RICHMOND, Va. (AP)" A diary with a lifesaving bullet hole from Gettysburg.
An intricate valentine crafted by a Confederate soldier for the wife he would
never see again. A slave's desperate escape to freedom.
From New England to the South, state archivists are using the
sesquicentennial of the Civil War to collect a trove of wartime letters,
diaries, documents and mementoes that have gathered dust in attics and
This still-unfolding call will help states expand existing collections on the
Civil War and provide new insights into an era that violently wrenched a nation
apart, leaving 600,000 dead. Much of the Civil War has been told primarily
through the eyes of battlefield and political leaders.
These documents are adding a new narrative to the Civil War's story, offering
insights into the home front and of soldiers, their spouses and
African-Americans, often in their own words.
Historians, who will have access to the centralized digital collections, are
excited by the prospect of what the states are finding and will ultimately
"I think now we're broadening the story to include everybody" not just a
soldier, not a general or a president" just somebody who found themselves swept
up in the biggest drama in American life," says University of Richmond President
Edward Ayers, a Civil War expert. "That's what's so cool."
In Virginia, archivists have borrowed from the popular PBS series "Antiques
Roadshow," traveling weekends throughout the state and asking residents to share
family collections, which are scanned and added to the already vast collection
at the Library of Virginia.
Started in September 2010, the Civil War 150 Legacy Project has collected
Virginians have been generous, knowing they can share their long-held
mementos without surrendering them, said Laura Drake Davis and Renee Savits, the
Library of Virginia archivists who have divided the state for their on-the-road
"They think someone can learn from them rather than just sitting in their
cupboards," Savits said of the family possessions. "And they're proud to share
their family's experience."
Patricia Bangs heeded the call when a friend told her about the project. She
had inherited 400 letters passed down through the years between Cecil A.
Burleigh to his wife, Caroline, in Mount Carmel, Conn.
"I felt this would be useful to researchers, a treasure to somebody," said
Bangs, who works for the library system in Fairfax, Va. In one letter, she said,
Cecil writes of Union troops traveling from Connecticut to Washington, crowds
cheering them along the way.
The letters, like many collected by archivists, are difficult to read. Many
are spelled phonetically, and the penmanship can be hard to decipher. Typically,
they tell of the story of the home front and its daily deprivations.
Researchers in Tennessee, a battleground state in the war, teamed up with
Virginia archivists earlier this year in the border town of Bristol. Both states
have seen their share of bullets, swords and other military hardware.
"We have grandmothers dragging in swords and muskets," said Chuck Sherrill,
Tennessee state librarian and archivist.
Documents are fished from attics, pressed between the pages of family bibles
and stored in trunks.
Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and many other states have similar
programs, or at least are trying to gather materials for use by scholars and
Pennsylvania has been especially ambitious in adding new layers to the
state's deep links to the Civil War, including a traveling exhibit called the
"PA Civil War Road Show." The 53-foot-long museum on wheels also invites
visitors to share their ancestors' stories and artifacts in a recording booth.
The remembrances will be uploaded on the website PACivilWar150.com.
One visitor brought in a bugle that an ancestor was blowing when he was
fatally shot at the Battle of Gettysburg.
"He wouldn't let anyone touch it," said John Seitter, project manager of the
Pennsylvania Civil War project. "It shows you how deeply these artifacts connect
people with the Civil War. There's some serious memorialization going on
The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University is
also amid a survey of all the public archives in the state to produce a
The ambitious project aims to shed light on small, underfunded public
historical societies where records are often "hidden from historians and
scholars" and not used, Matt Isham of the "The People's Contest: A Civil War Era
Digital Archiving Project" wrote in an email.
Some people are even donating items unsolicited.
In Maine, for instance, some residents have submitted letters from ancestors
who served in the war, but the sesquicentennial also saw an unusual submission
from James R. Hosmer.
Hosmer's mother, Mary Ruth Hosmer, died in 2005. He was going through her
possessions in Kittery, Maine, when he made a discovery: dozens of carte de
viste, small photographs carried by some Union troops, an early version of dog
tags. They were stored in a suitcase in an attic.
"The state archives was quite thrilled with it," Hosmer said.
The Virginia archivists said they were especially pleased by a submission
from the family of an escaped slave who wrote of his love for a woman named
Julia at the same time he fled his master for an outpost on the Chesapeake Bay,
where Union ships were known to pick up men seeking their freedom. David Harris
found his freedom in 1861, serving as a cook for Union troops.
"I love to read the sweet letters that come from you, dear love," David
Harris wrote to Julia. "I cannot eat for thought of you."
A valentine made of pink paper and shaped into a heart using an intricate
basket weave was addressed by Confederate soldier Robert H. King to his wife
Louiza. He was killed in 1862.
As for the diary tucked in a soldier's breast pocket that shielded him from
death at Gettysburg, "He kept using the diary," Savits said. "He just wrote