Reconstruction (People’s History series), TFCB, 2004. This title offers an overview of the postwar Reconstruction years (1865-1877) during which African Americans experienced the first years of freedom in a nation that had previously enslaved them. Filled with primary source materials, both quoted and visual, this is an excellent starting point for learning more about this turbulent yet exhilarating time in U.S. history.

clip_image005Landau, Elaine. Fleeing to Freedom on the Underground Railroad: The Courageous Slaves, Agents, and Conductors (People’s History) TFCB, 2006. This People’s History title explores the secret network of brave individuals across the land who helped slaves escape north to freedom. The book also offers the stories of some of these slaves. Like all other titles in the award-winning People’s History series, Fleeing to Freedom on the Underground Railroad is filled with primary-source materials that open a window into the hearts and minds of Americans who wanted a better life for themselves and for their fellow countrymen and women.

Please check in next week for more from TFCB!

2 thoughts on “Letters Home

  1. Sally

    What a charming story about your great-great-granduncle. I have my great-great-grandfather's diary that he wrote while serving in the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. His comments about the war and conditions in camp certainly painted a dreary picture of the times. And he always noted when he received a letter from home. Let's us know that soldiers welcome news from loved ones.

  2. Domenica Di Piazza

    Thank you, Sally. That side of my family was filled with great storytellers, and some of them kept diaries too, a couple of which I have in my possession. Real treasures, that's for sure!

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