Families in the Civil War

In my current project at Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), I have been working on checking the transcriptions that have been uploaded by our transcription volunteers.  Although I am not currently working on a particular collection, checking transcriptions of letters written during the Civil War is an incredibly rewarding experience.  As I go through the digital archives, I come across letters from an incredibly large cross-section of Americans.  Some documents are written by generals and lieutenants, others are written by doctors and lawyers, and others are written by wives and sisters.

Out of all the letters I’ve come across, however, I would have to say that some of my favorite letters are written from children to their fathers, brothers, and cousins in the army.  These letters from children always help shed a light on how real the Civil War was for these families.  They present a wonderful way to view children’s opinions and ideas about the war.

An example of these letters is one from Charley Watkins, to his father, Nathaniel V. Watkins, who served with Co. H, 4th Virginia Heavy Artillery, which became part of the 34th Virginia Infantry Regiment.  Charley tells his father about life at home, and reassures Nathaniel that he will take care of “little Moses.”  Working hard to stay upbeat, Charley always mentions how much he loves his father and cannot wait for Nathaniel to make his way back to see them.  His letters are written in a children’s script, and it is clear that he is still learning how to write.  Charley Watkins is not the only Charley in the SCRC collections who wrote to his father.  Charley Coleman, the little son of Charles Washington Coleman, was too young to actually write to his father, who worked as a doctor with the Confederate Army, mainly in South Carolina.  Instead, little Charley would sign his mother’s letters, sometimes writing a single line or phrase to accompany his very young scrawl.

These letters give a wonderful reminder of family life during the Civil War.  Men were not just leaving their wives and parents to fight, but their siblings and children as well.  Although both Nathaniel and Charles made it through the war and returned to their families, it is a sobering moment to realize that many men did not survive the war, leaving their children and families behind to carry on in their absence.   I am humbled when working with this collection, and thankful that I have this wonderful chance to view everyday life during the Civil War.

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.

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