WASHINGTON – While the reasons and weapons of war have changed dramatically in the 139 years since the Civil War,one thing remains constant,soldiers march off to war, leaving behind families,often without the means to support themselves.
In honor of Black History Month,the National Archives and Records Administration sponsored a lecture Thursday presenting a series of letters and records written during the Civil War,most by African-American women whose husbands and sons had joined the fight for freedom.
For more than 10 years,volunteers have been combing through military records to establish a thorough research tool that would be made available to the public through the NARA.
Among the payroll files,prisoner-of-war lists and hospital rolls,they found handwritten letters. Often telling tales of hardship and poverty,each one was carefully penned on yellowed paper with the fluid cursive of a bygone era.
“Life for families was always difficult. Communication with a husband or son was a major undertaking,” said Budge Weidman,Civil War Conservation Corps' project manager. “The recent loneliness experienced by wives and mothers who bid farewell is universal,but for African-American women,saying good-bye was often tragic.”
Weidman has volunteered more than 1,000 hours a year for the past 10 years transferring African American Civil War documents onto microfilm. While many of the letters she has come across never reached the intended recipient,others reached soldiers only to leave them upset and brokenhearted.
“Your poor old mother is here delving and working like a dog to keep body and soul together,and here am I with two little children and myself to support and not one soul or one dollar to help us,” wrote Letty Barns,of St. Mary's County,Md.,on March 26,1865.
Even then,Barns realized the irony that,while fighting for his country,her husband received little federal compensation.
“I suppose if I am taken sick or anything else happens to me,I must be turned out to beg or get along as best I may while you are employed,all the time,by government,” Barns wrote.
African-American soldiers received lower wages than those of white soldiers until the middle of 1864; the war ended a year later in May 1865. Some soldiers received back pay after the war,others received nothing.
However,soldiers rarely were able to send home any of the $7 a month they earned because mail was sometimes opened or lost. Many of the wives' letters pleaded for any amount of money.
Today,modern medicine and technology have reduced the number of war-related deaths,but mothers and wives – and husbands – are still left behind to support the family.
Last week,lieutenant governors from five states came to Washington to propose a relief fund that would donate money to the families of deployed National Guard soldiers.
On May 11,1864,Mandy McKinney wrote a letter to her husband telling of the birth of their daughter on Easter morning. Her letter goes on for two pages about friends and family and then closes on a more serious note.
“I am in Jefferson City (Mo.),and times are very hard here,and I wish you would send me some money as soon as you can as I need it so much,” McKinney wrote.
George,her husband,died from pneumonia less than 30 days later,never having seen the letter.
Samuel Cable,a runaway slave who joined the 53rd Regiment,summed soldiers' hopes best in a letter to his wife.
“I look forward to a brighter day when I see you in the light of freedom.”