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The Civil War, one day, one letter, at a time

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 23, 2013 01:48 PM

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civil war.jpegTo mark the Civil War sesquicentennial, the University of North Carolina's Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library is publishing one piece of Civil War-era correspondence a day, 150 years to the day after it was written.

The commemoration began on April 21, 2011 with a diary entry from April 21, 1861. In a few short paragraphs, Sarah Louis Wadley of Louisiana wrote about the secession of Virginia, the tragic death of a local timber worker (crushed beneath a tree limb), and her gratitude about being removed from the growing conflict:

truly it is a blessing to be allowed to spend our life in those quiet shades, especially during such troublous times as these, bitter indeed must be that spirit which away from the haunts of men with the never ceasing hymn of the forest swelling, and softening around, is not soothed out of all but the rememberance of sorrow.

The series features a diverse range of voices: correspondence between sisters trading gifts, letters from soldiers at the front, business transactions between southern men hiring out slaves. In a letter signed January 20, 1863, L.J. and William Elinor agree to the terms by which they'll rent "Milly & Rose" from John Leary:

For the hire of Milly & Rose the present year we or either of us promise to deliver to John H. Leary or order four hundred pounds of good merchantable gin’d cotton in a bale. The cotton to be delivered at Enfield on or before 24th Dec. We further bind ourselves to give said negroes two good suits clothes shoes & stockings, suitable for the [seasons?] Also hat & blanket or something equivalent to them.

And on December 28, 1862, Lieutenant Thomas W. Patton of North Carolina wrote to his aunt in Asheville with news about 11 deserters:

It is said that on Friday last eleven men were shot in and around this place for desertion. I do not know how true that is but I know there was one executed from our Regt. The poor fellows name was Littrell. He deserted while our Regiment was stationed at Greenville and was arrested & brought back here about a month ago by Tom Stevens, and in company with two others (one of them Spain) was tried by court-martial and all three sentenced to suffer death. The other two were pardoned by Genl Bragg and he was shot in the presence of all the troops in his brigade. It was an awful sight, but I am convinced it was necessary for the good of the service and will put a stop to our men running away.

The series is a unique way to experience the inexorability of the war. It will run through April 9, 2015- the 150th anniversary of Appomattox.

Image of regimental fife-and-drum corps courtesy of the National Archives.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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