For those of us who write historical non-fiction, logs, diaries, journals and letters are the essential ingredients of our research. First-hand accounts are the sine qua non of our work. My first book, Your Brother in Arms, was based on 41 letters written by a Civil War infantryman in the 155th Pennsylvania Regiment. (And one letter from his sister who recounts her journey to find her brother in an army hospital.) His observations and reflections as a front-line soldier were key to telling his remarkable story. That the soldier (and his relatives) saved the letters was a significant gift to history.
I wonder, having spent considerable time with these nineteenth-century letters, how the records of history will be handled for soldiers involved in the conflicts of the twenty-first century. How will the recent past’s correspondence via e-mails be saved, stored and cataloged? But, preservation efforts aside, the question lingers about how this electronic form of communications will have the “heart and soul” that handwritten letters offer. One only has to open a folded letter from 1865 or 1945 or 1965 to sense the era in which it was composed.
Fountain pen, pencil, ball-point pen may, at different times, have been gripped by a soldier who stole a few precious minutes to write home to parents, a sibling, or a wife or girl friend thousands of miles away. Those recipients may have been filled with anxiety awaiting written word from the distant serviceman. Letters received by those on the home front were treasured, not only for their content, but also for the tangible record of a loved one’s presence. It’s not difficult to understand why many of these letters were bundled up and tucked away in trunks in countless attics across America.
The letters that I used to write Your Brother in Arms were in my possession for a number of years as I researched and wrote the book. Not long after the book was published, I decided to donate the George McClelland letters to the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a fitting home for the letters. Pittsburgh was McClelland’s hometown and where he enlisted in the Union Army in 1862.
Just recently, I came across a note I had saved from the chief librarian and archivist at the Heinz History Center that was given to me right after I donated the letters. She wrote:
“It is an honor and a pleasure to add these letters to our collection. We are certain that our researchers will benefit from this collection for years to come!”
Will present e-mails and electronic messages from soldiers find similar homes in the libraries and archives of the future? I certainly hope so. But I doubt these electronic holdings will have the texture or character of the handwritten letters, diaries and journals of the past. That is a loss for historians and the public who reads history to be informed and inspired.