Writings from battle
Brandeis and Wellesley work together to digitize Civil War letters
On Veterans Day, students and faculty packed into the Rapaporte Treasure Hall in Goldfarb Library to commemorate the launch of the Civil War Letters Project, a joint exhibition website created with Wellesley College. Brandeis professors Abigail Cooper (HIST) and John Burt (ENG) and Associate Curator of Special Collections at Wellesley College Mariana Oller spoke about the importance of these letters and their significance to the documentation of the Civil War and the preservation of history.
This intercollegiate collaboration was created in order to launch a joint digital exhibition of both schools’s collections of Civil War Letters that have been digitized and transcribed for the public. This Civil War Letters Project was funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission of the American Civil War in order to give easy access to primary documents to further educate the public.
Brandeis’s collection of Civil War Letters consists of fifty-seven letters written by Union fighter Michael Lally. Lally was an Irish immigrant and union fighter who served in the Civil War with the Company C, 11th Regt. Mass. Volunteer Infantry. The letters were written between July 16, 1861 and June 6, 1865 to his wife, Bridgett, and their four children back home in Roxbury, Mass. Wellesley College’s collection of letters were written by soldier Luther Bruen to his wife Augusta between the mid-1850s and the earlier part of the 20th century. Brandeis and Wellesley’s inter-institutional team created an archival resource so that anybody can have access to them and can engage in historical exploration.
Cooper and Burt each gave their account on their approaches to Civil War research and the importance of primary documents. Cooper approached the stand, saluting the crowd with a “Happy Veterans Day” then quickly corrected her statement to “Veterans Day observances to you” to acknowledge that this holiday is at risk of becoming “like a sales event like Columbus Day or Presidents Day, where you don’t even remember what it’s supposed to stand for.” Cooper then states that people turn important holidays like Veterans Day into mainstream “sales events” not because they do not want to remember and honor those who serve, but because, like war, it is “an interruption to our everyday lives.” As a social historian, Cooper explained to the crowd that it was never “lost on me that it took widespread systematic destruction and war in order to (produce) an exquisite archive.”
In an interview with the Justice, Cooper discussed what it was like to study the letters and gain first-hand knowledge of an individual’s experiences during the Civil War. “I think something that’s overwhelming about the Civil War is it is so full of rich sources that sometimes you can almost drown in it. It almost feels like, ‘What could be said, that hasn’t already been said?’” Cooper questioned. She then explained that Lally’s letters provide insight, “which would be the bird’s eye view, but there’s so much texture to it that I found it to be such a useful way in.”
LETTERS OF WAR: Michael Lally wrote this letter to his wife and children on Feb. 13, 1862, in which he explained the status of the Rebel forces in the South.
During the commemoration, Burt explained the historical context behind Lally’s letters. As a member of 11th Regt, Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Lally trained at Reedville camp and Fort Warren. The regiment was involved in heavy fighting in the First Battle of Bull Run, although Lally does not mention that in his letters. Burt recognizes that Lally gave a detailed account of the battle of Williamstown, but he never mentioned to his wife, through the letters, that he was wounded in this battle. Burt claims that this was because Lally wanted to spare his wife’s anxiety, even though his relationship with her was not very strong.
Burt, who spent nearly 26 years researching and writing about the Civil War era in order to write “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism,” explained in an interview with the Justice that Mally felt a great deal of patriotism to the unity of his country. “You get a sense that Mally is proud of his work. He doesn’t say it specifically, but it’s clear from his decision to reenlist and from his description of, ‘I signed to be a soldier, I’m going to be a soldier,’ that he’s very proud of his discipline, of his loyalty — the other thing that strikes me is that you do not feel any decay in his attachment to his regiment, and you do feel that in other [soldiers’] accounts,” Burt said.
Lally’s letters provide insight into several crucial battles from the Civil War, in addition to his own familial experience. In one letter, written to his wife after the battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, Lally writes about being grateful for his survival and about his excitement of the war being almost over so that he can soon “have the pleasure of seeing my little ones.” However, he was oblivious to the fact that there would be three more years of intense warfare.
While studying the letters, Burt was particularly fascinated by Lally’s perspective in his writing and the idea of not knowing how the war would turn out. “The perspective of a letter writer, the pathos of it is, they’re only seeing things as they happen, but they don’t have a sense of a larger story of which it’s a part. They don’t know how the story ends,” Burt elaborated in an interview with the Justice.
During the presentation, Oller discussed the process of preserving these letters and spoke of Wellesley College’s own collection of Catherine Mitchell’s pre-Civil War and Civil War era letters.
Oller also explained the conservation of these letters as a technical process that involves humidifying the letters, dabbing them with sponges and then arranging them on a platform with 15 to 20 per batch. The letters are then sealed under a lid for about 24 hours and then put between blotting papers. Oller explained that this process takes more than a year, but it is all for the sake of making these documents visible and useable so that people can observe and study these primary documents.
In an interview with the Justice, Surella E. Seelig, the Brandeis Archives and Special Collections outreach librarian, explained that the letters are all kept in acid-free folders and acid-free boxes to ensure that there’s no further damage to them. The boxes are then kept away from light and dust and are stored in a temperature-controlled environment.
“What we love to do in archives is make our material accessible. It’s not just about hoarding fancy fun old things — it’s about keeping them safe so that people can come in and use them; researchers, students; anybody who’s interested. So one of the things about this website is it makes it much more widely available to anybody with an internet connection. It’s free, you don’t have to be in school to use it; you don’t have to be an academic to use it,” Seelig said.
Seelig described the collaboration between Brandeis and Wellesley College as “fantastic.” She explained that Wellesley worked on the technical aspects and created a timeline and a map in correlation to the letters and the battles. Due to the faint handwriting of many of the letters, Brandeis and Wellesley decided to both transcribe their letters in addition to scanning them in order to make them even more accessible to the public.
Brandeis’s Archives and Special Collections department is in the process of creating audio recordings of the letters so that people who are visually impaired can also access them. The department has also created lesson plans by a certified Massachusetts teacher that incorporate the Civil War and the archival letters for sixth-grade, seventh-grade and undergraduate levels.
“It’s a great way to introduce young people to primary resources, and that’s really what [Brandeis Archives and Special Collections] is all about — how great primary resources are and to get people to use them,” Seelig said.
— Max Moran and Brianna Majsiak contributed reporting