The Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library is currently working on a transcription initiative as part of the “From Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union” project. The transcription work is a massive effort by volunteers to transcribe selected documents such as diaries and letters and make them available online for current and future researchers. Currently, I am working on creating scans and descriptions of selected letters and documents from the Tucker-Coleman Papers, a large collection that covers dates from 1664 to 1945. As part of the transcription project, I am in the process of uploading letters from the collection written between 1861 and 1865, during the Civil War.
The first letter I uploaded was a letter to Cynthia B. T. Washington from Charles Coleman, her future husband. It was such a sweet letter and discussed his new job at the hospital and how much he missed her. As I upload more of the letters, moving chronologically from 1861 to June 1864, I am able to read about Charles and Cynthia’s marriage, the death of Cynthia’s daughter (from her first marriage), Charles’ transfers as a doctor with the Confederate Army, and the birth of Charles’ and Cynthia’s son, also named Charles.
The letters, most of which are between Charles and Cynthia, detail their lives during the Civil War. Since Charles was away with the army, their correspondence was one of the few constant ways of obtaining information about friends and family back home. Cynthia’s letters detail the evacuation of the Peninsula (including Williamsburg) in 1862 and the correspondence between them is a window into how day-to-day life functioned, both for wives and families at home and for medical personnel with the Confederate Army. In one letter from early 1864, Charles even discusses the types of food he eats as part of the army and how it makes him wish for better food.
Besides the correspondence between Charles and Cynthia, the few letters from family members and friends help to generate a very complex and convoluted picture of Cynthia and Charles’ relatives. Many of Cynthia’s younger siblings were involved in the war, and two of her brothers (St. George and Thomas) were part of the Confederate Army. The few letters from her brothers that have survived as part of the collection do not give much detail about life in the army, and instead ask for and discuss news from home. This does not mean that the war and life in the army is not discussed, since Cynthia’s correspondance with Charles, her mother, and her other friends and relatives details multiple battles, including the Battles of Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, and the Peninsula Campaign, as well as other smaller battles and skirmishes. Cynthia also keeps a running tally of family and friends that have been injured or have died while in battle, detailing their injuries if she knows them.
The Tucker-Coleman letters are indispensible in their discussion of every day life during the Civil War. As a history student, I find these letters particularly interesting because of the breadth of topics covered. Within these writings are details about everything from how long the war will last to how best to keep rose bushes. I am very glad for the chance to work with such a wonderful collection.
Shannon Goings is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.