This post is by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.
What would we do without the written word? Written communication has been, and still is, our saving grace. The Civil War was the first time that the American military used the telegraph to communicate information across vast distances in wartime, from commanders to officers and vice versa. Since the 1840s, instant messaging had slowly entered the daily lives of people everywhere. Still, there have always been those who rely on more traditional means of communication. For Sarah R. Blunt, a Union Army nurse, lending her pen to paper was the only her only means of communicating to the world beyond Point Lookout, Maryland, and Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Her letters to her family in Brooklyn, New York, comprise a portion of the larger Civil War Treasures Collection in the New-York Historical Society archives. Being letters, they represent the most reliable means of communication for all who lived prior to the computer age. All soldiers, regardless of rank, wrote letters. All people, regardless of address and social standing, wrote letters. But the Civil War marked the first in a number of advances in technology, slowly relegating the art of letter writing to the corridors of history. What Blunt chose to write about is rich with historical detail. (What a gold mine for social historians!) But even for Blunt’s contemporaries, a thoughtfully composed letter in hand was worth any number of messages on the wire.
Paper was as valuable a commodity as anything during the Civil War, especially in the South. Ernest M. Lander, Jr. writes that small scale paper manufacturers thrived in South Carolina before the war, but went out of business during the war. Despite the shortages, it can be said that paper remained more readily available to officers and quartermasters who needed it for military purposes. Theodore Spencer Case, Quartermaster for the State of Missouri in 1865 compiled a list of how stationery and writing equipment was apportioned according to each officer’s rank during the war (Figures 1, 2).
Thus, goods were appropriated where they were perceived to provide the greatest benefit. Historians agree that paper scarcity was of greater concern in the Confederate States, but neither the Union nor the Confederacy enjoyed bountiful supply lines. Both armies were worried about the fragility of their supply lines, and quartermasters were pressured to account for all needed and available supplies, including paper. For the lone nurse, access to paper and writing utensils was not protected by official protocol. Since many were far from home, the possibility of losing the ability to write to acquaintances or loved ones was especially distressing, and made nurses and soldiers of a lower rank more vigilant of these precious commodities.
The content of Sarah Blunt’s letters reflects the wide scope of topics that letters were meant to carry. In at least 119 pages of correspondence with her mother Mary, father Edmund, sisters Eliza (possibly also referred to as Liza) and Agnes, and Cousin Jerry, Blunt shares valuable insight into and meaningful observation of the treatment of contraband slaves by soldiers, conditions in military hospitals, and social life among the nurses. In a letter dated March 4, 1862, she writes to her mother about the brother in-law of a slave owner who pays a visit when she and Charlotte Bet, a contraband slave, are cleaning a window. (In the context of the Civil War, a “contraband slave” was any runaway slave whose master sided with the Confederate States of America. On August 6, 1861, all contraband slaves were freed by order of the Union government.) “I noticed a man not in uniform looking in the door. As he did not belong there I told Charlotte Bet to shut the door, but just then, Mrs. Gibbons came along with Dr Sterns, and while we were all talking this same man kept poking his head into the door.” The man was asked what his business was, and he pointed to Charlotte. He claimed that she was his brother-in-law’s property. Mrs. Gibbons called the man a “rebel,” and expressed that his rights to keep property did not extend as far as he believed.
This letter, written 303 days before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, serves at least two purposes. For historians, letters such as this one show that Union nurses believed as ardently in the cause of abolition as Lincoln or Frederick Douglass. For historians, and visitors to the New-York Historical Society or the New York Heritage Digital Collections website, the fact that Sarah Blunt chose to include this incident within her limited correspondence suggests that it was especially important to her. Each letter is multiple pages in length, the script large and spread out. She writes somewhat infrequently, and sometimes not for months at a time. Of course, some letters may have been lost to decay or thrown out. Assuming all of her letters are intact and are part of the digitized collection, she may have written infrequently because her job of caring for sick and wounded soldiers may have occupied the bulk of her time. Another factor may also have been that, as I hint at previously, paper was scarce and thus limited the frequency of one’s correspondence.
Distance was another factor that made letter writing an invaluable way to communicate one’s thoughts, fears, hopes, and care to those at home. Point Lookout and Harper’s Ferry were each nearly three hundred miles southwest of Brooklyn’s Third Ward. This was a considerable distance from which to stay up to date on her family’s affairs. In two letters, dated May 31 and June 3, 1863, respectively, Blunt communicates her desire to see her sick and dying niece. On the verso of the second letter, she writes that a problem with the boat that she was to board prevented her from coming home before her niece’s death. “I have just received the sad news of little Manny’s death. Poor Aunt Mary and all of them. I wish so much I were at home with you. I shall come home however at once.” Furthermore, leaving her post to visit home was difficult. In one letter, she encourages her mother to visit her at Harper’s Ferry. Deprived of personal contact with her family, Blunt uses keen observation to convey a series of specific events that make her wartime experience human, and relatable.
Blunt likely had little opportunity to use the telegraph. The newness of the telegraph and its usefulness to officers and Abraham Lincoln himself made its use a kind of exclusivity. In the case that she could find and operate a telegraph, she may not have been able to communicate the same sentiment or humanness that handwritten words convey, not to mention that her family also would have needed access to the telegraph to receive messages.
During the Civil War, letter writing was not only the most practical form of communication, but it was the most personal. Each empty page was subject to its holder’s thoughts, and his or her thoughts were limited by the size and quantity of pages available. This dance between Sarah R. Blunt and her empty pages resulted in a narrative that reveals an often forgotten aspect of daily life before the computer age. Today, we take for granted the ease with which we share thoughts and opinions, substantive or not, as though doing so were an innate right or freedom. But questions such as the ones I raise here pertain equally to our period in history: How do we value our means of communication? How do our times shape how we communicate, and how do our circumstances and daily lives shape our narrative? Sarah Blunt may or may not have been conscious of these questions, but she offers up an answer which the New-York Historical Society seeks to preserve and make known to a wide audience.
Like the New-York Historical Society on social media and visit the N-YHS Library blog soon for part two of “The Written Word During the American Civil War: Meaningful Utility.”
To access the fully digitized collection of Sarah R. Blunt’s personal correspondence, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16694coll47/id/119
To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47
To read part 2 of this post, please visit http://blog.nyhistory.org/meaningful-utility-the-handwritten-word-during-the-american-civil-war-pt-2-of-2/