CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST: Part One – Primary Documents

The first part in a series of articles discussing the personal connections we have to the people, places and events of the Civil War era.

Although the events of the American Civil War are a century-and-a-half behind us, there are still many things that connect us to those people, places and events that shaped this important part of American history. One of the most important are what have been termed “Primary Documents” by modern scholars. From diaries and journals, to letters home, to telegrams and after-action reports, to discharge and parole papers, these are our most important, and most intimate, connection to the people who lived at this time. It is by reading these primary documents that we can get a sense of who these people were, what they were fighting for, and how combat affected them mentally, physically and spiritually.

I am currently in the middle of working on my Master’s Thesis, the final research project for Graduate School. I am focusing my research on two units that fought in the American Civil War. One of those units is the Confederate 49th North Carolina Troops. As part of the research, I have to go through many primary documents pertaining to the unit. Not only has this been very good for my research project, but it has also been an eye-opening look into the lives of the men who fought in the unit. Much of what I have found has been truly memorable, and also heartbreaking.

In all the research that I have done so far, three moments stand out for me. The first was on my first research trip in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, back at the end of November this past year, to go through the Southern Historical Collections. I went through several documents, but probably the most fascinating that day was the diary of Captain Henry A. Chambers, who served in Company B of the 49th North Carolina, which he kept between June 1863, and April 1865. The diary gives many detailed accounts of the battles the unit fought in during that time, as well as his feelings about the outcomes of those conflicts. His description of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, is truly memorable for its great detail, and its heartbreaking description of the loss of men (The full transcript of his diaries, including the one kept 1863-65, can be found here).

The second moment came the following day, as I was going through the special collections at Duke University in Durham, NC. I was going through the papers of John Lane Stuart, who fought in Company D of the 49th NC. He wrote several letters to his family at home. But while going through the packet of documents, I stumbled across two small slips of paper. Both were the parole papers given to him after the war had ended, and he had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States. These are important, because there are apparently only a few of these parole slips known to exist. What is also interesting to point out is that, in the first one given to him in August of 1865, the man writing the document misspelled his last name. On the document, the man filling out the form spelled it “Steward.” But when Private Stuart affixed his signature to the document, he spelled it the correct way. This is fascinating, and a bit humorous as well. The other one, which is a “copy” of the oath given to him a month later, the name is misspelled again, this time as “Stewart.” These are unique documents to see, and to find them was a real treasure.

The last moment, and probably the most emotional one, was going back to UNC-Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago to do more research for the project. This day, I went through the Phifer Family Papers, and some of what I found truly moved me. One of the soldiers who’s letters I went through was Ed Phifer, who went on to be a Lieutenant in the 49th NC. He wrote several letters home, each time wishing members of his family well. As I did a quick look through other letters, I came across a slip of paper folded in two, covering a document that was a little more brittle than the other documents I looked through that day. As I opened it to investigate, I discovered it was the funeral notice for Lieutenant Phifer, who died after suffering wounds. I went back, looking through other documents, and discovered a telegram sent on July 18th, 1864 from Petersburg by his brother to his family notifying them of his death. It was very heart-wrenching to realize that the man whose letters I was going through was one of the men who did not return home from the war. Although I did not know him personally, I did begin to well up a little bit for him and his family, knowing that he gave his life for his home and family, and that his loved ones would not see him again in this life.

To go through these primary documents from the war is to connect personally with the men and women of that time period. To see how they lived through America’s darkest days. To read for yourself what they fought and died for. And most important of all, to feel a personal connection to the events of the American Civil War, a feeling that historical books cannot give you. To me, these documents are just as important a connection as the battlefields and structures of the period that are preserved. For it is through these letters, diaries, journals, and other items that the men themselves are given life again. I encourage everybody to take a day or two to visit the places that hold these types of documents, to see for yourselves the private collections of the men and women who shaped the most important time in our nation’s history.


2 responses to “CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST: Part One – Primary Documents

  1. My third great-grandfather was in the 49th, Co A and died at Sharpsburg. Living too far away and not having an opportunity to visit archives yet, I have not had the chance to see the type of documents you have-only the few I’ve found online-but would love to someday. It was difficult enough learning of his death and following his company as I learned of the battles they fought in, more difficult still to see the photos of the aftermath of the battle and to know there is no way of knowing where he is buried. I plan to someday visit the battlefield to pay my respects. Thank you for sharing this on your blog.

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