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?

 

Joseph_James002

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.

Joseph_James006
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.

Benjamin M. Peck’s Civil War Pocket Diaries

Front cover of Benjamin Peck's 1864 pocket diary.
Front cover of Benjamin Peck’s 1864 pocket diary.

To day was spent in taking positions and [feeling?] of enemy

it was soon asertained that the enemy were falling back

troops were immediately started in pursuit.

We were rear guard and held the works in front during the after noon and night.

This was Captain Benjamin M. Peck’s entry in his pocket diary on Saturday May 7, 1864. Accessioned earlier this year, Peck’s 1864 & 1865 pocket diaries make up one of our newest Civil War collections. Digital scans and transcriptions of each diary are available at VT Special Collections Online. The transcriptions for each entry are transcribed as entered into the diary by Benjamin Peck. All original spelling, punctuation, and grammar are maintained in the line-by-line text found under each image.  Brackets and question marks represent areas where the entries are unclear. One prominent example which appears repeatedly in both diaries is, S? This is presumably a nickname for his wife Sarah, but the style and punctuation changes from entry to entry.

Benjamin Peck's nickname for his wife Sarah Peck.
Benjamin Peck’s nickname for his wife Sarah Peck as it appears in the diaries.

Benjamin M Peck was born on October 5, 1838, in Smithfield, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He married Sarah H. Watkins on April 9, 1863 and after the war the couple would have two children. Their son, Guy W. Peck, was born in 1867, followed by a daughter, Mary A. Peck in 1870. Benjamin entered the legal profession and received his license to practice law before entering the Army. After the war he returned home to Towanda, PA and opened his law office. In 1872 he was elected prothonotary of the local court and served six years.  Then, in 1890, he served as President Judge of the 13th Judicial District of Pennsylvania. Benjamin died on September 9, 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Towanda, PA.

Peck’s military service began in August of 1862 when he enlisted in the Union Army as part of Company “B” of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry Regiment as a 1st Sergeant. Early on he helped recruit new members for the regiment. On December 10, 1862 he was promoted to the rank of Full 2nd Lieutenant, and then promoted to Full Captain on December 5, 1863. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Lieutenant Peck was wounded in the neck and shoulder by a cannon shot on May 3, 1863. He returned to his unit, after a two month absence, fully recovered from his injuries and was mustered out of the service on May 28, 1865 in Washington, D.C.

The 1864 leather bound, preprinted diary contains two daily entries per page with cash accounts and notes sections in the back of the diary. In 1864 Benjamin M. Peck was the Captain of Company B in the 141st Regiment PA Volunteers. Due to absences, injuries, and illness of other officers he was placed in command of the regiment before being assigned to lead the 1st United States Sharp Shooters. Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce saw fit to place him in charge of the three companies of sharpshooters and he remained in this position until the end of the war. Peck describes battles, skirmishes, picket lines, commands, and other military assignments and engagements in great detail. He notes the various marches and travel routes of his company and records his travels between the Virginia front and his home in Towanda, PA. As part of the Army of the Potomac, Peck recounts the regiment’s campaign in Virginia and the Siege of Petersburg. He lists his men who were wounded or killed in battle, describes court martial proceedings, and even gives an account of the execution of a Union soldier for desertion. Following the 1864 presidential election he enumerates each candidate’s results within the division, which Lincoln won convincingly.

 

Peck's 1865 Pocket Diary
Peck’s 1865 Pocket Diary

The 1865 leather bound, preprinted, pocket diary contains one entry per day with cash accounts and notes listed in the back of the book. This diary continues with the 141st PA Volunteers camped outside of Petersburg in their winter quarters and continues through the end of the war and Peck’s return home. He recounts the fall of Petersburg, the Union pursuit of Lee’s Army of Virginia across the state, and Lee’s ultimate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Peck was assigned to preside over several court martial proceedings and gives details regarding these proceedings and punishments, which include a botched execution of a Union soldier. As in the first diary, Peck provides an account of the daily movement of Union troops and supplies. He gives detailed lists of captured soldiers and artillery, as well as Union wounded and casualty records. As the war nears its conclusion Peck was in charge of mustering out soldiers and kept thorough records of the process. In one of his most moving and emotional entries he recounts receiving the news of Presidents Lincoln’s assassination and describes the mood of the men upon hearing the President died. The entries end in July of 1865 with Peck practicing law in his home town of Towanda, PA.

We hope to have a timeline of date and cities Benjamin Peck traveled through during the war available soon at VT Special Collections Online. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about our Civil War collections or any of our other resources please visit us either online or in person!

From These Few Letters . . . The Life of John C. Watkins

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Virginia Tech’s annual Civil War weekend. Not being a Civil War scholar, per se, and not wanting to just present a roundup of new acquisitions at Special Collections, however interesting that might be, I decided to talk about one collection, The John C. Watkins Letters, and, perhaps, give a little insight into the kind of window that even a few letters can open onto a life.

The collection consists of 17 letters, 11 of which were written during the war. The first nine were written while Watkins was a private in the 6th Massachusetts Infantry serving in and around Suffolk, Va. in 1862 and ’63. From Lowell, Massachusetts, he was 20 years old when he arrived in Suffolk.

Suffolk Va. Sept. 16th 1862 Dear folks at home, It is after Tattoo but I am determined to commence a letter for home and finish it when I can.
Suffolk Va. Sept. 16th 1862
Dear folks at home,
It is after Tattoo but I am determined to commence a letter for home and finish it when I can. . . .

Four more letters were written from Washington, D.C. from 31 March 1864 to 17 April 1866. Two were written from Camp Winfield Scott, Nevada in 1868. One other is from Winnemucca, Nevada, dated 17 January 1870, and though it was not written by John and despite lack of a last page and a signature, we know it was written by his wife. The final letter was written by John, but, again, is a fragment with no date or location specifically indicated, though clues in the letter may suggest a location.

Harpers Weekly, 2 May 1863: “This view of Suffolk, Virginia possesses some interest just now in consequence of the attach of the rebels under Longstreet. The place has been fortified, and is held by a considerable force of Union troops under General Peck, who, it is said, feels satisfied of his ability to maintain himself. Suffolk is a small, filthy town of great antiquity, small population, little trade, and a great deal of Virginia dirt and Virginia pride.”
Harpers Weekly, 2 May 1863: “This view of Suffolk, Virginia possesses some interest just now in consequence of the attack of the rebels under Longstreet. The place has been fortified, and is held by a considerable force of Union troops under General Peck, who, it is said, feels satisfied of his ability to maintain himself. Suffolk is a small, filthy town of great antiquity, small population, little trade, and a great deal of Virginia dirt and Virginia pride.”

The wartime letters are pretty straightforward in offering terrific detail about camp life and the battle known as the Siege of Suffolk of April and May 1863, as well as the movements and skirmishes that anticipated that action. But the other letters raise questions and often only offer tantalizing hints to their answers. What was Watkins doing in Washington? Or Nevada? Who did he marry? What happened to them after 1870?

Letter from Hattie Watkins to "dear home friends," 17 January 1870, Winnemucca, Nevada
Letter from Hattie Watkins to “dear home friends,” 17 January 1870, Winnemucca, Nevada

It’s not often that, as an archivist, one has the time to answer these questions. Usually, these questions and more are answered by researchers as the archivist moves on to other responsibilities. In my case, having been intrigued by the clues and the trails and traces of possibilities, I stayed with it, a little at a time. Census records, military records from the National Archives, and Wyoming(!) newspapers, among others, all helped to fill out the story.

Catalog of Georgetown College that shows John C. Watkins earned a Medical degree, 1 July 1865
Catalog of Georgetown College that shows John C. Watkins earned a Medical Degree, 1 July 1865
Bill Barlow's Budget, 13 April 1892
Bill Barlow’s Budget, 13 April 1892

Well, that is just the start of a story that includes an M.D. from Georgetown College, travel to California, the Indian Wars, frontier medicine, Westward Expansion, marriage to Harriet (Hattie) Clark Clary of Deerfield, Ma., a decade as an itinerent physician, an active interest in mining, hired gunfighters and monied interests, the Johnson County Cattle (or Range) Wars . . . a short-lived stint as county coroner, and death. But there is also the backstory of a father named Ruggles who went west for the Gold Rush in 1850 and never returned; as well as the story of a sister, Mary, and wife, Hattie, who met(?) while teaching in one of the first post-war free schools in Richmond, traveled west, first joined and then outlived the brother and husband, and earned the right to be included in a 1927 publication, Women of Wyoming: Including a Short History of Some of the Early Activities of Women of Our State, Together with Biographies of Those Women Who Were Our Early Pioneers as well as of Women Who Have Been Prominent in Public Affairs and in Civil Organizations and Service Work (Casper, Wyo.: C.M. Beach). (You just have to love long subtitles!)

Maybe I’ll write it all up one day. It is a remarkable story.

Lincoln…in the Library!

This past Monday, a new exhibit opened on the 2nd floor of Newman Library. If you’re in the area over the next month or so, you might want to drop by! “Lincoln in Our Time” is an exhibit that includes documents, artifacts, pictures, and an interactive display with videos and presentations. Many of the materials on display come from Special Collections, and the videos are the work of a class in the Department of History, HIST2984: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.” You can read a bit about the exhibit in one of the photos below, but you’ll have to visit the library for more details. “Lincoln in Our Time” will be in place until April 15, so you’ve got plenty of time!

*Special thanks to Scott Fralin in University Libraries for the great photographs!


If “Lincoln in Our Time” isn’t enough Civil War history for you, you should also know about the upcoming Civil War Weekend on March 13-15, 2015. There will be guest speakers on a range of topics, showcasing Civil War history at Virginia Tech and beyond. Special Collections’ own Marc Brodsky, Public Services and Reference Archivist, will be talking about resources you can find here in our department. You can find out more about the events and register on the website!

 

An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburg’s Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The film’s relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of America’s Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the film’s Southern apologist version of the Klan’s origins.

In bringing Dixon’s tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.

Griffith’s accuracy and attention to detail exploited the public’s willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixon’s skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffith’s prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film’s widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKK’s resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klan’s origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the film’s inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained America’s highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his film’s overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his film’s racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

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Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “’The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

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!

“With reluctance I seat myself…:” A Mother on the Home Front

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!