The other day I mentioned some of the difficulties my students are having in identifying with why northerners rushed to defend the nation in the spring of 1861 as opposed to the relative ease with which they identify with a southern defense of hearth and home. Thanks to those of you who left a comment or emailed me directly with ideas of primary sources that could be utilized in the classroom. I went through my own library and found a wonderful collection of letters edited by Nina Silber and Mary B. Stevens, titled Yankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters between New England Soldiers and the Home Front (University of Virginia Press, 1996. The nice thing about this volume is that the letters are divided by theme and are narrowly focused on a specific region of the North. The importance of regional affiliation figured prominently in our discussion today. I had my students read through and discuss four letters from the book, including the following letter written by Isaac A. Brooks [Second Brigade, Second Division, Third Corps, Army of the Potomac]
October 13, 1861
My Dear Children,
As there are so many of you in the nest at home, I cannot write to each one, and therefore send this to you all. I think you will be glad to hear from me, in a letter to you all, as well as to hear of me through Mothers letters, for I never forget you, even if I do not write to you. Mothers account of you are very gratifying to me, for I think you are all trying to be good children, to give Mother as little trouble as you can, & to improve yourselves. My life here, is not very pleasant, but I submit to it because I think it is for the best and it is the duty of us all, to do what we can for our country and to preserve its integrity even to the sacrifice of our lives, if that is necessary. It is a glorious country, and must be preserved to our children. It was given to us entire, and we must give it to you, entire and you must give it as you receive it, to those who come after you. Remember your country is next to God, in love, and never see it injured, or disgraced, if you have a hand, or a mind, to put forth in its defense. I hope to return to you in due time, safe and well, and find you are well and happy, but should it be so ordered that we do not meet again on earth, remember to love, and serve your country in whatever way it may be your lot to do so. To do this, many things are needed, which you will all learn in due time, but one of the foundations will be, to be sober, honest and industrious….
So be good children all of you, & remember I think of you all, daily, even if I can not see you
Your Affectionate Father
As I mentioned earlier, it's always interesting as a history teacher to watch my students struggle with and come to terms with the language of nationalism and patriotism that course through many of these early letters. Even in midst of overseas conflict many of my students find it difficult to imagine sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves. The challenge, of course, is to approach someone like this father who does voluntarily leave his wife and children for the good of the nation and without a guarantee that he will return. It's as if my students are asking, "Who are these people?"