March is Women’s History Month. Over on the History of Food & Drink blog, I’ll be profiling women who made contributions and influenced American culinary history. Which got me thinking about our other manuscript collections, women who lived through American history and women whose words are on our shelves. If you had the time to look through our nearly 1800 collections, you would find many women’s names. Most of them aren’t famous, but their letters, diaries, architectural drawings, cookbooks, and other papers can be important both as individual objects and in the larger context.
That being said, I thought I’d share Nancy B. Harbin’s letter. Written in the second year of the American Civil War, Nancy writes from Calhoun County, Mississippi to her sons in Richmond, Virginia. Jack, John, and Edward all served with Company F, 42nd Regiment, Mississippi Infantry.
As with many mothers, her concern is first and foremost for the well-being of her sons. Her letter is really two letters: one to Jack and a second to John. She doesn’t write Edward directly, which may be the result of his being “so near death.” It is unclear if he was sick or injured. (Our research on the family wasn’t as fruitful as we might hope–which sometimes the case–and we don’t know if any of Nancy’s sons survived the war. ) On the one hand, this is a letter from a mother to her children, providing them updates from home, sharing her concern and love for them, and encouraging them. On the other, the very fact that it has survived 152 years makes it an important part of the larger body of Civil War materials in our collections and far more than a simple letter from mother to sons. Because Nancy’s concerns are what we might expect from such a letter, it is both specific to her family and a representative voice of the Civil War home front correspondence of the time.
We have other home front letters from women (and men!) in our Civil War holdings, and if you were to keep reading, you would see similar themes, regardless of location, relationship, or loyalty. If you’d like to do so, come visit us and we’ll be happy to help!