EAST LANSING, Mich. — Faded and sometimes tattered, letters and journal entries written 150 years ago by hopeful and homesick Civil War soldiers will forever be preserved online, thanks to digitization by Michigan State University archivists.
University Archives and Historical Collections started the project two years ago in recognition of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War. Today, nearly 3,000 pages and images have been digitized and placed online, with more materials added every day.
In addition to the letters and journal entries, the Civil War collections, at http://civilwar.archives.msu.edu/, contain election material from 1864, song books, sheet music and photos — mainly from soldiers who fought in Michigan regiments.
MSU received the collections of Civil War materials in 1952 when The Chamberlain Warren Museum in Three Oaks closed. The MSU Civil War collections provide transcriptions and letters side by side, so viewers can compare the files with one click.
Transcriptions are authentic, reflecting exactly what’s written on the 150-year-old pages. So in many cases, words are misspelled or obsolete.
MSU archivists, students and staff transcribed the material, which was difficult since some soldiers’ handwriting wasn’t legible. MSU’s Matrix: The Center for Humane, Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online assisted with the project.
“The most interesting thing we found is that soldiers back then were similar to today’s soldiers,” said Edward Busch, electronic records archivist.
In their letters and entries, some of the soldiers described where they’d been and the battles in which they fought. In fact, some fought in the Civil War’s biggest battles, such as the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg.
Other soldiers complained about the weather, the food and hospital conditions. In one letter, a soldier referred to General Custer as “The Little Poodle,” while another wrote about sleeping in a swamp. And a few letters detail a love story gone awry.
In addition, several soldiers mentioned fighting the war out of duty for the country and for President Abraham Lincoln, while others wanted to eradicate slavery, Dettmar said.