Missives of War in Another Time

From the Philadelphia Inquirer
August 24, 2005

Inquirer Staff Writer

In his letters home, George Bartlett wrote about the financial benefits that had lured him into the military, questioned the war's aims, and criticized inept commanders.

Soldier Miles Paul wrote about the financial benefits, too; told his wife he missed her; and said he feared being drafted for extended service.

Another, Daniel Swisher, focused on battlefield horrors, finding images there "enough to satisfy anybody never to see such a sight again."

The concerns of Bartlett, Paul and Swisher could have been found in e-mails from troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. But they came from Civil War soldiers whose correspondence - at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York - was studied and inventoried this summer by students from Rutgers and Princeton Universities and other colleges.

Although written 140 years ago, the letters still carried the raw emotion of the troops, the students found, and sometimes offered surprising insights into their views of the war, its causes, the home front, and families.

"We look back on the Civil War and say slavery was obviously an evil and the Union forces were obviously doing a good thing," said Thorin Tritter, a Princeton lecturer and coordinator of the Gilder Lehrman History Scholars Program.

But students "found Union soldiers who did not agree with emancipation, and that was a big surprise. Some soldiers did have a moral mission, but not all."

Many federal troops simply wanted to preserve the Union, collect military bounties, and go home.

"My soldier didn't have a romantic Victorian sense of battle," said Zachary Matusheski, 21, a Voorhees resident entering his senior year at Rutgers in New Brunswick. "He was there because he had to be there, not for honor or manliness.

"This was humanizing. It made me feel this was a real man, a real person, basically doing his job."

Matusheski, who studied George Bartlett of Coventry, R.I., was one of 15 students who spent six weeks getting to know the soldiers before writing pamphlets that will be used for high school classes on local history. Each pamphlet has an essay about the soldier, followed by some of his letters.

One Bartlett letter, written in January 1863 with many spelling and grammatical errors, said, "I do not want to se enny more young men deceivid in this war buy trickers and officikers triing to Make young Men believe that they are fighting for the union. it is false as hell."

Bartlett "directs a lot of angry rhetoric toward abolitionists, the President and emancipation," and believed North and South could have settled their differences without the slavery issue, Matusheski said.

Though the students found some attitudes that were different from today's, they also discovered timeless similarities. Princeton student Molly Senger, 21, of Bethesda, Md., was "surprised by the universal nature of the soldiers' fears and desires."

"I was constantly reminded that these brave soldiers were really just regular 21-year-old guys who were often much more interested in discussing 'all the partickulars' of home-front gossip than they were in detailing the particulars of Civil War battles," wrote Senger in an e-mail. Senger studied letters of Union troops from West Virginia, including Swisher and John Foglesong.

"The aspect of the work which I found most surprising was the fact that the letters I was working with had survived in such good condition to the present day. The same paper I was holding in my gloved hand this summer had been present at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg."

Senger said one letter stood out: Swisher's writing home to report that Foglesong had been killed at Antietam. "By the time I read this letter, I had already struggled through [the poor handwriting of] 10 of Foglesong's letters home, and I remember feeling really moved," she said.

In the September 1862 letter, Swisher wrote that Foglesong "was shot through the Head. he never suffered no misery." He also told his sister, "I could not express my feelings while walking over the Battle field to see Ever My Dearest friends and fellow soldiers lying on the field Butchered in That kind of a way."

With the heavy casualties and the economic hardships at home, Miles Paul, from Muncy, Pa., wondered whether military service was worth the price. He had enlisted for nine months, and faced the possibility of extended service.

"He talks about selling his property to pay the $300 fee required to get out of service," said Cornell University student Lauren Acker, 21, of Los Alamitos, Calif., who studied Paul's letters. "He seemed concerned about his financial situation."

Paul wrote his wife in March 1863 that he did not "think it wod be advisible to sel the Property to get a substute," and added a month later: "I am anches to hear from home."

After "digging deep and looking at the world he lived in," Acker added, "I felt like I got to know him."

In May 1863, Paul wrote his wife again, saying, "We are Coming home I Shant inlist I am tiard of the sirvis."

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