BookChat with Mark Flotow, editor of In Their Letters, in Their Words

FlotowI was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Mark Flotow. Mr. Flotow is the editor of In Their Letters, in Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home, a new release from Southern Illinois University Press (click here for more information). Mr. Flotow, an independent scholar, has published articles about Illinois Civil War soldiers in Illinois Heritage and has given many presentations on the topic. He was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about his book.

1) You mention that there are four reasons, in particular, that Illinois letters bear scrutiny. (I’ll let people read the book to see what those are!) But you make an excellent case that these letters have something unique and important to add to the larger conversation about the war. What would you say to someone—particular someone not from Illinois—who wonders why they should take a look at this collection?

Yours is a perfectly legitimate question: why Illinois soldiers’ letters? Among other reasons, here are what I feel are the two most important.

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Mark Flotow

First, Abraham Lincoln was elected president from Illinois, which had been his home since age twenty-one. Illinois’s soldiers, through their personal letters, had a plethora of opinions and thoughts about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, his otherwise prosecution of the war, the 1864 presidential election, and his assassination. They readily adopted the 1860 election epithet of “Old Abe” in reference to him. That stated, it does not mean he was universally liked by these soldiers.

That leads to the second reason for studying these letters: Illinois represented a microcosm of the nation at the onset of the Civil War. Recall that the Democrat’s top candidate in the 1860 presidential election was Illinois’s Stephen A. Douglas and, between he and Lincoln, they received nearly 70 percent of all votes cast in a national election that had an 81 percent voter turnout. In the early nineteenth century, the Illinois territory was receiving migrants from the upland South, especially to the southern portion of what became the state. (Even though Illinois in 1818 entered the U.S. as a free state, a few years later its citizens defeated a referendum to have a constitutional convention that could have allowed slavery.) By the Civil War, Illinois had a population predominately pro-Republican in its north, pro-Democrat in the south, and very much a mix of those leanings in its middle third.

Thus, the collective letters from Illinois’s soldiers represent a mix of sentiments about the whys of the war, the nation’s leadership, and how the war was conducted. As much as possible, I let the letter writers speak for themselves about their national ideals as well as the minutia of soldiering in describing their Civil War experiences.

2) Researchers use Civil War letters all the time, but they can sometimes be a challenge as casual reading for a Civil War buff. Is there any special advice you might offer to someone about how, as a reader, to approach a collection of letters?

One of the possible uses of this book is to prepare a reader for delving into just about any Civil War soldier’s collection of personal letters. Not only does the book cover a wide range of topics and themes typically mentioned in their personal letters, it also portrays the soldiers’ ways of thinking, what was important in their world, and how they expressed themselves. This latter point includes spelling variations, idiomatic expressions and, at times, writing as if talking to someone. “Writing as if talking” often meant or translated to limited use of punctuation. Think about that. In talking face-to-face, one says “how are you I am fine”—not “how are you question-mark I am fine period”—and uses voice inflections instead of punctuation. A soldier penning a letter often inferred that the reader could “hear”—as a family member or good friend—the writer’s verbal pauses and inflections from knowing his voice. And as latter-day readers, we too can hear their voices, maybe even more so when the writer was a phonetic speller. As much as possible, I have retained letter writers’ diction, spelling, and grammar for the transcriptions in the book.

I should add that something the book does not offer is the experience of reading inked (and sometimes penciled) writing on 155-plus year-old paper. That takes practice and patience, at times, and I will readily admit I had some good “instructors” in the form of Manuscript Department staff members at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. One universal I have found among Civil War soldiers’ letters is they are all in cursive writing. (If you cannot read cursive script, you are sunk on Day 1!)

As a final piece of advice here, read the entire collection (if possible) before drawing conclusions about individual quotations or letters. The wider context often provides insights into understanding the soldier’s experiences and mindset, broadly, and spelling quirks and cursive writing habits (e.g., letter “a” versus “o”), more specifically. Oh, and do not assume others’ transcriptions of your particular letters of interest are accurate and complete.

3) The book features a lot of excerpts rather than whole letters. Can you talk a little bit about why you took that approach?

In settling upon the format for the book, I thought carefully about the intent of the excerpts and decided upon a “middle porridge” approach. I wanted to have a finished product that appealed to as many readers as possible, including those who might not otherwise be particularly familiar with the Civil War. Personal, intimate perspectives are both appealing and inductive toward understanding the Civil War period, as well as surmounting (as much as might be possible) the famous Walt Whitman declaration that “the real war will never get in the books.”

Complete letters and published letter collections have their rightful place among the Civil War historiography, especially when the letters themselves are well-written, insightful to the period, and comprise an interesting (usually personal) narrative. Frankly, the vast majority of Civil War letter writers and their surviving collections rarely meet these criteria, and most modern readers (and publishers) would find them dull and repetitious in their content. (Indeed, there were many letter collections I had read that simply did not make the “cut” for inclusion in the book.) I have included two or three complete letters but, besides being exemplary, it was because they also were short and stayed on point.

Many Civil War treatises utilize short excerpts—sometimes not even whole sentences—in illustrating an author’s point or in making a compelling argument. And some of those same Civil War authors I admire as gifted writers. However, what often is missing is why the soldier had made a particular statement, what was its larger context, from where was it written, and to whom. Yes, there are citations and footnotes for such quotations, but the larger circumstances cannot be deduced from the book or article alone, or without chasing down those citations.

My “middle porridge, best-of-both” approach of integrating letter writers’ themes in a topical arrangement is part of the book’s essence. And I wish to give a shout-out to Southern Illinois University Press, in general—and Executive Editor Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, in particular—for “getting it” from the git-go regarding the purpose and format of the quotations that became a core feature of the book.

4) You cull from the letters of 165 different soldiers for your collection. What sort of differences and what sort of similarities were you able to illustrate from that kind of cross-section?

Among the letter writers, there were far more similarities than differences. Simply put, that is why the thematic approach in the book came together so well and so readily. I did not determine the content of the book, but rather it was the soldiers who did by frequently or tellingly writing about the topics I have included. My job was to pull it together, provide meaningful context, and make it interesting for modern readers.

Something I sometimes ask audience members at my book presentations is “within the context of the mid-nineteenth century, name something Illinois soldiers did not write about in their personal letters?” Prostitution? Fashion? Gambling? Baseball? Having “the blues”? Dreams? Pooping during combat? They wrote about all of that!  In fact, the book can be thought of as an ethnography of the Civil War military subculture. It is as if I asked each soldier “what is on your mind today and what would you like to say to the folks back home about that?” Their personal letters are the collected answers.

Despite some commonalities and near-universal reactions to being in the military, the soldiers’ differences can be striking. Illinois soldiers, as I stated earlier, were not all Republicans, abolitionists, Lincolnites, farmers (although about fifty percent were), or loyal to their oath to “faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder.” Their personal letters that express thoughts about the Emancipation Proclamation, especially, are clear evidence of an opinion and political divide in Illinois.

Not surprisingly, the letters also reveal soldiers’ individual personalities. Some were gossipers, some stayed true to their religion, some saw slavery through new eyes, some found hitherto unknown courage, some found ways to profit from war’s chaos, some gradually succumbed to diseases, and some wrote articulately about their experiences (with apologies to Edgar Lee Masters and Spoon River Anthology). Beyond the book’s descriptions of the more normative impressions and experiences, I have included what I think of as “life during wartime” experiences. That is, these are about events or sets of circumstances that only could occur within the swirling vortex of wartimes. There was a piano among the abatis that was played by both the hands of Confederate and Federal soldiers due to shifting lines at Jackson, Mississippi. There was the massive explosion at a munitions depot in the city of Mobile, Alabama that sunk ships in the Mobile River. There was a haiku-like-laced description of the Battle of Missionary Ridge and its aftermath (“look at those rough men / fondling great-grim cannon / as if pet children”). Soldiers tended to write about the normative in the first year of their enlistment or commission, when such things were novel to them. However, later in the war their letters could include vignettes of when the normative produced unexpected results, like hearing that piano in the field. It is at times like those that the individual personalities almost seep off the pages.

5) I thought it was impressive that you provided, as an appendix, short bios of each soldier you quoted. That was a real testament to you and the idea that we shouldn’t forget the men who fought—you were quite literal about that. What gave you that idea?

Your previous question about similarities and differences dovetails well into the reasons for “short bios of each soldier you quoted.” As you read, one wonders what happened to this and that soldier. Remember, you are perusing correspondence that never, ever was intended for your eyes. You are literally reading other people’s mail, their personal thoughts, and about their individual lives. So, what happened to them? Did they survive the war? Marry that sweetheart? Go back to farming? Live out their remaining days in Illinois? Those were questions I had, as I read their letters for the first time. I simply felt readers of the book would have similar feelings and questions about them as individuals. The short story, as you state in your question, is individuals lived and fought the Civil War. You can think of the armies as mainly faceless masses led by generals with now well-known personalities, accomplishments, and fates. But you shouldn’t. And perhaps you should steel yourself for what you might find.

6) What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

Primary sources are almost always the best, like these soldiers’ letter collections. You never know what you will find within them until you look. It is what keeps you coming back. For example, I read a soldier’s letter from May 1865, when this private was kicking around Springfield, waiting to get his final pay and discharge at Camp Butler. He and a few comrades decided to see Lincoln’s house. They were invited inside by “the lady of the house” (who was part of a family renting it during Lincoln’s presidency) and she played a few songs on the piano for them. Wait, there was a piano in the home? This may have been the first time a piano has been mentioned in association with Lincoln’s Springfield house (although who put it there is a separate question).

7) Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

Of course, one gets to know all of the letter writers better! In terms of appreciation, I enjoyed the more accomplished writers and especially those who clearly had thought, sometimes very thoroughly, about any given subject (and maybe because they made my job easier). One soldier, stationed deep in the South, had been asked by his spouse “How does Slavery look to the naked Eye?” His response is not only well thought out, but it is almost pure poetry in the expression of his experiences. I certainly could give many other “appreciate better” examples, but I tend not to have favorites. All lives are interesting and have something to share about our collective humanity.

8) What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?

That I do have an answer for because it was quoted by well-known Lincoln historian James Cornelius, which in my mind equates to a high compliment. “Sherman’s collective southeastern campaigns were a slow bullet through the guts of the Confederacy, hitting first the vital organ of Atlanta before ricocheting to Savannah and up into the Carolinas.” In the book, this sentence was prefaced by an Illinois soldier’s firsthand description of his participation in the March to the Sea campaign, something of a rarity given that no mail could be sent by soldiers until they made contact with the Union fleet outside of Savannah.

9) What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

With the risk of this sounding like a lazy person’s answer, Camp Butler National Cemetery, a few miles northeast of Springfield, is a great Illinois Civil War place to visit and reflect. Civil War Camp Butler was a “camp of instruction,” POW facility (for a while), and the place where most Illinois soldiers came to receive their final pay and discharge at the end of the war. In a manner or speaking, “all history is local,” yet Camp Butler is one of those places that has a continuum of history since the Civil War, honoring both those that died there (Union and Confederate) and our country’s service-men and women subsequently interred there. Cairo, at the southernmost tip of the state, also gets more than an honorable mention. In some respects, it was one of the very most important strategic places in all of the Union. Seeing the converging rivers there readily conjures in the mind’s eye the historic fleets that plied those waters.

10) What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

I think I will go with the self-serving, “Was it difficult to build such a cool book website?” And the answer is, “Yes, it was tedious and time-consuming because it is something I did from scratch as a web-builder novice.” I found the difference between appreciating the World Wide Web and contributing something meaningful to it is like the difference between enjoying music and playing an instrument well. Yet in the end, the book website conforms to my expectations of being both informative and something that enhances the book.

Before I even finished writing the book and started looking into building a website, I wanted the latter to help the former be something of a living document. To that end, the book website has two primary book-extension features. There is a Question of the Week page, updated each Friday, and an Addenda and Amplifications page. On the questions page, I answer readers’ inquiries about the book (through a “Contact Me” web form) but also about the Civil War more generally. A recent question was “Did Civil War soldiers fight at night?” In my answer, I give some examples, including a few germane quotations by Illinois soldiers. For the Addenda and Amplifications page, I had two purposes in mind. First, not every quotation I wanted to include could fit in the book. Similarly, several that were included had to be edited down to keep the book at a reasonable length. This web page is where I have been restoring some of the book’s quotations to their original lengths. Second, I do occasionally hear from readers who have information suitable for inclusion in a soldier’s brief biography, such as a place of burial, additional Civil War service, or wounds received. Especially when I can verify the information, I would add those details to this page.

Finally, the web address for the book is www.markflotow.net, which (not surprisingly) was simply an available web domain name. Also at this site is a listing of my book presentations and appearances, critics’ comments and reviews of the book, links to interviews (like this one), book-related images, and a page called “The Seven Secrets of the Book,” plus all the normal items one might expect at a book website. It is all free, so enjoy.

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