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Dear Sister: Letters of the Civil War on Display in Special Collections

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During the Civil War, New Hampshire’s 18 regiments lost 4,882 men. The 5th New Hampshire Volunteers Regiment saw more casualties than any other unit in the war. And yet, in the day-to-day life of battle, there was the ordinary. Soldiers wrote home of the beautiful countryside; of resentments at missed promotions; of playing cards and football, and what they had for dinner.

And they wrote of the eagerness to fight. And, when they did, of it being like a game or a sport.
They wrote of death. Of lost limbs and men’s cries so “horrible to hear.”

The essence of this war is captured in a new exhibit in Special Collections at the Dimond Library that displays letters written between husbands and wives, between brothers and sisters, and men and their mothers. It’s captured in tintypes and brass buttons and maps and Confederate money. In a wallet and a sewing kit. But mostly, it is the letters that tell the story of those historic years.

“Confronting the South: New Hampshire People During the Civil War” opened Jan. 20 and runs through May. Among the letters displayed are those recently donated to the Milne Special Collections by the John Parsons family of Rye, whose gift of more than 200 correspondences spans the years between 1829 and the early 1900s. Several letters document the family’s involvement in the Civil War.

Kyle Murphy, a senior majoring in history and political science, has been working with Dale Valena, curator of the University Museum, and Bill Ross of the Milne Special Collections, to transcribe the newly received letters.

Murphy is a self-proclaimed history buff and can’t remember a time when that wasn’t so. In a photo of him as a young boy, he’s wearing a Civil War uniform. Family vacations were spent at Gettysburg. A favorite birthday party had a Civil War theme.

Five-year-old Kyle Murphy in his Civil War uniform.

“It has always been my passion,” Murphy says. “Ever since I was a kid, I knew the story. I knew the sides, I knew who won. I was fascinated.”

That fascination has been fed anew as he has helped sort the artifacts and letters for the new exhibit.

The majority of the Parson letters were written by George Gove and his sister, Julia Parsons, who was married to Warren Parsons. Gove served in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers Regiment. He rose from private to captain, and was wounded several times but survived the war. Gove saw action at the Battles of Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Petersburg, and wrote vivid details describing the events.

In a letter dated Dec. 28, 1861, he wrote, “Christmas was a holiday with us and through out all the camps. We had a foot race for a prize of $4, a wrestling match, same prize and a greasy pig…An old schoolmate of mine from the Maine 3rd was over and spent the day with me. Had an oyster supper.”

The majority of the soldiers on both sides were young men from small towns who had led quiet peaceful lives, and were suddenly being trained to kill. One of the panels in the exhibit titled “Seeing the Elephant” refers to seeing war and combat for the first time.

On Jan. 21, 1862, Gove wrote his sister, “…I feel anxious to see some rebels…” and, a month letter, “I want to be moving on and have a hand in whipping out the cowardly rascals.” Then, in June, Gove was in a makeshift hospital—a commandeered farmhouse where “the house and outbuilding we soon filled and by noon the whole large door yard was covered with the wounded their cries and groans were horrible to hear…Monday the surgeons were busy all day cutting of the arms and legs.”

“Being able to open the letters has humanized history—Lincoln, Lee. To have read the quotes; to know what people were thinking, and to read the reactions to the letters from those at home-- it’s been incredible,” Murphy says. “As a history buff reading them, I’m on cloud nine.”

Adds Ross,  “We tend to think about the politics and the military strategies of the Civil War. This is trying to bring out the human element. A soldier writes, ‘I’m fine. It rained last night. The biscuits are hard.’ You see the person, not the battlefield.”

Milne Special Collections and Archives is located on Level 1 of Dimond Library (Room 101). For more information call 2-0346.