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!
Did you hear? (Of course, you did.) Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago. As the Nobel committee wrote, it awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is a mighty step up for an already valued and valuable tradition that is even more varied than are Dylan’s songs themselves. Political, personal, complicated, narrowly topical, broad and metaphorical, silly, stupid, catchy, maddening, romantic, lyrical, sentimental, commercial: Whatever human emotion, quality, or experience you may think of, there are songs to go along. And when it comes to reflecting, initiating, or participating in social trends, songs are certainly there, too. So, although the occasion of Dylan’s winning the Prize didn’t, by itself, make me think about the sheet music collections we have here at Special Collections, specifically, collections of “popular” music, it did provide some of the impetus that leads me to write just a bit about some of them.
Sheet music has a long history. Printed sheet music goes back almost to Gutenberg, at least in the West, to about twenty years after his printing press. The variety of printed music is nearly endless–church music, orchestral music, opera, dance music, tunes, lieder–so much so that the best definition of sheet music has to do with its description as a physical object. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University offers the following:
On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages.
Some of the earliest popular sheet music we have in our collection dates from around the American Civil War. On the left is a tune published in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step. On the right, from just a couple of years later is Take Your Gun and Go, John, a song of resignation and sorrow, sung by a wife as her husband leaves for war.
Don’t stop a moment to think John, your country calls then go; Don’t think of me or the children John, I’ll care for them you know. But take your gun and go John, take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . . And now goodbye to you John I cannot say farewell; we’ll hope and pray for the best John; god’s goodness none can tell. Be his great arm around you John to guard you night and day; Be our beloved country’s shield till the war has passed away. Then take your gun and go John take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .
This song may be from the Civil War, but just about 150 years after its publication, it still is timely. In 2013, it was recorded and released by Loretta Lynn, and although it is on an album of Civil War-era songs, it does continue to speak. Give it a listen.
Moving into the 20th century, the music publishing business increased dramatically as the theater, music, and entertainment industries grew. With the availability of inexpensive color printing, sheet music for popular songs began to feature colorful covers, illustrations that, along with the music and lyrics, offer an additional window into the contemporary currents of the time. Societal norms with regard to gender and race may be represented, as well as less weighty subjects, such as the sudden fashionability of bicycle riding, or the more significant increase in automobile travel, along with all its attendant themes of freedom, mobility, and romance, among others. World events, also, made their way into the popular song of the day. Consider “America, Here’s My Boy.”
Before listening to the song, what do we see? I don’t know about you, but the sight of “Every American Mother” offering up her son to face what was, by May 1917, well-known carnage, is remarkable. Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how the image of American motherhood–even idealized American motherhood–has changed in a hundred years. But America needed men (and boys) to fight, so here was the message, as proclaimed in the chorus of the song:
America, I raised a boy for you. America, You’ll find him staunch and true, Place a gun upon his shoulder, He is ready to die or do. America, he is my only one; My hope, my pride and joy, But if I had another, he would march beside his brother; America, here’s my boy.
If you’re curious, here’s a recording of the song from 1918 by The Peerless Quartet. I should also mention something about this cover that I hadn’t seen and was pointed out to me by a most perceptive student. Apparently, the United States shares a northern border with another country, but has no such neighbor to the south! Mexico, though officially neutral throughout the First World War, shared a difficult, and often openly hostile relationship with the U.S. at the time. On 28 February 1917, a few months before this song was published, the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram was made public by President Woodrow Wilson. The contents of this communication, intercepted and deciphered by the British in January of that year, was sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, with instructions to propose a military alliance with Mexico, should the U.S. enter the war against Germany. (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but the deal was to involve return to Mexico of land lost to the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.) Anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. was already high, and this incident only led to its increase. So, as far as the illustration on the sheet music was concerned, perhaps, geography was taking a back seat to politics.
Staying with 1917, the title, “Somewhere in France is Daddy,” is just sopping with sadness. As shown on the cover, a young mother, with a framed photo of her soldier-husband in the background, has to explain to her young son why Daddy isn’t home. Daddy, of course, is fighting for home and country, for liberty . . . “somewhere in France” and he “wont come back/ Til the stars and stripes theyll tack/ On Kaiser Williams flagstaff in Berlin.”
It’s not quite at the level of . . . “Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t put me off of your train, For the best friend I have in this whole wide world Is waiting for me in vain; Expected to die any moment, And may not live through the day: I want to bid mother goodbye, sir, Before God takes her away” . . . which I know as a Blue Sky Boys song, and which, deservedly, has won every “Saddest Song contest” I’m aware of. But, as the young boy poses the question, he puts this song right up there:
A little boy was sitting on his mothers knee one day
And as he nestled close to her these words she heard him say
Oh mother dear please tell me why our Daddy dont come home
I miss him so and you do too, why are we left alone
He tried hard not to cry, as she answered with a sigh
Here are five more sheet music covers from songs associated with World War I. The links below will take you to a recording of the song, if available.
“We’re Going Over” (Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917) Again, if this Library of Congress link doesn’t work, try this.
“Loyalty is the Word Today” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available
“Over There” (William Jerome Publishing Corp., New York, 1917). If this link from Library of Congress doesn’t work, you can try this.
“Hoe Your ‘Little Bit’ in Your Own Back Yard: Where the Boy Scouts Go, ‘Tis Hoe, Hoe, Hoe” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available
Sheet music may not be what you think of when your looking for a view on culture and society, but it can definitely provide an interesting, if unexpected, part of the picture. What were folks listening to? How was the music presented? How was it received? How did people react to it? When and where was it played? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Special Collections has three collections comprised entirely of sheet music, as well as individually cataloged pieces and occasional pieces in other collections. These links will take you to the finding aid for each collection, which, among other information, will list all the titles in the collection:
To end on a more hopeful note, is a song from World War II, written in 1942, in fact. The United States had been at war less than a year, though it had been a long war in Europe already. I didn’t recognize this one from the title, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World),” but once I heard it, I knew I had heard it before. It hit #1 on the Pop charts by early ’43. It’s an interesting illustration on the cover. Of course, where is the source of the light located? And, there is the “Buy War Bonds” logo in the lower right. Here’s how the song starts:
When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello” to love
No more hard rain.
Lastly, to the folks who, given the beginning of this post, thought it might be about some great Bob Dylan stuff we have in Special Collections, I offer my apologies.
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 love stumbling across letters in our collections that offer a glimpseof everydayromance. It’s something we can all relate to. So I when I came across a letter while digitizinga collection from a Confederate soldier confessing his feelings of “somethingmore than friendship, farexceeding gratitude,” I was excited to share.
The letter, found in the Koontz Family Papers,was written by Angus Ridgill, a private from Alabama, to Nellie Koontz, a young woman living in the Shenandoah Valley, in August, 1863. The letter was ostensibly written as a thankyou note toNellie and her family for housing him recently as a lone soldier, but Angus also uses the opportunity to confess his infatuation with her.
“I amnaturally a creature of impulses, and the first fewmoments I passed in yourcompany was sufficient tomake me entirely subservientto your will, be that what it may.”
He continues with assurances that this confession was not hisoriginal intention of the letter, that he doesn’t expect his feelings to be fully reciprocated, and can only wait for an appropriate response-
“still I do trust thatyou will allow me time andopportunity to prove anythingwhich you may wish to know…”
He finishes with an apology:
“if all thistime I have been presumingtoo much upon your formerkindness I most humbly askyour pardon, hoping at thesame time that I havenot forfeited your friendship.”
Whether Angusever received a response from Nellie is notknown. But seeing as this letter was not immediately torn to shreds, but instead, carefully saved alongside those from her brothers and cousin (who were also off fighting for the Confederacy), we can assume his message hadsome significance to her.
An ‘A.G. Ridgill’ is listed as a private in the Washington Battalion, Louisiana Artillery, andinthe 1870 census, Angus Ridgill is listed as age 24, making himonly 16 or 17 when he wrote this letter. Inthe 1860 U.S. Census, Ellen F. ‘Nellie’ Koontz was listed as 16 years old, making her19 in 1863 at the time ofthis letter. I guess this provesteenage love messages were alive and well 150 years ago, just with more cursive and less emojis.
Sadly, census records also tell us that Angus and Nellie didn’t end up together. In the 1880 census, A.G. Ridgill, now 33, is listed as living in Van Zandt, Texas, working as a farmer and married to an Elizabeth, age 29. Alsoliving with him is an 8 year old step son, and two daughters, ages 5 and 3. In the same yearNellie, now listed as Nellie F. McCann, is married to N.F. McCann, an editor, and also has ason, 8, and two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Hopefully they both found true love with their respective spouses and were happy with their marriages and families at this stagein their lives.
In addition to thisletter, the Koontz Family Papers contains correspondence from brothers George and Milton Koontz and their cousin George Miller, each of whom served in the Confederate armies of Virginia. The collection also includes letters sent from other friends and two diaries and a sketchbook from Milton Koontz. The entirety of this collection is now online, including transcripts. Take a look at the collection here.
One of my favorite parts of working in Special Collections is that I’m always coming across something beautiful and unexpected that I never knew we had. Case in point: the Daniel Bedinger Lucas scrapbook. Opening the average looking notebook cover reveals page after page of intricate pressed flower arrangements surrounded by handwritten poetry and and prose. There’s even a few locks of hair delicately woven and stitched into some of the pages. What’s unexpected is how vibrant most of the flowers still look- it’s really hard to believe they were picked some 150 years ago. Despite being so delicate, most of the arrangements have held up exceptionally well.
So who was the man behind this beautiful book? Daniel Bedinger Lucas was born March 16, 1836, at “Rion Hall” in Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia). He attended the University of Virginia, and then studied law under Judge John W. Brockenbrough of Lexington, Virginia. In 1859 he began practicing law at Charleston but moved the next year to Richmond. The scrapbook was compiled some time during this period in the early 1860s, when Lucas was working as a lawyer in Richmond.
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 he joined the staff of General Henry A. Wise and took part in the Kanawha Valley campaign, but his physical disability from a childhood spine injury kept him from active service in the last years of the war. Toward the end of the war he ran the blockade to defend his friend John Yates Beall, accused of being a Confederate spy, but was unable to defend him against the charges. Beall was executed on Governors Island, New York.
Barred from the practice of law until 1871, due to restrictions on the service of ex-Confederates, Lucas turned to literature and became co-editor of the Baltimore Southern Metropolis. At this point his writing became more than just a hobby, and many of his poems were published in this magazine. Lucas’s volumes of poetry include The Wreath of Eglantine (1869) and Ballads and Madrigals (1884). He wrote three plays about the Civil War. His books include The Memoir of John Yates Beall (1865) and Nicaragua, War of the Filibusters (1896). He was known as the “poet of the Shenandoah Valley.”
In 1869, Lucas married Lena Tucker Brooke, of Richmond. Their only child, Virginia, was born in 1873. He reentered the practice of law in 1871 and took a prominent role in the Democratic party politics of West Virginia, acting as Democratic elector in the elections of 1872 and 1876, to the legislature in 1884 and 1886, and as a member of the supreme court of appeals from 1889 to 1893. He died at Rion Hall in Charleston on June 24, 1909.
The entire scrapbook is scanned and can be seen online here. I will leave you with one of his many poems from the scrapbook titled “If Thou Hast Crushed a Flower” If thou hast crush’d a flower the war may not be blighted; If thou hast quenched a lamp once more it may be lighted But on thy harp, or on thy lute the string which thou hast broken shall never in sweet sound again give to thy touch a token!
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.
Sometimes, despite all of the proactive efforts we make in Special Collections to find new and interesting collections to add to our holdings, some of the best materials just fall right into our laps, thanks to the thoughtfulness of generous donors. Such is the case with the Joseph P. and Margaret James Collection, which was donated to us earlier this year by VT alumna Denise Hurd (sociology, 74). Though relatively small in size (approximately half a cubic foot), the collection relates notably to two of our focus areas (the Civil War and Appalachia) and touches on at least two others (culinary history and agriculture). The collection had been handed down from Hurds father, Festus Burrell James, and relates to the James family of Braxton County, West Virginia.
At the heart of the James collection are six Civil War-era letters to Margaret James from her husband Joseph P. James, who enlisted in Company L of the 14th Virginia Cavalry on October 4, 1862. Just 10 weeks later, Joseph was captured, and the first of his letters to Margaret was written from Camp Chase, Ohio, on January 28, 1863. In the letter, Joseph recounts his journey in captivity from Braxton County to Camp Chase and advises Margaret to move in with his father.
Margaret did move to her father-in-laws home, and her reply to Joseph provides a word from the war-time home front of northwestern Virginia (todays West Virginia). Dated March 14, 1853 [sic], Margarets brief letter shares news from Josephs family and neighbors. Having left her home, she hints at the hazards for a young mother living alone in contested territory during wartime (i havent Ben at home Since the first of febuary … but am going hom if i can get enybody to stay with me) and brings the absent father up to date on his childrens growth and behavior (Luther … is a bad boy. he swears yet[.] little vany can run just where he pleases. he is as fat as a little pig).
Joseph was exchanged and released in April, 1863. According to his service record, he transferred to Company I, 17th Virginia Cavalry while still a prisoner, and he must have immediately joined his new regiment; by May 10, Joseph was near Salem, Virginia, from which he wrote Margaret another letter. He discusses the Jones-Imboden Raid into northwestern Virginia, then mentions three acquaintances who were sent to Montgomery White Sulphur Springs to convalesce. Always present in Joseph’s letters are his love for his family and his desire to return home. He mentions sending a lock of hair to Margaret and receiving locks from her and their sons, a common practice at the time (see our blogpost of October 30, 2014, The Hairy, Scary Things That Time Forgot!).
By that autumn, poor health had forced Joseph to fall behind his company and miss the opportunity to return to Braxton County with his comrades. The route being too hazardous to travel alone, Joseph instead recuperated in Mercer County, and he wrote Margaret from there on November 5 and 25. Josephs final war-time letter was written from Red Sulphur Springs in Monroe County, West Virginia on April 15, 1864. In this letter, Joseph dispels rumors that he had been captured by the enemy or imprisoned as a deserter. He admits having been absent without leave, then boasts of the lenient punishment given him. It is Josephs lengthiest letter, and he goes into detail about what the men are eating and the religious services in which theyre participating. Six months later, Joseph would again be reported absent without leave, and in the final weeks of the war, he was listed as a deserter. Josephs letters give us today a brief but valuable glimpse into the life of a soldier whose service was spent almost entirely in southwestern Virginia.
The James Collection extends well beyond the Civil War, however. From the end of the war until his death in 1889, Joseph James maintained a series of memorandum books to record information that he deemed significant. Nearly every 19th-century farmer seems to have kept account books, detailing farm, business, and personal financial transactions, and we hold many pocket-sized ledgers in Special Collections. Joseph’s books are a bit unusual, though, in that they frequently contain other items of interest. One book contains notes on a trial for the murder of Jemima Green, a case on which Joseph served as a juror. Elsewhere, one might find records from Joseph’s work as a mail carrier, quotes from Bible scripture, notes on deaths in the family and neighborhood, and recipes for home remedies. Though recorded somewhat haphazardly and in no particular chronological order, the entries as a whole provide a fairly complete look at the activities and concerns of a fairly typical Appalachian farmer for nearly 15 years during the latter half of the 19th century.
The collection also contains a few items that had belonged to the James youngest son, Charles (1885-1949), who left Braxton County and worked as a motorman in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he also raised hens and rabbits. Like his father, Charles made use of memorandum books, and in the few that we have, he briefly recorded anything of interest to him, from the day his cat died to the day he saw President Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, theres just not room for me, in this one brief blogpost, to mention all of the interesting little things in the Joseph P. and Margaret James Collection, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as being of interest only for its Civil War letters. The collection has yet to be processed, meaning that it has not yet been fully organized and inventoried, but as with all of our treasuresboth expected and unexpectedthe collection is available for the use of researchers in the Special Collections reading room during our normal operating hours.
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!
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Virginia Tech’s annual Civil War weekend. Not being a Civil War scholar, per se, and not wanting to just present a roundup of new acquisitions at Special Collections, however interesting that might be, I decided to talk about one collection, The John C. Watkins Letters, and, perhaps, give a little insight into the kind of window that even a few letters can open onto a life.
The collection consists of 17 letters, 11 of which were written during the war. The first nine were written while Watkins was a private in the 6th Massachusetts Infantry serving in and around Suffolk, Va. in 1862 and ’63. From Lowell, Massachusetts, he was 20 years old when he arrived in Suffolk.
Four more letters were written from Washington, D.C. from 31 March 1864 to 17 April 1866. Two were written from Camp Winfield Scott, Nevada in 1868. One other is from Winnemucca, Nevada, dated 17 January 1870, and though it was not written by John and despite lack of a last page and a signature, we know it was written by his wife. The final letter was written by John, but, again, is a fragment with no date or location specifically indicated, though clues in the letter may suggest a location.
The wartime letters are pretty straightforward in offering terrific detail about camp life and the battle known as the Siege of Suffolk of April and May 1863, as well as the movements and skirmishes that anticipated that action. But the other letters raise questions and often only offer tantalizing hints to their answers. What was Watkins doing in Washington? Or Nevada? Who did he marry? What happened to them after 1870?
It’s not often that, as an archivist, one has the time to answer these questions. Usually, these questions and more are answered by researchers as the archivist moves on to other responsibilities. In my case, having been intrigued by the clues and the trails and traces of possibilities, I stayed with it, a little at a time. Census records, military records from the National Archives, and Wyoming(!) newspapers, among others, all helped to fill out the story.
Well, that is just the start of a story that includes an M.D. from Georgetown College, travel to California, the Indian Wars, frontier medicine, Westward Expansion, marriage to Harriet (Hattie) Clark Clary of Deerfield, Ma., a decade as an itinerent physician, an active interest in mining, hired gunfighters and monied interests, the Johnson County Cattle (or Range) Wars . . . a short-lived stint as county coroner, and death. But there is also the backstory of a father named Ruggles who went west for the Gold Rush in 1850 and never returned; as well as the story of a sister, Mary, and wife, Hattie, who met(?) while teaching in one of the first post-war free schools in Richmond, traveled west, first joined and then outlived the brother and husband, and earned the right to be included in a 1927 publication, Women of Wyoming: Including a Short History of Some of the Early Activities of Women of Our State, Together with Biographies of Those Women Who Were Our Early Pioneers as well as of Women Who Have Been Prominent in Public Affairs and in Civil Organizations and Service Work (Casper, Wyo.: C.M. Beach). (You just have to love long subtitles!)
Maybe I’ll write it all up one day. It is a remarkable story.
This past Monday, a new exhibit opened on the 2nd floor of Newman Library. If you’re in the area over the next month or so, you might want to drop by! “Lincoln in Our Time” is an exhibit that includes documents, artifacts, pictures, and an interactive display with videos and presentations. Many of the materials on display come from Special Collections, and the videos are the work of a class in the Department of History, HIST2984: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.” You can read a bit about the exhibit in one of the photos below, but you’ll have to visit the library for more details. “Lincoln in Our Time” will be in place until April 15, so you’ve got plenty of time!
*Special thanks to Scott Fralin in University Libraries for the great photographs!
If “Lincoln in Our Time” isn’t enough Civil War history for you, you should also know about the upcoming Civil War Weekend on March 13-15, 2015. There will be guest speakers on a range of topics, showcasing Civil War history at Virginia Tech and beyond. Special Collections’ own Marc Brodsky, Public Services and Reference Archivist, will be talking about resources you can find here in our department. You can find out more about the events and register on the website!