Recently I was prowling the book donations at the thrift store where I volunteer and I came across a copy of War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll. The Legacy Project, which is the source from which these letters came, was founded in 1998 as a gathering place for veterans and their families to donate correspondence written by members of American armed forces to and from their families while on active duty. Since its founding the Legacy Project’s name has been changed to “The Center for American War Letters,” and it’s collection is housed at Chapman University in Orange. California. War Letters was made into a documentary on PBS’s American Experience, which can be watched on YouTube.
Coincidentally, I was reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention : Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, which contains excerpts of letters written by Confederate women to their husbands on the front. Also, in my home library I have a copy of Tracy Sugarman’s My War: a Love Story in Letters and Drawings. Unfortunately, that book is not in the NC Cardinal system, but a large collection of his letters to his wife is preserved on the Library of Congress website, so I decided to include his book in this blog. One other book that excerpts from letters written by soldiers serving in the Union army in the Civil War is Earl J. Hess’ The Union Soldier in Battle. The first part of this blog will have excerpts from letters from the Civil War and World War I, the second letters from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Separation in families during wartime can be traumatic both for the member of the armed forces being away from his or her family and the family at home. But these days email and social media help to shorten the distance with almost instant communication and air travel makes leave at home realistic despite long distances to the site of deployment. Imagine being a woman in the Confederate south, where the postal service left something to be desired, hearing about a major battle and not knowing for weeks, or even months, if your loved one is whole or not; or even alive or dead. Faust cites a letter from a woman who tells her husband she wishes him to be wounded or suffer an amputation, so he comes home deformed, and not be attractive to other women in a culture where there was a shortage of men. In World War II, distance was a problem in correspondence traveling from home to the various fronts, and vice versa, especially when there were armies and naval forces that were on the move. In some cases the soldier or sailor would receive a “Dear John” or “Dear Jill” letter ending a relationship.
The contents of letters depended on their origin. Dr. Faust discovered that women left to manage large plantations, while their husbands were off fighting, doubted their ability to take the man’s place running complex business and cultural environments. Some of these women hired old white men to manage the slave laborers, while others did it themselves, trusting the black slaves to help with the planting, raising, and harvesting of the crops.
The letters Dr. Hess uncovered had to do with men writing about combat experiences about which the southern women were totally divorced from, at least if they lived far beyond the armies. A New York regimental surgeon replied to a question from his wife as follows: “You have asked for a description of a field after the Angel of Death has passed over it; but I do no more so than I can give you an idea of anything indescribable. You must stand as I have stood, and heard to report of battery upon battery, witness the effect of shell, grape and canister–you must hear the incessant discharge of musketry, see men leaping high in the in the and falling dead upon the ground…hear their groans…see their eye grow dim in death, before you can realize or be impressed with its horrors.”
Confederate Captain William Harris Hardy gave his wife the following description of combat: “All the firing had ceased, everything was calm and still after the awful storm save the awful shrieks of the dying and wounded which were great came from every quarter in every direction. Cries for help, for water, brother calling brother, comrade for companions. In ten feet of where I lay was a Pennsylvania Yankee with his bowels shot out…. We left before daylight. I don’t know what became of him.”
In War Letters, a World War I ambulance driver, George Ruckle, wrote this description to his family: “I’ll never some of the sights I saw and how bravely our men and the French bore their wounds. Men with arms and legs torn off would never utter a groan during the whole trip to the hospital. At one place some new batteries came up their horses were picketed in a clump of trees. I saw a shell land in the middle of them and the next minute there was pile of 50 or 60 dead horses.”
On the other hand, soldiers of the Civil War era could not describe what they saw on the battlefield, either because they didn’t want to relive the experience or they didn’t want to scare their correspondents. Illinois soldier wrote this: “I shall not attempt to describe what I saw, of dead wounded and suffering . It would be an absolute impossibility and if it were possible my heart would shrink from such a task.” Another Illinois soldier phased it this way, “a scene that it impossible describe either to a writer or artist”
At the of the war to end all wars, Lt. Lewis Plush reflects on his memories of the war to his parents as he sails back to the United States: “There was a war, a great war, and it is over. Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home. others remain behind on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. The rewards of the death are the lasting honors of martyrs for humanity; the reward of the living is the peaceful conscience of who play of life and plays it square.”