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Words From The War – For Generations, The Soldier’s Story Has Been Told in Letters Home

Letters to loved ones – whether written neatly in ink by candlelight during the Civil War, tapped out by telegraph during World War II or sent via e-mail from a modern-day desert – add another dimension to the plain, hard facts of history. But historians can’t help but wonder what will happen to the notes now jotted in an e-mail, instant message, blog or twitter. What will happen to the war letters of today? Just as important as those handwritten pages we can handle and hold, they make history personal. We share a few letters here, from across the generations.

Once, those letters were intimate, a note between a husband and wife, a daughter and father, a mother and son. Today, e-mails often replace handwritten letters, and Web chats trump both. And with the advent of military blogs, service men and women can share their experiences with the entire online world directly from the battlefield.

Yet there is a common thread linking war letters of the past with those of the present. They provide a lifeline to home for the soldiers who are away and a bit of comfort to those who wait for them. That has not changed.

‘The Confederacy is gone ... ’

When Henry H. Bowen of Washington County penned letters to his wife, Ann, during the Civil War, he wrote of the simple things: what he ate, where he slept, the weather. Bowen served on an ironclad in Charleston. His letters showcased his beautiful slanting penmanship (and his difficulty with spelling) but they also give hints about the man he was.

Dec. 15, 1864

“My dear wife I take the opertunity to rite you a few lines to let you know that I am well at present, and I hope these few lines may find you all the same. I … was very much pleased to heare from you all and … to heare the yankeys has not bothered you and I pray to God every day to protect you from them and that is all that I can do.”

Bowen’s wartime letters are kept at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. Other wartime letters can be found in online archives. Still others have been collected into books. The originals are written in fading ink on yellowing paper. Sometimes the handwriting is difficult to read. Sometimes the words have nearly disappeared, except to those with the keenest eyesight.

“We fare very well and get plenty to eat,” Bowen told Ann. “I don’t have any use for my overcoat for we have not bin exposed to the weather as yet.” He gave news: “There is some excitement about (Gen. William) Sherman and I can’t tel.” And he sent advice on keeping the homestead running while he was away: “You had beter kill that sow that was weak in her back if you can get her fat enough and the old red sow to. You must all carry on your busyness the best you can and I will advise for you as well as I can.”

Bowen’s final war letter was composed in Fayetteville as he and his fellow Confederate soldiers fled before the advance of Sherman’s Army.

Feb. 26, 1865

“I am well and have bin all the time … badly (wearied) from a long march … we evacuated Charleston on the 17th and took the course for Wilmington but when we got in about … miles of Wilmington we heard the Yankees had taken it and we took it afoot for Fayetteville… we have not bin in any fights yet and I hope I shant and I have not heard how many was killed in the fight at Wilmington. It looks like the Confederacy is gone …”

Bowen was drafted into the Confederate States Marine Corps in 1864, according to Sion Harrington III, the military collections archivist at the N.C. Office of Archives & History. His is one of dozens of letters that visitors can still read, touch, smell. But Harrington can’t help but wonder what will happen to the war letters of today. He hopes that some of today’s soldiers will keep the letters and e-mails they send and receive. “Nobody’s writing letters anymore,” he said. “It’s all temporal. You hit ‘delete’ and it’s all gone.”

‘Somewhere in France’

Just months before the end of World War I, Pvt. N.J. Faircloth wrote to his parents in Fayetteville. He began his letter with, “Somewhere in France.”

Aug. 7, 1918

“Mama I got a letter from you and papa today that made me feel better than I have in a long time for you said you all had a nice crop and was doing well. You no I love to hear good news from home, while I help give the Germans a whipping.

“Mama when you are praying for me be sure to remember the other Soldier boys; and Papa don’t you worry about me for I am enjoying myself over here: Me and Bill McLain is having a good old time in France …. ”

That same year, after the war had ended, another Fayetteville son, Edger Blanchard, wrote a letter to his mother on American Red Cross stationery. Blanchard was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Dec. 10, 1918

“I was in all of the (Hindenburg) drive and believe me I did not thank I had a chance but I come out all OK. Did not get a scratch but I had some close calls. I got a hole shot through my helmet … I was in the battle of Bellacourt and believe me it was some battle. We went in the drive with 198 men in my (company) and when we came out we did not have but 53.

“I … do love to hear from home. The last letter I received from you it came to me in the front line and it (certainly) did make me fight. We go to church every Sunday and I am a much better boy then I use to be.”

The ‘dying to come’

During World War II, soldiers had several means of communicating with loved ones: airmail, telegraph and Victory Mail, known as V-mail. V-mail was unique to the time. V-mail letters were composed on a single sheet of paper that folded into its own envelope. These letters were sent to a processing station, where they were photographed onto film reels, one letter per square of film. The reels were then shipped to the United States where the letters were printed on thin sheets of paper, in a larger size, and mailed on to their intended recipients. The process saved shipping space for vital war materials.

Some of the V-mail and traditional letters of Pvt. 1st Class William Shaw Jr. of Fayetteville are preserved in the state archives. Shaw, a son of the city’s postmaster from 1934-1952, William Shaw Sr., and his wife, Helen, fought in France with the 10th Infantry, 5th Division. Eight days after D Day, when the Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, Shaw wrote of his frustration at remaining in “these islands” of Great Britain:

June 14, 1944

“This news is really taps now, and I hope it will be only a matter of time before we hike through Berlin! There is still much fighting and dying to come, and the Jerry is very formidable, but I believe we have his number and so can lick him every time. Am still sweating out ‘my’ invasion but must impatiently wait till the command to move. Seems like we will never get in it, but I’m sure there will be lots of action for all before it’s through. Devotedly, Bill.”

Pvt. 1st Class Shaw eventually saw his action. He died in France on Sept. 12, 1944, and is buried in the American cemetery in St. Avold. A memorial marker was placed in the family plot at Cross Creek Cemetery.

Harry Shaw is Bill Shaw’s younger brother. He still lives in Fayetteville, as does his sister, Gillie Shaw Revelle. Harry Shaw is 82. He says his brother’s death affects him more today than it did years ago. Perhaps, he said, it is because of all that “might have been.”

Another Fayetteville-born soldier, Ben Lacy Rose, a chaplain who served with the 31st Infantry Division and the 113th Cavalry Regiment during World War II, has a presence in the state archives. One of his most memorable letters was written to a woman whom he had never met. Her name was Mrs. Abe C. Webb, and she lived in Canton. Her husband had died in a vehicle accident May 8, 1945, the day the Germans surrendered and the war in Europe ended. She was distraught and facing a crisis of faith, she wrote to Rose, and she was wondering why God would take her husband on the final day of the war.

Rose’s typed response covers two and a half pages. He reassured her that she “is not the first Christian to doubt God’s goodness because of a great sorrow.”

“So you see God has not answered your prayers exactly as you asked, but He has given you something even better. You asked for Abe’s life and God gave him everlasting life. You asked for Abe’s safety and God folded him in His arms of Love and carried him to eternal safety. You asked for peace and God gave Abe Heavenly peace. Has God not answered your prayers?”

After the war, Rose came home to North Carolina, and in the ensuing years served as pastor of several Presbyterian churches before becoming a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. He died Nov. 13, 2006.

One of the most patriotic war letters that Harrington said he has ever read was written by Pvt. 1st Class Hiram “Butch” Strickland. Strickland, of Graham, N.C., wrote to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Donald A. Strickland. It was discovered in his personal effects after he was killed in Vietnam on Feb. 1, 1966. It begins:

“Dear folks, I’m writing this letter as my last one. You’ve probably already received word that I’m dead and that the government wishes to express its deepest regret. Believe me, I didn’t want to die, but I know it was part of my job. I want my country to live for billions and billions of years to come. I want it to stand as a light to all people oppressed and guide them to the same freedom we know. If we can stand and fight for freedom, then I think we have done the job God set down for us. It’s up to every American to fight for the freedom we hold so dear. If we don’t, the smells of free air could become dark and damp as in a prison cell.

“We won’t be able to look at ourselves in a mirror, much less at our sons and daughters, because we know we have failed our God, country, and our future generations.

“I can hold my head high because I fought, whether it be in heaven or hell. Besides the saying goes, ‘One more GI from Vietnam, St. Peter; I’ve served my time in hell.’ … Don’t mourn me, Mother, for I’m happy I died fighting my country’s enemies, and I will live forever in people’s minds. I’ve done what I’ve always dreamed of. Don’t mourn me, for I died a soldier of the United States of America.”

In his letter, Strickland also mentioned that the fighting would not end with his generation. He predicted his own death, writing the letter shortly before he was killed, and he said that future wars would come.

And they have.

With the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new generation of soldier is carrying on the war letters tradition, on new fronts and in new ways. An Internet search for “war blog Fort Bragg” turns up no fewer than 79,000 results. There are soldiers, of course, but there are new voices, too. Women weigh in on life as wives of soldiers, a balancing act of family, work and worry. They share the mundane and the life-changing events in their lives. So do their husbands.

A soldier had been to Iraq and returned again. He blogs under the name of Sminklemeyer, but his real name is Fred Minnick. He is a freelance writer and photographer, and some of his words are included in a book on military bloggers called “The Blog of War.” In 2005, he wrote about a friend named Sammy:

Aug. 19, 2005

“Sammy is one of my best friends,” Minnick wrote. “He served with me in Iraq and in this difficult environment, we shared laughs, close calls and toilet paper. Sammy has this infectious laugh that always brightened the dullest moments. In many ways, he was my refuge.”

A year later, Minnick wrote that Sammy’s son, Sgt. Ryan D. Jopek, an Army National Guardsman from Wisconsin, was killed in Iraq just two days before. “His death just breaks my heart,” he wrote on Aug. 3, 2006.

The world shared their news, and in a military community like ours, their pain as well.