There’s buried treasure in storage trunks in attics, in cardboard boxes in basements and on forgotten shelves in closets. If it’s not unearthed, it will be an incalculable loss to the current generation and generations to come. The valuables are old war letters. There are centuries of them, pages sometimes faded and crumbling, written between combatants at the front and their loved ones back home.
One American historian, Andrew Carroll, is on a mission to rescue these historical letters. He constantly carries more than 20 of them, some with tear stains and bullet holes, from over two centuries of American wars going back to the revolution. He travels the United States asking people to keep a lookout for these precious documents in desk drawers, yard sales and sometimes trash bins. He himself has donated tens of thousands to the Center for American War Letters in California, of which he is now the director.
The Historical Value of War Letters
War letters are interesting. The literary quality of the writing varies greatly, but with all of them, the inherent allure of the topic is enough to keep readers engaged. Their value, however, goes beyond their ability to entertain and enlighten.
They’re an effective tool for teaching history. People who are uninterested in maps and dates begin to see the importance of history when it’s told in terms of real people and their place in it. Those who are history buffs will be delighted to fill gaps in their knowledge and add books of compiled historical letters to their shelves.
The letters confirm historical events and bring them alive. For example, there’s a letter from an American soldier who entered Buchenwald days after it was liberated. His stark description of the horrors serves as a confirmation of the severity of the Holocaust and a refutation to those who downplay it.
It’s likely that the view from the combatant aboard a ship or in the trenches will help to resolve historical debates. Commentary written well after the fact lacks the immediacy of descriptions penned within days by people who were actually there.
Letters from the front democratise the telling of history. They don’t allow the winners and the prominent people to be the sole owners of the story. Letter-based history is people’s history. Without these documents, the voice of those who did the dirty work of war could be forgotten.
Lessons from Historical Letters
These historical letters may confirm details and settle arguments, and another great value is that they remind us what it’s like to be a nation at war. Often the pages of scholarly history books are antiseptic. With letters from the front, there’s no getting around the suffering and the sacrifices both in the field and at home. Everyone knows the cliché that “war is hell,” but these documents underscore the reality behind the cliché.
These letters sometimes offer fascinating and unexpected gems. For instance, a U.S. Army Lieutenant writes of meeting a “Red Cross lieut. named Hemingway” in 1918. It may be the earliest extant reference to Ernest Hemingway’s war service.
Collecting war letters started as a hobby for Carroll, but now it’s his full-time occupation. He calls his effort the Million Letters Campaign, although he’s still a long way from that number. He’s also turning more attention to the emails and text messages from recent wars.
The veterans of the First World War are all gone and those from World War II won’t be around much longer. If their descendants don’t want the letters, it’s best to put them in the hands of those who do.
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