An Unexpected Treasure

The Joseph P. and Margaret James Collection

Sometimes, despite all of the proactive efforts we make in Special Collections to find “new” and interesting collections to add to our holdings, some of the best materials just fall right into our laps, thanks to the thoughtfulness of generous donors. Such is the case with the Joseph P. and Margaret James Collection, which was donated to us earlier this year by VT alumna Denise Hurd (sociology, ’74). Though relatively small in size (approximately half a cubic foot), the collection relates notably to two of our focus areas (the Civil War and Appalachia) and touches on at least two others (culinary history and agriculture). The collection had been handed down from Hurd’s father, Festus Burrell James, and relates to the James family of Braxton County, West Virginia.

At the heart of the James collection are six Civil War-era letters to Margaret James from her husband Joseph P. James, who enlisted in Company L of the 14th Virginia Cavalry on October 4, 1862. Just 10 weeks later, Joseph was captured, and the first of his letters to Margaret was written from Camp Chase, Ohio, on January 28, 1863. In the letter, Joseph recounts his journey in captivity from Braxton County to Camp Chase and advises Margaret to move in with his father.

Margaret did move to her father-in-law’s home, and her reply to Joseph provides a word from the war-time home front of northwestern Virginia (today’s West Virginia). Dated March 14, 1853 [sic], Margaret’s brief letter shares news from Joseph’s family and neighbors. Having left her home, she hints at the hazards for a young mother living alone in contested territory during wartime (“i havent Ben at home Since the first of febuary … but am going hom if i can get enybody to stay with me”) and brings the absent father up to date on his children’s growth and behavior (“Luther … is a bad boy. he swears yet[.] little vany can run just where he pleases. he is as fat as a little pig”).

Margaret James' 1863 letter to her husband speaks of her concern and loneliness.
Margaret James’ 1863 letter to her husband speaks of her concern for her husband and  her loneliness.

Joseph was exchanged and released in April, 1863. According to his service record, he transferred to Company I, 17th Virginia Cavalry while still a prisoner, and he must have immediately joined his new regiment; by May 10, Joseph was near Salem, Virginia, from which he wrote Margaret another letter. He discusses the Jones-Imboden Raid into northwestern Virginia, then mentions three acquaintances who were sent to Montgomery White Sulphur Springs to convalesce. Always present in Joseph’s letters are his love for his family and his desire to return home. He mentions sending a lock of hair to Margaret and receiving locks from her and their sons, a common practice at the time (see our blogpost of October 30, 2014, “The Hairy, Scary Things That Time Forgot!”).

By that autumn, poor health had forced Joseph to fall behind his company and miss the opportunity to return to Braxton County with his comrades. The route being too hazardous to travel alone, Joseph instead recuperated in Mercer County, and he wrote Margaret from there on November 5 and 25. Joseph’s final war-time letter was written from Red Sulphur Springs in Monroe County, West Virginia on April 15, 1864. In this letter, Joseph dispels rumors that he had been captured by the enemy or imprisoned as a deserter. He admits having been absent without leave, then boasts of the lenient punishment given him. It is Joseph’s lengthiest letter, and he goes into detail about what the men are eating and the religious services in which they’re participating. Six months later, Joseph would again be reported absent without leave, and in the final weeks of the war, he was listed as a deserter. Joseph’s letters give us today a brief but valuable glimpse into the life of a soldier whose service was spent almost entirely in southwestern Virginia.

The James Collections includes many tintypes, including these two interesting photos of Civil War soldiers. Might one or both of these photos be of Joseph P. James?
The James Collections contains many tintypes, including these two photos of Civil War soldiers. Might one or both of these photos be of Joseph P. James?

 

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The James Collection extends well beyond the Civil War, however. From the end of the war until his death in 1889, Joseph James maintained a series of memorandum books to record information that he deemed significant. Nearly every 19th-century farmer seems to have kept account books, detailing farm, business, and personal financial transactions, and we hold many pocket-sized ledgers in Special Collections. Joseph’s books are a bit unusual, though, in that they frequently contain other items of interest. One book contains notes on a trial for the murder of Jemima Green, a case on which Joseph served as a juror. Elsewhere, one might find records from Joseph’s work as a mail carrier, quotes from Bible scripture, notes on deaths in the family and neighborhood, and recipes for home remedies. Though recorded somewhat haphazardly and in no particular chronological order, the entries as a whole provide a fairly complete look at the activities and concerns of a fairly typical Appalachian farmer for nearly 15 years during the latter half of the 19th century.

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Joseph James’ memorandum books contain an eclectic mix of information the various aspects of his life: home, farm, business, and church.

The collection also contains a few items that had belonged to the James’ youngest son, Charles (1885-1949), who left Braxton County and worked as a motorman in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he also raised hens and rabbits. Like his father, Charles made use of memorandum books, and in the few that we have, he briefly recorded anything of interest to him, from the day his cat died to the day he saw President Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, there’s just not room for me, in this one brief blogpost, to mention all of the interesting little things in the Joseph P. and Margaret James Collection, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as being of interest only for its Civil War letters. The collection has yet to be processed, meaning that it has not yet been fully organized and inventoried, but as with all of our treasures—both expected and unexpected—the collection is available for the use of researchers in the Special Collections reading room during our normal operating hours.

Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia

One of our many roles in Special Collections is to shed light upon hidden histories, uncovering communities that are traditionally marginalized or forgotten by time. The long history of African-Americans in Appalachia, for example, has traditionally been overlooked. Through the communities of New Town, Wake Forest, and Nellie’s Cave (among others), Montgomery County has a particularly rich legacy to explore. We work with historians, genealogists, community members, and other institutions to document and preserve these stories for future generations.

Newman Library currently hosts “New Town: Across the Color Line”, an exhibit documenting  a predominantly African-American community that bordered the Virginia Tech campus until the late 20th century. Developed by the Virginia Tech Public History program, the exhibit includes items from the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records (Ms1988-009) held by Special Collections. The exhibit will be open from October 5 through November 20.

Brochure for New Town Exhibit on display in Newman Library, October 5 - November 20

The Odd Fellows Records help document an important African-American civic institution in early 20th century Blacksburg. Researchers interested in the experiences of African-Americans in Montgomery County and greater Appalachia can find many other resources in Special Collections. Manuscript collections, photographs, oral history interviews, and rare books provide insight into the experiences of African-American communities from antebellum times through the present day. The Christiansburg Industrial Institute Historical Documents (Ms1991-033) represent a collaboration between the Christiansburg Industrial Institute Alumni Association and Special Collections to document the prestigious institution that educated generations of Virginia students from the 1860s through school integration.

Black and white photograph of Baily-Morris Hall, a building on the campus of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. Several African American teachers stand on a staircase in front of the building.
Baily-Morris Hall on Christiansburg Institute campus with teachers, date unknown.

Another collection, entitled “Hidden History: The Black Experience in the Roanoke Valley Cassette Tapes and Transcripts” (Ms1992-049), includes approximately forty-six interviews with African-American residents of Roanoke, Virginia about the “cultural, social, and political history” of their community. The research papers of historian and community activist Richard Dickenson (Richard B. Dickenson Papers, Ms2011-043) include a wealth of information about local African-American history, including the free communities of antebellum Montgomery County and the many civic institutions of Christiansburg. The John Nicolay Papers, (Ms1987-027) include research files and oral histories that provide insight into churches, local institutions, and the historic African-American community of Wake Forest.

These collections represent a small fraction of the primary sources and publications that document African-American history in Special Collections. More importantly, these resources point to an abundant history still waiting to be uncovered.

Civil War Correspondence as Art?

Today’s post is about a letter. In some ways, it’s unique (it IS one of a kind, after all), and in some ways, it adds to the canon of Civil War correspondence written home. But this letter has a little something extra. It’s a letter from Isaac Cox to his wife, written June 29, 1862. At the time, Cox was a private with the (Confederate) 29th Regiment, Virginia Infantry. It was a regiment recruited largely from Southwest Virginia. Throughout their 3+ years, soldiers in this regiment fought mostly in Virginia, but also experienced fighting in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Cox’s letter home is brief. It talks of the regiment’s march to Princeton, West Virginia, and back, and also includes news of someone named Bill. Not all that different from many other letters written home during the war. But, that isn’t quite what caught our attention. Certainly, the local connection is important (Cox lived in Saltville, Virginia, before and after the war). When you take a look at the letter, however, there’s something surprising. Cox decorated his letter, carefully cutting a design in the page…

Letter from Isaac Cox to his wife, June 29, 1862, Taswill [Tazewell] County
Letter from Isaac Cox to his wife, June 29, 1862, Taswill [Tazewell] County
Sometimes, it’s amazing that a 152 year old letter lasts this long at all. Some of the design here has been lost–you can see the tears at the tiny “finger” details and more than one spoke/petal is missing or loose. We’ve housed this item in a mylar sleeve to help prevent further damage.

If you’re curious about the letter, here’s a transcript:

Taswill [Tazewell] County June 29 1862 Dier Affectionated Wife I take the plesent [matter] of senden you a few lines to let you now that I am well at this time hopeing when this few lines come to hand they will find you in helth I received you kind best last eavining and I was truly glad to here that you was all well we had the hardest march to prinzton [Princeton] and back that I ever had we was orded to cook 4 days rashuns the other day and then we started and was gon to [two] days and a half from our camps we was march in 4 miles of prinzton and then we stade in the woods for two days and 3 nites and then return to our camps it made my feet very soar you wanted to no what had be come of bill he is still at Jeffer? [Jefferson?] Mills in the horsepital yet & hant herd from him in a bout 2 weeks and then he was getin well as he cald I am a goin to try to come home a bout harvest if I can but I don’t now whither I can or not So no more at this time only Still rember your husband un till deth

Carroll Co to Charlott Cox

Isaac and Charlotte had five children, two of whom were born during the war, so he clearly managed a visit at some point! Charlotte died in 1911; Isaac in 1925.

If you’d like more information on the letter or on Isaac Cox, you can view the full finding aid here. Or, you can pay us a visit to see this amazing letter in person!

Two Upcoming Events!

If you’re in or around Blacksburg, there are two upcoming events you may want to know about! On March 24, 2014, the University Libraries is co-hosting the Third Annual Edible Book Contest with the Blacksburg branch of the Montgomery-Floyd Public Libraries. There’s still plenty of time to register for the event (and we won’t turn you away at the door, either). You can visit the website to find out more and sign up: http://tinyurl.com/AEBC2014. Even if you don’t want to enter, please come to the Blacksburg Public Library from 6-7pm on March 24th. It’s your votes that will help us determine the winners in each category!

3rd Edible Book Contest

And, on March 25th from 5-7pm, the University Libraries will be hosting the Second Annual Appalanche. Appalanche is a celebration of Appalachian culture. This year, the event will include music and food, as well as displays and information about wildflowers, quilting, apples, the Wilderness Road Museum, and more! Be sure to stop by and visit us on the first floor of Newman Library that evening!

Appalanche2014digitalsign

Small towns, coal mines, and railroads

Mill Mountain and Roanoke River1

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job as a digital collections specialist is creating displays of the interesting materials held in Special Collections.  Recently I’ve been digitizing our collection of Appalachian Postcards.  There are some great pictures of small towns, coal mines, railroads, and beautiful scenery, and some interesting correspondence on the back too.  One card also has an R.P.O. postmark indicating that it was processed on board a moving railroad car.

 West Craigen Tunnel reverse RPO

We’ll be sharing some of our Appalachian postcards in a slideshow on Wednesday, April 17th  at “Appalanche” –a celebration of Appalachian culture in Newman Library.  Come join us for music, dancing, food, and displays between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m on the first floor.  Special Collections will host a display of selected local collections in their Reading Room and members of our Technical Services department will display and demonstrate quilting techniques. There will be old time music and square dancing in the Study Café, and Appalachian food will be served–including pinto beans, greens, and corn bread.  It’ll be a shindig you won’t want to miss!

Appalanche is co-sponsored by Appalachian Studies and University Libraries.    The event is free and open to the public.