It was like a crash course in American History 101. Letter after letter told of famous Civil War events from the firing on Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox. I was holding in my hands a treasure of first-person accounts of our country’s history. Not only that – I was also reading the story and the history of my family.
This was my reaction as I opened the old shoe box containing over 100 beautifully preserved letters written by my great-grandparents.
I pored over the letters deep into the night, amazed at the information, but sometimes feeling I was invading their privacy –
listening in on intimate details of their lives. But I read on, swept up by the beautiful language of 19th century letter writers.
One letter jumped out:
April 10th, 1864
Dear Husband, I seat myself this morning to speak to you through the silent voice of the pen…
And so writes my great-grandmother, Mary Pringle, to her Civil War soldier-husband, Philip Pringle. I have been struck by that haunting phrase for years.
I had to remind myself constantly that this was the only form of communication between Civil War soldiers and their families. The pen was the only voice that expressed love, longing and countless other emotions. Not surprisingly though, my great-grandparents’ letters were filled with everyday, ordinary information written by ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The pen had to provide instructions about tending the farm, feeding cattle, paying bills. And the letters always provided an update on the weather and a little neighborhood gossip.
But the letters contained a basic truth of the times. Mary Pringle goes on to say, “Write to me soon for I can hardly wait. It is all the pleasure I have to write and read your letters.”
Early on I was aware that the letters began to tell a story and were filled with drama. Relationships were complicated, misunderstandings were prevalent, family members gave support – and sometimes not, wives had to be quick learners as they were thrown – overnight – into the responsibilities of running businesses, farms, and earning enough money to make it all happen. I wondered – would it be possible to tell a story – to create a play – through a series of letters?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to do all that much work. As the war raged on the letters continued to tell the story – of the incredible battles, the shifting of power between husband and wife, and of new-found spirit and courage. The play practically wrote itself.
But the gap between letters received grew longer and longer. The mail service was being severely tested –
fewer and fewer letters were getting through. Anxious families at home wondered if their soldier was dead or alive. At this point Philip scribbles at the bottom of a letter, “I am sending this by a wounded soldier.”
To make matters worse, the only way money could be sent home was by mail. But that was risky – On March 15, 1865 Philip writes, “The mail was robbed and there was a great deal of money taken. They blamed the mail carrier for it and they have him under arrest. They found a great many letters torn open and thrown away. Some lost 100 dollars, some 200. Someone even 900.“
An online essay, Wartime Letterwriting, says, “In addition, soldiers were constantly on the move, which made for further delivery problems. If a letter was addressed and delivered to a soldier’s last known address, there was no guarantee that its intended recipient was still stationed at that camp. Correspondents at home had to rely on information from a soldier’s last letter regarding his whereabouts.”
I am eternally grateful for the silent voices of my great-grandparents’ pens. They bestowed on me – as well as all of their descendants – a rare legacy of extraordinary history – family and country – loud and clear.
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Civil War Letter