In the fall of this year, SITES launches a new exhibition that tells the story of Americans at war--gathered not from the accounts of generals or historians but from soldiers who fought on the front lines during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and all the other major conflicts, leading us right up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mail Call is slated to open at the Spartanburg County Public Library in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and reveals the quiet, sometimes agonized words of soldiers as they articulated matters of love, life, and death.
Often soldiers penned letters to fill the time and emptiness of being in camp or on the move: "June 5, 1898: Dear Mother and Sisters, Will write again today although I don't know what to say . . . ." And sometimes, they just wanted to report that they were alive and seemingly well: "April 30, 1918: Dear Dad and Aunt Clara, I am well and o.k. Just finished two days and two nights thru France . . ." Still others simply wanted to maintain their tenuous connections to life at home. "Alice sent me her picture last night, and it's just like her. She has on a Salvation Army bonnet."
Regardless of what the letters contained, they were not immediate. Many missives reveal the difficulty of waiting to receive news about family members back home: "Not yet having heard from you, I thought I would write again . . .," wrote one World War I solider. Imagine not knowing if a sister had survived scarlet fever, or if a baby had been born, or myriad other things that time and distance kept silent. Letters were a soldier's only connection to the world and family he left behind.
And the same was true for the families at home, but many times, letters were the harbingers of the worst news of all. Here's an excerpt of a letter from Sergeant John S. Louderbach to the wife of a Union solider, dated May 27, 1865:
I think I am Safe in Saying that your Husband D W Walters Died in Reble Prision about the 10th of Febuary I Saw him a bout the 5th he was then unable to help him self I waited on him & gave him as much Comfort as I could untill I was taken down my Self He often Spoke of you & his little Boy Whitch he Spoke of with a greateal of Respect & Seemed to waiting with a greateal of anxziety for the thime to Come when the Prision doores would be thrown open that he could return to his loved ones at home but alas the Small amount of Meal that he was allowed was not Suffitient for him I did not se him Dye my self but I have bin told by Competen Persons that he Died a bout the thime that I have Stated . . .
Mail Call is a collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.