Last week my friend in Savannah, Georgia, had her 30th birthday party over the internet. In quarantine, we’re doing our best to maintain social connections. In fact, the basic rituals of daily life that keep us grounded, like birthday parties, become ever more important in a world wracked by crisis and uncertainty.
Human connection is important, even for those of us who reflexively avoid the entanglement of small-talk. I certainly have spent more time on the phone with family and friends in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. Heck, my brother who lives in Namibia reached out to me to check in, and that never happens. I might even call my niece to ask after her well-being.
These intensified check-ins and anniversaries and holidays over Zoom and Facebook Live we’re experiencing mirror the same need to maintain social connection that glued Americans together during the Civil War.
The millions of men that served in the Army represented a great dislocation in the middle of a national crisis. While a few antebellum Americans had traveled widely, and migration—voluntary and forced—did separate families, the majority of Americans lived in tight-knit rural communities, practically in shouting distances of dozens of kin. Military service made those face-to-face relationships impossible and men and women turned to letter writing to maintain connections.
The Post Office became the Civil War-era Zoom conference.
More often than not, soldier’s letters don’t narrate the great events of the war. Instead, they tend to be somewhat formulaic, but that formula carried great meaning. “I now take hold of my pen to tell you that I am well…” wrote William Trail, Jr., of the 28th United States Colored Troops in a common beginning. Saying so immediately put at ease the reader who knew well the mortal danger—from sickness, accident, or combat—in which soldiers lived. Letter-writers asked after family—wanting similar assurances that all were well and in good health at home.
News followed; soldiers then offered what they had heard from friends and family in the army. “Jno. Lusher and Henry Smith are well, as are the rest of the Venango Co. boys here,” reported Pennsylvania’s J.D. Chadwick to his father. In fact, so many relationships stretched around the country that a soldier in Tennessee may have been the conduit by which a spouse in Wisconsin could learn about a cousin in Ohio.
Descriptions of camp or the march could also be a vehicle for assuring families that a loved one was safe and comfortable—even if they weren’t.
Occasionally the formula and the meaningful trading of news and assurances did not suffice and a soldier or his family from home poured forth with boasts (early in the war) or with complaint, grief, or other emotional expressions (later on). When Alexander Haskell, a South Carolina staff officer and veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia’s toughest battles read a mawkish newspaper account of the assault on Charleston Harbor in which no defender had been killed, he unloaded on his sister with sarcasm and anger: “I see an appeal made in strong terms to the good citizens of South Carolina to empty their stores…of coffee, to refresh the [wearied] fat gunners of Ft. Sumter after a desperate battle in which not one man was killed & only two or three hurt by an accident & the stupidity of engineers… The men may have felt a little fatigue from moving heavy guns but this is not much. They no doubt were exhausted by their unusual excitement.”
Soldiers bristled at families that did not keep in touch. “I am at a loss to know,” demanded Darius Lobdell of the 91st New York, “the reason of this long delay and still more to know what has happened to you who are so very punctual have failed to write.”
Soldiers frequently wrote letters directly to hometown newspapers intending to inform an entire community about the goings-on of its men at the front.
In composing an avalanche of letters, ordinary Americans—widely unschooled in the classical and literary letter-writing conventions of the past—transformed themselves through letter-writing. Just for starters, many had to learn to write. Others used the newly popular medium to learn new ways of expressing themselves. Amid the dislocations and challenges of war, men learned to talk to women about their grief, and women learned to tell men about heading up households. It was new for everyone.
One critical difference between their way of communicating and ours is that the physical letters lived on in boxes, attics, and archives, and are available to us now. Will Zoom parties, or phone calls, live on in the future so that a ground-level experience of the emotional needs of Americans in quarantine are available to historians of the future? But the great commonality is the need to maintain social connection, for ritual, for fun, for keeping in touch, for exchanging news, and expressing grief.
Anyhow, I should go call my niece now.
Not answering. She’s probably on TikTok.
I should learn something new. I wouldn’t be the only one.
If you want to try your hand at writing a letter to help folks feel connected during this pandemic, try out TimeSlips, a non-profit devoted to creative engagement with elders in memory care facilities.
Curator of Exhibitions
For more: See Christopher Hager’s Smithsonian Magazine article on letter writing in the Civil War, or his book about how Americans in the Civil War transformed the art of letters.
Not Alone in History is a limited blog series that seeks to find insights in the ways that Americans faced another national crisis as we confront the present COVID pandemic.