The Lost Art

My mother-in-law sends us a letter she pulled from a closet, a letter that has escaped fire and carelessness, cherished and passed down, a letter from her father's grandmother's father who was a solider in the Union Army.  The letter is dated October 27, 1861.  My mother-in-law transcribed it because the writing, though handsomely slim and exact, is also a strain on our modern eyes.  So my husband and I sit on the couch and read the type written version to our ten year old son who is studying the Civil War in his fifth grade class.

He wonders how can a person write so neat and small.

Edwin A. Emery of Co. 67th Maine Regiment writing from Georgetown Heights, D.C. relates how one man in their company died last Thursday in Baltimore.  "The fact is that we have not got any Doctor that knows enough to tell the measles from the dysentery.  Our surgeon is a perfect old nuisance to the regiment and to him it may well be laid for the sickness or the greater part of the sickness of the regiment."            

Our son interrupts. "Why is dad's thumb bent like that?" He tries to straighten out his dad's thumb. His dad and I raise our eyebrows at each other. "Are you paying attention?" we ask.

"Sure," he says.  "But your thumb is so weird."  Forget about the thumb, we tell him.  This is your great great great great grandfather's letter we are reading to you.  Do you realize that a hundred and fifty years ago this man was sleeping outside every night, cold and hungry, and getting ready to go into battle, and he wrote, dipping pen into ink jar, and that his letter was sent, by horse and train, to his wife in Maine, was read and reread by her and her children and stored and passed down from one person to another all the way to your grandma who typed this up so that we could read it together?

Okay, okay, he says.

We continue. Edwin writes that their Colonel also died of typhoid fever.  "His loss is deeply felt by the whole regiment and I don't think that we will ever get another that will fill his place. . . "

"That's a weird way to spell 'Colonel,'" our son interrupts.


"Then why is it spelled that way?"

"Because that's the way you spell it."

Edwin is most excited about going to see the White House.  "Tell the boys that we had a splendid time today and a plain of 100 acres with 11 Regiments with glittering rifles and bayonets.  It is a sight worth going a long ways to see.  'Old Abe' was there in a carriage but there was so many other carriages that we did not see him."

We stop reading and look at our son.  He is playing with his glasses.

"What?" he finally asks.

"Do you understand what is going on?"

"They are in the war?"  We explain how the regiments had to pass inspection.

"Do you know who Old Abe is?"

"An eagle?"*

"Abraham Lincoln."


Edwin closes his four page letter:  "Kiss the little ones for me and remember that you are the great fountain from whence all my joys arise and consequently to you my heart abounds with all the affection of a husband and father who will endeavor always to be true to those who are worthy and to whom it is owed."

"Can I watch TV now?"


"But that's not fair!  You never let us watch TV any more!  There's nothing to do."

"Why don't you write a letter?"

"No thanks."

"Why not?"

"Too boring."

Edwin Emery died in Fairfield, Maine, December 25, 1862 soon after coming home from war, most likely from tuberculosis which he contracted while in the Union Army.

Edwin's and Mary May's daughter, Lydia Emery Moore (1857-1943),
during the time her father was at war.

*In a popular Wisconsin Civil War story, a captured bald eagle became a mascot of a Wisconsin regiment.  They named him Old Abe.


  1. i've noticed that....about andrew's thumb...

  2. Have you ever read Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco?

    "This is the hand, that has touched the hand, that has touched the hand, that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln." - moves me every time.

    It wouldn't have when I was 12.

    Unless of course Lincoln had had a weird thumb.