Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Insane Asylums have been a part of horror movies and ghost stories for decades. From shows like American Horror Story to Shutter Island, there are many portrayals of what it was like to be treated for mental illness in the 1800-1900s. However, when it comes to the real story about old asylums, not all institutions were set up for jump scares.
The Western Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1825 by the Virginia State Government. It was the second mental health facility established in the Commonwealth and took patients that could not function in society but had hope of recovery. The first director of the hospital was Dr. Francis T. Stribling, who was also the first graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School. Stribling believed in humane treatment for those suffering from mental illness and applied the concept of Moral Medicine to his practice. Appointed in 1836, Stribling served as the director of the asylum until his death.
The Western Lunatic Asylum collection currently consists of an annual report from the asylum from 1903 and numerous letters written to Stribling between 1840 and 1868. This collection gives you an insight into what everyday life was like for the patients and family who were connected to this institution. It strips away all the haunted hallways and creaky doors and tells the stories of brothers, sisters, parents, and children whose loved ones are under Striblings care. It also gives you the chance to see into the mind of patients who were treated at the asylum when they write back to Stribling to discuss their condition.
The annual report (pictured above) introduces this collection perfectly. Situated in the first folder of 14, it acts as an exposition chapter, setting up the scene. While the report is from a few decades after Striblings death, it helps you understand how they ran an institution like this. Some of my favorite highlights of the report are the section titled Occupation, Recreation, and Amusements which talks about how they divert the disordered minds of [their] patients again into normal channels by alternating their schedules between jobs around the asylum and entertainment like weekly dances, concerts, and games. The statistical tables are also fascinating, detailing information about how many people were admitted, what they were admitted for, and how long it took to cure those who recovered.
As mentioned above, there are two main types of letters in the collection: The Families and The Patients.
The letters from families range from those appealing to the doctor to admit a new patient to those asking about the status of current patients (Above). Many of those with family members in the asylum also mention sending money or clothes. Letters from former patients are primarily written to Stribling to update him on their status after being released from the hospital. Some are thriving and thankful, but most seem to write the doctor when they are experiencing symptoms of relapse like the one pictured below.
There are also a few business letters like the one below that informs Stribling of a woman that had “been examined according to laws & found to be a fit subject for the Lunatic Asylum at Staunton.”
This collection really feels like a window into the past. After months of scanning and transcribing these letters, it feels living in a way, and that isnt just because we find new letters to add every other month causing it to continuously grow. Each time a new one comes in its a privilege to be able to read them and add that persons story to the rest of the collection.
Double Majors at Virginia Tech are becoming more common. Partially as a need to stand out among others, partially as a method of seeking more specific educational goals. I am a double major in English (Creative Writing and Professional Technical Writing) and Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE). I am frequently asked how this could possibly be a good combination? Where will I ever apply both?
My answer is traditionally communication between engineers, management, and the public need to be clear and concise. Interning at Special Collections has helped me to broaden that statement by giving me the opportunity to archive Engineering Collections. I started with transcriptions and gradually worked my way up to understanding and organizing collections of multiple boxes. When I was experienced enough in archiving, I was allowed to choose the collections I wanted to archive. From this point on I witnessed firsthand example after example for the ways in which my degrees worked together. Most examples seemed to be reports and instruction manuals.
I continued to learn more about organization and private company improvement over time as I worked through collections. I was also able to work with interesting subject matter like NASAs Wind Tunnels and the collection I am currently archiving, the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection. From each I learn something different. Throughout the Avery-Abex Collection, I have come to better understand manufacturing processes and plant systems by organizing the businesss internal and external papers. From this experience I was also able to develop a deeper understanding of the applications of professional writing as an engineer.
My favorite part about working on the Avery-Abex collection is that I had to develop a method of organization that would restore order to the case files. Most of the collection boxes are sporadically numbered. There will be files from 1946 -1948 in box 114, 152, and 75 for example. I had to find a way to pick and choose which boxes to chip away at and how to label them in such a way that the materials fit the company timeline. The solution was to organize by case number, one of the few details listed on each box. However, many of the files are metallurgical samples, negatives, lantern slides, and even reels of film. So I had to develop number codes for the different types of material to keep track of where materials were going and what materials had been processed. The whole experience really tested my ability to think through the given materials.
As I got further into my ISE major, I began to learn more about facilities, systems, and linear programing problems to organize everything and create a more efficient environment. I began to see this in my work at Special Collections as well. As a scholar, a student, there is a moment when you can see dots connecting. The feeling is incredible because you go from understanding theory to seeing it in application. I started to get a lot more out of the work I was doing because I was able to understand deeper connections between the systems engineering that I was studying and the workplace/warehouse type environment where the theory was applicable. The more I saw ties between my majors and my work, the more interesting each shift became. I wasnt just dating papers, I was developing a system that will become a resource for students and researchers.
My time with Special Collections has never been dry. I will be returning in the fall to continue my work on the Avery-Abex collection. I look forward to what the future of this collection holds and everything that I will be able to learn from it.
Like all archives, Special Collections at Virginia Tech holds a rich store of fascinating stories. One of these is the John Henning Woods Papers, a collection of six diaries and memoirs by a Confederate conscript who created an underground Unionist society in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War. A Southerner by birth and education who was opposed to slavery and secession, Woods was conscripted into the 36th Alabama Infantry Regiment of the army in 1862. While in the army, he was caught, tried, and charged for an attempt to organize a mutiny. His resulting execution was delayed until Jefferson Davis finally pardoned him and he was assigned to build trenches around Atlanta. Woods finally escaped and made it to the Union lines in late August of 1864, enlisting as a clerk in the 93rd New York Infantry in September of 1864. His story is fascinating and can be found in full here; however, it is not the main focus of this blog post. Outside of providing new insights into the Civil War and the experience of Unionists of the Confederate South, Woods collections of memoirs and diaries also provide a first-hand look into the behind-the-scenes processing practices and obstacles that arise in making archival collections accessible to researchers.
Youve likely seen, and perhaps even used, a digital collection of archival material. Such collections can be quite expansive, containing a transcript, a scan of the archival material itself, and maybe even some contextual information, such as footnotes or suggested readings. Ultimately, the goal of making and publicizing digital collections is increased accessibility so that you can view it while in your pajamas from your living room at two in the morning. This was the goal for the John Henning Woods Papers; their unique value as a source written by a Unionist Southerner who hated slavery made it a prime collection for digitization. Thankfully, the process of scanning was done by the digitization department, decreasing the amount of work I personally had to do. However, like with all digitization projects, there were a number of issues that arose throughout this process. Woods papers became the prime example of the difficulty of this process, raising the usual, but also some new and unusual, obstacles to digitization.
The usual first step in digitizing a collection is to create a transcription so that
researchers dont have to attempt to read old handwriting. Even the neatest handwriting still contains issues such as slanting lines, uncrossed ts or undotted is, crossed out words, or words that are crammed into spaces that are too small the potential reasons for illegibility are endless. Some of the more unique letters, particularly from the Civil War era when paper was expensive and even scarce, contain examples of cross-hatching as seen here, where sentences were written on top of and perpendicular to more text. While daunting at first, reading cross-hatched lettering is simply a matter of focusing your eyes and
perhaps tilting your head. Some sections of John Henning Woods journals put such relatively decipherable space-saving methods to shame, however. Unlike cross-hatching where the 90 degree turn of the paper allows for distinction between the sentences, Woods simply wrote over top of his own writing, which you see to the left. To make it worse, the two transcriptions are almost identical with a few key differences that make transcription necessary yet almost impossible. Ultimately, transcription had to be done with a magnifying lamp that exaggerated the slight difference between the two inks Woods used. You can see this digitized page and (eventually) the corresponding transcriptions here.
Outside of writing over top of himself, two of Woods handwritten journals also hadanother quirk: in some places, he switched over to another alphabet altogether.
These instances of strange lettering were written in Pitman Shorthand, an antiquated version of shorthand that used shapes to denote sounds with which to spell words phonetically. While resources do still exist that provide basic information on how to write and read Pitman, the writing systems rules contain a wide range of exceptions and shortcuts that are far more difficult to learn. Woods shorthand contains its own quirks, as well, as he used his own shortened symbols to represent common words, making it impossible to translate some sections with certainty.
Despite the difficulty, these sections are particularly important to translate because of what they contain. Success in translating the majority of Pitman within the journals has shown that Woods used the writing system largely to write about sensitive subjects. In his daily journal from 1861, Woods used Pitman to write about his success in stopping a duel, an act that would have frowned upon in the honor-based culture of the Old South. Another section of shorthand in his journal describes his former love for the local preachers daughter that faded after she fell from grace. While certainly unique, these notes that Woods attempted to hide are invaluable because they provide clear insight into Woods character, as well as his view of the world around him.
Following the process of transcription, the collection and its accompanying transcriptions and translations had to be put online, which is our current project. Along with scanning individual diary pages and providing accompanying transcriptions, accessibility requires footnotes to contextualize the people, events, or terms used in the journals. These footnotes and matching transcriptions then needed to be translated into HTML code to be used by Omeka, our online exhibit software. While this was a fairly easy process, my determination to keep Woods formatting made some of the pages difficult, an example of which can be seen above, where the HTML code can be seen in the top left, resulting text in the bottom left, and corresponding page scan to the right.
Regardless of all the difficulties of this process, however, I will miss working on this collection once it is successfully turned into an online exhibit. While I have plenty that I could work on once I say goodbye to John Henning Woods, I feel at this point that I know him. After all, I have spent a year reading his writing, deciphering his handwriting, and translating his deepest secrets out of shorthand. Its hard to forget that I was most likely the first person to read those sections since he wrote them 150 years ago. As a part of researching this collection, Ive also found the location of his grave and researched to see whether he has any living relatives; unfortunately, the closest I could find was a grandniece who recently passed in 2017. Because of my familiarity with this collection, I know his deepest wish was to be known for the sacrifices he made for his country. It may be a little late, but I do hope that this post and the online exhibit we create can make a little headway towards that goal. I know I at least will be visiting his grave even if just to say thank you.
Once the online exhibit has been completed, it will be available here. Until then, come to Special Collections to see the John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030.
The first thing I did when I started my very first desk shift in Special Collections was grab a mid-1980s copy of The Bugle from the shelf by the door, where you can find almost every copy that was ever published.
My mission — like that of many other visitors to this same shelf — was to find pictures of my parents, who met at Virginia Tech. My mom, then Vicki Higginbotham the engineering, baton-twirling majorette, worked at a Hallmark store in the University Mall with my dads sister, Dori Williams, who kept insisting that Vicki simply had tomeet her younger brother, who was on the basketball team. Vicki Higginbotham and Philip Williams had their first date on December 26, 1983, a fact that my brother and I are always reminded of during the car ride back from our annual Christmas visit with our grandparents (oh, its the nth anniversary of our first date!). We pretend that its gross that they remember this and systematically mention it every year, but its not. Theyre lucky to still be so in love after all this time, and my brother and I are even luckier to be a part of it.
I found my parents’ pictures in the yearbooks, as expected, but I got a special thrillfromthe action shots of my dad on the basketball court. He played during the yearsfrom 1983 to 1987, when Dell Curry was the talk of the town, the players shorts woulddismally fail our modern-day public-school index-card tests, and all-white Converse All-Stars were still considered acceptable and safe sports footwear. At six-foot-six, Dad, in most of these shots, looks like he barely had to jump to get his hands above the rim for a rebound; in fact, a 1985 yearbook writer asserted that he, as a sophomore, demonstrated the teams best fundamental rebounding technique. In many of the pictures, any given number of his fingers are taped together; perpetually broken or jammed. We have a couple of these photos at home, on the fridge and framed in my brothers childhood bedroom.
Most of my work here in Special Collections over the past two-and-a-half years has involved projects on either side of the timeline around the 1980s. Ive spent a good deal of time transcribing and digitizing letters from the Civil War, World War I, and the years in between. I also spent some months working on an exhibit for the anniversary of the April 16th, 2007 tragedy. A Womens History Month exhibit in the library inspired me to contribute information on the lives and work of female science fiction writers from the late 1800s to the 1940s and 1950s. Somehow, most of my archives work has neatly danced around my parents time at Virginia Tech, and I never really got into the era of big hair and Benatar in Blacksburg through my projects.
That is, until I started re-labelling the University Archives room.
Working in an archive pays off for me personally because I know that all of the preservation and conservation work being done here will pay off in the long run. For example, we have boxes upon boxes of wartime letters that are still in good shape after a century and a half and, not only that, we allow anyone to come in and hold, read, and examine them with their own two hands. If you think about it, its a lot of the same stuff youd find in a museum without the DO NOT TOUCH signs. The people who work here make this happen through a meticulous system of steps and protocol that impose order on the collections and allow us to provide this experience for patrons. Some of these steps are more tedious and less thrilling than others, but all of them are equally important in keeping our system up and running. One of my current assignments is to assist in the reorganization of the record groups (RGs) in the University Archives, which requires moving a lot of boxes around which requires that every box is labelled accurately and legibly. Most of the boxes are labelled, but the labels are either decades old, written in pencil, or both. My job is to check the contents of each box and replace each label with a more up-to-date and legible label so the boxes can be rearranged. As it turned out, this routine process turned up one of my favorite discoveries in all my time at Special Collections.
In the sports section of the University Archives, I found a box labelled simply Basketball Programs. My first thought was huh, Dad did that. I opened the box to check what the date range on the programs was so that I could create a more descriptive label and, lo and behold, the programs were from 1984 through 1986.
As I had been going through these boxes, Id been taking the time to examine the contents partly out of necessity and partly out of curiosity. This time, Id easily located the date range that I needed to include on the label, but I took the box and sat down in the middle of the aisle on the footstool Id been using so I could look through the programs. Dad in his #34 jersey was on the cover of two of them — one by himself, taking a jump shot, and the other with Dell Curry, the Cassell Coliseum-banner legend whose son Steph we now see in every other commercial on ESPN.
The programs not only brought back my memories of attending games and matching the players below on the floor with their stats which I held in my head, it also brought back the entertaining and often hilarious stories that Dad always told about his basketball days. My most recent memory of this comes from a morning during Thanksgiving weekend, when I sat with my family and some of our close friends around my grandfathers table, trying desperately not to choke on our breakfast from laughter as my dad told the story of the time he accidentally dislocated Dells shoulder, the remainder of practice was cancelled, and it was as if the whole world of sports had abruptly ended. Id see the the names on the roster and recall the stories Id heard that went with each name — big moments in big games, hijinks that went on in the after-hours at away games, and the individual quirks and camaraderie among and between teammates. I picked up these programs and proceeded to walk around the entirety of Special Collections, stopping into offices and tugging on sleeves of coworkers to show them what Id found.
This was a very specific and personal instance of discovery in Special Collections for me, but I know that this has happened at least once for each of us working here, and even for patrons who come in out of curiosity and walk out with a new research project in mind. I showed the programs to one of our full-time archivists, and she revealed that a bookseller who had arrived that morning happened to have a copy of her mothers book in his collection. Even when Im working in unfamiliar collections, I find that Im surprised by the connections I can make based on my own experiences and the relationships that I form with people who are long gone. Thats the joy of working in Special Collections: even the most rudimentary tasks have the potential to lead to the greatest discoveries.
If I have learned anything in my ten months working in Special Collections, its that when processing a collection, you truly never know just what you might find.
Recently, while processing a collection called the Turner Family Papers (Ms2017-004) a series of family letters that span a century, roughly from the 1840s – 1940s, which includes three wars and multiple generations, I came upon a set of letters that had been thoroughly inspected – by little teeth! It became quickly apparent that these letters were one tough group.
In addition to surviving 100+ years to be with us today, they had survived being used as nesting material and meals for a variety of rodent populations before coming to live permanently (and safely) at Virginia Tech Special Collections. Of the 100+ letters, about 40 of the letters have significant portions missing.
The letters that have been subjected to this unsubtle nibbling are mainly from the 1940s era and beyond, although there are a few years here and there that have pieces missing as well.
While certainly entertaining to look at, this nibbling poses a problem for archival staff. When collections are processedarchivists complete a variety of tasks that span from organization, to transcription, to digitization and beyond. When at the transcription stage, it is important to be able to read what each document is saying – that’s difficult to do when parts of the letter are missing!
Many people have a variety of historical materials and fragile documents in their possession. With no room for them in the house, these materials are often stored in closets, basements and attics in particular. While this may seem like a harmless space for these items, there are a few factors that could potentially ruin your collection.
First, as weve discussed: rodents! Rodents frequently seek shelter inside crawl spaces, walls and other infrequently visited areas of your home; when you have unprotected materials such as paper and fabric, there is a risk that your items will be chewed and used as nesting materials.
A few other factors that can influence the safety of your historic materials are: exposure to fluctuating temperatures, humidity, water damage, insect damage, fading and darkening from exposure to sunlight etc. Below are some examples of letters from the same Turner Family collection that have been exposed to some sort of extra damage. Regardless of these examples of chewed and damaged items, the majority of this collection is in remarkable shape for its age.
As a way of prolonging the life of your documents and materials, try storing them in a place that you visit frequently so you can check on their condition as needed. Even better, call your local special collections office to discuss proper home care and even donation processes if applicable.
Visit us at Special Collections in Newman Library to see these letters in person.
More Tips and Tricks for protecting your historical documents from pesky pests!
Although Thanksgiving has its roots in the 1620’s, the nationally recognized holiday in late Novemberis a product of the American Civil War.After two years of horrific fighting, Abraham Lincoln establishedthe national day of thanks in 1863, encouraging the public to remember those “who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.” Despite the name, the first official Thanksgiving, planned for November 26, 1863, was not a day of celebration. As the Northern people preparedfor their proclaimed day of thanks, a battle raged in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unaware of the upcoming holiday,
a twenty-nine year old man named John Henning Woods sat in chainsbehind Confederate lines, listening to the cannon fire. A resident of Alabama, husband to the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, and an outspokenUnionist, Woods had brought nothing but trouble to the Confederate Army of the Tennessee since his conscription in October of 1862. Thankfully, the highly unusual story of his life survives in the form of two journals, one diary, and a three-volume memoir that now reside in Special Collections.
A native of Missouri, Woods was born on July 4, 1834. At the start of the war, he was a law student at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee and husband to a wealthy Alabamian woman. The outbreak of conflict sent him back to Alabama, where he spent his days farming and arguing about the fate of the Union. He ignored his first conscription notice in May of 1862, refusing “to take part with the Slave-holders in this wicked rebellion.” However, the threat of imprisonment in October finally
forced Woods into the ranks of army. His conscription only hardened his pro-Union sentiments,inspiring himand a few other conscripts to pledge “to work against . . . this unprovoked rebellion.” Their so called “Home Circle”attracted an increasingly large number of soldiers, eventually planning a mutiny to take place during a review parade. Before the plan could be enacted, the plot was betrayed and Woods was imprisoned to wait for a trial.His memoirs reveal his experience of the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga as a prisoner, wistfully overlooking the Union camps across the battlefield and wishing to walk across and “embrace the emblems of my country.”
Following his court martial in mid-December, Woods was informed that he was to be executed by firing squad the following day. His memoir includes a moving account of his reaction regarding the news:
I felt a flush through my system, upon the announcement to me, similar in feeling to that of an electric current from a Galvanic battery. . . . I told him I felt prepared to die whenever the proper authority should call for me, that I thought God’s power is above the power of the Southern Confederacy, and that, notwithstanding the apparent certainty of my pending execution, I believed he would provide means for my escape.
Woods’ faith in God was rewarded, as his execution was delayed at the request of General A.P. Stewart. He was then sent to Confederate prisons at Tullahoma, Wartrace, and Atlanta, awaiting his death once again. As he endured the horrors of imprisonment, his father-in-law and A.P. Stewart mobilized to secure a pardon from Jefferson Davis, a relief that did not come through until just two days before his proclaimed execution date. Following his pardon, Woods was assigned to building defenses around Atlanta until his eventual escape to Union lines, where he spent the remainder of the war as a clerk in the Union army. Unfortunately,the memoirs and journals reveal very little about his life following 1873; however, we do know that he died on March 5, 1901 and is buried in Lawrence Country, Missouri.
The detailed drawings, genealogical trees, and colorful prose that Woods left behind in these journals provide a unique look into the mind and experience of a Unionist Southerner during the war. It is clear through out that he wrote with the knowledge his unique place in history, making it invaluable to researchers. Though thecollection is brand new to Special Collections and therefore currentlyclosed to the public, it should be available fairly soon. In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving!
Over the course of three decades, an ex-Confederate soldier named Catlett Conway dutifully wrote a string of letters to his half-brother, Dr. William Buchanan Conway, or Willie, of Athens, Georgia. While some of the letters are addressed to Catlett from his daughter Mary Wallace or brother John, most of the letters begin with My Dear Brother, or Dear Willie, and always inquired after the health and happiness of all members of the family. William Conway, five years Catletts junior, served as the Physician and Surgeon for Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College the school we now all know as Virginia Tech in 1871 and moved to Athens twenty years later to run his own practice and contribute to medical journals. Catlett himself attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville prior to the start of the war. Catlett often congratulated William on his published articles, which Catlett sought after and read with great interest.
Catletts own employment story followed a more scattered path over the years, as he held bookkeeping positions at the Richmond Granite Company and Richmond-based coal and tobacco companies. In his letters, he often recounted the events in a course of a typical day: what time he rose from bed in the morning, what time he ate breakfast and what he ate, how long he spent at his job and who visited him at his office, what time he ate dinner and what he are, and what time he went to bed. He was devoted to routines and considered any opportunities to read books and letters by the fireside in the evening to be his favorite time of every day. Throughout the letters, one can follow the development of gas and electric lighting, as Catlett often complained that his eyes were growing weaker as he got older, but advances in medicine and electric lighting helped him to continue his letter-writing up until the collection concludes in 1920, while he was in his eightieth year of age.
Catlett Conway was 52 years old when he was writing in 1892, meaning that he would have been among the many twenty-something-year-old men whose lives were changed forever by the Civil War and the considerably fewer who survived. Catlett refers to his Civil War experiences, as well as his attitudes toward Reconstruction, in many instances throughout his letters often in response to a new article or work of history that adds to Civil War literature. Catletts response to these pieces often fall into line with a sentiment of other ex-Confederates of the day who longed for the return of power to Old Dixie. Catletts memories of the war often lapse between wistfulness and pain, remembering the horrors of war among flashes of rosy prewar childhood memories. Occasions of dissatisfaction with new national directives for racial, political, social, and international policies are scattered among touching musings on heaven and the afterlife. Many of Catletts letters paint a unique, complicated picture of the Civil War and its legacy in public memory decades after its conclusion.
Finally, many of Catletts longer, more detailed letters have to do with the subject of travel and perceptions of his surroundings. Later in life, Catlett did a surprising amount of traveling especially by train to visit children, grandchildren, siblings, and cousins throughout the country. These letters give vivid accounts of train travel along mountain ranges (such as the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies), over rivers and gorges, and through rolling hills and fields in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and other states near and along the east coast. Catlett recalls everything from the meals given on the train to the bustle of the train platforms upon arrival and the details of family walks throughout cities such as Baltimore and Cincinnati. By the end of his life, Catlett had moved from boarding houses and the homes of his daughters to settle in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he often participated in Civil War-related events and reunions for veterans. Whichever city Catlett occupied, his letters always contained in-depth commentaries on that citys social, political, and economic situation as he perceived it.
Catlett Conway died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in December of 1929 at nearly 90 years old. As Ive gotten to know Catlett in the later years of his life, Ive been able to keep track of his mental and spiritual growth, as well as his fluctuating health, until his death. Catletts prolific eloquence as evidenced by this collection holds a lot of potential for anyone interested in multiple interest areas, such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded-to-Progressive Age; advances in technology, transportation, and medicine; the changing climates of race, gender, culture, the military, politics, foreign relations; everyday life in an American city the list goes on and on. From thoughtful personal insights and bold opinions and claims to musings on the state of the nation and the world, its as if Catlett Conway somehow knew that he had the potential to serve as an incredibly rich source of interest for purposes of research and just plain curiosity. You can find the entirety of the collection available online here.
I started working with Special Collections in September. I wasn’t sure what to really expect. I had previously done artifact analyses at my high school, but the work I have done here has been a bit different. The majority of collections I have worked on with Special Collections are either Civil War related or Engineering related. Both types had their own quirks. The Civil War soldiers and writers thought it was necessary to store hair in their letters and the engineers took few good pictures, though both were surprisingly good at sketching.
As I read through each collection, these people’s lives, I consistently learned something new. I organized and processed a collection by a Chemical Engineer from Alaska who produced rocket fuel and science fiction. His name was John D. Clark. In addition, I organized the files of an Aerospace Engineer named Blake W. Corson, Jr. I found these two men particularly inspiring because they both believed it was their responsibility to serve the people around them with the skills they had. In engineering classes we are taught many things, part of the curriculum are ethics. Part of ethics are to use the skills you have to better the world. Both Clark and Corson embodied these ethics and consistently strove to make the communities surrounding them better. Corson, for example, created multiple documents detailing a better waste management system for Newport News, Virginia, that he eventually mailed to President Jimmy Carter. As I uncovered more documentation on these men I learned a great deal about their lives and I grew to admire them.
I was also reminded of my on mortality, many of the people who I now hold in high esteem are dead. Every collection I have processed was for someone who died. Many were eloquent in the way they worded their thoughts others went from talking about an execution to the minced pies they were eating. In my opinion some of the soldiers were heroes and some of them weren’t and some of them just wanted to see their families one more time. The engineers are heroes in their own way as well. Both were key cogs in the space agency machine working towards the goal of getting rockets off of the ground and making better aircraft for the military. All are dead. Sometimes I do not notice that these people are buried somewhere near their families or in an undiscovered grave waiting for the next Civil War historian to discover them. When I remember these things I remember why I sit at a desk for a minimum of two hours at a time writing a person’s name once or even a hundred times. The idea is that this person will be remembered and their distant relatives might find their names. They will be found as a relic from the past that a family can reminisce over or claim as their heritage. I am glad that I have been a part of that process, even if only for a little while.
Since I have talked a lot about the things that I have processed I want to give you an idea of work I do. The steps seem repetitive, but I actually find the work relaxing and remedial.As a processing intern, my responsibilities have been relatively straight forward and simple. I wanted to end on these steps because they are the dictionary definition of what I do as opposed to my personal definition of what I do.
Step 1: Look at files. Read the files if they do not span longer than a cubic foot of box.
Step 2: Organize and catalog each document in the collection. Personally I color code with plastic clips.
Step 3: Review organization and file order, reorder.
Step 4: Label each folder with a box number and folder number.
To day was spent in taking positions and [feeling?] of enemy
it was soon asertained that the enemy were falling back
troops were immediately started in pursuit.
We were rear guard and held the works in front during the after noon and night.“
This was Captain Benjamin M. Pecks entry in his pocket diary on Saturday May 7, 1864. Accessioned earlier this year, Pecks 1864 & 1865 pocket diaries make up one of our newest Civil War collections. Digital scans and transcriptions of each diary are available at VT Special Collections Online. The transcriptions for each entry are transcribed as entered into the diary by Benjamin Peck. All original spelling, punctuation, and grammar are maintained in the line-by-line text found under each image. Brackets and question marks represent areas where the entries are unclear. One prominent example which appears repeatedly in both diaries is, S? This is presumably a nickname for his wife Sarah, but the style and punctuation changes from entry to entry.
Benjamin M Peck was born on October 5, 1838, in Smithfield, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He married Sarah H. Watkins on April 9, 1863 and after the war the couple would have two children. Their son, Guy W. Peck, was born in 1867, followed by a daughter, Mary A. Peck in 1870. Benjamin entered the legal profession and received his license to practice law before entering the Army. After the war he returned home to Towanda, PA and opened his law office. In 1872 he was elected prothonotary of the local court and served six years. Then, in 1890, he served as President Judge of the 13th Judicial District of Pennsylvania. Benjamin died on September 9, 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Towanda, PA.
Pecks military service began in August of 1862 when he enlisted in the Union Army as part of Company “B” of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry Regiment as a 1st Sergeant. Early on he helped recruit new members for the regiment. On December 10, 1862 he was promoted to the rank of Full 2nd Lieutenant, and then promoted to Full Captain on December 5, 1863. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Lieutenant Peck was wounded in the neck and shoulder by a cannon shot on May 3, 1863. He returned to his unit, after a two month absence, fully recovered from his injuries and was mustered out of the service on May 28, 1865 in Washington, D.C.
The 1864 leather bound, preprinted diary contains two daily entries per page with cash accounts and notes sections in the back of the diary. In 1864 Benjamin M. Peck was the Captain of Company B in the 141st Regiment PA Volunteers. Due to absences, injuries, and illness of other officers he was placed in command of the regiment before being assigned to lead the 1st United States Sharp Shooters. Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce saw fit to place him in charge of the three companies of sharpshooters and he remained in this position until the end of the war. Peck describes battles, skirmishes, picket lines, commands, and other military assignments and engagements in great detail. He notes the various marches and travel routes of his company and records his travels between the Virginia front and his home in Towanda, PA. As part of the Army of the Potomac, Peck recounts the regiment’s campaign in Virginia and the Siege of Petersburg. He lists his men who were wounded or killed in battle, describes court martial proceedings, and even gives an account of the execution of a Union soldier for desertion. Following the 1864 presidential election he enumerates each candidate’s results within the division, which Lincoln won convincingly.
The 1865 leather bound, preprinted, pocket diary contains one entry per day with cash accounts and notes listed in the back of the book. This diary continues with the 141st PA Volunteers camped outside of Petersburg in their winter quarters and continues through the end of the war and Peck’s return home. He recounts the fall of Petersburg, the Union pursuit of Lee’s Army of Virginia across the state, and Lee’s ultimate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Peck was assigned to preside over several court martial proceedings and gives details regarding these proceedings and punishments, which include a botched execution of a Union soldier. As in the first diary, Peck provides an account of the daily movement of Union troops and supplies. He gives detailed lists of captured soldiers and artillery, as well as Union wounded and casualty records. As the war nears its conclusion Peck was in charge of mustering out soldiers and kept thorough records of the process. In one of his most moving and emotional entries he recounts receiving the news of Presidents Lincoln’s assassination and describes the mood of the men upon hearing the President died. The entries end in July of 1865 with Peck practicing law in his home town of Towanda, PA.
We hope to have a timeline of date and cities Benjamin Peck traveled through during the war available soon at VT Special Collections Online. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about our Civil War collections or any of our other resources please visit us either online or in person!