To “Friend William:” A Letter from Weldon Railroad, VA, 1864

We talk a lot about items and collections in Special Collections having stories to tell. Sometimes, those stories are full of clear details, exciting new surprises, and a creator about whom we can discover quite a bit. Other times, well, you might get a more interesting mix. The kind that results in some on-going, Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing. Like this letter!

This is a relatively new accession and it isn’t even processed yet (consider this a sneak-peek!). But, it caught my attention as I was thinking back through some recent acquisitions in search of a subject, probably because it has some mystery elements to it. Written November 6, 1864 from Weldon Railroad (just south of Petersburg), Virginia, it’s simply addressed to “Friend William.” We don’t have the original envelope, so we don’t know William’s last name or where he lived at the time. However, based on the contents of the letter, we might guess that William is from Brookfield, NY. One of the other reasons this letter jumped out at me was the first page:

Letter from “Raz” to “Friend William,” pages 1 & 5 (with cross-hatching)

The writer started his letter, finished four pages, and still had more to say. In a time when paper was often scarce (and in other times and places when letters were paid for by the recipient and cost by the page), “cross-hatching” was a common occurrence. Not done writing? Go back to the first page, turn it 90 degrees, and keep going! (That should be totally easy to read, right??) Case in point, this letter actually isn’t as bad as some others. I’ve seen examples done in different colors or in pencil or ink that has faded over time. I was actually able to transcribe the majority of the text (and I’ll be going back to work on those and other missing words down the road). Weldon Railroad was located just south of Petersburg, which was a hotbed of activity during the last 6 months of the Civil War. The 189th Regiment, New York Infantry, the regiment with which the writer served, was newly formed in October 1864, and soldiers in it would spend the majority their service around Petersburg:

we left City Point
tuesday last and after forming corps
and moveing new the Weldon road
in the entrenchments near Petersburg we
have been in this camp three days and have
got some good log houses built and are
quite comfortable we are having good
times now but expect to have some
fighting to do soon

By now, you may have noticed that I keep saying “the writer.” And with good reason. At the very end of the cross-hatching, in the upper-right corner of the first/last page, the letter simply reads “write as soon as you get this Raz.” Raz. That’s what we have to go on for the author. However, most archivists love a challenge, myself included. While identifying the writer is an on-going challenge, a cursory glance at a roster of the 189th New York Infantry actually gives us a couple of prospective Raz-es: Riley (Rila) Razey and Warren Razey. Raz seems a likely nickname among friends, though there’s still plenty of research to be done.

Here are scans of all the pages:

For a letter that, on the surface, looked like it would be hard to read and lacking in solid information due to its mysterious correspondents, Raz has proved me wrong. His 4+ pages cover a bit of the usual: the weather here is pleasant, you should write more, today is dull, here’s how all our mutual friends in my unit are doing. But he also has some interesting details and insights. On the second page, he writes:

the army moved last week and
tried to take the south side railroad but
through some mistake one Corps did not
move as thay were ordered and it proved a
failure. so thay called it a Reconnaisence
and came back to camp. I think we shall
try it again soon.

Railroads were always coveted property during the war, but soldiers don’t always write so frankly about mishaps. Given that this is a more recently formed regiment, it’s mix of new soldiers and those who have been fighting for a while. Raz notes:  “I think we have had a good time but some of the boys think it hard. but thay will see their mistake before the year is up.” Shortly after that, he adds:

I suppose
thay are having great times about Electhion
ant thay. well we have something else to think
of down here it dont interest one much
it will make but little difference who is
president the ware will go on no mater who
is president

One wonders if Raz would have a different view of the war in one, three, or six months’ time. Perhaps if we can figure out who he is, we can figure out some of his post-war life, too. When we process the collection, we’ll try to post an update with new information! In the meantime, you’re welcome to view the letter in person or look at the images online and challenge yourself to read more of Raz’s handwriting.

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Dear Eleanor…Affectionately, James

I feel like, at some point, I should stop posting about Sherwood Anderson and his extended circle (this makes #3 for me and #4 total in the 18 months or so). On the other hand, over the last two years, we’ve been able to acquire some great new materials. This week, I’ve got a short set of letters from James T. Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson.

This collection contains four letters written by author James Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson between February 1952 and May of 1954. The two had some on-going correspondence of which this represents only a small piece. As the letters suggest, one thing the two had in common was social activism–at various points in time, both worked for and supported various rights and activist causes. The April 8th letter is primarily concerned with Farrell’s updates about contacts in the UAW and his efforts to help Anderson get a job with them, if she was interested. (It appears she was not, as she was re-hired by her previous employer, the YWCA, in 1951, and she remained with the organization until 1961.) The third and fourth letters are about some of Farrell’s recent writings on Sherwood Anderson, Anderson’s influence on Farrell, and Farrell’s own writing efforts at the time.

The finding aid for the collection has biographical notes on Farrell and Anderson and you can view it here: http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv01848.xml. (The nice thing about revisiting it is discovering one’s typos and fixing them!) I hope to have the letters posted on our digital site soon, at which point I’ll include links to those in the finding aid, too. While the collection is a small one, for Special Collections, it’s yet another piece of the Sherwood Anderson history we have here. It tells a little part of his posthumous story, showing how much of an influence and subject he proved to be consistently in the 10+ years following his death. Equally important, it gives us more insight into Eleanor’s continued connections with the literary circle and her own passion for social activism.

Where the Rubber (Historical Collection) Meets the Road (Monument)?

One of the first collections we received after I started at Special Collections in 2009 was that of a Union private from Pennsylvania, Charles F. McKenna. (Acquisitions and Processing Archivist Kira here, this week–which I’m only pointing out because this post is about a collection, but also some connections came full circle for me last month).  We know quite a bit about Charles F. McKenna, since he survived the Civil War and went to have a career as a lawyer and judge–more on that in a bit.

The Charles F. McKenna Collection contains diaries, personal papers, and published materials relating to McKenna’s Civil War service. The materials date from 1861 to 1998 (bulk 1861-1913). The collection is divided into two series: Personal Papers and Published Materials. The Personal Papers include McKenna’s original diaries (1862-1865); bound photocopies of the diaries; transcriptions on CD-rom; McKenna’s discharge papers; photographs of two generals; and a letter regarding the publication of Under the Maltese Cross, from Antietam to Appomattox, the Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865; Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment, Narrated by the Rank and File. The Published Materials include two articles featuring McKenna’s letters; a map of McKenna’s travels; an issue of Civil War News; and Civil War sheet music.

McKenna’s diaries. On the left, 1863-1865, on the right, 1862-1863, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031)
Pages from 1862-1863 diary, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031). This diary has headers added, probably at a later date, to the pages.
Pages from 1863-1865 diary, from the Charles F. McKenna Collection (Ms2009-031)
McKenna’s discharge papers,1865

Several times since 2009, I or a colleague have brought out the McKenna collection for one reason or another, but to be honest, I haven’t thought about it since about this time last year, when we had it on display for visiting 6th graders (as we did again this very morning). However, I’m getting ahead. Suffice to say, until recently, I hadn’t though about Charles (as I still think of him 8 years after processing his papers and as if we were friends across historical eras) lately. Before we jump into why he popped up again, a little about him (see the link the finding aid at the bottom of this post for more info–there’s a lot to say on him!)

Charles F. McKenna was born in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 1, 1844. McKenna attended schools in Pittsburgh until, at age 14, he apprenticed to a lithographer, due to his interest in sketching. He would continue to sketch throughout his life, even providing illustrations for a published history of the 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers he edited. He didn’t successfully enlist in a regiment until 1862, though he tried previously and was delayed due to family issues. He served the next three years with Company E, 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry and saw action in some of the most pivotal Civil War campaigns: Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Fredericksburg, and Appomattox. After the war, he became a lawyer. By 1904, he was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge and in 1906, became a judge for the United States District Court of Porto Rico [sic]. He returned to Pittsburgh in late 1906, unable to adapt to the climate. In addition to practicing law again, this time with his nephews, McKenna began to work extensively with Civil War organizations. First appointed to the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission, he went to to serve as its president for many years. He also created an index of Pennsylvania soldiers who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In 1911, then-Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener appointed McKenna to the newly established County Court of Allegheny County. In 1921, he was elected to complete a second ten-year term. His service was cut short by his death on December 3, 1922.

McKenna had a life story that I got caught up in while researching him and, as is often the case, probably spent too much time investigating while processing the collection. But that’s as hazard of the job. Anyway, that mostly brings us to April of 2017…

Last month, while on route to a conference in NJ, My colleagues and I took a detour into Gettysburg (after all, what else can you expect from four archivists left to run wild?) and we briefly drove through a part of the battlefield, stopping at the Pennsylvania State Monument, which you can climb to the top of to look out across part of the battlefield. We climbed up, walked around, cautiously made our way back now the narrow stairs (meeting with visitors going up on the way), and that was when it hit me, staring at the plaque for a low-number Pennsylvania regiment. Charles had fought here! I wandered my way around the monument, looking up the finding aid and the note which had his regiment listed (yes, you can get cell service on the battlefield) and when I got to the 155th, there he was!

Photograph of the 155th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry plaque on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017)
Photograph of McKenna’s company (Co. E) on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017)
Photograph of Charles F. McKenna’s name on the Pennsylvania State Memorial, Gettysburg, Pa. (taken April 2017) Note: The asterisk is attached to the name next to McKenna’s, not his.

And all the sudden, I had this weird moment. Here was the name of this man whose papers I had worked on processing, whose life I had dug into, whose history in the war and beyond I knew, staring at me from this monument where it has been for the last 103 years (the monument was completed in 1914–you can read more about it here). And then I started thinking about the connection between this name in metal and the box back on our shelves. McKenna’s diaries are very much written in a style that suggests he expected them to be read and he even went back and worked on them later (if he didn’t entirely write and/or recopy and annotate them later on). As I wrote in the finding aid back in 2009:

Elements within the diaries suggest they may not have been recorded at the time of the war, but instead, written down at a later date. The loss of chronology and the absence of entries for large periods of time in 1864 hint at this. Several notes in the text also imply additions at another date. After the entry for June 23rd, the following appears: “[N.B. Here my notes ceased, as well as my dates and for the remainder of June and July I will be obliged to record the dates as well as facts from memory][C.F. McKenna. Aug. 1863].” In a lengthy entry for November 30th, an asterisk note reads, “Have since learned that it was Genl. Warren made this report to Genl. Meade.” At the very least, it appears additions were made to the diaries over time.

Some years after the war, McKenna would write the definitive history of his regiment, two copies of which we have in our book collection (and also available online). It’s clear that the war, for many reasons, had a powerful effect on him. In turn, that had an effect on me, standing on the Gettysburg battlefield on a cloudy April afternoon. Charles wanted to be remembered and he is, not only on the monument, but through the materials he created, which Special Collections now preserves. I’m extremely proud of the work we do as archivists (everywhere, not just at Virginia Tech), and I had a unique reminder of that day. Charles was a historian by choice (not training) and he  and his wfforts remain a piece of history for future researchers and scholars. The papers we have here aren’t all there is to Charles F. McKenna in the modern age, either, the monument reminded me. His story is in many places, which is, I think, one of the important takeaways for primary sources–it can often be like a treasure hunt and you have follow the threads where you find them. In this case, that could be to Blacksburg, Gettysburg, or even Puerto Rico.

I’ve probably waxed a bit too philosophical in this particular post, or lingered too long on some boring little details, but there’s a lesson here about archivists, too. We get caught up in the stories of the materials and people we seek to preserve and provide access to every day. And sometimes, in a very unexpected place, we can have a moment where we realize just how meaningful our work can be. Well, at least if you’re me.

The finding aid for the Charles F. McKenna Collection is available online if you want read a bit more about what it includes and about Charles. We haven’t digitized it (yet), but you are welcome to pay us and McKenna’s collection a visit. You might just connect to history in a way you didn’t expect.

Illustrations from a Magnificent Character

6449374-mRecently added online are a collection of illustrations by Lucy Herndon Crockett, a successful author and illustrator from Southwest Virginia’s Smyth county. Lucy authored nine books during her lifetime, the most well-known being “The Magnificent Bastards” in 1954, about her experiences with the U.S. Marine Corps in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1956, it was adapted by Paramount Pictures into an Oscar-nominated film “The Proud and the Profane,” starring Deborah Kerr and William Holden. In addition to her writing career, Lucy lead a very interesting life. 

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Movie Poster from Paramount Pictures’ ‘The Proud and the Profane,’ 1956, adapted from Crockett’s book ‘The Magnificent Bastards’

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1914, Lucy spent most of her childhood on various military bases around the world, including Venezuela and Switzerland. After high school, she accompanied her father while he served as advisor to Governor General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was overseeing both Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. During World War II, she served a five year tour of duty with the Red Cross in New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, the Philippines, Japan and Korea.

It was this time period that inspired much of the material for her books, including ‘Teru: A Tale of Yokohama,’ for which we have the original illustrations. Her passionate personality and strong sense of duty comes through in many of her characters. Interviewers described Lucy as a lady who “seemed too gentle for the ugliness she described” in her writings. In her book ‘The Magnificent Bastards,’ she said “The theme of my book actually is how each person has a breaking point, and if you are lucky in life you are not put to it. In my book I say it is frightening how we can never anticipate how we will react under strain, and my book is about strain.” When asked why she got into the war, she said that “war, horrible as it is, is an experience that some people cannot resist participating in if they possibly can. With me, I am sure a sense of duty is wrapped up in it.”

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Illustration from Terru: A Tale of Yokohama

In 1947, Lucy retired from the Red Cross and settled in Southwest Virginia. Her creative pursuits, many travels and strong opinions made Lucy a well-known eccentric character in Seven Mile Ford, where she lived most of her adult life in a historic 22-room house called ‘The Ford.’ Alongside her mother Nell, Lucy ran a gift shop out of the house called “The Wilderness Road Trading Post.” The shop featured her books, illustrations, paintings, decoupage and hand-hooked rugs. She designed the rug patterns which were then executed by local craftsmen.

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Illustration from Terru: A Tale of Yokohama

Over the years, Lucy became increasingly eccentric and paranoid of those around her; at one point, threatening behavior toward then President John Kennedy led to a period of house arrest. She was known to write many letters to local newspaper editors. One of Lucy’s most interesting letters detailed her objection to a landfill being built just north of Seven Mile Ford, near the Middle Fork of the Holston River. She described county officials as “displaying an ape-like display of leadership genius” in proposing to “turn this heavenly segment of landscape into a dump.” She argued that the site instead be turned into a resort that would attract tourists. She even suggested a name the project-“Cayetana,” after a friend of hers, Cayetana Alba, the “Duchess of Alba, grandee of Spain.” According to Lucy, the Duchess and her friends were “enthusiastically prepared to sponsor this project.”

Lucy Herndon Crockett died in 2002. The closing paragraph of her obituary best describes her character. She “always had people who were willing to try to help her. Perhaps they were drawn to her complex personality, her prominent possessions or her seeming helplessness. A caregiver who may have known her best at the end of her life described her as kind, loving, generous, selfish, fearful, distrusting and confused. Ironically, these are the same universal emotions which she so skillfully wove into her characters in her best known book, The Magnificent Bastards.”

 

And Lift Off! Highlights of the Michael Collins collection are now online!

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Photograph of the Agena target vehicle rocket launch for the NASA Gemini 10 Mission, 1966 Link

Occasionally I get the chance to work with something in our collections that give me shivers, and the notebooks that astronaut Michael Collins used on the NASA Gemini and Apollo spaceflight missions definitely fall into that category. I mean, it isn’t often that you get to handle and scan items that have actually been in space! You can see the online collection here.

Michael Collins is probably most famous for his role as the command module pilot on the Apollo 11 Mission, the first manned mission to land on the lunar surface. Collins orbited the moon while commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin descended to its surface.

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Excerpt from Collins’ training notebook for the Apollo 11 Mission, diagramming his lunar landing flight maneuver See notebook 

In 1989, Virginia Tech Special Collections was honored to receive his papers, which cover Collins’ Air Force career, training at the U. S. Test Pilot School and Experimental Flight Center, participation in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs, and tenure at the State Department and NASM. While this collection has been heavily used by students and researchers for many years, it wasn’t until this past summer and fall of 2016 that we were able to get a large portion of it scanned and ready to go online. I’m really excited to get some of these items out there for the wider world to see.

Before the Apollo missions, Collins was also involved in the Gemini missions, serving as pilot of Gemini 10, launched July 18, 1966. During this mission, Collins and commander John Young set a new orbital altitude record and completed a successful rendezvous with a separate orbiting space vehicle, paving the way for modern day space vehicle maneuvers such as docking with the International Space Station. Another notable achievement from this mission was the successful completion of two spacewalks by Collins. Collins was the was fourth person ever to perform a spacewalk (referred to by NASA as an EVA, or Extravehicular Activity), and the first person to ever perform more than one. 

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Excerpt from the Apollo 11 onboard transcript, showing the moment Armstrong landed the spacecraft on the moon, 1969 See the transcript

 

After retiring from the NASA astronaut program in 1970, Collins worked for the US State Department and the Smithsonian Institute, serving as the first director of the National Air and Space Museum. The collection also includes many items related to his later work, as well as many items sent to him by adoring fans and space enthusiasts from around the world. What’s now online is just a portion of the collection, hopefully we’ll be able to get more up soon. You can see the finding aid for the collection here.

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Collins during training for the Gemini 10 mission, 1966 link

The Cornfields of Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson’s “The Cornfields” first appeared in print his first collection of poems, Mid-American Chants, in 1918. It’s the first poem in the book, too. So, a lot of “firsts” here. It would be dangerous for me (a two-time English major and avid poetry consumer) and a long read for you, if I were to launch into an interpretation of “The Cornfields.” Besides, one of the great joys of poetry is finding your own message alongside an author’s, tucked away inside their words. Editions of Mid-American Chants were issued and reissued over many years (we have three in Special Collections), but one of the things that makes “The Cornfields” stand out is that in 1939, it was published on its own:

In this form, it is a four-page booklet, produced by the House of Russell publishers in New York. It consists of the pages above, plus a short author biography at the end. Our recently-acquired copy also includes another small folded sheet of paper called “Trends of the Times: Poets Now Publishing in Brochure Form.” It’s basically an argument by the publisher for authors to publish individual poems, rather than entire volumes–ultimately because it’s a cheaper and more profitable format. It suggests that Anderson’s poem could have easily been a test case or advertisement for other authors. Anderson was a prolific and well-known author at the end of the 1930s, after all, and if he did it, perhaps others would follow suit. Our copy of the 1939, single version of the poem will be one of only 4 known copies in academic libraries, so we are quite pleased to add it to our holdings.

Of course, there’s a danger, too, in publishing a poem that was originally part of a collection on its own. The cover of the 1918 edition of Mid-American Chants features a simple image: an ear of corn next to the title and author. As a whole, a number of the poems rely on images and concepts relating to corn and agriculture more broadly, and there are themes of conflict and struggle in throughout, especially the growing industrialization of America and the urban v. rural contrast of the time. “The Cornfields” is only a small piece of Anderson’s voice in the larger volume. We can certainly appreciate it on its own…but also as part of a larger narrative, too. You can read Mid-American Chants online, if you’re curious to see more of Anderson’s poetry (he would published one more collection in 1927, A New Testament).

Before we part ways with Anderson, just a note about some other resources we have here. We’ve previously had a post on Sherwood Anderson and some of the “newer” manuscript materials (acquired in 2015) we had to share. At the time, the collection was being processed–now we can say it’s done (more on that in a moment)! Because of local ties to Anderson, we were also acquiring some other accessions relating to people in Anderson’s extended personal and professional circle during 2015 and 2016–A sort of of literary and artistic group of people in Southwest Virginia, if you will. I’m glad to say that, at long last, ALL of these collections are processed! I think we’ll need to work on some sort of visualization to clarify the relationships between people, but for now, here’s a list, complete with links to the finding aids and, where it isn’t obvious, an explanation of the connections in brackets:

  • Sherwood Anderson Collection, 1912-1938 (Ms1973-002). Correspondence among author Sherwood Anderson and family members, most notably letters written by Anderson to his daughter Marian, as well as some of his professional correspondence. Also includes research material about Anderson.
  • Sherwood Anderson Photograph and Postcard, 1929, 1939 (Ms2011-004). The collection consists of one postcard of Notre-Dame from Sherwood Anderson to Bert and Clara Dickenson and a photograph of Sherwood Anderson and Bert Dickenson in Florida with a line of fish in between the two men.
  • Welford D. Taylor Collection on Sherwood Anderson, 1918-2006, n.d. (Ms2015-020). This collection contains several series of materials: correspondence to and from Sherwood Anderson, correspondence and research files about Sherwood Anderson, and a small group of photographs, audio, video, and graphic art materials. Materials generated by Anderson date from 1918-1940. Other materials date from about 1929-2006. [This was the collection mentioned in our previous post here.]
  • Sherwood Anderson Correspondence with Llewellyn Jones, 1916-1924, n.d. (Ms2015-044). This collection consists of eight letters written by American author Sherwood Anderson to Llewellyn Jones between 1916 and 1924 with three undated (but likely from the same period). Jones was the literary editor for the Chicago Evening Post. The correspondence primarily discusses the reviews of Anderson’s works by Jones and other critics. This collection is also available online.
  • Marvin H. Neel Papers, 1933-1988 (Ms2016-022). This collection includes biographical resources, ephemera, correspondence, and writings and woodcut prints by and related to Marvin H. Neel (1908-1978), created between 1933 and 1988. [Neel corresponded with Lankes and the two were artistic collaborators.]
  • Mary Sinton Leitch Correspondence with J. J. Lankes, 1932-1950 (Ms2017-001). The collection includes 27 letters (some with covers and envelopes) written by Mary Sinton Leitch to J. J. Lankes between 1932 and 1950. Introduced by a mutual friend, Leitch and Lankes maintained a more than 18-year correspondence that contained conversations of personal news & friends, the Virginia literary and art scene, and their own writing and artistic efforts (including Lankes collaborations with poet Robert Frost). [Lankes was a friend and artistic collaborator of Anderson.]
  • James T. Farrell Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, 1952 (Ms2017-005). This collection contains four letters written by American author James T. Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson between February and May of 1952. [Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson was Sherwood Anderson’s third wife.]

Of course, the bulk of Sherwood Anderson’s papers are housed at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson donated them in the 1950s. But if you’re in or near Blacksburg, we encourage you to stop by and make a connection. In addition to the manuscript collections, we have more than 260 books and publications by Anderson in Special Collections, too (plus one, when “The Cornfields” is cataloged)!

The Words of a Massachusetts Ambulance Driver

Sometimes figuring out a subject for the blog is surprisingly challenging. I like to look at what I’ve done lately, but a lot of that amounts to committee work, organizing incoming materials, and cleaning up data for the catalog and archival management software. And the end of the semester/year is my usual “catch up” time to dig through the piles in my office, problem solve, and return to some on-going projects. Interesting for me, but not “blog” interesting, to be sure–trust me! The most recent collection I processed is the topic of a relatively recent post on “The Sherwood Anderson Odyssey” (if you’re interested in that topic, the finding aid is available online), so there’s no need to re-hash that subject just yet. After a bit of digging through the memory banks, I thought it might be fun to revisit a manuscript collection we acquired in three parts back in 2011: the William Leonard Papers, 1864-1865 (Ms2011-106).

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Inside cover of Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary

William Leonard was born about 1843 in Massachusetts, as were his two sisters, Leonora and Roselia. In his letters, he often mentions Leonora, who he calls “Nora.” He was living with his family in Great Barrington when he was drafted into service in July 1863, supposedly for a three-year term with Company F, 16th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. The following year, however, the 16th Regiment mustered out and along with the remaining veterans, Leonard was transferred to the 11th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry.

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Page from Leonard’s March 15, 1865 letter to his mother, in which he writes, “You must keep up good courage + not get the blues for we are going to whip them out this Summer. we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. [Ulysses S. Grant] Sheridan [Philip Henry Sheridan] & Sherman [William Tecumseh Sherman] are giveing them fits. I have seen Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] & Mede [George Meade] a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go Soldiering”
The collection includes the 1864-1865 diary of Leonard, along with 35 letters written to his both is parents or specifically to his mother during the same time. His letters indicate that by August 1864 and through Lee’s surrender in April 1865, he served as an ambulance driver, shuttling the wounded from battlefield to hospital, primarily around the Petersburg area.

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The earliest of Leonard’s letters in the collection, dated June 15, 1864. He writes about, among other things, the lack of food, stating, “most of the boys are out of rations again but we are going to draw this morning. I have a few hard tack + Coffe + Sugar yet. they had ought to give us rations for the nights to for they keep us up so much.”

While waiting to muster out in 1865, he was stationed around Washington, DC, where he continued to serve in a driver capacity, often civilians in and around the city. He continually reassures his mother not to worry about it and passes along war news, though he had a distinct lack of interest in the soldier’s life, writing, “we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. Sheridan & Sherman are giving them fits. I have seen Grant & Mede a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go soldiering”

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Pages from Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary, noting “Apr 25 Moving Camp and Washing Ambulances. Fireing a cannon every half hour all day. 13 guns this morning + 32 at night for the death of abram Lincoln President of the U.S. who was shot by a man by the name of Booth”

In spite of his medical association during the war, he does not hesitate to share his opinions on what he sees around him. In a May 1865 letter, he wrote that “The Doctors here dont have any thing fit to give any one and the bigest of them dont know how to doctor a hen anyway. They take the wounded men legs and arms off half the time. when there is no need of it, do it practice there has been a number of times I have heard of that…The Doct of the Regt was a clerk in an apothecary shop…” and the following month, detailing the sight of unburied dead men and horses on the battlefield.

After the war, Leonard returned to Massachusetts. He worked in a local woolen mill and later purchased and ran a plumbing and steam-fitting business. In June 1886, he married Hattie Goodsell (b. 1862). They had at least one daughter (Nellie, b. 1897).  It is unknown when Leonard died, but he does appear on the 1910 census and not on the 1920. Both Hattie and Nellie were boarding with another family in 1920, suggesting William died in the interim. Nellie later married Courtland Sparks and they had a daughter.

Since its acquisition, Leonard’s diary and letters have all be digitized. They are available on our digital platform. The images also include transcripts, which are searchable, in case you want to dig around and see what he talks about most! You can also see the finding aid for the collection online. And, of course, you can always visit us and see Williams’ words in person.