Recording History With a Million Letters

So much of history is personal. One fascinating source is letters from soldiers to their families. I’m currently reading Diary of a Dead Man, compiled by J. P. Ray, that contains the letters from a Union soldier during the Civil War who ultimately died at Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

But what really got my attention was an article in the November 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Entitled “The News From Over There” by April White, it tells how historian Andrew Carroll started a “Million Letters Campaign” to preserve at least 1,000,000 war-related correspondences from every conflict in U.S. history, from handwritten messages during the American Revolution to emails sent from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since April 2017, Carroll has been telling everyone he meets to send him letters and he travels the country collecting as many correspondences as he can. In Carroll’s own words, “These letters and emails help us to honor and remember the troops, veterans, and military family members who have served this nation. These are their words, their stories, their voices, and no one can tell their stories better than they can.”

It’s a mind-boggling job that has led to the establishment of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange County, CA. Each letter is both scanned and preserved, but with an estimated 150,000 submissions as of 2017, only about 30 percent has been processed.

Still, Carroll continues to solicit more: ” There’s millions more out there.” And the more letters that get preserved, the more complete our military history becomes.

So if you are interested or have some correspondence to donate, visit the Million Letters Campaign on Chapman University’s website (https://www.chapman.edu/research/institutes-and-centers/cawl/million-letters-campaign.aspx).

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