I found this letter in the archives last week – written to a soldier from Warren County, Ohio. When we think about how the Civil War affected the household, we often focus on its impact on mothers and wives. Wives left behind with children are especially central in the narrative – the image of the father kissing his wife and kids goodbye as he heads off to war is one that we probably can conjure up in our minds rather quickly.
But this letter, tucked among many others written between adults about the happenings of the war, reminded me that the soldiers also had younger siblings. I do not know how much thought I have given to younger siblings in the past, as a historian of the home front, and perhaps I am remiss in neglecting them.
This young boy, Samuel, points out a number of things to me in this brief message. Initially, he is eager to tell his brother about life at home. Something like a local fair still has appeal for this young child and he wants to tell his brother about the fun times that he anticipates in his day ahead.
However, this letter also shows me that even young children could reveal their anxieties about war through words. As a side note, his handwriting is beautiful and I can imagine how hard he worked on each letter. He moved onto his true concern – the war and its impact on his brother – almost immediately and the words themselves are so revealing; there has been a battle and Samuel does not know whether his brother has survived. He displays an enormous amount of empathy as well, expressing his understanding that his older brother must be tired and “almost sick.”
Samuel wants his brother to return home safely. The middle part of this letter is mature and thoughtful. Samuel understands the way that the war might harm his brother and he wants to communicate his ability to respect the seriousness of war. And yet, he ends the letter with “I am your brother” – revealing both his feelings of affection and his age in this final closing.
These are the same words that we would read in a letter from any mother, father, wife, or friend – concern for a soldier’s fate and a wish expressed for a safe return home. It is not often though that we get to see these feelings crafted in such a child’s hand, and with such a child’s sensibility. I can imagine that when his brother returned, this young Samuel was rushing to greet him at the door. And, I can also bet, that the brother’s service – his experience as conceived by Samuel over time – played strongly into how Samuel strove to define himself as he grew into adulthood after the war.
This is a touching archival find – something slightly out of the ordinary that succeeds in reminding a hurried researcher that this war was about real people. This could be anyone’s son, anyone’s brother. And Samuel truly did not know whether his brother would return. That’s what we cannot forget about war.