Andrew Carroll, the director of The Center for American War Letters, is hoping his visit to Culver Academies will pay dividends.
Carroll visited Culver Tuesday to discuss the growing collection of letters written by soldiers and their loved ones. The project started with an old war letter Carroll was given by a distant cousin. A sophomore in college at the time, he knew the country would be losing something valuable if such letters were not saved or collected.
That started The Legacy Project, which grew into the Center for American War Letters. The collection now has approximately 100,000 letters that are now housed at Chapman University, but Carroll knows there a many more stored in boxes, drawers, attics, and basements across the country.
This is why he is asking Culver families to help. Speaking as part of the Global Studies Institute’s series covering the 100th anniversary of World War I, Carroll met with students through the class day and then spoke at an evening session open to the public on Tuesday.
He wanted to let Culver alumni, students, and parents know they can submit their saved letters – or copies of them – to the collection. With Culver’s historic ties to the military, Carroll believes many families may have correspondence between soldiers and their loved ones that would help tell the stories of the wars, conflicts, and peace-keeping missions in which the United States has been involved.
The Center currently has letters dating back to 1775. The emotional tone the letters are the same, he said. If you took the dates off the letters, it would be difficult to tell when they were written.
What has changed, though, is how the letters are written. The more formal language of the Revolutionary War and Civil War signal a time when the only book in the house may have been the family Bible. By World War I, the letters were becoming more conversational.
World War I is also the first time that the War Department censored letters. Soldiers were careful what they wrote about. Some even developed their own code so families could translate the letters. When the censorship ended on Nov. 12, 1918, there was a giant outpouring of details and emotions in the letters that followed.
Some of the letters have higher historic significance. One is a soldier writing about meeting a young Red Cross lieutenant named Hemingway who was recovering from shrapnel wounds. He talks about Hemingway having lived on the same street in Oak Park, Ill., as “Katy” Wright, possibly a reference to Catherine Wright, the daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The collection also includes a letter with a bullet hole in the center. The soldier wrote it in the field during a break and put it in his rucksack to mail later. During the ensuing battle, he was shot in the back, which went through the rucksack and the letter. The soldier recovered, he said.
The Center also has letters from Gen. John J. Pershing, including a 1915 personal note he wrote shortly after his wife and three daughters were killed in a house fire at the Presidio in San Francisco. His son, Warren, survived but was unconscious when he was pulled from the house. In the letter, Pershing says he still hasn’t had the heart to tell his son that his mother and sisters have died. Pershing was in El Paso, Texas, at the time of the fire.
Pershing is the subject of Carroll’s latest book, My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War. Carroll said Pershing doesn’t get the historical credit he deserves. The only general to receive his sixth star while he was alive (George Washington is the only other six-star general), Pershing was able to train, transport, and move thousands of men solely through written communications. People who came up through his American Expeditionary Force included Gen. George Patton, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry Truman.
But as technology advances, history is losing the individual soldier’s perspective. Emails and DVDs replaced letters in 2000s. Today, with the use of Skype and FaceTime, soldiers are talking directly with their families, he said, and their conversations are being lost altogether.
Carroll said he understands. As one woman told him, she wants to see her husband and she wants her children to see their father as often as possible. It is only logical. Carroll, though, asked her to write down her thoughts after each conversation as a way to preserve those memories as a historical record.