Kevin Alderson is a retired high school history teacher over in LaFarge, Wis. He likes to go to household auctions in the neighborhood and he tells a fascinating story of a trip to Cashton, Wis. He arrived before the auctioneer and perused the contents for sale.
He espied an old cardboard box full of letters, which appeared to have been sent from a Civil War army encampment to one Sarah Taylor. He kept mum, tried not to look too excited. The bidding began and he tensely raised the ante almost to his decided upon maximum bid. Suddenly, an antique dealer near him dropped out and Alderson got the box for $80.
What did he get? He got 160 letters one 24-year-old Guy Taylor wrote from his Civil War posts to his young bride Sarah and his little son Charley, who resided in a place called Bristol, Wis., no longer in the atlas. They are priceless letters which give an inside look at the life of a grunt infantryman, who worried about his survival and the survival of his loved ones back home.
Alderson, a Civil War buff, and his wife Patsy worked on them and made a beautiful book, just released by the University of Wisconsin Press,
“Letters Home to Sarah” ($26.95).
The story struck a chord with me because 20 years ago, I discovered my great-grandfather’s diaries, which he entered in every day from 1865 to 1927, when he made another entry and dropped dead. They have been judged to be the longest continuous daily farm diaries extant and they now reside at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
I edited the first 10 years of the diary and published a book called “Wisconsin Prairie Diary,” a project that took me a full year, so I truly must admire the Aldersons’ efforts at the Taylor letters. Nineteenth century spelling in both my diary and their letters is helter-skelter and sometimes hilarious. The handwriting in both was sometimes undecipherable.
But the Aldersons soldiered on and readers are the grateful recipients of a very satisfying book, studded with photographs, anecdotes and a historical commentary by Civil War historian Kathryn Shively Meier.
She points out that what makes the letter so special is that Taylor never fired a shot, found himself ill most of the time and though he was present at the battle of Petersburg, Va., he was posted as a cook. Was he shirking his duties and faking illness to stay out of the line of fire? Meier’s answer: probably not, reminding us that a relatively small percentage of the Union fighting force saw battle and more died from disease than warfare.
That also struck a chord. I remember finding my great-grandad’s 1865 diary, written when he was in the Civil War, thinking I was in store for high adventure on his pages. He never saw action either, but, like Taylor was fascinated to see the world outside, far from his acreage in Wisconsin.
When I edited his diary, I was appalled at Dave’s misspellings. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Taylor. Here’s a sample:
“My dear wife,
We was ordered to strike tents and be ready to march in a minuit warning. It was at two oc in the morning and we got ready to march, and most of out made up our minds that we was aging in to a fite, bu we got rately fooled for we march onley ¾ of a mile to the left and camped. Well Sis I suppose that you are vary lonsome but you must try and pas away the time the best that you can. It is harde to be sprated so long for all of ous, but I am in hopes that when we get togeather again we shant have to be seprated again on acount of war. I am in vary good health. I was nevery any beter and I shood injoy myself first rate if I onley new that you was injoying yourself but Iknow that you worry about me and then you feal bad about what has vin sed about my inlisting, but you must try and let such things pas and pay no regard to what is sed…Well good by from your husborn.
Guy C. Taylor:
Not to worry Sarah. Your husband made it home, settled on a new farm, sired more kids. You died young, but he remarried, moved to Cashton and became an insurance agent and a justice of the peace. He died in 1902.
Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.