(Digital Collections) Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

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“Choose Your Own Adventure” book covers, image via Google image search.

We’re currently processing a couple of Civil War letters collections – to be unveiled soon! – and getting them ready for online access  inspired this week’s blog post. After reading and/or transcribing dozens of examples of 1860s correspondence, certain patterns in their organization and content began to emerge. And for whatever reason, that reminded me of a beloved book series from my childhood: the Choose Your Own Adventure series! So, after an examination of the content and structure of these letters, we’ll let you get in on the action with a Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

The Internet of the 1860s

Putting yourself in the shoes of a person who lived in centuries prior to your own existence can be extremely difficult. It’s as hard for us to consider what daily life was like for someone alive in the 1860s as it would be for someone in the 1860s to picture life in the 1710s. So when you start to examine material like someone’s written correspondence – something that was created as an intimate conversation between two distinct individuals with a shared history and their own inside jokes, casual references, etc. – it can be hard to separate the person from the artifact.

One thing that jumps out immediately as you work with these kinds of resources is their repetitive nature. They open almost without fail on a statement like, “I’m taking a moment to sit down and write you these lines to tell you …” and then a modifier like, “… I am well” or “I am tolerable well” or “I am very sick” and the like. To a contemporary reader in 2015, this can quickly become boring – “We get it! You’re sitting down to write a letter and are feeling okay! Move on!” – but to a reader in 1860s rural America, just seeing something comforting like a documented case of someone taking time to sit down and use their resources to write a letter would be cause for celebration, especially in a time of war.

The letters tend to be a mix of mundane daily details (“I slept well last night”), updates on health (“I am well except for a terrible cold”) and news on shared acquaintances (“Johnny is with a new regiment, Bill is dead”). And there’s almost always news that someone has died. It was, after all, the 19th century and the middle of the bloodiest conflict in American history; what else would you expect?

Unexpected jewels I’ve come across include a repeated request for cornbread (the writer is eating plenty of beef and white bread but asks repeatedly for cornbread – a true Southerner!), a story about soldiers killed while playing cards near an outhouse, and the statement, “I am almost bare footed but its [sic] a free country.” Considering that last one was written by a Confederate soldier in 1863, it carries a particularly poignant irony.

All of this works together to create archival resources that are at times repetitive, often surprising, and always informative, the kind of thing you hope for from a favorite blog or website today but written in iron gall ink and hastily scribbled on a piece of scrap paper procured in the heat of 19th century combat.

Choose Your Own Civil War Letter Adventure!

Now it’s your turn! Read through the template below and fill in your favorite response from the list of options, nineteenth century battlefield spelling and punctuation preserved (mostly) for authenticity. No pen or iron gall ink required!

(NOTE: many of the choices are drawn from actual letters in the collections we’ll be posting soon. Others are purely for my own enjoyment. See if you can guess which are which!)

Click to Enlarge!


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