New Online Letters Database Offers Insights Into Civil War's Common Soldiers

Stephen Berry's picture

UGA's Center for Virtual History, in conjunction with linguists Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), has launched a new online archive (dubbed "Private Voices") devoted to the letters of Civil War soldiers who wrote 'by ear' -- meaning the letter-writers were untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters. Raised in an oral culture, these "transitionally literate" soldiers had little or no formal education and were apt to write 'amongst' as 'amunxt’ because they were unfamiliar with the written form of the word. In the process, such letters sometimes captured not only the thoughts of common soldiers but their actual pronunciation -- as when one soldier spelled 'chair' as 'cheer.'

The site launches with 4,000 letters from four Southern states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, but the next update will add 6,000 letters from New England, the Northeast, and the Midwest, along with a dynamic mapping feature.

Discoveries are already being made in the archive, and Slate has recently published an article noting that "Civil War Correspondence Suggests the Phrase “Kick Ass” Might Be a Century Older Than We Thought."