RICHMOND, Va. — 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 mementos 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 blacks, soldiers and their spouses, often in their own words.

Historians, who will have access to the centralized 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.”

In Virginia, archivists have borrowed from the popular PBS series “Antiques Roadshow,” traveling 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, Va. In one letter, she said, Cecil writes of Union troops traveling from Connecticut to Washington, crowds cheering them along the way.

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 programs, or at least are trying to gather materials for use by scholars and regular folks.

Pennsylvania has been especially ambitious in adding new layers to the state’s deep links to the Civil War, including a traveling exhibit called the “PA Civil War Road Show.” The 53-foot-long museum on wheels also invites visitors to share their ancestors’ stories and artifacts in a recording booth. The remembrances will be uploaded on the website

One visitor brought in a bugle that an ancestor was blowing when he was fatally shot at the Battle of Gettysburg.

“He wouldn’t let anyone touch it,” said John Seitter, project manager of the Pennsylvania Civil War project. “It shows you how deeply these artifacts connect people with the Civil War. There’s some serious memorialization going on here.”

The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University is also amid a survey of all the public archives in the state to produce a searchable database.

The ambitious project aims to shed light on small, underfunded public historical societies where records are often “hidden from historians and scholars” and not used, Matt Isham of the “The People’s Contest: A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project” wrote in an email.

Some people are even donating items unsolicited.

In Maine, for instance, some residents have submitted letters from ancestors who served in the war, but the sesquicentennial also saw an unusual submission from James R. Hosmer.

Hosmer’s mother, Mary Ruth Hosmer, died in 2005. He was going through her possessions in Kittery, Maine, when he made a discovery: dozens of carte de viste, small photographs carried by some Union troops, an early version of dog tags. They were stored in a suitcase in an attic.

“The state archives was quite thrilled with it,” Hosmer said.

The Virginia archivists said they were especially pleased by a submission from the family of an escaped slave who wrote of his love for a woman named Julia at the same time he fled his master for an outpost on the Chesapeake Bay, where Union ships were known to pick up men seeking their freedom. David Harris found his freedom in 1861, serving as a cook for Union troops.

“I love to read the sweet letters that come from you, dear love,” David Harris wrote to Julia. “I cannot eat for thought of you.”

A valentine made of pink paper and shaped into a heart using an intricate basket weave was addressed from Confederate soldier Robert H. King to his wife, Louiza. He was killed in 1862.

As for the diary tucked in a soldier’s breast pocket that shielded him from death at Gettysburg, “He kept using the diary,” Savits said. “He just wrote around it.”

7 replies on “As 150th anniversary of Civil War approaches, historic items being gathered electronically”

  1. The Civil War was fought to end slavery and bring equality to people of color.
    It would be nice to see part of this effort to gather materials to spend time  gathering recent evidence looking at how FBI  agents assassinated Martin Luther King on behalf of the Military Industrial complex which still keeps Americans enslaved. James Douglass has a new best selling book that looks at how FBI  agents assassinated President Kennedy on behalf of the new plantation owners, American Corporations


    1. Any friend of Lew Rockwell is certainly not a friend of Lincoln, nor should they be,  as Lincoln’s efforts secured the ‘union’ that would ultimately allow the military industrial complex to rise and provide with such wonderful gifts as perpetual war and  the complete abolition of our civil liberties in the name of ‘safety’.  American patriots and those who support the concept of true republicanism along the lines of Hume and folks such as John Taylor of Caroline understand the extreme nature of Lincoln’s effort and how his actions in the spring of 1861 left those of the south with little choice but defend themselves from invasion. 

  2. The Civil War was fought to preserve our Union and nation.   The emancipation of the slaves did not occur until long after the war started.  It was started by the confederates attacking Ft. Sumter and ended with Lincoln’s assassination.   That President, was the last casualty of the war.  Born in a southern state (Ky) and his father being paid for his labor, Lincoln is with out any doubt, our country’s greatest leader.  If you think that FDR had it bad,  compare him to Lincoln’s situation.

  3. Why on earth would anyone want to celebrate the most shameful event in America’s history? While it may have ended slavery, it did not end prejudice against the black people and other minorities. In many ways, America has a history that is shameful and ought to be archived in a tomb or a dark dungeon. Wars of any kind should not be celebrated or glorified.

    1. As a historical reenactor with Company B of the 20th
      Maine Volunteer Regiment, neither I nor my unit serve to glorify war. It is
      important to remember the sacrifices that these  men and women made for this country. One can
      educate without glorifying it. It  determined
      to a large part  how our country is
      today. Did it solve all our problems? No, of course not! It is however, part of
      our history, like it or not. The men and women of Maine and the other Union
      states endured great hardship to see that this Union be preserved.

      The South suffered equally .The reasons for this conflict
      are many and are still being debated today, but it did save this country from
      being torn apart.

  4. The civil war had nothing to do with slavery. The southern states rebelled due to big government intrusion, and at the time, slavery existed as a legal institution under the U.S. flag.
    Abe Lincoln did not preserve the union, he sealed it’s fate. 

  5. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We used to control the peons with whips, now we use minimum wage paychecks. 

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