Honoring Those Who Serve, by Juliana Smith

WWI Love postcard.jpgThey called it “The Great War” and it was to be “The War to End All Wars.” Tomorrow will mark the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. There is no shortage of information on the war that ravaged much of Europe between 1914 and 1918 and dramatically changed the map. As with most wars, many books have been written, movies and mini-series made, and websites launched chronicling the conflict.

While these types of resources are undoubtedly helpful, they are often painted with too wide a brush to give you that close-up picture of the war on the ground. The most revealing insights into war are often written by the participants themselves. My first foray into the world of writing was an article based on a collection of letters that my mother had inherited that had been written by her uncle while he was fighting in World War I. Reading those letters and then learning more about the movements of his battalion, I got a much clearer perspective of both Edwin and his involvement in World War I.

Of course, not everyone has a notebook full of letters like we did. All too often correspondence, diaries, and first-person accounts are discarded or lost to the ravages of time. Even if you don’t have gems like these written by your own ancestors, by reading the surviving correspondence of your ancestors’ contemporaries, you can still get that glimpse into the conditions they endured in the trenches, on the field of battle, in camps or prisons, and wherever else the war took them.

With Veterans’ Day tomorrow, I thought that this week it would be appropriate to learn a little more about the service of the veterans in our family tree. Here are some places you can begin your search for first-person accounts.

As I went off in search of online resources for correspondence and the diaries of military personnel serving in various conflicts, I was thrilled with what I found. War Letters is a website that has posted letters from the Civil War and both World Wars–both images and transcripts.

The Valley of the Shadow website has made available letters and diaries from both sides of the Civil War. The site focuses on the lives of people Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, with accounts from before, during, and after the war. 

A search of the Card Catalog at Ancestry for war letter turned up sixteen hits, and a subsequent search for war diary produced another fourteen.

General history sites may also have personal accounts posted. I found this page with memoirs and diaries on FirstWorldWar.com.

Sometimes newspaper correspondents were actually hometown boys who mailed in their accounts of the action. I found this website titled “Dear Eagle: The Civil War Correspondence of Stephen H. Bogardus, Jr.” Bogardus served with the 5th New York Duryee Zouaves and Purnell’s Maryland Legion and wrote regularly to his hometown newspaper. The accounts have been compiled in a book and many of his missives are available on the website.

State Archives
State archives often house collections of military correspondence. The West Virginia State Archives has posted a collection of war letters on its website titled “Hope to See You Soon.” 

Some archive collections are too extensive to post online. The Maine State Archives website says that “Because the volume of Civil War correspondence in the Maine State Archives is so great, we have no immediate plans to attempt an item-by-item index of this material.” In reading through the descriptions of the collections, for those who can make the trip, these records sound fascinating.

Check your local state archive to see what collections they have and what can be found online.

University Libraries
The Virginia Tech University Digital Library and Archives has posted a collection of Civil War love letters on its website. You may find military correspondence in the libraries of universities as well. The University of Miami Libraries have posted a collection of letters from the Civil War, written by a New Hampshire soldier, Calvin Shedd, who was stationed at Fort Jefferson in the Gulf of Mexico. 

University of Virginia Special Collections Department has posted the Civil War letters of twin brothers John and James Booker, written to their cousin, Chloe Unity Blair. Their letters describe everyday life in the Confederate army, both in camp and on the battle field.

Finding Collections
Try searching for your ancestor’s military unit or a ship name if it is known, combined with the name of the conflict. If that doesn’t work, try searching for the name of the conflict and diary or letters (e.g., civil war letters, or world war ii diary). I feel I have to insert a warning here though. Be prepared to spend some time on these sites. The accounts I found while researching this article were riveting.

I searched WorldCat for 105th machine gun battalion world war I and found that the New York State Library has the papers of Chester B. Bahn, who it appears served in the same division as my grand-uncle, Edwin Dyer. In another search of the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) I found a more detailed description of the contents of the collection. There are copies of the division’s publication, the “Wadsworth Gas Attack” and photographs and other items included in the collection that are of interest to me.

The Legacy Project
Six years ago, Megan Smolenyak wrote an article for the newsletter about The Legacy Project. The work of Andrew Carroll, this project “encourages Americans to honor and remember those who have served—or are currently serving—this nation in wartime by seeking out and preserving their letters and e-mails home.” Andrew has edited four books now filled with wartime correspondence which are available through the Legacy Project website–www.warletters.com. The site also includes links to project letter displays online, and tips on preserving your wartime correspondence.

Honoring Our Veterans
This Veterans’ Day, let’s take steps to make sure that we are preserving the history of those who served. Whether it’s to research an ancestor’s participation in a conflict of the past or preserving the correspondence of those who are currently serving, we can offer them this small token of our gratitude.

Have you found a good resource that I missed? Let us know about the military correspondence and first person accounts that you’ve found in the Comments section of the blog. And if you’ve found a unique way to honor the veterans in your family, we’d like to hear about that too.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

9 thoughts on “Honoring Those Who Serve, by Juliana Smith

  1. I agree that hometown newspapers can be an excellent source. I was fortunate that the mother of one of my relatives took the letter her son had written home in 1919 to the local paper and the editor published it. This is the only personal “letter” we have in my family from the Great War.

  2. While working on a bio of my father for the county family history book, I wanted to know what ship he was on when shipping out to Guam during WWII. He was a naval pharmacist mate, and his discharge papers provided no clues. My mother didn’t know the answer and I even looked up one of his war buddies who stated “the ship didn’t have a name”, and he informed me they had no unit or regiment ID. This made no sense to me.

    I happened to mention to a great-aunt on my mother’s side of the family my frustration and confusion. She was suprised I had never seen my father’s Letter Home printed in the newspaper. She had saved the newspaper clipping my father’s mother had submitted reprinting a letter from him after the censorship had lifted – and it had all the information I was looking for, a description of his life in Guam and the hardships of the trip over. Now I understood the reason he would never talk about military life to his children and why he hated spam! After finding the name of the ship and looking it up on line, I also found out he was a group of 100 naval medics on a Marine ship of 5000.

    Moral to the story: look in old weekly county papers for letters home from the soldiers for family information.

  3. Thank you for so much interesting and useful military history. May I respectfully draw to your attention that today is the 233rd Anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps, the oldest branch of the U.S. military. There are superb records in both NARA and SARA [NY] on the Marines, as well as muster rolls and ship data. One needs to specify the Record Group [RG] for NARA, which I do not have in front of me at the moment. Thanks. Ed

  4. My grandfather was in WWI, I sent for his service records but they were lost in a fire at the Records Center in St. Louis in the 1960’s. I had very little information on his war service. The Missouri Secretary of State’s Office has on-line minimal information. One day I googled his name and found a link to a book written in 1919 where his name was in the index. I found the book “The 88th Division in the World War of 1914-1918” available on-line and ordered it. It gave details on his division. I could track his movement from basis training at Fort Dodge, Iowa through his trip to France with dates of sailing and the ship’s name. It gave details of battles in France, through the end of the war and told what the division did until they were sent back home. What a treasure this book has been to our family. So you never know when or where you might find details of you ancestors military records.

    Trudy Riddle

  5. 1. I wrote a biography of my father (only family members have copies). Because both he and one of his brothers kept diaries during World War I, one of the chapters had that as its subject.
    2. “John B. McFerrin, A Biography,” by O. P. Fitzgerald, 1889, about half of which is direct quotations from his own diary, tells of his ministry as a chaplain during the Civil War, preaching and ministering to both armies. That report is very mollifying, considering a lot of what is written about that war.
    Roy L. Howard, Chattanooga.

  6. The Higginson Book Co. of Salem, MA, reprints Civil War regimental histories. They are fairly expensive, but I bought ($47.50) the 344 page hardback “The Story of a Cavalry Regiment, “Scott’s 900″ Eleventh New York Cavalry, from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico 1861-1865”. My husband’s ggrandfather was in that unit. The stories in it were written mostly following the 1895 reunion of the unit and include battle accounts, glimpses into day-to-day life, and some unexpected items. For instance, one man wrote about being in Washington, DC, on unit business when Lincoln was shot. He actually was called upon (since he was in uniform) to hold Lincoln’s head as they carried him across the street from the theater to another building. The book contains many photos, including ones of individuals taken at the reunion in 1895. The book makes for fascinating reading and is well worth the price. Readers might want to see if they can see copies for other units at a good library before purchasing, because they probably vary in quality?

  7. For the last 10 years our two daughters have taken their Dad, a Vietnam vet, out to lunch for Veterans’ Day to thank him for his service and let him know they are proud of him.

  8. I have three notebooks of the letters three of my uncles wrote to my grandmother while they were in World War I. Somewhere there should be a fourth notebook from the 4th Uncle. I am sure coordinated, these would be a great resource but I haven’t had a chance to even read most of them. Other stories and genealogy have taken all my time. Time goes too fast.

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