Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Searchable Civil War Letters

I was taking a look at the new and improved website of the WMU Archives (which I'll describe in a later post) when I came upon their Civil War Letters collection (http://web.library.wmich.edu/digidb/cwc/). For anyone who wants to better understand the everyday life of the Civil War soldiers in their tree and even to read first-hand accounts of battles this is a great resource. There are eight diaries and twenty-nine letters in the collection, all held by the WMU Archives. Five of the men served in Michigan units, two in Ohio, one in Illinois and one worked for the U.S. Quartermaster Department. One was a musician and two were POWs.

Even better than merely having online access to these records, all of these diaries and letters have been transcribed and are searchable. The entries have also been categorized by topic as follows: battles, military units and maritime vessels, people, places, african americans, clothing, death and casualties, desertion, food, health and medicine, leisure, money, music, religion and transportation.

A brief biography of each man is also included. Briefly, they are:
Alonzo C. Ide (diary): 2nd MI Inf, Co C, also briefly served in 17th MI Inf, Co D
Augustas L. Yenner: 121st OH Inf, Co B, diary
Cyrus Thomas (diary): 49th OH Inf, Co E
Eli H. Page (diary): worked for the Quartermaster Department during the war (responsible for supplying the army)
Eugene R. Sly (diary): 100th IL Inf, Co C
George Harrington (diary): 6th MI Cavalry, Co L
Isaac S. Knapp (diary): 28th MI Inf, Co I
Milton Sawyer (diary): 27th MI Inf, Co G, musician
Samuel Hodgman (letters): 7th MI Inf, Co I

If anyone out there has a relative who served in company I of the 7th Michigan, you may want to do a search on the appropriate surname. In November of 1862 Hodgman provided an account (usually a sentence) describing where each soldier was according to his information.

I examined items in the collection using WMU's system, though it is also available through the University of Michigan. The document viewer is very similar to that now in use at Seeking Michigan. When viewing a particular page scroll down under the “description” heading to read the transcription of the page. At the top of the page is the page number. Use the slider to the right of the image to navigate to a different page in the diary/letter. The current page is highlighted.

This collection is a great asset for anyone wishing to better understand the lives of the Civil War soldiers in their tree. Journals and letters home, even if they aren't your ancestors' words can still provide context whether or not your soldier is mentioned by name.

For those who want to read more, I would recommend the book “For Country, Cause and Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon,” by Stephen W. Sears. Haydon served in Company I of the 2nd Michigan Infantry and wrote in his journal almost daily for the first year of the war. He was also an officer so his experience was likely a little different in some respects from that of the typical enlisted man. To see my review of “For Country, Cause and Leader” go to:  Life in the Second Michigan Infantry.

Another place to find Civil War era letters is at Seeking Michigan in their Civil War Manuscripts collection.

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