Looking into the past through archived letters
In celebration of National Letter Writing Week, state archivist Mark Harvey joined Stateside to share a couple of centuries-old letters in appreciation for the oft-forgotten medium.
“I like to think of [writing letters] maybe sort of like clothing. You pick an outfit for a certain occasion, and … what you wear is sort of indicative of your mood,” Harvey said. Similarly, what a corresponder writes on the page is “really indicative of thought and mood.”
Of the three letters that Harvey shared with Stateside, the oldest one comes from July 1835, written during the Toledo War. It was penned by captain of the Detroit Rifle Corps, George R. Griswold, and addressed to “His Excellency” Stevens T. Mason, the first governor of Michigan.
“Honorable, sir. Should the crisis arrive in which it would be deemed necessary for the maintenance of our laws and protection of our citizens to require military aid from the arrogant encroachments of Ohio, be pleased to accept in the name and on behalf of the men of the Detroit Rifle Corps, their undivided services and defense of our rights,” wrote Griswold.
Harvey noted that this letter, as well as the other two, was written during a time of significant struggle. “I think obviously there's a sense of clarity that comes when someone's communicating during a time of crisis or conflict,” he said.
The second letter was written on July 16, 1863. That is, just days after the Civil War saw a siege of Jackson, Mississippi, which resulted in the death of Alphonzo Crane, a soldier in the 2nd Michigan infantry. His tentmate and “chum” was writing to inform Crane’s father of his son’s death.
“Friend Crane, it becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your brave and noble boy, Alphonzo,” the letter began. “…we were comrades in battle. And in his death, I have lost a brother, dear and true. Our regiment was ordered to charge the rebel works on Saturday the 11th, and poor 'Phonz was killed on the enemy's works. He was the first man to mount the hill and cheer on the other boys. But a ball struck him in the head and he fell without a single murmur.”
Harvey explained that the letter goes on to offer comfort to Crane’s father and eulogize his fallen son. “We have lots of civil war letters and diaries in the archives collections,” Harvey said. “This one in particular, it's not unique in that it's talking about the death of a soldier, but the personal nature of it is really moving.”
The third letter comes from one of history’s more significant “times of conflict,” June 6, 1944 — better known as D-Day. A soldier from East Lansing is writing to his wife back home, requesting she send him cigarettes and waxing poetic about his love for her and the uncertainty that lies ahead. The last lines of the letter follow:
“Until soon — I can't say anything more — my sweetest — more than ever — my darling and my own faithful and lovely wife. Remember — ‘nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high, can keep my love away from me” — that goes double now — and how many ways I love you. Always, Chuck.”
“In letter writing, I think you get, not just with your words, but also with the way you present them on the page, a chance to be poetic,” Harvey said.