Book Review: Letters to Lizzie: The Story of Sixteen Men in the Civil War and the One Woman Who Connected Them All

Letters to Lizzie: The Story of Sixteen Men in the Civil War and the One Woman Who Connected Them All. Edited by James M. Scythes. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2022. 264 pp, Hardcover, $55.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

With published Civil War soldiers’ letters collections, readers typically hear solely from the writer’s point of view. If fortunate, a collection may also contain a letter or two that the receiver kept and returned to the sender, thus affording a limited two-way conversation. However, with Letters to Lizzie: The Story of Sixteen Men in the Civil War and the One Woman Who Connected Them All, editor James M. Scythes delivers a unique collection in which we hear from multiple male voices to one female recipient, as well as a some letters that she wrote.

Teenaged Lizzie Brick hailed from Hurffville, New Jersey, a town located about a ten miles south of Camden in Gloucester County. Like many small towns across the North and South, it produced strong social networks. Most of Lizzie’s pen pals were from her family and church social circles. Among the correspondents were two cousins, and an uncle. Most of the others also came from the Hurffville area and knew Lizzie through their church or school ties. Two other writers met Lizzie through one of her cousin’s stay in a Newark hospital.

In the book’s preface, Scythes explains that, “There are two main stories found within the 124 letters in this collection. The first is about the relationship between Lizzie and the sixteen men.” (xii) While some of the men perhaps had romance on their minds while writing, with these letters we get an “understanding of male-female friendships in the mid-nineteenth century.” Additionally, Scythes correctly notes that the book also gives us “experiences of the soldiers during the Civil War.” (xiii). While the authors of the letters served in almost a dozen different regiments, all were part of the Army of the Potomac and saw their fair share of challenges and victories. They share their fascinating observations of army life through their letters to their friend Lizzie Brick. For her soldier correspondents, Lizzie served as the home front bond to their experiences in camp and battle.

A 30-page introduction provides helpful context and gives the reader a sense of the community that Lizzie and her correspondents came from. It also acquaints us with the sixteen men who serve as authors of the letters and their various connections to Lizzie.

In all, here are 124 letters, chronologically organized; the first sent on May 31, 1861, and the last almost four years later, on May 4, 1865. But, Letters to Lizzie is more than just a collection of letters. Scythes, as editor, obviously spent considerable time and energy not only collecting information about Lizzie Brick (later Thompson) and her various pen pals, but also many of the individuals mentioned within the letters, some of whom are other writers to Lizzie, but most are not.

Therefore, as one might imagine, the notes section of the book is particularly impressive. Although located at the end of the book rather than perhaps preferably at the bottom of the pages, to help the reader quickly find the appropriate endnote, the notes section contains headers referencing the page number range where the note is found. This method is certainly not a new innovation, but again, it is extremely helpful when a book chooses to utilize endnotes rather than footnotes. It is commendable that the editor and publisher recognized this and incorporated it for the reader’s benefit. Unfortunately, in many published letter collections editors often do not attempt to provide additional information on the personalities and events mentioned within the letters; or if they do, they make half-hearted attempts. Not so with Scythes. His notes are consistently thorough and informative.

Similarly, bibliographies for published letter collections are typically sparse due to the fact that many editors believe that few other outside sources are required when publishing transcribed letters. But again, not so with Letters to Lizzie. Due primarily to Scythes’ thorough notes, the book’s bibliography spans five pages. This list of primary (archival repositories, newspapers, city directories, and census reports) and scholarly secondary sources is vivid evidence of Scythes’ depth of research while investigating Lizzie Brick, her soldier correspondents, and the individuals and events mentioned throughout this unique collection of letters. In addition, a full and descriptive index only adds to the book’s many impressive structural merits.

The 124 letters contained within its covers and the impressive editorial work by Professor Scythes not only makes Letters to Lizzie well worth reading and adding to any Civil War enthusiast’s library, this book also needs to be included in the discussion of the finest collections of Civil War soldiers’ letters available.

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