Write Often: What Civil War Letters Tell Us
Long before John Michael Montgomery's 2004 song, "Letters From Home," showcased the importance of communications for soldiers, Civil War combatants understood the sentiment behind the lyrics. For every soldier during the Civil War—North and South, East and West—hearing from family on the home front was a link to the lives they once held. A quick perusal of any letter written by a Civil War soldier plainly illustrates the effects that hearing, or in some cases, not hearing, from their family and friends had on their psychology.
Civil War letters reveal more than just the importance of missives sent and received, however. Civil War correspondences offer up a whole other side to the famed conflict, an aspect of history that is often understudied and underappreciated. Ready to find out why these primary documents are important to understanding the conflict, while also discovering some of the most frequently mentioned topics in these letters? If so, keep reading!
When you pick up a Civil War book, chances are it will be full of names: the names of generals, battles, and other landmarks. While the names of the "average" soldiers—the privates and non-commissioned officers—might get a passing mention, rarely are they ever the main focus of these histories. Likewise, the soldiers' thoughts are rarely given an in-depth study.
While the battles and war commanders are unarguably important, it is impossible to understand the Civil War from the combatants' perspectives without first reading these soldiers' thoughts. And where can historians find these ideas? By heading straight to the primary source—the soldiers' letters.
Civil War soldier letters communicate a wealth of information, details that you won't always find in historical texts. Many soldiers share the rush of battle, giving first-hand accounts that go beyond the recitation of fields and generals. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the description of life before or after a big battle, as these are details that are absent in most secondary sources. Otis Moody of the 51st Illinois Infantry describes his feelings in a letter written on April 25, 1862. In the document, he writes about the advance on Corinth, Mississippi, saying (original spelling/punctuation):
"Probably before this reaches you a great battle will have been fought and we cant tell who of us will fall victims If there is to a battle it will be a very severe one for both Armies are very strong and we understand Beauregard is very strongly intrenched If he decides to act entirely on the defensive and it becomes necessary to storm the works it will naturally cause a terrible loss of life But I say again it is useless to anticipate God only knows what will take place and I hope I may be willing to submit to His will whatever it may be" (1)
The emotions of Moody's letter reflect a hint of anxiety, as he hopes he is willing to submit to God's will, "whatever it may be." These emotions transcended socioeconomic lines and can be found in multiple primary sources written by soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Besides communicating the fear and anxiousness before or after an engagement, Civil War letters also share information about soldiers' experiences on the march. Charley Henry Howe, when traveling through Kentucky in May of 1863, said:
"We made twenty miles in all and most of us came in considerably lighter than when we started. I, for one, threw away my overcoat, two pairs of drawers, a pair of mittens, about half of that paper that you sent me, and twenty rounds of extra cartridge, besides a box with a pound of (melted) butter in it." (2)
Howe's description not only offers insight into his escapades, but it also helps validate other accounts of roadsides being littered with soldiers' belongings during long and tedious marches. Further, it also explains why relic hunters have been able to find Civil War accouterments in obscure areas, even away from battlefields or known campsites.
What's more, Civil War letters show that a small percentage of a soldiers' time in the army actually encompassed combat. Most of the time, combatants were either drilling or finding ways to pass time in camp. Charley Henry Howe noted,
"...I believe I shall go in the shade and have a game of Euchre with someone." (2)
Howe playing Euchre shows the human side of the conflict, illustrating that Civil War soldiers' lives in the army could be multifaceted. Games and socializing were also a critical part of soldiers' experiences, and this explains how the bonds formed between combatants were usually lasting. Further, since Euchre is still played today, it shows that certain pastimes and phrases of Civil War soldiers still exist, over 150 years later.
A quick study of any Civil War history book makes the standard fare for combatants fairly plain—a steady diet of hardtack and coffee was the normal. However, when one delves in to a study of primary documentation, it's evident that hardtack and coffee weren't the only items on the menu. For officers especially, their palate could be satiated with a variety of dishes. Writing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Albert Jenkins Barnard noted:
"we live very well now as the commissary has most all the necessaries. we can draw from him, on tick, rice, beans, potatoes, meal, tea, Coffee, sugar, ham, salt pork, tongues, molasses, vinegar, salt, dried peaches or apples, and soft, or hard bread; so you see we can live high. This morning we had for breakfast, baked potatoes, fried ham, milk toast, and coffee. for dinner boiled ham, boiled potatoes, and a bread pudding; for supper, fried potatoes, fried pork, and rice pan cakes" (3)
Finally, primary documents are important because historians cannot comprehend the stylistic writing—or the flowery forms of speech—if we fail to read the soldiers' thoughts. Hamilton McClurg, writing from Clarksville, Tennessee, detailed his experiences attending to dying soldiers while he worked as a hospital steward. He wrote:
"Ah yes, at that time the Angel of Death was hovering over him, to bear his spirit home. The next time I heard from him his body was resting beneath the red sand of Kentucky soil awaiting the sound of Gabriel’s Trumpet." (4)
Instead of simply noting, "the soldier died," McClurg poetically described the combatant's death and burial. Some non-historians are apt to remark that individuals from past eras were not of equal intelligence to people of today. However, even if their scientific knowledge was more limited, their grasp of the human language was often stronger. Therefore, the above example shatters the idea that people of the past were intellectually inferior, illustrating another way how primary documents are vital for historians and non-historians alike.
With 17 Civil War soldier letters in my collection, written by 10 different men, I recently analyzed each letter and created five categories (non-battle related) to see which of the categories was most frequently mentioned. Even though the study only encompassed 10 letters, and is in no way a conclusive analysis, I have noticed that many primary sources follow a similar theme.* Keep scrolling to learn more about how the study was conducted and to
check out the results!
The following study covers five key topics of the American Civil War that do not encompass combat. These five areas include health, faith, weather, payment, and correspondences. The criteria for each category was as follows:
Health – The soldier mentions their own health, the wellness of their comrades, or the health of a family member.
Faith – The soldier writes something that indicates a faith-based background, such as a mention of God, salvation, baptism, and so forth.
Weather – The combatant details the weather, be it the warmth, cold, rain, or other meteorological occurrences.
Payment – The soldier mentions receiving pay from the army or discusses their financial situation.
Correspondences – The combatant implores their family to “write soon,” shows a yearning for additional letters from home, or otherwise mentions the sending or receiving of news from the home front.
This study encompasses seventeen letters written by a total of ten different men, all of whom served for the Union during the American Civil War. Five of these men wrote letters from the Eastern Theater (New Jersey, Virginia, etc.), while five of the combatants studied penned letters from the Western Theater (Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.). The men whose letters were examined include Sewall Adams (127th NY Inf.), John L. Hebron (2nd OH Inf.), Albert Jenkins Barnard (116th NY Inf.), Charley Henry Howe (36th MA Inf.), William George Strausbaugh (101st OH Inf.), Jerome Sears (93rd NY Inf.), Irvin Underwood (14th WI Inf.), Sylvester Rounds (17th CT Inf.), Frank M. Phelps (10th WI Inf.), and Philo Emery (2nd VT Inf.). The below pie chart shows the soldiers by state.
The average age of the studied men was 23 years of age. Jerome Sears was the oldest, as he was in his thirties, while the other soldiers were mainly in their late teens and early twenties.
Examining the seventeen letters, the following is the breakdown of how much a soldier mentioned one of the five studied topics:
1. Health - Mentioned in 13 letters penned by 9 men. Based on these results, just four of the seventeen letters in this study failed to mention the soldier’s health, their comrades’ wellbeing, or their family’s health. Nine of the ten men mentioned health in at least one of their letters. Only one man—Frank M. Phelps—did not mention health in his letter at all.
2. Correspondences - Mentioned in 11 letters penned by 8 men. This result illustrates the soldiers’ need for communications from the home front. The 8 men who expressed a desire to hear from home were Adams, Hebron, Sears, Underwood, Phelps, Rounds, Barnard, and Emery.
3. Weather - Mentioned in 8 letters penned by 7 men. The letters detailed extreme heat and cold, as well as torrential rains and snow. The combatants who mentioned weather were Adams, Howe, Strausbaugh, Underwood, Rounds, Barnard, and Phelps.
4. Payment - Mentioned in 7 letters penned by 6 men. Whether the soldiers were “dead broke” or expressing how much money they would send home, anticipating pay from the army was frequently stated in the letters. The soldiers who mentioned payment included Adams, Hebron, Howe, Barnard, Phelps, and Emery.
5. Faith - Mentioned in 4 letters penned by 3 men. Strausbaugh mentioned baptisms, Adams wrote about “kind Providence,” and Sears’s letters are full of faith-based content.
The below pie chart shows the topics covered.
Based upon this Civil War soldier letter study, the soldiers’ main topic when writing home encompassed health, although correspondences were a close second. With disease rampant in Civil War camps, combatants frequently had to assure their family members on the home front that they were safe. Likewise, soldiers showed concern for the wellbeing of their loved ones, thus they often inquired about the health of the family and friends they were corresponding with.
Far from home, long before the advent of the internet and cell phones, soldiers’ means of communication occurred via letter writing. Therefore, soldiers were eager for any news from the home front (be it information derived from letters or newspapers). Some combatants expressed discontent when their family took too long in writing letters back. This further illustrates that soldiers clung to their family’s letters as a way to stay interconnected to the town and people they left behind.
Weather and payment were also mentioned frequently. Since the Union troops were stationed in a climate they were not accustomed to, writing about the current weather conditions informed loved ones what life was like in the south. Additionally, payment was mentioned often as the soldiers shared when they hoped to receive pay from the army. Often, they might mention the amount they would send home after they were compensated for their service. Some soldiers, like Charley Henry Howe, expressed that they were “dead broke,” likely a result of increased spending, a lapse of payment from the army, or both.
Faith was important to Civil War soldiers, and displays of Christian values show up in different ways in Civil War soldier letters. Some combatants mentioned God briefly, using alternative terms like “kind Providence,” while other soldiers broadly exhorted on Christian principles. Jerome Sears not only wrote about God, but he also taught his comrades about Christ and attended prayer meetings.
It is impossible to understand the battles of the Civil War without first recognizing the important aspects of a soldier’s life—health, faith, weather, payment, and correspondences—that affected their daily routines and psychological wellbeing. These impacts, though often understudied, are nevertheless important. They display that the soldiers who took part in the conflict were different and the same all at once—a multifaceted group of combatants from across the American North.
The next time you're perusing primary documents, even ones that offer no mention of combat, I hope you're able to recognize the importance of the missive in understanding nearly every aspect of the Civil War. Whether the soldiers were discussing the weather, a difficult march, or stating they don't have time for a "long or interesting letter," the document still has information to offer up. If you know how to look, here's a tip on what Civil War letters can tell us—virtually everything.
If you enjoyed reading through the study of my letters, consider conducting a letter analysis of your own! Don't have your own primary sources? No problem, as you could use letters from a university, library, or Spared & Shared. To begin, check out this Civil War Soldier Letter Study template I made.
*Disclaimer: Since this study only encompassed the letters of ten Union Civil War soldiers, it is in no way a comprehensive guide to the content most often found in Civil War letters. However, it does provide information, on a smaller scale, about the sort of non-battle related content that is typically derived from soldiers’ letters.
(1) Letter from Otis Moody to Annie F. Noble, Hamburg, Tennessee, April 25, 1862. Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/digital/collection/p16089coll38/id/3538
(2) Letter from Charles "Charley" Henry Howe to His Mother, Stanford, Kentucky, May 1, 1863. Kass Cobb's Personal Collection.
(3) Letter from Albert Jenkins Barnard to Lewis Barnard, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, April 10, 1863. Kass Cobb's Personal Collection.
(4) Letter from Hamilton McClurg to Maria G. Liggett, Clarksville, Tennessee, August 22, 1863. Spared & Shared, https://sparedshared22.wordpress.com/2022/03/21/1863-65-hamilton-mcclurg-to-maria-gertrude-liggett/
About the Author: Kass Cobb recently graduated with her Associate in Arts degree and is a college junior currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in History from Liberty University. She's also minoring in creative writing. Her efforts to preserve the past have been recognized by Congress, DAR, SAR, SUVCW, DUVCW, and more. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eleven Civil War veterans, ranging from an "excellent soldier" and Andersonville Prisoner of War to a "patriotic Kentuckian" and United States Colored Troops soldier. Kass is passionate about sharing the stories of United States veterans, specifically those who fought in the Civil War. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy giving historical presentations, placing signs at cemeteries, volunteer transcribing for NPS, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, studying her Bible, reading, exercising, and enjoying nature on her family's farm where pets outnumber people.