Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Soldiers' Pens

The establishment of major new archival research collections is not something we are accustomed to hearing about anymore. However, the relatively recent creation (1990) of the Gilder Lehrman Collection, the work of two prominent collections, at the New-York Historical Society has gathered some attention due to the publication of Robert E. Bonner’s The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), ISBN-13:978-0-8090-8744-0, drawing from the rich holdings of this collection.

Drawing on 180 documents, Bonner provides ample excerpts from the letters, journals, and diaries, arranged by broad themes of the soldiers’ writings, such as life in the army, battle experiences, opinions of the causes they were fighting for, and the prospects of reunion. Clearly, The Soldier’s Pen is intended to be directed to a popular audience interested in the Civil War and reading first-hand accounts of warfare. For archivists, however, what will most interest them is Bonner’s analysis of the genre of soldier’s writings.

Bonner argues, for example, that the richness of the soldiers’ documentary materials has to do with the development of the Federal postal service by the time of the Civil War: “Without such a reliable, rapid, and relatively cheap network for transmission, far fewer soldiers would have regularly committed their thoughts and experiences to paper. . . [The] Civil War became a written war primarily because a regular exchange of letters allowed millions of personal stories to be recorded and preserved for posterity” (p. 19). Think of the present challenges we face in preserving soldiers’ emails and blogs.

This historian provides ample analysis of various aspects of the creation and maintenance of documents produced by the Civil War soldiers. There is discussion about how the production of letters and other documents was affected by the ebb and flow of stationary supplies. Bonner considers how frank the letters were because there was no military censorship system in place, as there was for later wars. And there is some consideration of why individuals remembered for their Civil War letters often seem to have left little else behind; Bonner attributes this to the greater care taken with the records of the war: “As part of the normal order of things, most documents created by civilians would have seemed expendable when compared with Civil War treasures” (p. 221). Bonner also describes how the families of these soldiers “became unofficial archivists who were committed to preserving written relics of war and transmitting them to posterity.” This historian even provides a research agenda for archivists and special collections curators who care for such documents, when he suggests that “We know less about how soldiers’ letters, diaries, and sketches were save than about how and why these items were created” (p. 225).