Sunday, February 22, 2009

Voices from the Past

Old family letters can provide a plethora of valuable information. These documents, simply put, are voices from the past. I’ve often wondered how those in the future will research the records we leave? Letter writing is practically a lost art in this day and age of computers. With lightening-fast correspondence via email, hardly anyone writes letters any more. And most of those emails are discarded after awhile.

Old letters need to be preserved and what better way to do this than to photograph and transcribe these voices from the past. Many years ago my elderly uncle Samuel Feemster Riley gave me an old family trunk. In this trunk were literally hundreds of old family letters. Reading these old letters is like enjoying a documentary of everyday life during a different age and time. Seventy-four of these old letters were written by my uncle and his brother during their military service during World War I. After reading these fascinating bits of correspondence I transcribed each and every one of the letters back during 2001. This collection covering the years 1917-1919 offer a rare glimpse into the lives of this family. This cumulative collection of letters tell the story of two young brothers going off to war, leaving their family farm in northeastern Mississippi, and how their absence affected their family. These letters produce the story of love, fear, homesickness, hope and challenge.

During 1918 my homesick uncle wrote home: “The bluebirds and field larks are singing. Just like plow time and you know it makes me homesick to see and hear that and still have to stay here.” Upon learning he may be sent to the battle front in Europe he wrote: “I want you all to be as reconciled as you can for this is a time when we all need our courage to go through these awful times… I am counting on coming back to home and friends, to spend the rest of my days a free man…” Amid the letters of fear and reconciliation are letters of hope. He wrote in another letter, “ This spring weather certainly makes me want to get between the plough and hope before this spring is over I can help finish the crop that is started.

During May of 1918, he learned he was soon to leave his country headed for the battlefront in Europe. On this occasion he wrote his mother a personal note: “I know this is the hardest time of your life and I realize it is nature for us all to be grieved about parting but we must look at it in a brighter way. I know one thing and that is your prayers have been for me all these years of my life and especially since I have been in the army and I feel grateful to my Maker for having such a mother. I firmly believe that the One that does all things well will guide me through this safely. That I may return home again to be with my loved ones again.

My young uncle and his brother enjoyed their family pets, consisting of cats and dogs. Merle wrote home inquiring about his dogs and cats: “Tell Wallace that I will reward him well for seeing after Little Barb, Little Lead and Big Lead and Snoop and Bobtail.

Later he was being sent to Camp Mills on Long Island in New York. The young Mississippi farm boy who had never been away from home, wrote home about his train trip north and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time: “I will try to tell you a little about my trip. I sure did enjoy it. I never done as much waving in my life as I done on my way here. I waved my old hat, my handkerchief and hand and the people would wave at us just the same …. We woke up in New York hollowing and waving….. We went under the Brooklyn Bridge. I also saw the Statue of Liberty which I have read about but did not know that I would see it. If you could have seen me on the upper deck of that ship waving my old hat you would have thought I was very well satisfied..

At the closing of the war my uncle wrote to the homefolks in Mississippi one last time, writing: “I will sure be proud to put my foot on good old U.S. soil once more and better still at home again.

These seventy-four letters are more than just letters. This collection includes voices from the past – voices from another era and another time.

To view my transcriptions of these old family letters, visit Voices from the Past…


Don Dulaney said...

Mr. Franks, This was great. I am one of those people that try to feel the past when Im doing research. How the land was laid out to what kind of animals was around the old house is important to me. Your letters paint a picture that would not be available to me. Thank you so much for doing this post.

Mona Robinson Mills said...

I bet your uncle served with mine. Lawrence Evans Robinson was sent to Camp Mills in New York before boarding a ship for France. He died in Nantes, France of pneumonia (influenza). I've got beautiful postcards that he sent home to his mother and other relatives, but he was not nearly the prolific writer that your uncle was! I enjoyed the article, Bob.

Bob Franks said...

Thanks for the comments Don. and I agree with your research methods. It's good to try to feel the past when researching our ancestors. Mona, I wonder if Camp Mills was a point of embarkation for soldiers going to Europe? Thanks for your comments Mona.