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!
Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffiths Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation
While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburgs Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.
Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The films relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.
The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of Americas Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.
The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman
is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the films Southern apologist version of the Klans origins.
In bringing Dixons tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.
Griffiths accuracy and attention to detail exploited the publics willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixons skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffiths prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true. The films widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKKs resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.
Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the films inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.
Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained Americas highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.
Despite his films overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his films racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.
Today’s post is about a letter. In some ways, it’s unique (it IS one of a kind, after all), and in some ways, it adds to the canon of Civil War correspondencewritten home. But this letter has a little something extra. It’sa letter from Isaac Cox to his wife, written June 29, 1862. At the time, Cox was a private with the (Confederate) 29th Regiment, Virginia Infantry. It was a regiment recruited largely from Southwest Virginia. Throughout their 3+ years, soldiers in this regiment fought mostly in Virginia, but also experienced fighting in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Cox’s letter home is brief. It talks of the regiment’s march to Princeton, West Virginia, and back, and also includes news of someone named Bill. Not all that different from many other letters written home during the war. But, that isn’t quite what caught our attention. Certainly, the local connection is important (Cox lived in Saltville, Virginia, before and after the war). When you take a look at the letter, however, there’s somethingsurprising.Cox decorated his letter, carefully cutting a design in the page…
Sometimes, it’s amazing that a 152 year old letter lasts this long at all. Some of the design here has been lost–you can see the tears at the tiny “finger” details and more than one spoke/petal is missing or loose. We’ve housed this item in a mylar sleeve to help prevent further damage.
If you’re curious about the letter, here’s a transcript:
Taswill [Tazewell] County June 29 1862 Dier Affectionated Wife I take the plesent [matter] of senden you a few lines to let you now that I am well at this time hopeing when this few lines come to hand they will find you in helth I received you kind best last eavining and I was truly glad to here that you was all well we had the hardest march to prinzton [Princeton] and back that I ever had we was orded to cook 4 days rashuns the other day and then we started and was gon to [two] days and a half from our camps we was march in 4 miles of prinzton and then we stade in the woods for two days and 3 nites and then return to our camps it made my feet very soar you wanted to no what had be come of bill he is still at Jeffer? [Jefferson?] Mills in the horsepital yet & hant herd from him in a bout 2 weeks and then he was getin well as he cald I am a goin to try to come home a bout harvest if I can but I dont now whither I can or not So no more at this time only Still rember your husband un till deth
Carroll Co to Charlott Cox
Isaac and Charlotte had five children, two of whom were born during the war, so he clearly managed a visit at some point! Charlotte died in 1911; Isaac in 1925.
If you’d like more information on the letter or on Isaac Cox, you can view the full finding aid here. Or, you can pay us a visit to see this amazing letter in person!
March is Women’s History Month. Over on the History of Food & Drink blog, I’ll be profiling women who made contributions and influenced American culinary history. Which got me thinking about our other manuscript collections, women who lived through American history and women whose words are on our shelves. If you had the time to look through our nearly 1800 collections, you would find many women’s names. Most of them aren’t famous, but their letters, diaries, architectural drawings, cookbooks, and other papers can be important both as individual objects and in the larger context.
That being said, I thought I’d share Nancy B. Harbin’s letter. Written in the second year of the American Civil War, Nancy writes from Calhoun County, Mississippi to her sons in Richmond, Virginia. Jack, John, and Edward all served with Company F, 42nd Regiment, Mississippi Infantry.
As with many mothers, her concern is first and foremost for the well-being of her sons. Her letter is really two letters: one to Jack and a second to John. She doesn’t write Edward directly, which may be the result of his being “so near death.” It is unclear if he was sick or injured. (Our research on the family wasn’t as fruitful as we might hope–which sometimes the case–and we don’t know if any of Nancy’s sons survived the war. ) On the one hand, this is a letter from a mother to her children, providing them updates from home, sharing her concern and love for them, and encouraging them. On the other, the very fact that it has survived 152 years makes it an important part of the larger body of Civil War materials in our collections and far more than a simple letter from mother to sons. BecauseNancy’s concerns are what we might expect from such a letter, it is both specific to her family anda representative voice of the Civil War home front correspondence of the time.
We have other home front letters from women (and men!) in our Civil War holdings, and if you were to keep reading, you would see similar themes, regardless of location, relationship, or loyalty. If you’d like to do so, come visit us and we’ll be happy to help!
Today I finished up the first phases of work on a great collection of Civil War correspondence. The collection includes 19 letters by 18 different authors. Unless there’s a connection (usually family, business/organization, institutional, or something along those lines), we tend to name and organize collections based on the creators. So, under “normal” conditions, if such a thing exists (one of our favorite phrases in the archives world is “it depends”), these letters might have ended up as 17 collections (two of the letter writers are brothers). These 19 letters, though, have something else in common: location. Each was written in or around Alexandria and Fairfax counties in Virginia. And each was written within the first 16 months of the Civil War. As a result of that, we’ve decided to treat them as a single, cohesive unit. This group of letters offers a unique perspective on the early experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers around Washington DC in the early months of the war. There are number of common elements: regiments cutting down trees to build up defenses, skirmishes between forces, the need for food and clothes from home, and a frequent hope that soldiers “hope to be home soon.”
You can see the finding aid for the Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) online here. The contents list of the finding aid includes links to the digitized letters and, when available, the transcripts. You can also go straight to Omeka (our emerging digital content platform) and see the letters and transcripts here. The digital images all have links back to the finding aid, as well. The idea is that we’re creating online connections to help our researchers move back and forth from digitized primary sources to context for those materials easily.
This collection remains a work-in-progress, as we expect new materials from the donor in 2014 and into the future. As new materials arrive, we’ll continue digitize them and update the finding aid. We’ll be able to offer new insight into early war-time conditions and experiences as the collection continues to grow.
The Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) is not the first collection we’ve placed in Omeka (https://omeka.lib.vt.edu/), nor is it the first one we’ve digitized, but it’s the first one to go through acquisition, digitization, processing, and addition to the web in sequence and within a short period of time. We hope it will help us create and shape our workflow for the future as we digitize more collections. It may not be a speedy process, so we also hope you’ll bear with us as we create new material to share. We promise, it’ll be worth it.
One of the reasons Special Collections launched this blog was to show off some of our cool materials. We can talk about new acquisitions, new discoveries, and old favorites all day! (Curious, just come by and ask us!) Another reason, though, was talk a little about the who, what, where, and why of Special Collections. One of the questions we are frequently asked, in one form or another, is “How to you get stuff?” The short answer is that we acquire books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and other materials in three major ways: donation, purchase, and transfer (this last is the least common, but is vital to our mission of preserving university history!). The much longer answer continues below…
I’m Kira Dietz (aka archivistkira), and since part of my job as Acquisitions and Processing Archivist is to work with donors & potential donors, book & manuscript dealers, university employees, alumni and more, I thought I might spend a post or two over the next couple months tackling the “How do you get stuff?” query. The best way to do that is to answer a few more specific question potential donors might have.
While Special Collections does have a budget to purchase materials (more on that in a future post), we rely heavily on donations. We have just that–a limited budget. Donations make up more than half of our holdings and are the backbone of our manuscripts, university archives, and rare book collection. There are financial costs involved in the acquisition, processing, maintenance, and access of our collections, but donation of materials can help us save a little on the acquisitions part. Donations that come with a financial contribution can help us further reduce some of the processing costs. Basically, without donations, the University Libraries would never have acquired much of the materials that led to the creation of Special Collections, and we wouldn’t be here today!
Where do donations come from?
Donations can come from anyone! We receive materials from staff/faculty and departments on campus, from alumni of Virginia Tech, from community members and organizations, from current students, from professionals active in fields related to our collecting areas, from researchers and scholars, and from people around the world! Sometimes, donors already know who we are. Sometimes, they hear about us at an event or through word of mouth. Sometimes, they have an item or collection that they just want to be available to a wide range of researchers, scholars, and visitors, rather than keeping it in their attic.
What kinds of donations do you want?
We’re always on the lookout for new items and collections! While an exhaustive list is tricky to provide, here are some general sorts of formats we seek: Correspondence, diaries, and manuscripts (preferably original documents), logbooks, ledgers, memorabilia, photographs, drawings, architectural collections, and other records of historical importance to the mission of the university and that support existing collections.
We are actively collecting materials in a 7 or 8 major subject areas at present. These include,but are not limited to, local history (SW Virginia and nearby parts of Appalachia), university history, the American Civil War, science and technology, speculative fiction, women & architecture, and food & drink history. You can see more about the kinds of collections we have in all these areas in the individual subject guides listed here.
What do you do with donations once you receive them?
One of the phrases you hear often in archives is, “it depends.” What we do with a donation once we receive it depends on a number of factors: what the donation consists of, how large it is, what condition it’s in, whether further donations may be expected, and more.
In general, the first thing we do is create a record of the donation in our database. Books and other publications that can be cataloged to the University Libraries’ Technical Services, then are returned to our Rare Book Collection. Manuscripts, photographs, drawings, maps, and mixed material collections are placed in acid-free boxes and added to our processing queue. If there are fragile or damaged items, we may do some preservation work like placing torn documents in polyester sleeves, unrolling and flattening rolled photos or documents, or photocopying acid paper. Preservation issues may also be addressed when a collection is processed at a later date.
What do I do if I have something I want to donate?
Contact Special Collections! Whether your potential donation is a single item or lots of boxes, we’ll talk to you about what you have and how it might fit in with our holdings.We can also talk to you about how we process, house, and provide access to collections (I could write a whole series of posts on that subject, so I won’t cover it today). If you live nearby or are passing through Blacksburg and want to visit us, we’re happy to show you around the department, too.
If we all decide Special Collections is the right place for your donation, we’ll make arrangements to receive the material. It might mean a pick up, a drop off, or something being sent via the mail. As a record of your donation, we’ll ask you fill out and sign our “Deed of Gift” form. We’ll keep a copy and we send one to you, too. We also follow up with a thank you note from us.
On the whole, we try to keep our donation process as simple as possible for everyone.
What if Special Collections at Virginia Tech isn’t the right place for a collection?
That’s one of the main reasons we encourage you to talk to us about your donation. Sometimes, we just aren’t the right home for a book, a letter, or a diverse collection of materials. Whether or not you know it, though, there are LOTS of special collections, archives, historical societies, museums, and other institutions out there. All of them have different interests and collecting areas, and many of them accept donations. If we aren’t the right home, we’ll use our network of colleagues and resources to help you find an appropriate home.
I hope this is a helpful introduction to donations at Special Collections. There are plenty more questions I could try to answer here, but each potential donation is different. Each one has its own needs and poses its own challenges. If you have something else you’d like to know, feel free to post a comment below or contact Special Collections. I’ll give you the best answer I can!
Continuing with our Women’s History Month features, this week we’re sharing a single post-Civil War document: A claim for damages filed in Lawrence County, Tennessee, in 1868. While the item itself may seem small, it had no small meaning to Elizabeth Hughes.
We can’t identify Elizabeth Hughes with 100% certainty, but the claim does give us some clues. We know where she lived during the war. (Lawrence County, TN, is located south and slightly west of Nashville, just on the Alabama border.) We know that she was born around 1818. Her husband, not named, enlisted in the Union army and was killed in service. And, judging by the spaces requiring a signature, she did not know how to write. Her name has been written around an “X,” indicating her mark.
However, these few tidbits can tell us a lot more about her. The U.S. Census in 1860 includes an Elizabeth Hughes who was born about 1817. She lived in a household with an “A W Hughes,” age 40, who we could guess is her husband. If so, they appear to have had five children. The National Part Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database includes only one Hughes with the initials “A W” who fought for the Union–Anderson W. (4th Tennessee Cavalry). Other genealogy records suggest they were born and married in Alabama, moving their family to Tennessee between 1847 and 1852.
On a side note, there are a few small changes on the claim, presumably made by the county clerk. Even though the form includes the phrases “he (or she)” and “man, (or woman,),” both the “he” and “man” have been crossed out. There’s no question about who this document represents.
The claim is one of many that would have been filed in states around the country following the Civil War, but it also tells an important chapter in one woman’s story. Elizabeth Hughes lost a great deal in a short period of time, including a husband and a household:
By the Burning of my House I lost all of my House hold. Kitchen Furnature Some valuable Papers and many other articles too tedious to mention Supposed to be worth about [1050.00] 6 Six Sides Leather Supposed to weigh about 18 pounds Each 108# at .50 cts per lb. 50 Bushels wheat @ $1.00 per Bushel 1 set wagon Harness for 2 Horses 1 Horse 5 Years old
She survived the war and was presumable compensated for her lost property (the claim was approved, according to the signatures on the last page). Nearly 150 years later, when this copy of her claim surfaced among unprocessed materials at Special Collections, this little piece of Elizabeth’s life gives us new insight into Reconstruction and to what it meant to be a woman reclaiming her household and identity in 1868.
I dont know how much pleasure it affords you to go over these days of the past, but to me they will ever be remembered as days of felicity. And how happy the thought that years increase the affection & esteem we have for each other to love & be loved. May it ever be so, and may I ever be a husband worthy of your warmest affections. May I make you happy and in so doing be made happy in return. A sweet kiss and embrace to your greeting.
But maybe you will say it looks ridiculous to see a man getting grayhaired to be writing love letters, so I will use the remnant of my paper otherwise…
Yours affectionately H Black
Harvey Black (1827-1888) was a physician in Southwest Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, he was attached to the4th Virginia, 1st Brigade, known as the Stonewall Brigade. In 1863, he wrote a love letter to his wife Mary (who he affectionately called “Mollie”)in Blacksburg, recalling their courtship. The quote above comes from the last few lines. You can see a transcript of the letter online, and you can read more about the Black family and their papers at Special Collections here.
The diary arrived in a handsome case that clearly identifies the contents as the work of Lieutenant William W. Barnett. A legible note in the front of the diary tells us that Barnett served in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. Records indicate, however, that Barnett mustered in with the 8th as a private in Company A on 15 May 1861 and was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate on 20 March 1863, also as a private! Who is our lieutenant?
The records do show a William H. Barnett of the 8th PRVC, Company A, whose name was sometime recorded as William W. Barnett. There is another William W. Barnett, also serving in the same regiment and company, but with a different enlistment record than man discharged in March 1863, a record that is also contradicted by events recorded in the diary. A history of the 8th reports that this regiment consisted of men from Armstrong Co. in western Pennsylvania. The 1860 census for that county lists at least three William or W. H. Barnetts ranging in age from 19 to 21. Who is William Barnett?
Once you know what you might be looking for, the clues in the diary itself are easier to spot. On 15 September, Barnett writes, “This day is my birthday and I am twenty one years old and in the hospital.” This suggests our Barnett would be 19 in June 1860, the time of the census. He writes often in the diary that Henry has come to visit, and mentions an uncle Hezekiah Wood. William Barnett of Armstrong Co., son of Alexander and Hannah Barnett, is 19 in 1860, has a 21 year-old brother named Henry B., and a youngest brother named Hezekiah. Henry B. Barnett served in the 9th PRVC, a regiment that moved throughout 1862 in tandem with the 8th. William’s post office, as listed on the census, is Freeport. In faint writing on one of the last pages of the diary is written, “My mother Mrs Hannah Barnett resides in Freeport Armstrong County Penna.” We have a winner.
But what of Lieutenant Barnett? It turns out that our Barnett re-enlisted in August 1864 in the newly formed 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. Though entering as a private, he was promoted at least twice, finally to the rank of lieutenant on 19 January 1865. At war’s end, he returned to Pittsburgh and mustered out with his battery on 30 June 1865.
The task of identifying the diary’s writer is only the beginning. The diary itself is the treasure beyond! More about this in an upcoming post!!