They called it â€œThe Great Warâ€ and it was to be â€œThe War to End All Wars.â€ 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.Â 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 donâ€™t have gems like these written by your own ancestors, by reading the surviving correspondence of your ancestorsâ€™ 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 Veteransâ€™ 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.Â
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 â€œDear Eagle: The Civil War Correspondence of Stephen H. Bogardus, Jr.â€Â 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 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.”Â
Some archive collections are too extensive to post online. The Maine State Archives website says that â€œBecause 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.â€Â 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.
The Virginia Tech University Digital Library and Archives has posted a collection of Civil War love letters on its website.Â 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.Â
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.Â Their letters describe everyday life in the Confederate army, both in camp and on the battle field.
Try searching for your ancestorâ€™s military unit or a ship name if it is known, combined with the name of the conflict. If that doesnâ€™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 WorldCatÂ 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 divisionâ€™s publication, the â€œWadsworth Gas Attackâ€ 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 servedâ€”or are currently servingâ€”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 Veteransâ€™ Day, letâ€™s take steps to make sure that we are preserving the history of those who served. Whether itâ€™s to research an ancestorâ€™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 youâ€™ve found in the Comments section of the blog. And if youâ€™ve found a unique way to honor the veterans in your family, weâ€™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.