Civil War letters bring history alive

Book: A correspondence course in what life was like for a soldier and his beloved in the 1860s.

February 10, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

There are no stars tonight

But those of memory.

Yet how much room for memory there is

In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough

For the letters of my mother's mother,

Elizabeth,

That have been pressed so long

Into a corner of the roof

That they are brown and soft,

And as liable to melt as snow ... -- from "My Grandmother's Love Letters," by Hart Crane

Just after the Battle of Gettysburg, a young Union soldier with a Minie ball in his shoulder sat down as the day waned and wrote a letter to a girl back home about nursing the sick and the wounded and the dying in a Baltimore military hospital.

"My dear friend," Walter G. Dunn began his letter. He wrote in a fine, strong, flowing hand, as steady and regular as the martial beat of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Private Walter G. Dunn was 18 or 19 and his dear friend, Emma Randolph, back in Plainfield, N.J., was just a little younger, and they were beginning to be in love with each other. Their romance proceeded with the charm and pace and formality of a quadrille in slow time.

The letters they traded are touching and tender, vivacious and gay, chatty and teasing -- and sometimes marked by fear and sadness and loss. They wre writing during the tragedy and blood of the Civil War. And their love ultimately ended tragically.

Walter's July 1863 letter from Jarvis Hospital is the opening dispatch in a collection of about 100 of the pair's letters recently published by the Maryland Historical Society in a book titled "After Chancellorsville: Letters from the Heart."

"After Chancellorsville" is edited by Judith A. Bailey, a schoolteacher in Fairfax, Va., who inherited the letters, and Robert I. Cottom, a Civil War scholar who is director of the society's press.

Walter had been wounded at Chancellorsville, Va., two months earlier when his outfit, the 11th New Jersey Volunteers, was overrun by Stonewall Jackson's storming Confederate troops.

Now, at 10 o'clock on the night of July 10, 1863, Walter writes Emma to say his wound is improving rapidly and that he has volunteered to help "the poor sufferers" arriving by the hundreds at the Jarvis U.S. Military Hospital. The 1,500-bed hospital had been built on an estate confiscated from George Hume Steuart, who fled south and became a Confederate general. The neighborhood at Gilmor and Baltimore streets, near Union Square, is still known as Steuart Hill. `A rich, lively life'

A serious, church-going youth who nonetheless manages to enjoy a busy off-duty social life, Walter gives us a vivid picture of Civil War Baltimore. He writes clear, descriptive letters in well-balanced, compound sentences that Ric Cottom thinks would be quite beyond a contemporary 19-year-old soldier.

"I think the Civil War army was a lot more literate than the current Army," he says, noting the troops all but fought over newspapers from home, read the complex editorials and argued about them. "These things were passed around until they almost fell apart. That sort of thing doesn't occur in today's Army."

Emma's letters are delightful, but proved more problematical for the editors. She wrote in a tiny, almost microscopic hand that filled the page.

To her little sister, Gracie, Emma's handwriting looked "like a crab going to war."

She had a rich, lively life in New Jersey, revolving around family and friends, holidays, strawberry festivals, ice cream at the "fun parlor," church services and the frequent funerals of the 19th century. She sometimes seems flirty and girlish, and teases Walter about the girls in Baltimore.

She was pretty enough to be juggling five suitors before settling on Walter. But, unhappily, no pictures of Emma or Walter survive. We know her weight fluctuated between 120 and 141 because she told Walter. His weight stayed steady between about 150 and 155 pounds. She says he's handsome and sometimes wore a mustache.

Emma was also subject to illnesses and was often so headachy she could hardly write. But she could often be poetic, sometimes surprisingly profound. She went to the funeral of a Mr. Dunham and was caught in a rain shower at the graveyard. She wrote Walter:

"It was awfully grand those black threatening clouds in the east, the sun shining causing the rain drops to sparkle as they fell and reflecting the various hues of the rainbow from glittering hail stones and that long funeral procession (70 wagons).

"The splendid lightning, the heavy thunder. It seemed to portray the country as it is at the present time. Do you not think so? On one side the deepest gloom and sorrow, and on the other light and sunshine."

Emma's letters are what make the collection very, very special, Ric Cottom says. Caches of letters written by Civil War soldiers are not uncommon. But letters matched with replies from home are.

"There are just not a lot of letters from a sweetheart or a mother or a wife to a soldier anywhere in the field," Cottom says. "They tended to get lost, destroyed, burned, used for kindling, or whatever.

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