World | USA

Civil War's 150th anniversary stirs up a trove of memories

Families dig through attics and garages to find historic heirlooms

  • AP
  • Published: 00:00 January 7, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AP
  • This undated photograph provided by the Library of Virginia shows Louiza A. The Civil War 150 Legacy Project has collected 25,000 images (left). This photo taken in 1928 in Petersburg, Virginia, shows Joseph Benjamin Sims, a sharpshooter with the sixth Virginia Infantry.
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Richmond: A diary with a lifesaving bullet hole from Gettysburg. An intricate valentine crafted by a Confederate soldier for the wife he would never see again. A slave's desperate escape to freedom.

From New England to the South, state archivists are using the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to collect a trove of wartime letters, diaries, documents and mementoes that have gathered dust in attics and basements.

This still-unfolding call will help states expand existing collections on the Civil War and provide new insights into an era that violently wrenched a nation apart, leaving 600,000 dead. Much of the Civil War has been told primarily through the eyes of battlefield and political leaders.

These documents are adding a new narrative to the Civil War's story, offering insights into the home front and of soldiers, their spouses and African-Americans, often in their own words.

Historians, who will have access to the centralised digital collections, are excited by the prospect of what the states are finding and will ultimately share.

"I think now we're broadening the story to include everybody — not just a soldier, not a general or a president — just somebody who found themselves swept up in the biggest drama in American life," says University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, a Civil War expert. "That's what's so cool."

Vast collection

In Virginia, archivists have borrowed from the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow, travelling weekends throughout the state and asking residents to share family collections, which are scanned and added to the already vast collection at the Library of Virginia.

Started in September 2010, the Civil War 150 Legacy Project has collected 25,000 images.

Virginians have been generous, knowing they can share their long-held mementos without surrendering them, said Laura Drake Davis and Renee Savits, the Library of Virginia archivists who have divided the state for their on-the-road collection campaign.

"They think someone can learn from them rather than just sitting in their cupboards," Savits said of the family possessions. "And they're proud to share their family's experience."

Patricia Bangs heeded the call when a friend told her about the project. She had inherited 400 letters passed down through the years between Cecil A. Burleigh to his wife, Caroline, in Mount Carmel, Conn.

"I felt this would be useful to researchers, a treasure to somebody," said Bangs, who works for the library system in Fairfax, Virginia. In one letter, she said, Cecil writes of Union troops travelling from Connecticut to Washington, crowds cheering them along the way.

Bullets and swords

The letters, like many collected by archivists, are difficult to read. Many are spelled phonetically, and the penmanship can be hard to decipher. Typically, they tell of the story of the home front and its daily deprivations.

Researchers in Tennessee, a battleground state in the war, teamed up with Virginia archivists earlier this year in the border town of Bristol. Both states have seen their share of bullets, swords and other military hardware.

"We have grandmothers dragging in swords and muskets," said Chuck Sherrill, Tennessee state librarian and archivist. Documents are fished from attics, pressed between the pages of family bibles and stored in trunks.

Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and many other states have similar programmes, or at least are trying to gather materials for use by scholars and normal people.

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