With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.
Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.
The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection. In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.
Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.
A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.
Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.
Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)
Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.
A few days ago, a colleague asked me to distribute a job announcement from a nearby university. This is a pretty common practice and there are a lot of job searches underway. But this one caught my attention because the position description referred to building “distinctive collections.” I found the phrasing as an attempt to be clever, but more importantly it highlighted an archival challenge—to decide which archival and manuscript collections are the most or least important. Assigning the value of “distinctive” to collections is problematic since all collections are unique in some way and thus distinctive. Perhaps “distinctive” is another way of saying that the origins or provenance of the collection are significant (e.g., an unpublished manuscript that unearthed in J.D. Salinger’s backyard), that the collection is the “crown jewel” for the institution, or perhaps that it was just very expensive.
To me, a distinctive collection is one that has the potential to attract great research interest and can be used by researchers for multiple purposes. It is easy to pursue a collection, either through purchase or as a donation, that you believe has great research value, but it is always unknown whether others, such as colleagues and researchers, will have the same opinion. I spend a large amount of time considering which archival and manuscript collections would be a good fit for Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech. Most days, I spend some amount of time talking or corresponding with potential donors, reviewing dealer catalogs, seeking opinions from others on potential acquisitions, or searching through online auction listings. My goal is to identify collections that support research and the major collecting areas that we highlight in the blog. Working closely with collections once they arrive is not my normal routine, but sometimes I remain involved in organizing and creating access to the material that I helped bring in the doors.
As a recent example, I have spent many hours working with the William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879, which is one of my favorite acquisitions in the past five years. The story begins in early 2017 when I saw a listing for the collection in an auction catalog. Newton’s story fit well with the department’s collecting areas and researcher groups. The collection includes about 170 letters Newton wrote to his wife and children during the Civil War. The letters document the Civil War experiences of an Ohio surgeon serving in Virginia and West Virginia from 1862-1865. The collection also includes a postwar letter describing his experiences at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, which occurred in Pulaski County, approximately twenty miles from Blacksburg. Newton was assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and near the end of the war served as surgeon of the 193rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
As for some background, William Smith Newton was born on February 6, 1823, near the small town of Harmer, in Washington County, Ohio. The town, now part of Marietta, was located where the Muskingum River flows into the Ohio River, with Virginia (now West Virginia) located on the other side to the south. He was the son of Oren and Elizabeth Fuller Newton. His father, Oren, was an important figure in the community and was involved in farming and the grindstone industry. Like other members of his family, Newton attended Marietta College. He completed his freshman year, 1842-1843, but he did not continue with courses or graduate from Marietta College. Instead, he took an interest in medicine and enrolled as a medical student in fall 1843 at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. Newton graduated in 1845 from the Medical College of Ohio and returned to Harmar.
In 1845, he married Frances Ann Hayward of Gallipolis and they relocated to Ironton, Ohio several years later. They had seven children during their marriage. Three of their children, Oren Hayward (1846–1858), Lewis Garland (May–October 1848), and Fanny Lillian (1857–1858), died before reaching adulthood. In 1862, when William enlisted in the Union Army, they had three children, Edward (Ned) Seymore (born 1850), Valentine Mott (born 1852), and Kate May (born 1860). Another child, John Beverly (born November 9, 1863), arrived during Newton’s military service.
In the fall of 1862, Newton was appointed assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry which has just been organized into five companies at Ironton. For the next three years, Newton wrote a steady stream of letters to his wife and children. Those incoming letters were kept together and most likely stayed with the Newton family after the war. At some point, the letters ended up in private hands, most recently with a well-known collector of antique firearms. Sometime in the 1970s, the owner of the collection at that time allowed most of the collection to be microfilmed for use at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. Thus, only a handful of researchers who either knew how to contact the owner or were willing to suffer through using microfilm made use of the collection. My search yielded one master’s thesis and a few books on Civil War military history that referred to the William S. Newton Papers. Clearly, access to the collection was limited and it deserved to be in an archival repository. I shared these details with colleagues on campus and in the department and all agreed that the Newton Papers would be a wonderful addition.
On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, I waited on the phone as a live bidder for the Newton Papers to be auctioned. After several bids, we were the successful bidder and a few weeks later the Newton Papers arrived Blacksburg. In the weeks and months that followed, the collection was given a catalog record and put in the backlog for later processing. In the meantime, I shared the news with many potential researchers and invited them to come look at the collection even though it was still unprocessed. In the months that followed I continued to suggest the Newton Papers to graduate students and other Civil War researchers. Surprisingly, I received a very small response and the collection was hardly used.
Despite limited interest from researchers, I was still convinced that Newton deserved more attention. In 2019, I decided to make the Newton Papers a priority. I began working through the included transcripts (which were rife with errors) and in just a few weeks I had become very familiar with the collection. A surprise offer of weekly hours from a graduate student from the history department to help with the transcription work kept the project active. As a potential output for all this work, I had a random conversation with a colleague at the University of Tennessee Press about the collection and they suggested that it would be a great fit for the Voices of the Civil War series. After a lot of consideration and some hesitation, I decided that a book of Newton’s edited letters (not an interpretative work) would be a great way to promote the collection and draw researchers to Civil War collections at Virginia Tech.
I was astonished with the depth of the letters and the range of topics discussed. Newton’s letters focus on many significant topics of the Civil War era—military maneuvers, race relations, politics, medical practices, and life among officers in camp. Newton reported on his work as a surgeon. He managed several hospitals (both in seized buildings and in the field), tended to patients, ordered supplies, arranged for the wounded to return home, and informed families of the loss of a loved one. Newton’s letters mention taking care of soldiers who he knew personally from his medical practice. Although a non-combatant, Newton experienced frequent skirmishes with Confederate raiders and was part of several significant military campaigns. His letters describe significant battles in West Virginia and Virginia, most notably the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Opequan (Third Battle of Winchester), and the Battle of Cedar Creek. Of note, Newton’s October 8, 1867 letter to Ohio adjutant general Benjamin R. Cowen documents his most harrowing moments during the Civil War—Newton’s capture by Confederates following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, his role in operating on wounded Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, and his brief imprisonment and release from Libby Prison later that month. Other letters describe his working relationships with officers in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Newton’s letters reveal the close connections between friend and enemy. For example, in October 1863, Newton was given charge of a Union hospital located in Charleston, West Virginia. In an October 10 letter, he explained “Our Hospital is in one of the finest houses of the town, and I am quartered in the parlor with a nice bed, cane bottom chairs & sofas, all belonging to some rebel, but I will take good care of them, and see they are not abused.” Two days later, Newton wrote “Last evening on examining the portraits hanging around the parlor, I discovered one that looked like John Ruby. On going to the book case, I found two or three with John C. Ruby written in full. I then enquired and found that not only his, but that of wife sister-in-law, Mother-inlaw, & Father-in-law, all in very large gilt frames, was this not a discovery.” Ruby was born in Gallia County, Ohio, which may explain why Newton knew him and his family. Newton concluded the letter saying “John Ruby is Quartermaster in 22nd Va. Reb Reg., and I am here living in his house & using his furniture. So the world moves, and such is war.”
The limited status of emancipated slaves in society was another element in Newton’s correspondence. In August 1863, Newton’s letters first mentioned Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union army following the raid of Wytheville. It is likely that Mary was sent to the hospital for examination and Newton claimed responsibility for her wellbeing. He decided to send Mary to Ironton to assist his wife and family. As part of the plan, Ned and Mott met her in Charleston, West Virginia, and took her back to Ironton. He was concerned that “negro traders” in Charleston might “steal her away from the boys before they get a boat,” but she safely made it to Ironton. Newton explained to his wife that Mary “belongs to you, that your interests are hers.” He suggested that “the boys teach her to read” and possibly write, but Newton made clear that Mary did not have any level of independence. In an August 23 letter he told his wife “You can make, or mold her into anything you desire.” The addition of Mary to the Newton household was not an easy adjustment. The letters were unclear on the details, but rumors about Mary’s trustworthiness circulated through Ironton and found their way back to Newton. The breaking point was the accusation that Mary had stolen personal items from the family. Some of the lost articles were later discovered and had simply been misplaced instead of stolen. Newton’s inquiries confirmed that all accusations against Mary were unfounded. Nonetheless, by October Newton’s wife had lost all trust in Mary and discharged her from service. She was no longer mentioned in their correspondence and there are no existing records to trace what happened to Mary Ann McDonald in the decades that followed. These and other letters make clear the overt racism throughout white society during this period.
Newton’s letters expressed a deep interest in family affairs. His letters advised on family matters such as buying and selling property back in Ohio, naming his newborn child, advising his teenage son Ned to live an upstanding life, prescribing medicines to remedy illnesses in the family, and preparing a new farm for when he could return home. His letters conveyed a deep sense of loneliness, especially for his wife.
As a possible cure for Newton’s homesickness, two of his children, Ned and Mott, visited him in camp. During the day, while he attended to the sick and wounded, his children would fish in nearby rivers and streams for their evening meal. On July 5, 1863 Newton explained:
Ned hardly has time to accompany me. He is very busy fishing, spends the day catching the little ones for bait, then at night puts out his trot, with 30 or 40 hooks. He wants me to tell you that he caught one on Friday morning weighing ten lbs. The soldiers had a good laugh, for he used one of the boat oars as a club, with which to pound the fish over the head, because it did not hold still. The only wonder is, that he did not knock it loose from the hook. He was alone at the time, and captured five in all.
My favorite letters were those written directly to Ned. In a February 24, 1864 letter, Newton scolded Ned for a variety of offenses. He wrote:
What would be your feelings, if a man, should you see another man, a stranger, impose upon your mother; would you not risk your life in resenting the imposition, or insult! If not, you are not of my blood or kindred. Then how much more despicable is he, that would abuse, or offer an insult to his own mother! . . . You certainly are not demented, or crazy, yet how could I suppose a boy almost 14 years of age, could commit such indiscretion. I truly hope no one knows of it.
In addition to disrespecting his mother, Ned was also playing with firearms. In the same letter Newton wrote:
Did you think it would afford me any happiness, to know that you were taking the gun out, contrary to my express command, and have you reflected that if, some accident should take place, how much misery you might cause to your parents & others.
Like any parent would, Newton outlined a remedy to get Ned back on the proper path—penmanship. Newton explained:
Character is said to be exhibited in the penmanship. If yours is the true exhibit of character, how uneven & unbalanced it must be. I fear your energy & resolutions are short lived, and to little purpose. Can you not do better! Will you not try! And before I see you, let me see some specimens of improvement, both in penmanship & character. Your happiness as well as mine depends upon it.
Newton’s later letters, especially those written in 1865, focused on his dreams for the postwar. He purchased a farm in West Union, Ohio from Benjamin F. Coates (colonel in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry) and advised his boys to begin preparing it for the family. There was a clear sense that Newton believed that farming represented an idyllic lifestyle and way to teach his children the value of hard work and patience. He wrote more letters to Ned during this period, and it appears that the teenager was again having behavior problems but took an interest in joining the church. Newton wanted both of his boys to be men of business instead of “town loafers.” Newton’s instructions for growing crops, cleaning fencerows, and tending to a new home were aimed at teaching Ned important life lessons in a more wholesome setting with fewer temptations.
After the war, Newton and family settled in Gallipolis and not in West Union. Newton resumed his medical practice, served as postmaster in Gallipolis, and participated in reunion activities with his former regiment. Included with the collection is a copy of Newton’s pension application. He suffered from several maladies which he attributed to his brief imprisonment at Libby Prison in 1864. Newton died on Saturday, November 18, 1882, just a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday.
Newton’s letters are as much about daily life and society of the 1860s as they are about the military or medical details of the Civil War. The more I followed clues in Newton’s letters the larger the puzzle of people, places, and topics became. I connected with descendants of the Newton family in Ohio and Florida, who were excited to learn more about their ancestors. In the months that followed, which included working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I continued to work on the project. During the summer of 2021, I finalized the processing and posted the finding aid to the Virginia Heritage database. The book of edited letters was accepted as part of the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War series and is scheduled to be published sometime in the spring of 2022. My involvement with this collection was significant, but the good news is that there is much more for researchers to discover by reading Newton’s letters.
I suppose the Newton Papers count as a distinctive collection for Virginia Tech because they were expensive, expansive in content, and touch on multiple research areas. But, the more I thought about the concept of a “distinctive collection” the more I wanted to avoid the term which sounds like certain collections should be prioritized from the larger whole and treated differently. Instead, the Newton Papers are an excellent addition to the already strong collecting areas of the Civil War in Virginia and Appalachian history at Virginia Tech. In other words, on its own merits the collection is wonderful, but it is even more significant when placed alongside other similar primary sources. As usual, I will be on the lookout for more collections that have such attributes. In the meantime, please come to the first floor of Newman Library and spend some time with the William S. Newton Papers, which are significant, unique, and far more than just distinctive.
After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.
The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.
The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.
The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.
While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.
I feel like I probably spend too much time blogging about Civil War history on this site, when we have so many collections here at Special Collections and University Archives. But, what can I say? I’m not-so-secretly intrigued by reading dead people’s mail (it’s part of why I like working in archives) and Civil War letters are some of my favorites. I’m always surprised by what soldiers or families on the home front were writing to each other, what tidbits seemed of most value at the time, and how those pieces of information can be of interest to people today. I’m always excited to find food references (since my other love is food and drink history) and on more rare occasions, references to alcohol and spirits. This letter, for me, hits the trifecta.
Written from a camp near Petersburg, Virginia on December 15 1864, from Joseph Rule to his “Friend Silas.” Rule was part of Company B, 50th New York Engineers and his letter, among other things, talks about the regiment’s raid on Weldon Railroad, which was a significant supply line for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Like I said, though, I fixate on the stranger stuff. On page two, Rule writes, “we had chickens Turkeys geese Pigs Beef milk Preserves & in fact there was nothing that could be thought at but we had Apple jack there was by the barrel there could hardly be a cavalryman be found sober and there was some foot Soldiers drunk enough.” The fact that this amount and variation of food was available is a testament of sorts, to the success of the raid. As someone who actively goes looking for food and drink references, as I said, spirits and alcohol can be rare. A specific reference to applejack is exciting to see. It is no wonder that Rule reports on the drunkenness of soldiers–the barrel probably wouldn’t have lasted long to begin with and it was likely celebratory consumption, too.
Rule goes on, after his food talk, to detail a bit about the raid and the immediate aftermath–it involved not only destroying railroad tracks, but burning of houses and barns, seemingly in retaliation for the loss of lives in the regiment. Like many letters of the time, he talks about things he misses, has questions about issues at home, and contemplates a future furlough.
The finding aid for the collection has a little bit more detail and you can view it online. If Rule’s handwriting isn’t your thing (it’s not awful, but his punctuation is lacking!), we have digitized this letter. It’s online with the original envelope and a transcription, for your reading pleasure. Our digital site is full of Civil War letters and diaries, offering us tiny looks into the lives of people from 150+ years ago. There doesn’t need to be a lesson in there, but sometimes there can be. I guess, in this case: Don’t dive into your applejack barrels–Make them last a while, instead? (Cheers?)
It’s summertime in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech Special Collections, I always think that’s going to be my two-ish months to catch up on the rest of the year’s projects. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t–inevitably, I also end up launching new projects or initiatives. This summer, one of those new projects is working on our backlog of digital materials. Special Collections has been digitizing collections for reference and research long before we had our current online platform. Some images lived on our old website, some lived (or still live) in Imagebase, and some never made it as far as the world-wide web. So, this summer, we’re making more of that possible. With the help of a student, we are taking some of these digitized collections, creating metadata, and adding them to our digital site! Here’s just a taste of some new items:
First up, the Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080). This collection includes a handful of railroad menus from Norfolk & Western passenger trains. Below are a beverage menu, a dinner menu, and a blank patron check. Note the “Apple Pie (baked on car)” on the dinner menu–train travel these days has changed a little!
Second, the letters of Joseph T. Harris to his sister, Molly Swope. Harris served with the 12th Regiment, Ohio Infantry, during the Civil War. This collection contains four letters written from parts of western Virginia between August 1861 and February 1862. Below is the letter from November 23, 1861.
Harris was particularly around the Kanawha Valley western Virginia and he writes to his sister about his regiment’s actions there, as well as camp life. He tells her “Harris describes his rations as being good and lists what he is being issued and getting food from the locals. ‘We have all theas things, besides what we can steal witch is a good deal. Steal did I say, well I will have to take that back for us boys have quit stealing and took to takeing a good menny things without leave.'” You can view the full collection and the finding aid online.
Last up, for the moment, is the Yonson (Johnson) Family Collection (Ms2013-020). The Yonson family was based in Wythe County, Virginia, at the end of the 18th century. The collection includes family receipts, estate bills, tax documents, and some other family papers. It’s worth noting that you’ll see variations on the spelling of the family’s name throughout the collection, though research indicates that later generations of the family eventually settled on “Johnson.”
Summer is also the time I catch up on student processing work. We would be lost without the help of our amazing student workers in Special Collections. Often times, they help organize and describe collections faster than I can get them finished and posted online, so I’ve also been spending time on that. Here are a few of my favorite newly processed manuscript collections:
Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA], n.d. (Ms2019-002). This collection includes a Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA] with typed cocktail recipes and directions for their creation . Different sections include lesson plans for specific types of drinks, suggesting this was used in a bartending school or for bartending instruction. Some pages have handwritten notations or illustrations.Finding aid available online.
Herschel A. Elarth-Charles S. Worley, Jr. Architectural Firm Drawings, 1955-1961, undated (Ms2019-036). Related to both the personal and professional papers of Elarth and Worley, who were Virginia Tech faculty and architectural firm partners, this collection includes drawings from selected local projects.Finding aid available online.
Jaffe-Lankes Family Correspondence, 1930-1942, 1980-1985 (Ms2019-014). This collection contains two main sets of materials: Correspondence between Louis I. Jaffe and J. J. Lankes from 1930 to 1942 and correspondence between Alice Jaffe (Louis’ widow) and J. B. Lankes (J. J.’s son) from 1980 to 1985. In addition, there is a small folder of notes and letter excerpts created by J. B. Lankes in the early 1980s. We processed this collection as part of the Sherwood Anderson online exhibit that launched in April 2019.Finding aid available online.
Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection, 1926-1971 (Ms2019-009). The Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection includes materials from 1926-1971. The collection contains information relating to the operation of the sanatorium from 1918-1965. The collection contains administrative papers, published works of doctors, ephemera, and images. Finding aid available online.
We’re always processing new materials and making new materials online, so we always encourage you to check out our resources, but since this is on my mind lately, it seemed a good time to do a round-up/reminder. You can usually view our most recently posted finding aids onlinein upload order and see our most recently collections on our digital collection site’s “Browse Collections” page.
In October of 1962, Private N. B. White was at Boliver Heights, not far from Harper’s Ferry. White is likely N. Berdett White, a private in Company B of the 145th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. On the 19th of the month, he wrote a letter to his cousin, Darius, in reply to one received on the 12th. Like many soldiers, he offers an account of mutual acquaintances and fellow soldiers: who has fallen ill (measles was making the rounds), who was on picket duty, who has or hasn’t written (or should write more!), a request for news, and even an apology for his spelling (“I dont know that I can think of eny more for my bad writing and spelling”). Like many other Civil War letters from soldiers, it offers us a snapshot of White’s days in mid-October. But in the middle, he has a rather interesting story to tell. First, here’s the letter itself. We’ll get to that story…and a transcript…shortly.
Around the start of page three above, in the midst of telling his cousin about his own sickness and a recent fight, he suddenly states “there was a grate explosen the other day.” That, of course, might catch someone’s attention–as it did ours here at Special Collections. He goes one: some of the men built an arch to cook on. there was fore cooking the other day and there happened to be a shell in the dirt under the arch and when they built the fire the shell bursted and kild fore men.” White then goes back to talking about who his cousin got a letter from and who he wants to write him. He skips right over the lessons we might learn from this story: Always look where you dig? Don’t light a fire until you know there’s nothing under it? Don’t stand near a cooking spot someone else built? It seems like there could be several takeaways. White, however, seems to place it in a different context. And “context,” I think, is the key word.
To us–or to me, at any rate, as someone who spends too much time around food history–I find this surprise story fascinating. What did this cooking arch look like? What was it about that particular spot that seemed appropriate to build one? Was there any hint of something beneath the surface? What where they planning to cook? What kind of supplies did this Union regiment have relatively early in the war? For White, this was an off the cuff mention. After all, wasn’t the news of the recent fighting, in which no one was killed and only seven wounded, far more important than an accidental explosion and death of four men? Isn’t it better to focus on who is still alive, rather than think about who has died, especially during wartime? In the context of the time and his letter, most certainly. And of course, White had no idea his letter would last 156 years and I would have questions about this incident and he may not have had the details himself. He may have simply included it because it was an event of note or because it was something different to report back home.
If you’d like a little more context for this collection, the finding aid is available online. As a final note, this letter came with a transcript, so here’s the content in its entirety (I just didn’t want to spoil it before). Enjoy!
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.
In April 1865, a young man named Ansil T. Bartlett was in Farmville, Virginia (or, as he put it, Farmsville). From what we know, Bartlett enlisted withCompany D of the 58th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry in early 1864. Although he spent less than 18 months in service during the war, his regiment was involved in action at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the fall of Petersburg, among other places. On April 15, 1865, he wrote a letter home to his father.
58thin camp at Farmsville
April 15th 1865
I now seat myself to write you a few lines top let you know that I am alive and well and hope to find you enjoying the same pleasure it is a very hard place here. Sheridan’s Cavalry has made havoc in and about the houses. they took all that they had to eat and in some places all of the women’s clothing. that taking clothing I don’t think was just right they took everything even to the babies clothes. it looked rather hard. I am on guard at a house now while I am writing these few lines to you. give my love to all and take care of yourself and not get sick for I wantyou to live and see your son when he gets home and then we will try to live and enjoy our self for the rest of our life. it is a very pleasant country around here it is planting time but the niggers are all leaving for the north. I heard that General Curtain was giving no discharge all of his boys in 4 months. and I heard that Grant said that the volunteers army would all be discharged in 6 weeks but you cannot believe all that you hear this is all that I can think of now this is from your son good bye yours truly
Ansil T Bartlett
Co D 58thRegt Mass. Vet. Vols
give my love to all and tell them that I expect to be at home by the 4thof July there is a good time coming
Written only days after Lee’s surrender, Bartlett cautions his father against believing any rumors about when he might be discharged, though his own post script suggests he thought 2 months wasn’t unreasonable. His letter is not uncommon in many senses: he reports on his current activities, recounts what he has witnessed around him recently, and looks forward to a life after the war. (Bartlett was actually discharged in late July of 1865.)
What really struck me about this letter the first time I saw it, though, was what came at the end–Bartlett’s drawing of a bird. 152 years later, we don’t have any clue as to why he drew it or what it symbolized to him. He doesn’t comment on it and it looks almost like an afterthought, tacked on to the close of his letter. But, it’s also write on the heels of his final reminder: “there is a good time coming.” Perhaps it was a reminder of that, and an image that represents a good future. Perhaps is meant to be an eagle, a bird used by many regiments on their flags and, at the time, at least part of the country. Perhaps it meant something specific to his father. Or maybe it’s just something he drew to fill the space at the close of his note. Whatever the case, it certainly makes Bartlett’s letter something unique.
The finding aid for this collection is available online. In addition, it has been digitized. You can see these two pages, as well as the third (which includes an addresses and some calculations) online.
We talk a lot about items and collections in Special Collections having stories to tell. Sometimes, those stories are full of clear details, exciting new surprises, and a creator about whom we can discover quite a bit. Other times, well, you might get a more interesting mix. The kind that results in some on-going, Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing. Like this letter!
This is a relatively new accession and it isn’t even processed yet (consider this a sneak-peek!). But, it caught my attention as I was thinking back through some recent acquisitions in search of a subject, probably because it has some mystery elements to it. Written November 6, 1864 from Weldon Railroad (just south of Petersburg), Virginia, it’s simply addressed to “Friend William.” We don’t have the original envelope, so we don’t know William’s last name or where he lived at the time. However, based on the contents of the letter, we might guess that William is from Brookfield, NY. One of the other reasons this letter jumped out at me was the first page:
The writer started his letter, finished four pages, and still had more to say. In a time when paper was often scarce (and in other times and places when letters were paid for by the recipient and cost by the page), “cross-hatching” was a common occurrence. Not done writing? Go back to the first page, turn it 90 degrees, and keep going! (That should be totally easy to read, right??) Case in point, this letter actually isn’t as bad as some others. I’ve seen examples done in different colors or in pencil or ink that has faded over time. I was actually able to transcribe the majority of the text (and I’ll be going back to work on those and other missing words down the road). Weldon Railroad was located just south of Petersburg, which was a hotbed of activity during the last 6 months of the Civil War. The 189th Regiment, New York Infantry, the regiment with which the writer served, was newly formed in October 1864, and soldiers in it would spend the majority their service around Petersburg:
we left City Point
tuesday last and after forming corps
and moveing new the Weldon road
in the entrenchments near Petersburg we
have been in this camp three days and have
got some good log houses built and are
quite comfortable we are having good
times now but expect to have some
fighting to do soon
By now, you may have noticed that I keep saying “the writer.” And with good reason. At the very end of the cross-hatching, in the upper-right corner of the first/last page, the letter simply reads “write as soon as you get this Raz.” Raz. That’s what we have to go on for the author. However, most archivists love a challenge, myself included. While identifying the writer is an on-going challenge, a cursory glance at a roster of the 189th New York Infantry actually gives us a couple of prospective Raz-es: Riley (Rila) Razey and Warren Razey. Raz seems a likely nickname among friends, though there’s still plenty of research to be done.
Here are scans of all the pages:
For a letter that, on the surface, looked like it would be hard to read and lacking in solid information due to its mysterious correspondents, Raz has proved me wrong. His 4+ pages cover a bit of the usual: the weather here is pleasant, you should write more, today is dull, here’s how all our mutual friends in my unit are doing. But he also has some interesting details and insights. On the second page, he writes:
the army moved last week and
tried to take the south side railroad but
through some mistake one Corps did not
move as thay were ordered and it proved a
failure. so thay called it a Reconnaisence
and came back to camp. I think we shall
try it again soon.
Railroads were always coveted property during the war, but soldiers don’t always write so frankly about mishaps. Given that this is a more recently formed regiment, it’s mix of new soldiers and those who have been fighting for a while. Raz notes:”I think we have had a good time but some of the boys think it hard. but thay will see their mistake before the year is up.” Shortly after that, he adds:
thay are having great times about Electhion
ant thay. well we have something else to think
of down here it dont interest one much
it will make but little difference who is
president the ware will go on no mater who
One wonders if Raz would have a different view of the war in one, three, or six months’ time. Perhaps if we can figure out who he is, we can figure out some of his post-war life, too. When we process the collection, we’ll try to post an update with new information! In the meantime, you’re welcome to view the letter in person or look at the images online and challenge yourself to read more of Raz’s handwriting.
One of the first collections we received after I started at Special Collections in 2009 was that of a Union private from Pennsylvania, Charles F. McKenna. (Acquisitions and Processing Archivist Kira here, this week–which I’m only pointing out because this post is about a collection, but also some connections came full circle for me last month). We know quite a bit about Charles F. McKenna, since he survived the Civil War and went to have a career as a lawyer and judge–more on that in a bit.
The Charles F. McKenna Collection contains diaries, personal papers, and published materials relating to McKenna’s Civil War service. The materials date from 1861 to 1998 (bulk 1861-1913). The collection is divided into two series: Personal Papers and Published Materials. The Personal Papers include McKenna’s original diaries (1862-1865); bound photocopies of the diaries; transcriptions on CD-rom; McKenna’s discharge papers; photographs of two generals; and a letter regarding the publication of Under the Maltese Cross, from Antietam to Appomattox, the Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865; Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment, Narrated by the Rank and File. The Published Materials include two articles featuring McKenna’s letters; a map of McKenna’s travels; an issue of Civil War News; and Civil War sheet music.
Several times since 2009, I or a colleague have brought out the McKenna collection for one reason or another, but to be honest, I haven’t thought about it since about this time last year, when we had it on display for visiting 6th graders (as we did again this very morning). However, I’m getting ahead. Suffice to say, until recently, I hadn’t though about Charles (as I still think of him 8 years after processing his papers and as if we were friends across historical eras) lately. Before we jump into why he popped up again, a little about him (see the link the finding aid at the bottom of this post for more info–there’s a lot to say on him!)
Charles F. McKenna was born in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 1, 1844.McKenna attended schools in Pittsburgh until, at age 14, he apprenticed to a lithographer, due to his interest in sketching. He would continue to sketch throughout his life, even providing illustrations for a published history of the 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers he edited. He didn’t successfully enlist in a regiment until 1862, though he tried previously and was delayed due to family issues. He served the next three years with Company E, 155th Regiment, PennsylvaniaInfantry and saw action in some of the most pivotal Civil War campaigns:Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Fredericksburg, and Appomattox. After the war, he became a lawyer. By 1904, he was aPennsylvania Supreme Court judge and in 1906, became ajudge forthe United States District Court of Porto Rico [sic].He returned to Pittsburgh in late 1906, unable to adapt to the climate. In addition to practicing law again, this time with his nephews, McKenna began to work extensively with Civil War organizations. First appointed to the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission, he went to to serve as its president for many years.He also created an index of Pennsylvania soldiers who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In 1911, then-Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener appointed McKenna to the newly established County Court of Allegheny County. In 1921, he was elected to complete a second ten-year term. His service was cut short by his death on December 3, 1922.
McKenna had a life story that I got caught up in while researching him and, as is often the case, probably spent too much time investigating while processing the collection. But that’s as hazard of the job. Anyway, that mostly brings us to April of 2017…
Last month, while on route to a conference in NJ, My colleagues and I took a detour into Gettysburg (after all, what else can you expect from four archivists left to run wild?) and we briefly drove through a part of the battlefield, stopping at the Pennsylvania State Monument, which you can climb to the top of to look out across part of thebattlefield. We climbed up, walked around, cautiously made our way back now the narrow stairs (meeting with visitors going up on the way), and that was when it hit me, staring at the plaque for a low-number Pennsylvania regiment. Charleshad fought here! I wandered my way around the monument, looking up the finding aid and the note which had his regiment listed (yes, you can get cell service on the battlefield) and when I got to the 155th, there he was!
And all the sudden, I had this weird moment. Here was the name of thisman whose papers I had worked on processing, whose life I had dug into, whose history in the war and beyond I knew, staring at me from this monument where it has been for the last 103 years (the monument was completed in 1914–you can read more about it here). And then I started thinking about the connection between this name in metal and the box back on our shelves. McKenna’s diaries are very much written in a style that suggests he expected them to be read and he even went back and worked on them later (if he didn’t entirely write and/or recopy and annotate them later on). As I wrote in the finding aid back in 2009:
Elements within the diaries suggest they may not have been recorded at the time of the war, but instead, written down at a later date. The loss of chronology and the absence of entries for large periods of time in 1864 hint at this. Several notes in the text also imply additions at another date. After the entry for June 23rd, the following appears: “[N.B. Here my notes ceased, as well as my dates and for the remainder of June and July I will be obliged to record the dates as well as facts from memory][C.F. McKenna. Aug. 1863].” In a lengthy entry for November 30th, an asterisk note reads, “Have since learned that it was Genl. Warren made this report to Genl. Meade.” At the very least, it appears additions were made to the diaries over time.
Some years after the war, McKenna would write the definitive history of his regiment, two copies of which we have in our book collection(and also available online). It’s clear that the war, for many reasons, had a powerful effect on him. In turn, that had an effect on me, standing on the Gettysburg battlefield on a cloudy April afternoon. Charleswanted to be remembered and he is, not only on the monument, but through the materials he created, which Special Collections now preserves. I’m extremely proud of the work we do as archivists (everywhere, not just at Virginia Tech), and I had a unique reminder of that day. Charles was a historian by choice (not training) and he and his wfforts remain a piece of historyfor future researchers and scholars. The papers we have here aren’t all there is to Charles F. McKenna in the modern age, either, the monument remindedme. His story is in many places, which is, I think, one of the important takeaways for primary sources–it can often be like a treasure hunt and you have follow the threads where you find them. In this case, that could be to Blacksburg, Gettysburg, or even Puerto Rico.
I’ve probably waxed a bit too philosophical in this particular post, or lingered too long on some boring little details, but there’s a lesson here about archivists, too. We get caught up in the stories of the materials and people we seek to preserve and provide access to every day. And sometimes, in a very unexpected place, we can have a moment where we realize just how meaningful our work can be. Well, at least if you’re me.
The finding aid for the Charles F. McKenna Collection is available onlineif you want read a bit more about what it includes and about Charles. We haven’t digitized it (yet), but you are welcome to pay us and McKenna’s collection a visit. You might just connect to history in a way you didn’t expect.